With a media buzz around his latest work exploring the relationship between the digital and the physical, designer Brendan Dawes talks us through Six Monkeys, his project for MailChimp
Brendan Dawes is a pioneer of interactive design, design that makes you think about interaction with ‘things’, and increasingly how we interact with the physical and the digital, with the Hard and the Soft, and how these worlds and experiences are now increasingly fluid.
His Six Monkeys project for Mail Chimp generated some media heat, from Wired and Forbes to Creative Review and The Huffington Post. Six Monkeys is described as “a series of six connected objects that look at how we might change our relationship to email by changing the surrounding context of how we interact with it. By placing email within our everyday physical spaces it may get us to look at the familiarity of email in a new light; we may even learn to love it again. Each object is named after a famous Chimpanzee used in linguistic research.”
We contacted Brendan for an interview and by the time we did the interview Six Monkeys had taken over the digital jungle. Dawes’s work combines conceptually cool objects with a dry North-West England wit. A successful commercial designer his work is featured in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York and is on the Advisory Board at the Manchester School of Art. He is represented by Nexus Productions.
Where are we at with the Internet of Things?
Brendan Dawes: I don’t know if it’s cutting edge, the internet of things has been for a long time now, it’s only really now that the technology works. For people like me who don’t really want to worry about the infrastructure and become a plumber sort of thing, we can get on and make stuff based on ideas that are actually worth having in the world. A lot of the early stuff is like “this is a button that does whatever” there didn’t seem to be much point of a lot of it. That’s the same with all early technology, we play around and see what works.
Now we are starting to have concepts and ideas applied to them, whether that’s stuff like Nest and the Internet of Things, that then gets buried which is good, it’s just the thing that connects the internet. That’s what I’m interested it. I’ve always been interested in physical things, in products, I like the tactility of them. But I also love what digital brings us –I love my spotify, I do buy vinyl but I also recognise the advantages of digital. And I think there’s a space in the middle.
I’ve just read Enchanted Objects by David Rose. Very very good. He nails it really, it’s a very timely book and he’s tweeted about this project as well (Six Monkeys). I approached Mail Chimp because I knew they did lots of user things and sponsored people, they are like a patron of the arts really, which is obviously an amazing client in this day and age.
I approached them and said “I make these objects and you do user experience, maybe we should get together” and within two emails we’re doing it. It was all to do with creating objects which we were centred around email. How could we look at email again? I get spam as much as anyone but I wouldn’t have a career without email but you never hear the good things and all the possibilities it brings to people as well as bad stuff. I wanted to change the context around how people looked at email. I also think it’s this ubiquitous system that sits above everything it can work on any platform. It’s like the 3.5 mm jack on a phone, that thing is laughing at us, I think it’s almost a hundred years old and still in all our technology iphone 6 it’s still there! The simplicity of it. Email is like that and it’s a system that we can use in different ways if we just apply our minds a bit differently, stand back and go “hang on a minute this could be an interface”.
It’s a way of talking to a physical object without having to make an API [An Application Programming Interface] for instance. You create a grammar, if you know the language you can communicate with it. That’s where I started, email as an API and it kind of spun off in different directions and I made sure I named each one after a linguistic chimpanzee. When I went to Mail Chimp I wrapped it up in a concept and called it Six Monkeys, they’ve all got names, so they thought “this is proper”.
The only thing is, they said to me “it doesn’t matter when you finish it,” which is the worst thing you can say to designers! And I got distracted by other things. So I got the commission in May last year. I’d do stuff on it for a month and leave it for a month and next minute it was September this year and I thought I better finish it. So September this year was when I put my nose to the grindstone and started to really work on it.
The reaction has been pretty amazing, press wise it has been everyone you can think of and it still continues this week. A lot of people asking me where you can buy them. Apparently Kickstarter got in touch with Mail Chimp saying all six would be amazing Kickstarter projects. I try to create work that gets talked about, none of it is making me rich. But at you know it’s all good. I am just trying to put work into the world that makes people think a little bit, in my own little way, that’s the only thing you can do really.
