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Plug it in

Categories: Learning things, Our work, Useful/interesting

We're always interested in making things better through design, and as technology develops we're increasingly able to improve functional – as well as visual – design 'under the hood' of the websites we build.

A great user experience for admins as well as website visitors? In the web parlance of old; EPIC WIN!!11!!.

Many of these improvements are made possible by judicious use of plugins.

What's that now?

Avoiding too much techy jargon, a plugin is a bit of code that gets added (plugged-in) to an existing software application to help it do more.

Plugins come in all shapes and sizes – some tweak an existing feature to make it work in a slightly different way; others are incredibly involved and drastically extend the capabilities of an application.

As an example of the latter; an off-the-shelf content management system (CMS) won't necessarily come with an integrated shop, so if a website needs to sell something, that functionality needs to be added – in the form of a plugin. (It's either that or build a shop from scratch, which will have a fairly drastic impact on cost and timescales.)

In essence, plugins add specific features to an existing application.

Why we use plugins

Our favoured CMS, Craft – a beautiful, simple, lightweight system – has a good deal of built-in functionality, but sometimes we need it to do more or do something a little differently.

So, we tailor Craft to each project by adding certain plugins – giving the system the precise features to meet a project's needs without it getting weighed-down with superfluous functionality.

I guess the mantra's "Start simple and add only what's needed."

We sometime use plugins made by third parties but when there's nothing out there that does the specific thing we need, that's not a problem; that's when we build it ourselves.

Plugins we've made

Pimp My Matrix
Keeps a complex and long list of design functions neat and easy-to-use.

Button Box
A set of field types for colours, text size, star-ratings, customisable buttons …



Table Maker
Our most recent release is Table Maker which allows website administrators to define their own table columns; something Craft's in-built table function doesn't (yet) do.

This plugin was developed so one of our clients can easily and flexibly create tables of wildly differing datasets, without needing umpteen table templates to choose from – pretty fundamental for a governmental finance organisation.

TL;DR
We build Craft plugins which are freely available for other developers to use – plugins.supercooldesign.co.uk

This post was co-authored by Josh.

HQ heritage

Categories: Jewellery Quarter, Learning things, Tenth anniversary, Useful/interesting

Since the beginning (aka 2004), Supercool has been based in the same building in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter.

When we moved from the rear office to the front a few years back, it prompted us to do a bit of digging into the history of this listed building. Our tenth anniversary seems as good a time as any to share what we found out.

From some internet-based detective work and a visit to the Pen Museum down the road we discovered that, along with neighbouring buildings, our office seems to've formed part of St Paul's Pen Works; home to one of Birmingham's foremost pen nib manufacturers, George W. Hughes. (The factory moved to Legge Lane from nearby St Paul's Square, hence the name.)

A bit more interweb trawling uncovered a box of 'Geo. W. Hughes' pen nibs for sale. Despite its bruised and battered state, we had to buy it.

Why is it called the 'Million Pen'? Perhaps it commemorates the millionth nib produced in the factory? Was it manufactured after the factory had turned over its first £1million, maybe? We can't find the answer to that, so it remains a mystery.

Possibly an even greater mystery is the nothing-short-of-bizarre packaging design.

Along with the nib's name, the design features what appear to be a duck and a dog on the front, as well as some exotic-looking script; with the side of the box sporting another line drawing of the dog, now holding the duck in its mouth.

On first look this seems to make no sense, and have zero relevance – but one of the more believable suggestions I've come across for this peculiar animal pairing is that these creatures are in fact a goose and a fox. The clever, quick-witted fox – standing-in for Geo. W. Hughes' pen nibs – is doing-away with the goose, which represents the out-dated, out-foxed quill pen. Ah-ha!

The 'hieroglyphs', however, remain unexplained …

On the underside of the box is a big wodge of copy signed by George himself, warning people off inferior copies of his stellar product. It's incredibly old-fashioned and quite, quite ace.

Incase you can't quite make it out in the photo, it says:

"St. Paul's Pen Works, Birmingham. GEORGE W. HUGHES having, after many years of unceasing effort, succeeded in bringing the manufacture of STEEL PENS to the highest point of perfection, regrets to be under the necessity of cautioning the Public against base imitations of the Genuine Article, which disreputable parties have endeavoured to foist upon the Public. None are genuine but those with this Signature, thus– Geo W. Hughes"

Final fun fact: these very same nibs are important enough to form part of a National Trust collection.

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This the second in a series of blog posts commemorating Supercool's decade of design.

AMA keynote notes: David Carlin, RMIT

Categories: Inspiration, Learning things, Useful/interesting

All the way from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Associate Professor at the School of Media and Communication, David Carlin talked to us about a collaborative project between the university and Circus Oz – the Living Archive.

