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Fun for all the family?

Categories: Events, Learning things, Useful/interesting

Supercool postcard – sponsors fo Family Arts Conference 2017

Last Wednesday we went along to the bi-annual Family Arts Conference, this year held at St George’s Bristol and sponsored by our good selves along with Spektrix.

Billed as an exploration of age, diversity and inclusion in Family Arts, it seemed a good fit for us, as for many of our clients their family-focused activity is an important way of expanding audiences.

I guess it's a similar principle to MacDonald’s having Happy Meals, minus any grease or guilt – introducing people to something (in this case 'the arts', rather than salty, extruded potato) at a young age helps build a habit; engraining cultural activity as a regular part of everyday life, and so encouraging a lifelong love of – and support for – the arts.

The conference's opening keynote was great – Estella Tincknel, Deputy Mayor of Bristol and an enviably strong advocate for arts and culture in the city, told us all about Bristol (without glossing over its less impressive side, which was refreshing) and the huge role the arts plays within it.

She proposed that art and culture are important catalysts for change, for challenging what needs to be challenged, and for renewing social cohesion; with families cited as being a key part of this.

Further reinforcing the importance of family audiences, members of the Bristol Family Arts Network relayed some research showing that, although turnout for specifically-labelled ‘family’ events can be lower (initially), engagement is consistently much deeper.

Another stand-out talk was from Kate Organ, who referenced a comment someone had made about – I’m paraphrasing here – local arts attendance being made up of a lot of old, grey-haired people … and their parents.

Rather than this being seen as a problem to be overcome, Kate suggested that arts organisations should be embracing older people. Within the next 20 years 1 in 3 adults will be ‘an older person’, so there are economic – as well as ethical – reasons to engage with all ages.

Thinking about this as a designer, appealing to something as wide as a ‘family audience’ is a challenge – there’s a tendency for briefs about family events to automatically assume promotions should look very child-focused when, in fact, it’s parents who’ll be planning a trip or buying the ticket, not the kids. And mightn't child-like styling be putting off families who don’t include younger people but would still be able to enjoy an event? There’s no easy answer.

In terms of making digital things family-friendly, however, it’s a lot simpler as this essentially means making sure everything’s built to be as accessible as possible (i.e. well-built).

Websites need to be quick to load and to navigate, and work on any device – whether it's being used by a busy parent trying to browse a mobile web page on a rubbish 3G connection with one hand while wrangling an irritable infant with the other; or a Baby Boomer looking for an event that’ll be suitable both for their grandchildren and an elderly parent.

Much of the discussion at the conference centred around what actually constitutes a ‘family’ – with the conclusion being that it covers myriad relationships and age-groups.

We have, however, noticed one common thread that runs through all family-focused arts and cultural events – and that's a very clear and unmistakable focus on encouraging people to experience the arts with others; conveying the arts as a sociable activity which creates shared experiences – and shared memories.

As poet, essayist and visual artist Etel Adnan told the conference – via a recorded message stood in front of a big screen, which was then projected onto another a big screen; INCEPTION! – "The need for human company is and shall continue to be essential. Theatre [indeed, the arts in general] can play a significant role in this area.”

From Brum with love

Categories: Extra-curricular, Inspiration

Memories of a great night at Symphony Hall with the CBSO, pianist Steven Osborne, and conductor Alexander Vedernikov.

Music made in Russia, played in Birmingham – accompanied by orchestral ale from the Wye Valley. Win.


Symphony Hall <3


What a lovely brochure …


Cheers, CBSO!

An anniversary and a love letter

Categories: Jewellery Quarter, Silly, Useful/interesting

Supercool officially formed on this day in 2004, when fresh-faced graduates James and Kris opened the company’s first business bank account.

This was back in the day when it was pretty-much unheard of to start an agency straight out of uni. Those crazy kids! But, after lots of hard work, lateral thinking, grit and determination, it panned-out well.

Thirteen years on, Supercool’s going strong – we even made an award-winning website recently. Go team!

And until the start of this month, we were still based in the very same building we first called home; 8a Legge Lane in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.

Although we’re now a distributed team, our JQ headquarters served us well, and I couldn’t leave without penning something of a love letter to the old neighbourhood …

Sunset on the JQ

View along Legge Lane, Jewellery Quarter, at sunset

When we first moved there, the Jewellery Quarter wasn’t the cool, hipster hangout it is today.

Nope; our immediate local area was made up of abandoned, crumbling and derelict former factories. This allowed for almost endless discovery of amazing old typography and signage; but also meant a long walk to find a pint of milk.

And it wasn’t the most welcoming – or well-lit – of places after dark.

