Like a big ball of Play-Doh we pushed around lots of ideas.
Toys. I love toys. I especially love toys that you can use to build other, er, toys. Like Play-Doh, Lego or Meccano. Actually I hated Meccano. It was just too fiddly with its nuts and bolts and the need for spanners. I was much more of a Lego man - it seemed to be much more immediate, flexible and well, simply more fun.
Meccano always seemed to be the domain of the rule-lover and the uptight. And then of course there was Play-Doh - without any rules, waiting to be pushed, pulled and twisted into any shape possible.
These days, for myself and the rest of the toy-loving team at mN, those wonderful 0bjects of our childhood haven't disappeared from our lives, just replaced by other wonderful things, that luckily for us we get to play with every day.
Whilst in mN's reception we have an ever growing collection of the toys from our youth, on a day-to-day basis we get to play with a constantly expanding toy box of things we can pull-apart, throw around and twist into new shapes.
These things take many forms - one minute its software such as Flash or Processing, the next its humble garden gnomes hacked with Bluetooth or code encrusted pink vinyl controlling video projections. To us all these often disparate things have a commonality at their core.
They're things to be played with. Things to be kicked around to discover the new, without worrying about what has gone before.
So when we were developing ideas for our new online home at mnatwork.com we really wanted the site, both in its content and the way you discover that content, to truly represent our playful, curious approach to all this interaction mumbo jumbo.
But more than that we wanted to do something different - something that would provoke a reaction and get people talking. We wanted it to split opinion - love or hate and nothing in between. You were either Lego or Meccano, salt 'n' vinegar or cheese and onion, daddy or chips.
Like a big ball of Play-Doh we pushed around lots of ideas. There was even one idea, which we developed quite far, that at the start we all thought was perfect. “This is it” we said to ourselves. The navigation was kind of beautiful and quite playful. But after returning from an extended weekend break we looked at it again with fresh eyes. And we didn’t like what we saw.
The main reason being that beyond the navigation it was just another point and click website. It bored us to tears, largely because it was still based on a print paradigm and we just thought “is that it?” Surely interaction design has more to offer than just aping a centuries old display system such as the printed page. It was time for a rethink.
Opening up the toy cupboard we peered inside to see what we could find. There was this gesture based thing we’d been playing with that maybe we could use in some way or other. We quickly sketched out a few ideas (http://www.flickr.com/photos/bjdawes/3504378139/) on paper and then set too making a quick bare-bones prototype that we could use to test the core idea. To us these prototypes are just another form of sketching, albeit digitally.
We don’t get hung up on colours or fonts or anything like that at this stage. We simply play. Play with the possibilities - rearranging them in interesting ways to see what works and what doesn’t. How does the interaction actually feel to use? What “mistakes” arise that can lead us down unexpected paths?
And as we played we started to get excited. We realised that the concept of a page didn’t actually exist as such anymore. There were no “pages”. What there was instead were an infinite number of screens, created on the fly by the person using the system. But there was also no predefined grid or any kind of static layout.
We’d not just killed the grid, but backed over it several times just to be sure. This was a living, breathing content discovery and display system that could be pulled and pushed into all kinds of wonderful shapes, free from the constraints of a set-in-stone print based layout.
Of course discovering the content, not just simply consuming the content was at the heart of the idea. We loved the feel of the gesture based actions, but we were conscious not to overdo it. We could have had many actions to do lots of different things.
But that would have meant the visitor having to first learn a series of complex gestures and remember them. So we stuck to four gestures and rigidly resisted the temptation to add any more. All through the project we kept removing rather than adding.
As we tested the prototype with people at mN, people who knew nothing about the idea, we realised the hardest thing to communicate was “how do I work this thing?” This was a site that was blank canvas without the comfort of things to click on. And that, understandably, is damned scary for a lot of people. But even amongst the most scared, once they got it, universally without exception something magical happened. They smiled. They all felt like they just solved a little puzzle and unlocked a door to an intriguing, curious place.
So when trying to solve the riddle of how to communicate how to use the site, we absolutely didn’t want to remove that joy of discovery. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not entirely happy with what we ended up with from an “instructions” point of view - personally I’m a great believer in no instructions and letting the system explain itself, but some people, though not all, needed a helping hand. I’m sure we’ll revisit this particular conundrum at some point in the future.
mN at work
In creating mnatwork.com we simply wanted to communicate who we were and what we do, not just through the content but in the way you find and discover the content. We believe there are always new ways to do things. We believe there are no rules. We believe we and anyone else should be allowed to put forward these new ideas. We don’t expect everyone to like them. Far from it.
But what I find incredible is the view of some people that we shouldn’t even be allowed to try. To these people there is nothing new to be discovered - and particularly the web is done and dusted. These people, to me at least, are the school bullies, taking your toys and smashing them to bits. But the jokes on them.
Because when one toy gets destroyed, we just take the bits apart and rebuild them into something new. Now who’s coming out to play?
About the author, Brendan Dawes
Brendan Dawes is Creative Director for magneticNorth (mN), an interactive design company based in Manchester, UK. Over the years he's helped to realise projects for a wide range of brands including Diesel, BBC, Fox Kids, Channel 4, Disney, Benetton, Kellogg's and Coca-Cola.
Ever since his first experiences with the humble ZX81 back in the early eighties, Brendan has continued to explore the interplay of people, code, design and art both in his role leading the team at mN and on brendandawes.com, a personal space where he publishes random thoughts, toys and projects created from an eclectic mix of digital and analog 0bjects.
Brendan spends much of the year speaking at various conferences around the world which in the past have included the HOW Design Conference Chicago, Flashforward New York, New Media Age Congress London, South by Southwest Austin, Microsoft Research Redmond, Macromedia Web World Seattle, Art Directors Club of Spain, Madrid, Europrix Vienna, Voices that Matter San Francisco, Future of Web Design London, Internet World Los Angeles as well as various lectures in universities around the UK. He also sits on the advisory board for D&AD North and in 2008 was a jury member for the Art Directors Club awards, New York and D&AD.