Arts organisations are, to a growing extent, becoming digital media producers so there's a growing need to have somewhere to store – and indeed show-off – past work. It's fairly simple to guess from the name that the Living Archive is a place for Circus Oz to house their videos, photos and memories (the public can add comments which the site labels 'stories', which is a nice touch) of past performances.

It's a great idea – though I'm not convinced by some of the execution. The user interface and navigation seem clunky, and the site's not responsive, making it very awkward to use on a mobile, which is a shame. (I can't help but think like a designer!)

I'm also unsure if the videos being hosted on the site itself, rather than somewhere a bit more public like YouTube or Vimeo, is ideal. This surely restricts the number of people who'll randomly and happily stumble-upon the films?

Still; the fact this stuff is publicly available at all, rather than sat in storage getting dusty and forgotten, is a good thing.

What I actually found more interesting/useful than the project itself, however, were the prompts about the project process on David's slides:

Let yourself ask "What if …?"
I guess this involves allowing a bit of time within a project to be playful and think creatively. Don't start with barriers; those will invariably come later!

Build the team to make, and to think
As a collaboration between a university and an arts organisation, the project team was comprised of people with a great breadth of skills; from information design to cultural heritage, performance studies to computer science. Everyone in the team had a clearly defined role, which is important – when folks lose sight of their purpose, there's a very real danger of a project stalling, over-running and/or being watered-down.

It's a process, not a product
Yes! The Living Archive is by its nature a work-in-progress. It's ever-growing and changing. It's not set-in-stone. 'Process not product' is something I think people are starting to their heads around when it comes to online stuff; the ability to continuously – almost seamlessly – develop something is a great strength and a major opportunity.

Build buy-in from the inside out
Another reference to the importance of internal communication, which is often thought of as secondary … if it's thought about at all. It's vital that an organisation's people are considered and consulted, and that they understand what a project – or indeed an organisation – is all about. (As mentioned in the final paragraph of my other circus-related AMA Conference post.)

The Living Archive has been built to be easy for Circus Oz to add-to, and also easy to alter the look of – they're currently working on a 'vanilla' version to license-out to other organisations.

It remains to be seen whether it will work for others – my feeling is it'd certainly need some user interface design work, and be made mobile-friendly, before it's an appealing enough product – but, for Circus Oz at least, its Living Archive is a big asset … which just keeps getting bigger!

AMA notes: Kim Mitchell, MoMA

Categories: Inspiration, Learning things, Useful/interesting

Fair warning: this post probably needs a subtitle "The longest post I've ever written". Here we go …

This was one of the seminars I instantly ticked as a must-go-to; hearing the Chief Communications Officer at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York talk about 'Remarkable Campaigns'? Yes, please!

The closer it got to the conference, the more I steeled myself that this may well be a bit of a cold, dry, oft-repeated, soulless speech. Someone from such a mega institution is likely to be a bit … corporate, aren't they?

Wrong! Kim talked to us about the stories MoMA tells to its audiences, and how they play around with their visual identity to keep it fresh; she's an engaging speaker, clearly incredibly interested in and knowledgeable about her subject, as well as being proud of the successful campaigns her team have created – but also proud of their learning from failure (more on which later).

First; a bit of background …

MoMA's mission is not-altogether-surprising: to "encourage an ever-deeper understanding and enjoyment of modern and contemporary art by local, national, and international audiences"; they're about education, and conserving artworks for future generations. But did you know that the place runs entirely on donations, and ticket and merchandise sales? They receive no government funding. I found that quite a surprise.

But not as surprising as the fact that their design and advertising is done almost entirely in-house (save for some clever techy stuff which gets outsourced). I'm not sure I can think of another such high-profile arts organisation who turn out such sophisticated, 'agency-quality' campaigns in-house. They even have a dedicated website: momadesignstudio.org (Thanks to Abby from DanceXchange for finding and sending me the link.)

If ever I decide to not work for myself, and to live in New York, the MoMA design studio'll be first on my Want To Work For list.

I digress. Massively. Where was I?

Oh yes; stories. Pretty-much the focus of all MoMA campaigns – telling the stories behind the art; allowing people to think things through themselves, rather than just serving-up what people'll see anyway when they visit.

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Using the Inventing Abstraction exhibition as an example, Kim explained how they tested two variations of print advertising; one conventional ad featuring an image of an artwork (Kandinsky's Farbstudie — Quadrate mit konzentrischen Ringen) which is nice enough, and it was a well-designed ad but quite honestly, nothing special. (And, in testing, it didn't work particularly well).

The second ad was more inventive, and indeed turned out to be much more effective.