These kinds of interfaces are they ways of us interrupting habits of time? Email is sometimes an irritant rather than an interruption, these interfaces feel like they are really taking our minds into a different place.
Brendan Dawes: They are also about managing it as well. People love the light switch thing. What’s really interesting about that is when you change the context of something it changes how you look at it. Having permission to actually switch it off on a wall is completely different to unplugging your router where you have to get behind it and then you have to turn everything off. I like the idea of doing that. And also, you can’t just turn your email off on your phone because it doesn’t turn your email off on your desktop – so you have a system wide switch that goes email’s off. Equally you can turn Twitter or Facebook off, maybe have switches for different ones. This is treating email as an appliance. If you didn’t have a light switch you’d have to go around taking the light bulbs out or just leave them on. It’s really about that. I think it’s about managing that irritant. There’s another other one ‘Lucy’ where there is a light that can be controlled, my brother in law is actually a beta tester of that for six months plus. He’s not a programmer he uses If This Then That [IFTTT is a way in which users connect up different parts of their digital lives. The user can use IFTTT so that a photo of theirs liked on Instagram is flagged up on Facebook].
He told me the other night he did another one where he set it up to flag up temperature, the light is under the TV. He gets up early to go to work and he has set it up now to flash blue if it’s freezing outside and he has to go outside to defrost his car. Rather than looking at his phone to check the weather, it’s kind of ambient. What I love about that is he is not a programmer, he can use email. That’s quite a powerful thing.
The notion of ‘context’ runs through a lot of your work. ‘Context’ used to mean vertical information, history. Now ‘Context’ in terms of out smartphones and databases is horizontal and spatial, it’s about proximity in GPS terms or matching interests in terms of buying stuff online.
Nowadays context changes constantly and we can react to that with these devices that are so clever they know where we’re standing, what the weather is like and all kinds of information, so how do we leverage that and do something useful.
Context now overlaps, and drops in to what we are doing from a different space, for example your work Kennedy, a good example of the range of work you do with imagery, and Snow Globe, and Popa Real Time.
That real time version of Popa only lasted for a while that wasn’t my idea. There was a company in Italy that do installations and a few years ago they got in touch with me a few years ago and asked me could we do it. I take a picture and it shows the screen at the moment for installations so I made that. It was very ad hoc, it used a web server locally but you know what, it really worked and I actually haven’t seen anyone do a service like that. I think they used it three or four times at various venues, it was like a shared Polaroid almost
You play with the digital and physical, a virtual image of a Polaroid still has a cultural weight to it
Brendan Dawes: They wanted it to look like a Polaroid, the system just automatically did that, but there is something a bit more rock and roll about that. You look at Andy Warhol’s Polaroids and there is something, if they were just ordinary photographs it’s not quite the same for some reason and Polaroid is the ‘context’ of that frame which marks a moment in time as well. With Kennedy the same sort of thing it caught people’s imagination and it’s still going okay. And again it’s all about context and where you’re stood in the world and what’s happening around you and some people really got that. The photographs are part of that.
There was a version of it before I released it that you had to take a photo and it was almost like it was then trying to be Instagram so I actually removed that part. I was finding sometimes I just want to press it now and not have the overhead of taking a photograph, I’ll do that later. But then I always do add photographs, it’s weird, it seems to anchor it, just makes it more visual.
With smartphones suddenly the visual became the default ‘hello’, or a kind of virtual ‘graffiti’?
For some people it’s not actually happened unless there is a photo of it – ‘Where’s the food I’m eating I have to take a picture of that.’ Just enjoy it now, I don’t want to take a picture of it!!
The thing I love about your work Snow Globe Memories, is the physical shaking the digital and how shaking this object is an act that connects us to the idea of an object as a channel for memory
That was probably the first physical connected thing I ever made. I look at snow globes and objects like that and ask what are they? They are things that sit on a shelf designed to remind us of somewhere we’ve been – physical reminders. I like to leverage old social grammars in my work – why reinvent new ones because they are harder for people to get hold of and understand. A snow globe is a very tactile thing, people see it pick it up and shake it. That idea is already in everyone’s head – you just augment it with digital.
I’d love to do a wireless version. That one was a proof of concept. But it all really works. It was just about showing ‘here’s an object that exists now in the analogue world, what happens if we augment it with digital? Can it then become something else?’ Analogue Plus sort of thing. People loved that thing because it was fun as an interface. There was no instructions needed.
It made me think what would the classic communal slide show from 70s be like in 2014? Might be like the snow globe?
I did actually think of making a new style of the slide projector. It would work out the days also bring in your social media feeds, your slide would be an amalgamation of photos, it would be like a Projector and we would all gather round. Rather than just be on the TV. I would still love to do that.
Visually it’s all very collage, collecting bits of textual and photographic information?
Brendan Dawes: I never thought about it like that, it is like different layers we keep adding that never end. When I did Kennedy I didn’t know what to call each element. But I think in a review someone said ‘these layers’ and I thought yes they are layers, they look like layers, so now I call it a layer. So if I’m adding say your Fitbit data, it’s another layer. These layers are interesting and make the experience richer. I still love a good old photograph. With photographs you flip them over and there is something on the back, it’s just another layer and Kennedy is just a continuation of that.
Yes sometimes this continuation from the past seems a little undercooked not fully thought through for the digital age (like with the idea of storytelling, everyone’s a storyteller, brands, products) but the idea of ‘layers’ feels like a word that has a fresh life in how it describes the relationship between the physical and the digital.
Brendan Dawes: Also, when you mentioned memories before, I worry about stuff like that. But maybe no one else does. The Snapchat generation – you do something that disappears for ever (or doesn’t according to the NSA).
Also physical things too, the Apple watch kind of scares me. This watch replaced the digital one my wife gave me on my fortieth, it actually broke the other week and she bought me a new one. This is 40 years old. But I won’t have an Apple watch in forty years because it won’t bloody work, the OS won’t work and what’s happening to our heirlooms? Are we going to have things that pass down through the generations? Or does no one care anymore? Is it irrelevant?
I’ve got my broken iPhone 4 that I used for testing – the screens completely knackered but it still works. I’ve got the original ipod over there and it’s completely dead. Which is a shame because it’s a lovely thing. Next to me I’ve got my forty/fifty year old Bang and Olufsen amplifier that I bought off ebay for £20, I run Spotify through it. All this other technology seems to be throwaway. That worries me.
Paul Pensom At Director of Creative Review wrote about that recently in Varoom magazine, and Eye Magazine’s John Walters was telling me recently about a digital archaeologist [Jim Boulton] who is trying to preserve the software so that the old hardware will still work.
Brendan Dawes: I was having the same conversation with Andy Polaine one of the founders of Anti-Rom, he was telling me that all their stuff from then doesn’t run. You have to have the actual hardware and the disk and everything. So all that kind of legacy of what those guys did, in the history of interaction design and multimedia. You can’t see it, maybe you can see it on a video somewhere.
In terms of this relationship between the physical and the digital, objects and data, how do you see this being played out?
Brendan Dawes: We have to be careful. There’s this whole idea that every object will be connected and we’ve got to be careful with that, it could drive us nuts. I’ve got my pencil here, does it need to be connected to the internet? Paperclips? Not really. We’ve got to be careful with these objects, because they are physical they take up space, there’s a lot of energy generated to create them, we’ve got to consider all that. I don’t think I want to live in a world where everything I own is behind a piece of glass in the cloud, I’ll just be sitting in a box with nothing around me.
It might look good on TV or in a Kubrick movie but I think we need to be able to touch things and see the things we own. I want to address that and think that some companies will think “yes there’s an interesting idea there.” I think it’s a balance. Somewhere in the middle there’s an interesting space and if we can get that right it will be good. At the moment I am surrounded by so many cardboard boxes with stuff in it now that I’ll have to get rid of it. I see an advantage with digital but I don’t believe in a purely digital world.
Perhaps these activated objects will be more conceptual, not just any old object wired up to the internet, but objects that makes user think in different way?
Brendan Dawes: We shouldn’t presume that the user is stupid and they just want dumb objects. I want the people who use the objects I make work a little harder. The idea of getting people to think is a good one.
See more of Brendan Dawes work at brendandawes.com