Bernard C Lowe building, Spencer Street, Jewellery Quarter
Spencer Street, Jewellery Quarter, 2013

Legge Lane, 2005
Legge Lane, c. 2005

Legge Lane itself was the epitome of cool, urban decay, particularly in the mid-late 2000s.

Interesting shells of old buildings? Check. Overgrown courtyard? Check. Hard-edged railings? Check. So, every few weeks (during university term time) small groups of photography students would arrive to make use of that edgy, gritty backdrop – then beat a hasty retreat.

(There must've been some collaboration with fashion students too as some of the models' outfits were … avant garde.)

Legge Lane, 2013
Legge Lane, 2013

Legge crane, 2016
Legge crane, 2016

Over the last 13 years, I’ve witnessed the Jewellery Quarter evolve from a long-neglected area of beautiful but decrepit buildings into a smart, bustling quarter full of live/work spaces, independent bars, restaurants, cafés – and coffee shops.

Nowadays it’s fair to say you won’t have trouble finding a cup o’ Joe in the Quarter. But imagine the local buzz in 2008 when the area got its very first, actual, proper coffee shop.

Although Saint Caffè is no more, it will always hold a special place in my heart – not only did it pave-the-way for the area’s increasingly popular café culture, it was also the venue for Likemind, a coffee morning/gentle networking event we ran until 2012.

We made new friends, and work contacts! We learned loads of interesting Jewellery Quarter facts from Brian! We raised money for charity! We drank more coffee than was probably good for our insides!

Collage of images from our coffee morning, 2007-2012

In the main, the Jewellery Quarter has been – and continues to be – developed in a thoughtful and considerate way.

Preserving all the good stuff is helping to retain the area’s distinctive character, and avoiding it becoming just an extension of the city centre. This is A Good Thing.

It seems weird now to think barely anyone lived here when we first arrived – the JQ’s now an increasingly popular and desirable residential area, which has almost certainly helped it to maintain its friendly, almost villagey feel.

So far, so gushy – I did say this was a love letter – but what won’t I miss?

The commute of course; the perpetual, occasionally disruptive but always noisy construction work; and the even louder gulls.

I will miss the area though – the proximity to excellent sandwiches, film sets, and my favourite Indian restaurant – and the office itself wasn’t half bad. But there comes a time to shake things up; to move on. And I’m sure I’ll be back for a visit.

So, farewell Jewellery Quarter –  you’ve been lovely.

Thirteen years of Supercool

Having a birthday in the same month as Leggexit (Legge Lane Exit) seemed a decent enough excuse for me to dig-out some old, mostly office-based, photos:


James and Kris in the then-new office, of the then-newly-formed Supercool – c. 2004


Me (Katie) and Kris en-route to a printing show at the NEC, where we got ourselves a mega map …


Arty. We reckon from the Mac OS X Tiger box in the foreground this must’ve been 2005


Different room, same white desks, no more Kris, but our first Josh


Superintern Kamilla taught us all the most useful Danish words


The wooden desk era – classy


A couple of Joshes doing the thing (all?) Joshes do best


Pulling funny faces. Filming model trains/chickens.


And so to late 2016 – we welcomed Naveed, said adieu to Angell and the office, and proved without question that we’re AMAZING at problem-solving.

How to go remote

Categories: Inspiration, Our work, Useful/interesting

Jungfrau mountain in Switzerland. Photo by Peter Alder
Jungfrau, Switzerland – by Peter Alder

Firstly I should clear-up a language thing – we aren't actually, strictly a ‘remote’ team. We all work from our respective homes in and around Birmingham, rather than on a beach in Goa, up a Swiss mountain, or from a Portland coffee shop.

‘Remote’ just seems more immediately understandable than calling it telecommuting which sounds super '80s but is technically correct, or saying we're a ‘distributed team’. Again that’s an accurate description but the phrase isn’t that widely understood – at the moment at least.

So, for the time-being, ‘remote’ is decent shorthand.


Supercool's former HQ – bye-bye!

Having explained the reasons why we were considering ditching the office, how did we make the decision once-and-for-all to do this thing, and then turn a business that’d been based in the same building for nigh-on 13 years into a more lightweight and flexible entity?

Here's how we approached the change – minus the overly-obvious stuff like "we packed-up the office", "we made sure everyone had a chair" etc.

1: Make it a team decision

This was one of the main considerations for us. Work’s a big part of people’s lives, and every Supercooler has an input not only into their specific role, but the work we do as a company, and how we do it.

No longer having a central office would be a big change for everyone, so we discussed the possibility openly and at length – what we thought would work, what’d need to change, the things that worried us …

And right from the start we agreed that if we weren’t all happy with the change, we wouldn’t do it. Simple.

2. Research and plan

We researched as much as humanly possible; which primarily involved reading about the various types of central-office-less working that other companies had already tried-out; the benefits, the potential pitfalls, and the practicalities. (Links to some of these are listed below.)