Here's a variation of the ad, in brochure cover form – concisely telling the tale of how the abstract art movement was born. Clever. Simple. Ace.

Graphic design-wise, the Bauhaus design style perfectly suits the timeframe in question, and the content is intriguing; thought-provoking. In allowing/expecting people to think for themselves, the campaign has become participatory.

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"When something's hard to understand, see it as an opportunity."

To illustrate this, Kim talked about German artist Dieter Roth's Wait, Later This will be nothing: Editions – including a series of sculptures made of perishables such as cheese, meat, banana and chocolate.

As I mentioned before, part of MoMA's job is to conserve artworks. It's quite a challenge for a conservator to do their job when artworks are made of degradable materials, and actually designed to perish. Ah-ha! There's the story!

In place of a traditional ad campaign the team created an incredibly entertaining animated film, narrated by MoMA staff talking about the challenges involved with this particular exhibition. The film was a big success despite only being shared across social media; there were no supporting print ads.

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MoMA's most successful and long-running (it's still going) campaign began from something people were already saying online; something simple, which is now completely owned by MoMA and is, in my opinion, a perfect campaign: "I went to MoMA and …"

I won't drone on about it, partly because it's self-explanatory – you can read the design team's blog posts about the campaign on the Inside/Out blog. You can also see all of the cards submitted (bar those which were too light to scan properly) on the campaign website.

Some extra stuff that Kim mentioned:

The campaign translated really well into print ads – newspaper and outdoor.

They decided in advance to only remove cards if they included hate speech; anything else, including criticism of the museum, would remain public. They had *no* hate speech. (Though there is a 'flag' mechanism on the website allowing people to report cards.)

The campaign was popular internally too – even people's leaving cards now read "I worked at MoMA and …", and include personal stories from colleagues. Nice!

(It was also the inspiration behind my initial AMA blog post title.)

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So, I promised to divulge a MoMA marketing team failure.

The [MoMA] Starts Here campaign seems a decent enough concept on paper: give people a taste of the diversity of stuff they can experience at MoMA.

There were 16 themes with related imagery; [Summer] Starts Here, for example, included seasonal events at the museum, sun, dance, music, an ice cream (available at the museum cafe!), a collapsible water bottle design. Summery things.

Other themes included music, film, New York and design.

But the campaign was a flop. It didn't bring in anything like the numbers expected, and was pulled early – there were no associated PR or social media campaigns. (And the website has been taken down, though you can see the campaign in pictures on the design team's site.)

This failure needed to be explained to the museum's management. Which meant the team first needed to deduce what went wrong. Having been through the details, they reached the conclusion that it was the lack of any 'participatory' element which resulted in the campaign's downfall.

I'd add that there it was also probably just a bit much – too much "What do we want to tell people?" (i.e. broadcasting) as opposed to "What will interest people?", and also trying to be everything to everyone. The sheer amount of content to take-in is overwhelming!

Kim feels it's important to be open, and to discuss and learn from things that don't work though. In this case, they learnt to keep things playful, entertaining and participatory; always with the audience – rather than the museum – at the forefront of their minds when developing campaigns.

(I think that's incredibly useful to remember.)

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I'm actually going to stop myself here or I'm in danger of just repeating the entire talk nigh-on verbatim. I will, however, leave you with a few final snippets:

"Jump into uncertainty"

Inspired by the intuitive interface of the iPad, MoMA created the AB EX NY app, which ended up being used in an Apple advertising campaign. The thing to remember here – if you sense an opportunity, go for it. Quickly (or someone else'll get there first).

"Recognise and amplify your storytellers"

Allow, nay encourage, your advocates to talk about you; in their own voice. MoMA's Senior Curator of Architecture and Design, Paola Antonelli, was on The Colbert Report (which I've linked to despite it being unavailable to view in the UK. You may find a way of bypassing this …) discussing the design exhibition which was on at the time. Paola definitely took away any impression that a museum has to be stuffy; she talks warmly and enthusiastically about design.

MoMA's Director, Glenn D. Lowry, wants the risk-taking nature of modern art to be reflected in the museum's marketing. Wow! Great! This shows strong leadership from Lowry, and demonstrates a high level of trust in his colleagues – accepting that people know how to do their jobs, and simply letting them get on with it. I suppose this is also reflected in the "I went to MoMA and …" campaign, where this time it was the public who were given the freedom to be creative. (That last word is really important.)

And finally, an interesting fact: MoMA's three most popular exhibitions so far have been about the work of Matisse, Picasso … and Tim Burton. Ha!

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UPDATE: I just discovered this interesting video of Julia Hoffmann (until recently Creative Director of MoMA's Design and Advertising Dept.) discussing the museum's identity: Julia Hoffmann – Disclosing MoMA's Identity