Studio D specialises in sensitive research topics requiring a very discreet presence; through to working in higher risk environments. This year we've run projects that spanned Afghanistan, Brazil, China, India, Japan, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Somaliland, the USA and Zimbabwe.
Studio D has no full-time employees and no plans to take any on. We build teams on a per-project basis and have a core of trusted staff that enjoys working together. In 2015 we hired 35 people on projects, 29% male and 71% female. Our crew represents 13 nationalities, a reflection of the diverse locales in which we operate.
This year the studio was joined by two four-legged team members: Ramoosh the camel purchased from the livestock market in Hargeysa; and Neyy a goat bought on the road between Harare and Bindura. As is the local norm in a country with limited electricity and even less refrigeration, Neyy was gifted to an interviewee as a small thank-you—anything larger wouldn’t be possible to eat in one sitting and would spoil after slaughter. Both were expensed.
After last year’s foray into the ethereal world in Myanmar, we considered bringing a goblin onto the team for a project in Zimbabwe. You may smile, but locally, amongst people that practice juju, goblins are credited with bringing good luck to businesses, ideal, you might think for a study that delved into financial practices and the use of mobile money. (They are often advertised as "short boys" in the classifieds, so be careful if you're asking around for one.)
What is it like in field? In the words of one of our newest crew members “We befriended a cow who thought it was a horse, found a bug as big as a lobster next to our toilet, and had a gecko the size of a small dog as our home keeper in Okkan. We also managed to have the most magical of candle lit walks during the buddhist light festival — timed perfectly to an evening blackout, the entire village became aglow for thirty minutes without a single artificial light in sight. Something we could only take as an auspicious benediction from the country saying — you’re in the right place at the right time.”
In 2015 we suffered no broken limbs, zero fatalities, zero kidnappings, and only one STD. Risk is relative. We love Somaliland, but goodness you need a stomach of steel.
It’s worth repeating every year: we are only as good as our local crew. We work hard to ensure that we provide a meaningful, respectful working environment for all, and that we maintain positive contact well beyond the project. Thank-you to everyone that contributed.
To be considered for upcoming projects contact us using this form.
We continue to pioneer the use of popup studios, which we ran this year in 12 locations, from Pune in India to a coastal retreat/sauna in Berbera and pretty much everywhere in between. The duration of a single studio ranged from a few days through to a month.
Approximately 95% of consultancy project time is spent in field with the rest being devoted to remote sensing and other project preparation activities at home base. Wherever possible we conduct project planning on the ground where the team can more easily acclimatise to the locale—something that benefits both the team and the project.
Whilst in-field, our crew worked 12 to 15 hours days, 6 to 7 days per week. Time off is decided by the team, depending on the goal that they have collaboratively set. This year decompression spaces included The Orcas, Bangkok and Tokyo.
Operating in diverse environments requires a diversity in tools. We regularly learn new processes and software on the job, and design workflows to suit a particular context and project. We shy away from traditional recruiting methods, and prefer to communicate and participate in the digital vernacular of our locale. Regularly-used platforms for logistics, recruiting, collaboration and team comms include Viber, Facebook, Instagram, WeChat, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Slack, Google Apps, Careem, Hi.co and Tinder.
We strongly recommend experiencing the dating dynamics in Saudi Arabia, using increasingly intimate levels of social media.
PROJECTS & CLIENTS
When we started Studio D we set to avoid a number of pressures that regular consultancies have to deal with, in particular selling services that clients may or may not actually need in order to keep the team busy. There are pros and cons to not having full time staff, but it provides significant freedom to choose whom to work with and why.
Life is short. Stay focussed.
Our projects this year spanned: service & interaction design; product; corporate strategy; public policy strategy; and service evaluation. All of our projects included a foundational research track ranging from a few days up to six weeks. All but two projects were from inbound requests.
We continue to turn down work that is a poor cultural fit. The money you turn down defines you as much as what you take on. The best projects are specced in a single paragraph, with respect and trust earned over time.
THE FIXER LIST
The studio continues to maintain The Fixer List, our pro-active network of unusual talent. There’s an art and science to finding the right fixer, and a project will hinge on finding exactly the right person, and rapidly building trust to get the job done.
Last year we launched the D3 Traveller duffel, ultra light, strong and very discreet luggage for intensive travel. It was born from the experience of running field work across the globe.
Our field work provides us with a different perspective on what makes truly great luggage design, from the practical nuances of travel in diverse locales, to interaction, to social reactions of people in proximity. Our philosophy is discussed in this piece on the psychology of packing.
Our teams are heavily dependent on wireless technologies for day-to-day work. We also operate in environments where, sometimes, we prefer to remain anonymous. In 2015 we expanded our product line-up, to include a number of field ready products including Money Pouches and the 1M Hauly Heist. Obviously not everyone needs to cart a million, but they are surprisingly versatile, and make for a solid pack system.
The launch was picked up by diverse sources from Hypebeast to the Daily Telegraph, Gruber to Schneier. There's something delightful about old money reading about a product that that, notionally, might relieve them of that money.
Year 1 of SDR Traveller was the first steps in figuring out what it takes to run an exemplary atoms-based service business. We are already working hard on Year 2.
Most lifestyle brands travel to interesting destinations to shoot their products in aspirational contexts.
We do things a little differently.
SDR Traveller products are tested and iterated on assignment, for example the money pouches took over a year of field testing, across very diverse locales. The team is focussed on the client's project, product shots have to wait for those little pockets of down time. Anyway, the contexts in which they are used, and why they are used is far more interesting than mere products.
We have a few, wonderfully off-kilter products in the pipeline for 2016. If we're home long enough, we may actually get to launching them.
We specialise in working in difficult locales. This year, however, we run one very challenging project that, by our own metrics (but not the client’s) we would class as a failure. Even though contractually the work is complete we’re investing in seeing it through and get it where we think it needs to be.
It's mentioned here, because, yes, we're human, and the world out there is a tricky place to navigate. We'd rather have meaningful long term relationship with a few clients, which includes being open about where we fell short of what we set out to achieve, and what we can do to correct it.
There are many ways to fail in any line of work, but in field work, there are moments of where absolute failure is a real possibility. These are the also the moments of absolute clarity of purpose, where the team needs to come together to have any chance of making it out. These are the moments that define who we are.
How is failure addressed in your workplace? What are the consequences of that failure? How do the consequences shape you? If failure doesn't shape you, what are you still doing there?
LINKS AND THINGS
If you listen to one thing make it: Designing for New Cellphone Users in Burma.
If you're wondering where you are in your career, and are interested in the distortions that are common in large-creative-consultancies, read A Year in Reflection.
To accompany that piece, read 100 Questions for the Young Creative.
A lot of people are waking up to autonomous mobility. Our piece Twelve Concepts in Autonomous Mobility has a different take. It was first published in 2012. Who is asking the most thought provoking, and future looking pieces in your domain? How can we help you ask smarter questions?
We delayed the publication of the Field Study Handbook to this year to extend the content. It currently sits at 150k words with one-half a chapter to write, before it is pitched to publishers. In a world where every other project has hard deadlines, it is a truly a pleasure to commit to a creative endeavour where the material defines the timeline. To receive notification of when The Field Study Handbook is published, sign-up here.
This year we also revised the english editions of the very experimental Ghost Factory, The Guide to Running Popup Studios, and Today's Office: Observations From A Professional Nomad, also sold the Korean rights to the print edition of the latter. The traditional Chinese edition of Hidden in Plain Sight was launched to go alongside English, Japanese, Chinese and Russian Editions.We also launched Studio D imprint, Field Institute.
Small moments of absolute clarity in a busy year: 6am rides; getting into the writing zone in a perfect neighbourhood cafe; a shoulder to lean on; the first stretch of a yoga session; a calm voice in high stress situations; at the end of a day in field, lying in bed exhausted , exhilarated, and ready to do it all over again.
Studio D runs projects that challenge minds and flutter hearts.
To our clients, extended team and friends new and old, we look forward to seeing you in 2016.
Photos: Lauren Serota, Jan Chipchase & Craig Mod, in Berbera Somaliland, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Sichuan China, Rural Zimbabwe and San Francisco. SDR Traveller customer Da5ide in Tokyo.
We're looking for a senior or director-level strategist to join our crew. Ping if this is you.
Read our 2014 Report.