An added complication in our case was that, alongside potentially ditching the office, we were hiring a new team member. Ruh-roh!

So, as well as trying to find a new person with the right skills, who was the right fit for the team in general, we were looking for someone who was okay – at least in principle – with working from home. We were open about our plans during the recruitment process and, happily, found Naveed who fitted the bill on every count. WIN!

Back to planning – all each of us really needs to do our job is a decent computer and a decent internet connection. But added to this are the nuts-and-bolts that make communicating with each other quick and easy. Most online tools that're useful for remote/distributed teams we’d been using for ages – Slack, Trello, Hangouts etc. – so were already ingrained in day-to-day processes, but other stuff was new and needed setting up.

The most useful thing we put in place fairly early-on was a VOIP phone system. Even if we didn’t end up ditching the office, it made sense to have VOIP rather than a traditional phone line – the same phone number, with a bunch of added functionality, for a lower cost? No brainer.

3: Beta test

We applied some of the same principles we use to run digital projects to going remote, specifically that meant getting the bare bones of what we needed set up quickly – a minimum viable product if you will – and giving it a go.

We ended up doing several week-or-so-long trial runs.

Perhaps it was that we'd all discussed it openly and thoroughly. Perhaps it was the prior planning and preparation. Perhaps it was because we were using most of the tools already, so the change in how we work was actually fairly minimal. Whatever the reasons, the trial runs went brilliantly and – crucially (see point 1) – everyone was up for making it a permanent change.

Farewell cumbersome desktop computers; laptops all round!

4: Be clever with communication

Rather than one big meeting a week, we now all get together in a Google Hangout first thing every morning.

It’s a good chance to catch-up with each other and go over what work needs doing that day – as well as reminding ourselves that we work in a team. This was one of the things all our research suggested was a good idea, and it really is important. I’d go so far as to say it's vital.

During the trial runs Josh found, and got us into using, Appear.in; a mega-simple screen sharing service which we’ve since adopted to talk-through designs. It’s great – so much easier and more efficient than doing the same thing face-to-face, all gathered around a single screen.

And it wasn’t just the screen-sharing; we’re now working together more efficiently in general. I guess having to be more structured about when and how we talk to each other has forced us to make better use of that time. Nice side effect.

Our communication isn’t all about work though.

We've been sure to keep-up the little niceties which are important to human interaction but could easily get cut-out when people aren't actually in the same room.

Tiny things like saying “Hi” and “Bye” every day, and nonsense chat about this and that over Slack – with added emojis/animated gifs, obvs – are a a bit of human interaction and help punctuate the day. It seems to do a similar job to tea breaks IRL.

We also still get together in person; the next meeting conveniently coinciding with Supercool’s 13th birthday \o/

5: Cause zero disruption to clients

Last but by no means least …

From the trial runs – which no clients noticed were happening; schmoooooooth! – to the timing of The Big Move (over the Christmas break), we made it a priority that this change wouldn’t affect clients. No delay in projects. No change to the way people contact us. No change in working hours. Nothing. Nowt. Nada.

I’m really proud we succeeded in making a change that, although a big thing for each of us, hasn’t impacted our client work at all. Not negatively anyway – as I said, if anything we work better together now.

We’d mentioned the potential move to a few clients over the decision-making and planning period but, once we knew the change was definite, we told everyone our plans ahead of the move; explaining our reasons, and of course giving folks the chance to ask questions or raise any concerns. I was quite concerned that people might think Supercool was somehow less professional, or less hard working, or less real without a central office.

I’d been worrying needlessly as the main feedback was “Does this mean you all get to work in your pyjamas?” Ha! In answer to that question – it hasn't happened yet, and the frequent video chats make it unlikely …

But never say never.

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From the early, tentative conversations to actually ditching the office took us about 8 months.

We didn’t rush into it – making sure we knew what we were doing, and that it'd work for us and our clients – but equally, we didn’t dilly-dally once we knew the change was happening.

Nimbleness – one of the benefits of being a lean team.

It remains to be seen if there’ll be any negative feedback about our set-up from potential new clients which, I have to be honest, is a lingering concern for me.

Only time will tell if not having a central office will hold us back, however, I’m optimistic that new clients’ll be likeminded sorts who'll see the benefits of working with a flexible, productive and happy team of designers and developers.

Incidentally, other folks who famously work(ed) from home include:
Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl, JK Rowling, Benjamin Britten, Barbara Hepworth, and The Queen.

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Resources

Some of our favourite tools and services:

Slack, Trello, Google Hangouts, Dropbox, Appear.in, VOIP (through Dial 9, who’re ace), Tracking Time, Zendesk, Basecamp, Github

Useful links: