Monthly Archives: November 2013

Timberyard: The Value of Variety


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This is Timberyard, a very successfully-designed café that’s a big hit with students and other independent workers in Shoreditch. What strikes me about the places that have hit the right note with students is that incredibly wide variety of different kinds of seating, different kinds of spaces, and a thoughtful variety of configurations that acknowledges that not only do different people have different preferences, but one person generally has a variety of different needs from a space depending on their current task, mood, or circumstances.

The front of the house at Timberyard contains a modular shared couch, old suitcases that act as coffee tables, and plenty of outlets. Enough outlets for everyone.

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A sight I’ve become accustomed to: bar seating by the window. This kind of space is almost universally understood as individual, private space within a public space. I’ve started to notice that in libraries that don’t build spaces like this, patrons will drag a chair over to a window, face it against the window, and create it. I think this kind of seating might be the most accessible and least threatening to people entering a social space like this alone. Facing outward is a kind of message that indicates that a patron is not only not looking for a conversation, but is here on their own for a reason. Again: notice the easy access to power.

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A second band of bar seating, facing the wall. It’s more space that’s comfortable and available for individuals coming in alone and intimidated by the big, shared couch. But there’s another interesting thing about this bar seating:


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The café provides not only wifi, but ipads for the purpose or browsing the internet while drinking your coffee or having your lunch. I’ve never seen anything like this outside of a library. When I wander through our library and see how students are using our computers, a good percentage of the time I see keyboards shoved up under the monitor and a laptop or book sitting in its place. A fixed ipad like this probably isn’t a bad replacement for a catalogue terminal, when you think of it. It makes that table far more multifunctional. It’s very generous of them to provide them, really. I found three of them around the café, admittedly none of them in use.

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We’ve got individual space, very much shared, common space with the couch, and also more traditional shared space for groups: three tables for four. These are small enough that they aren’t shared by strangers; these are for people who know each other, are working together, or have decided to come here together to share the space as a group.

From above, a hint of what lies below:

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Downstairs, more kinds of space, all of which seems to be designed with students in mind:

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Quirky, mismatched, soft seating, in a variety of different configurations! Here they’ve got armchairs you can use as an individual, or with a group. Full-sized tables that, as you can see at the back, encourages group work. This furniture can move, but it doesn’t appear to, especially. If you don’t like one configuration, this café has many more to choose from. That’s another form of flexibility, one that doesn’t require reconfigurable tables or casters.

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These group spaces, filled with the noise of people talking, also includes spaces that patrons use for individual work. As we know, there are many people who don’t like to work in complete silence or solitude. Being alone in a group is more productive for them, and you can see the evidence of that in places like this.

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As in most places I’ve seen, there’s also a communal table. Interestingly, in spite of all the other available spaces at Timberyard, these folks prefer to work independently together here, with ready access to power. Communal tables are tricky, and interesting: there are signals that tell patrons they can share the table, but I don’t think they’re as simple as the size of the table or the number of chairs. That factors in, certainly, but I think the affordances of the rest of the space contributes as well. If everything else is sharable in a space, a communal table will be more shareable, even if it’s thin or smaller. I wish there were a ready and easy science to this, but I’m not sure there is. I’m really fascinated by the communal table; it’s potential is so tantalizing. For me it is the definition of flexible. It can support group work, become an instant conference room, and be a place for individual work as well, all without shifting the layout at all. It can support high tech work and digital collaboration as well as work with paper and post-it notes. It’s simple, familiar, and comforting. But I think it’s also the layout most sensitive to the context of the room and the hardest to get right. I’ve seen communal tables on my travels that I suspect don’t work that well. This isn’t one of them.

Cafés in the UK are especially interesting because they don’t have much of a culture of throwing people out if they stick around too long. In that sense, they are closer to libraries than almost anything else. We also create spaces and encourage students to stick around. Because of that, I feel like we have an incredible opportunity to create really terrific spaces without worrying about turnover. I knew I wanted to look at cafés as part of this project, but I really didn’t expect the parallels to be so strong.

Popular Study Haunts


Finding out where students like to study, and visiting those places, is really fascinating. That’s been my project for the last few days.

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This is a place called Ozone Coffee Roasters. It’s a combination coffee roasting place and café. This is a view of the lower level: as you can see, it’s pretty much all communal tables. There’s the long thin one on the left, and the wider tables against the walls. 2013-11-27 13.21.59

Here’s some of the window seating upstairs. As you can see, pretty much every flat surface in this place is unstructured and communal. How this space gets used depends entirely on the people who sit down at it. It might be two people sitting together, or an individual sitting down with a computer. Unlike most bar seating up against windows, this table is really wide. It’s about as wide as the communal tables downstairs. Once I took one look at this space, I could understand why it was rated so highly as a study space. Students like to be able to spread out.

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The bar. As you can see, this place has a culture of sitting down and digging into work. No one’s the slightest bit bothered that they’re looking into a busy working area rather than against a window.

I have to say, this place is loud. I imagine the students who come to work here really like that, because you’d have to. It’s a very trendy kind of industrial vibe, with lots of word. Very hip, loud, busy, and designed with serious coffee drinkers in mind.

Around the corner from Ozone is Salvation Jane, which is a way quieter, more chill kind of place. Much less polished, much less deliberately hip, but still funky and cool.

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Here I think I saw some actual studying in action. Tables beyond, and the communal table in the foreground (where I’m having my soup and tea). This is a very slim communal table, and based on that I’m surprised it works. But it does.2013-11-27 13.30.21

More bar seating. This ledge table is quite slim, and sitting there definitely seems like a more solitary experience.2013-11-27 13.31.01

Salvation Jane has an extended outdoor area as well. It’s covered, so students could sit out there if it were warm enough, in spite of any potential rain.

What I can’t help but notice in spaces like this is the old-timey kitchen table feel they have. It’s almost ubiquitous, the big farmhouse tables and classic chairs. It’s furniture picked for vibe rather than comfort, which is interesting. (Though: to be fair, they’re not uncomfortable.)

Walking between one place an another, I spotted another, modern take on this layout:

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This is sort of fast food chipotle place. Nothing fancy, but walking past, I couldn’t help but notice the same themes, just less quirky-traditional style and materials.  Here, like in Ozone, is a long, thin communal table.

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Bar seating by the window, as is practically standard in nearly all libraries and cafés alike. And belowo that, something interesting: it’s a curved table. I didn’t get a good shot, but you can see the woman with the dark here and the light coat, with her back to us, in both pictures. The tables has a long straight end and a curved bit that goes into the restaurant. 2013-11-26 16.04.00

Another interesting play on a communal table theme.

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This is a popular communal table in Penarth, Wales (just outside of Cardiff). I thought the single bench along with the more moble chairs was an interesting touch.

What’s interesting in all this is that I bet they got the communal table meme from us:

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This is a shared study table in a library on display in a museum. Antique shared tables: not that much has changed, really:

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This is one of many reading rooms at the Senate House library, University of London. We were on this communal table thing from the beginning, weren’t we? And check out this periodical reading room:

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Is it just me, or is this room going for “high brow living room”?

I’ve got more popular study joints to check out. The trends are already poking through, though: quirky, cosy, flexible (not necessarily on casters) space, free wifi, no pressure to finish your drink and get out, and, there’s no getting around this, food. Food is the unifying theme of all the places I’ve visited that students like. Though many of them buy one coffee and sit for hours. the proximity to food, the ability to get food and coffee easily should it become required, is a key factor here. Many libraries have a very firm distinction between a café and the library proper. I’m starting to seriously question the wisdom of that. And I’m not the only one:

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The café at the Canada Water library is in pride of place: right as you walk in, at the base of the stairs, in the atrium with its ceiling all the way at the very top of the building. Either because of this design, or, as the librarian at the desk told me, a problem with the ventilation system, the entire library smells like coffee and baked goods. Which may or may not be a good thing, really. But still: the café is an integral part of the library experience here.2013-10-24 13.36.40

“Eat in or take away,” inside the library. How about that?

I’ve spoken about the Whitechapel Idea Store café before, because it’s spectacular. They put it at the top of the building, alongside a news-watching area and current popular periodicals.

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Food and thinking go together, which might be why cafés are such popular and comfortable places for students to dig in and study. We’re taken a lot of ideas from them, and they’ve taken a lot of ideas from us.

The Spaces People Choose


The spaces people have the choice to inhabit are, I’m discovering, often the most interesting when it comes to innovative design. But there’s so much to choose from! It’s relatively easy to find popular libraries and see how they’re laid out. What I’ve been investigating lately are the places where people choose to work. Fortunately, because locations are rated, tagged, and reviewed on Google Maps (via Google Plus), I’m able to see which locations are considered the best places for studying and working.

Which brought me to two places: the first is Tinderbox.

Tinderbox Espresso CafeTinderbox is a coffee shop in Angel, Islington. Based on the reviews and the photos online, I really thought this place would be bigger than it is. But I think that’s part of its charm. From this view, mostly what you see is the typical split between the common table and smaller tables for two. But there are a few more really unique and interesting spaces in this place.

2013-11-19 15.27.27These two spaces tucked away along the side of the main room are, I think, what make Tinderbox a winner with students. Below, there are three roomy booths with a very low head height. It’s a seated head height, and not much more, though no one’s hunching in there and no one seemed uncomfortable. On the contrary, all these booths are taken (I thought I could sneak into that last booth, but no, it’s taken too.)

There’s something about a cozy space. I met a student here who told me they call Tinderbox the Nook Café, because of all the interesting little spaces in it. Given that it’s a warehouse conversion, that’s quite a feat. All the nooks in it are entirely retrofitted from an open space.

I’ve seen several takes on the low-head-height approach, mostly with furniture. Psychology isn’t my area, but the idea that we tend to find smaller spaces comforting and comfortable resonates with me. A friend of mine (Lucas Barber, Project Manager at UTM Library and all-round good guy) once told me that his father, who builds houses for a living, always builds small bedrooms with attached sitting/dressing rooms rather than gigantic master suites. He says we don’t tend to sleep well in big, open rooms. That idea has always stuck with me; small, cozy rooms feel safe and comforable, even when we think bigger is better. I’ve noted this as a bit of a trend in the most popular studying spaces, too. Ensconced up in the rafters, facing outwards, looking down, with a lower head height; spaces like that seems private, safe, comfortable, and quiet. Does it help students to concentrate? To feel comfortable? At home?

The people inside these booths definitely seemed to be in rooms of their own without being entirely cut off from the larger group. Maybe that’s part of the appeal; alone in a crowd, off to one side, sheltered. Alone together.

The second (of several) interesting spaces at Tinderbox is the mezzanine level above the booths.

2013-11-19 15.59.08The low buzz of the café crowd below, a view and streetscape, low ambient lighting but good direct light on the table in front of you, power for your computer, and coffee. This space genuinely couldn’t be better designed for the student crowd. Tinderbox also has free wifi, so it doesn’t take much to see why this place is so well-loved and well lived-in.

2013-11-19 15.59.49The view from the mezzanine, and the third interesting space: a set of old, worn, ratty airplane seats. I found this area really interesting, because it breaks the rules for creating seating for two. Generally you arrange to have people face each other. But the two new mothers sitting in these seats were quite comfortably and happily having a chat the entire time I was here. For all the self-conscious “conversation areas” I’ve seen in libraries and elsewhere, this might be one of the most successful. It’s quirky, interesting, and completely conductive to long conversations, particularly placed as it is by the window. It’s interesting that they didn’t try to put seating right up against that terrific windnow, but I guess this way the whole space shares it uninterrupted.

And on the otherside of Tinderbox’s front till:

2013-11-19 16.00.28I genuinely don’t know what they thought was going to happen here, but I’m fascinated. I’m not sure why you would put a cushion down on a place where, if you tried to lean back, you’d end up with a wooden corner digging into your spine. But I like the built-in table and the sheer uniqueness of this thing. It’s the opposite of the booths; wide open and tiered, visible to everyone walking in, perched above the crowd. I’ve seen steps in use as seating areas all over the place, so I can see the appeal of adding them as deliberate seating.

2013-11-19 16.00.38And in front of the cash and the pastry case, traditional bar seating, facing a small patio area.  No power that I saw, just a simple wooden ledge-table and stools. Interestingly, as with many spaces like this, patrons feel free to strike up conversations, often with one person standing and another sitting. Personally, I really like seating like this in areas where patrons frequently need help and input from staff, because of the ease with which a standing person can interact with a seated patron. It looks and feels natural.

I think, as far as cafés go, the variety of spaces contained within Tinderbox is closer to a library than any I’ve ever seen. But its touches are more homey and quirky than libraries tend to be. It’s small, cozy, warm (lots of wood filling up what is essentially an industrial space), with low ambient lighting but good task lighting. Librarians tend to design things in orderly lines, with bright spaces we can easily peer into to ensure that the right kinds of activity are going on. We design spaces that are less quirky and more efficient. I understand why students choose to work at Tinderbox; it covers all the bases. It’s homey and comfortable without being a junky living room. It’s an interesting mix of shared spaces, any of which can turn into collaborative ones.

Another place I got a look at today is a co-working space down the street from Tinderbox called The Hub Islington.

HUB-IslingtonI didn’t take this picture. I was there, but I didn’t want to bother the full house working there at the time, so I’ve borrowed this one. The Hub is a co-working space on the top floor of an old warehouse in Angel. It’s designed by and for freelancers who want an office to go to rather than sitting at home all the time. They apply and pay a fee to work here. If we want to learn anything about deliberate choices of the best working spaces, co-working collectives might be the best place to turn. Not only because the people who use them tend to be innovative and design-oriented, but also because these are road-tested, and people vote not only with their feet, but with their membership fees.

The Hub Islington co-workers hotdesk. Hotdesking means that no one has a permanent desk; you choose the kind of spot you need when you need it and set up there. Therefore the Hub includes a variety of different kinds of spaces for the co-workers to shift between. The petal-like desks and chairs on casters allow each person to set up laptops as they like and need. Without monitors on the desks, they can pick how much open desk space they want at any give time. It also means they can deliberately work with someone else close by, or more independently. I like the way they have connected pieces as well as independent pieces; it makes “zones” out of thin air, and stops the place from being a hive of cubicles.

The Hub Islington includes a “library” (a nook in the left corner, by the windows, with two walls covered in books and cushioned benches. Because the library is a bit obscured, I think this space might fill the gap for those who want to work in a public place with a bit more privacy. Maybe for intensive thinking, or other kinds of private, quiet time. The Hub also includes a kitchen, and a dining booth area, presumably for having lunch as well as for impromptu brainstorming.

The Hub IslingtonAs you can see, you sort of clamber into it, with your feet dangling. Or you can cozy up alongside the table, feet out, with cushions against the wall, and get some work done on a laptop.

There’s a running thread in these chosen spaces of “home” metaphors. But it’s not like taking someone’s house and making it a public space; it’s not like an Ikea show room. It’s home with a significant professional twist. In fact, I’m starting to think that “home” isn’t the right metaphor, given how far afield these spaces get. People generally don’t have spaces like this in their home. The idea of a couch, a kitchen table, the ability to shift from one kind of space to another, that’s some of the home-ness of it. But the layout and structure itself is far from “living room” or “dining room”. The idea of “home” imparts the idea of different kinds of comfortable space, but it’s more formal than home. It’s just a more thoughtful office space, really.

Co-working spaces traditionally contain a conference room as well, like any other worksplace, as this one is no different:

french-course-london-hub-islingtonIt’s a dining room metaphor. This is a space you use when you’re deliberately in meeting mode. This space has a door on it that can be closed, unlike any other part of the space.

These are two spaces that have been deliberately chosen by those doing individual work. The first was designed by business owners developing a commercial enterprise; the second, by co-workers themselves, originally drawn on the floorboards in chalk. Both are an interesting mix of comfort, connection to other people, ability to share with close collaborators or friends, and a strong thread of individual space.

So these are the kinds of spaces that people chose for themselves: no individual offices, and no permanent stations, no complete privacy. There’s a connection to other people there, always, even if you’re not speaking to those people, or know them at all. They aren’t silent spaces, but they’re not excessively loud, either. They both have a buzz of work going on, in and around the casual talk. They are both flexible spaces, not because the furniture necessarily shifts around a lot, but because it supports a wide range of different kinds of activities, individual and collective, and the ethos of the space embraces the idea that different moods, tasks, or projects need different kinds of configurations, different furniture, and different affordances. In both, you’re not stuck in one kind of chair looking at one kind of view for all the work you do. You get to choose.

Interactive Computing


There is a monumental shift going on in computing. It’s a technical change, a software change, and most importantly, a change in the way we think about and approach a computing device. This change has to do with what a computer is.

We’re familiar with the more radical end of this change as the smart phone revolution. It used to be we had two very distinct devices: a computer (which sat on a desk, had a screen and a keyboard, and required us to bring a chair up to it so we could rest our fingers against the keys) and a phone (which could be attached to the wall, sit on a table, or, eventually, fit into our pockets, has small keys, or, increasingly, software-only keys). The rapid merging of these two devices has left us with some very confused metaphors for computing. As librarians, we’re not entirely sure anymore how to signal to a patron that we have set aside a device for their use. We set up computing so that patrons can use them, but we struggle to break free from the workstation metaphor, even when it would behoove us to do so.

2013-10-24 11.12.34A catalogue-browsing station at the Idea Store Whitechapel. The attempt is clearly there to get rid of the workstation and move into a more flexible approach to bringing digital search and information into the physical world, but of course you still need a keyboard, a mouse, and a monitor, right? (Horseless carriage, anyone?)

Not to point fingers only at the Idea Store. This is tough, a lot of people are struggling with it. This is a tough one. But this terminal is just a stand up desk, really. You can’t put your stuff down on a table, and you can get stuck in for the afternoon of checking your email and writing an essay. It’s not comfortable enough to be a workstation. It says, “You, patron, may use this computer to do simple things, like looking something up.” Patron in that case is most definitely singular.

2013-11-08 13.21.13Here’s the not-especially-innovative interactive stations outside the Barbican library. Here we haven’t even moved away from the idea that you have to sit down to interact with digital media. At least they’ve got those steampunk keyboards with the included mouse to avoid all the extra wires. Rollerball for the win!

Once again, the layout is telling us how many people should be using these stations; one person per. If you were to bring the second chair over to look at something with a friend, you’d be depriving someone else of the use of a machine. Without intending to, we shout out our belief that computers are single-person items.

2013-11-05 13.58.52Everybody really likes the idea of bringing digital information into an experience; there’s just so much of it, and there’s no way any space, library, museum, or otherwise, can have any hope at all of bringing all or even most of it to its patrons without using screens. But very often you can see innovative spaces, like the Victoria & Albert Museum here, resorting to screens and chairs, in keeping with ye olde workstation metaphor. Is this the best way to bring digital information to patrons? It’s certainly the easiest. And the simplest for the patron to understand.

2013-10-24 11.29.07And not to say that these stations aren’t interesting and thoughtful; a lot of them are. These are the Crossrail information terminals at the Idea Store Whitechapel. As profiles go, these are pretty slim. For a workstation that’s been straightened out so you can approach them while standing as use them, yeah, they’re great. But this metaphor is wearing very, very thin. One person per screen, please. We started out that way in computing, and we keep reproducing it.

2013-11-13 15.16.26This is a really nice monitor/keyboard/rollerball mouse set up at the Central Library in Cardiff. That’s my friend Imogen; she went straight for the keyboard, because it was there, so she assumed it was required to use the machine. That’s a touch screen, though, as I showed her. (I can tell it is: of course it is! It’s high tech! This is a standing totem terminal, of course it’s a touch screen!) Because the affordances of the set up return the patron back to the workstation metaphor, all the interesting affordances of the touch screen go flying out the window.

The touchscreen, which replaces the keyboard and the mouse pretty effectively, is not a new technology anymore, and a lot of libraries (and museums, and all kinds of other spaces) have them. But libraries may be the last ones holding on so strongly to the keyboard. I understand why we do it; it’s true that you have a lot more scope with a keyboard. You can short-circuit whatever the designer thought you were going to do at this terminal with a keyboard and do what you need to do. It’s flexible. It makes that terminal ready for anything, and we really like to be ready for anything. We hate restricting what a patron can do. But unfortunately that flexibility  puts the device, and by extention the patron, in a very tight metaphorical box. In trying to make sure a patron can do anything they want, we often don’t use contextual and layout clues help them do the thing they’re probably there to do.

2013-11-05 14.01.44Here in the National Portrait Gallery they’ve got images, objects, and digital information all threaded together. The digital information is relevant and interactive, though interactive in a very limited way. But it’s not pulled out and stripped of its context, which is key. It’s the [read more] of the museum world, attached to the exhibit without overwhelming it. The patron has navigated to this piece of information not through clicking through a web page, but by physically moving through the building. Because of the physical location of the patron, we can make all kinds of assumptions about what information they want or need. It’s those few steps before search that they’re tying into here; anticipating information needs and incorporating them into the space itself. That device on the Henry VIII portrait isn’t as flexible  as the terminals with keyboards above, which can do absolutely anything, but it’s more targeted, specific, and in that moment, useful. It’s not expecting the patron to do any work at all. There’s no keywords, because the patron has indicated the keywords by moving to this point of the museum.

2013-11-08 13.43.01This is a fully interactive totem terminal at the Barbican, designed specifically to gather feedback from users. There’s no question that that screen is a touchscreen (obviously). No keyboard, you’ll notice. No mouse. (You don’t need a mouse with a touchscreen, because your finger is the cursor.) It’s not a computer you can hijack to check your email or jump into a search engine. It has one purpose, and it does that one purpose well. As computing has become cheaper and cheaper over the years, we’ve had more opportunities to include computing with limited purposes like this one. I think we often fail to notice that computing has become cheaper, and thus our relationship to it can now change. When a computer cost you five thousand dollars at minimum, it made sense that you wanted it to be as flexible as possible.

But that might not but the problem; lots of libraries have catalogue-only computers. We tend to make them stand up terminals to express this, and lock the software so that only that one activity is possible. We get the idea of the single use computer, we just haven’t made the jump to creating things like this:

2013-11-15 14.26.15I found this Jobpoint terminal at the St. Pancras Library in Islington. It’s a small library attached to a branch of the borough council, which offers a range of services to residents, from issuing parking permits to housing benefits. The jobpoint is, as the name suggests, an interface to view job postings. Public libraries are frequently the centre of support for job seekers, but I haven’t seen such a sophisticated job searching terminal before. No keyboard, no mouse, but there is a small printer.

This is a terminal that’s sensitive to its context; job seekers can print out the details they need of a job that interests them. This terminal brings the riches of one particular database to its userbase, and one which, in this case in particular, isn’t well-known for being especially computer-savvy. Now that I’ve seen this one, I’m surprised that catalogue terminals in libraries don’t look more like this. The needs are strikingly similar. Minus the workstation metaphors, you can see how much easier it would be to provide support to someone using a terminal like this. It’s design doesn’t tell you how many people can use it at once the way a keyboard and a mouse do. It doesn’t invoke a private, personal computer. Anyone walking up to it knows it’s not somewhere they can sit down and read a book, or work on their essay, or send some email. It’s computing, but it’s not a computer the same way catalogue terminals often are.

I keep looking for the holy grails of collaborative-friendly computing spaces, and they are few and far between. I know they exist, I’ve only just started my explorations, but even seeing attempts has been helpful to framing what it is we’re doing, and how we might consider creating different kinds of spaces and interfaces.

I visited another high-tech place this week, which looked like this:

2013-11-13 11.31.44-1As we know, the TARDIS can be operated by a single person. It’s a Gallifreyan workstation, as it were. But we know it works better with a crowd.

The Power of Data Visualization


Today the UK officially observed Remembrance Day. As a Canadian, I’m very familiar with Remembrance Day. The ceremony itself is pretty much the same in the Commonwealth countries as it is here. As a Guelphite (Guelph being the birthplace of Lt. Col. John McCrae), I know In Flanders Fields off by heart, and have been part of an eery choir reciting it in unison. I’ve even once held a rifle on my shoulder pointed up into the air and fired it three times as part of a Remembrance Day ceremony when I was an army cadet (don’t ask, long story). I felt like I’d seen Remembrance Day from every possible angle.

Except for one.

Remembrance Day is all about veterans past and present. That I understand: I’ve always understood it that way. War is hell. I get it in that way that you do when you hope you never really get it, if you know what I mean. Canada lost 45,000 young lives to WWII alone. Worthy of noting, certainly. Worthy of the ceremony, I think. I understand why the UK and the rest of the Commonwealth mark Remembrance Day with so much solemnity.

But for Canada, the loss of those soldiers’ lives is the biggest and most devastating element of the World Wars. Not to say that life in Canada wasn’t impacted by the wars in many other ways, but by and large, honouring military personnel once a year to remember the wars makes sense. London had a very different experience.

Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 4.25.20 PMThis is a map of London with a red pin marking the site of every bomb dropped on it during the Blitz.  I’m familiar with the history of World War II, of course. I knew London was bombed in a concerted manner over an extended period of time. It’s one thing to have that knowledge; it’s quite another, I find, to see it mapped out like this. It’s one thing to know exactly how many bombs were dropped on London, and know how many days of constant bombing there were, and quite another to see it like this.

I honestly find it strange to observe Remembrance Day in London without any mention the suffering this city endured. Not just civilian loss of life, though that’s hardly insignificant, but what was certainly civilian terror night after night, the loss of neighbourhoods, and the loss of a tremendous amount architectural history. On this map I discovered that a bomb landed across the street from me. (That, I assume, explains the one 1950s structure across the road in a sea of Victorian terraces.) It’s so close it would have shattered all our windows, at least. My bedroom window overlooks where that bomb must have fallen. I can’t imagine the terror of waiting, night after night, to see if a bomb is going to fall on your house, or your neighbours’. And you look at that map and realize that everyone in London would have had the experience of a hearing a bomb that was heading for them. It would be hard to not being within close proximity of the spot where one (or more) fell. I have now learned that I even on a very slow and lazy day, I pass at least 6 different bomb sites just walking to a tube station or sauntering down the street. But there’s no mention of that trauma in the ceremonies. “Stiff upper lip,” they tell me. “The soldiers had it worse.” Okay. Sure. Maybe. It’s not a zero sum game, though. Look at that map. There are so many pins in that map you can’t even tell what you’re looking at.

This is the power of data visualization. It allows a human brain to make sense of information in a very human way. In a very personal way, sometimes, as I’m experiencing it.

I’m finding it challenging to be in this city, and love this city as I am increasingly doing, and not have strong feelings about how terribly it’s suffered in the recent past. It suffered before that, of course. There’s the conquests, the plagues, the fires that intermittently burned the whole place down. It was abandoned at one point in it’s history, then later reclaimed and rebuilt. But there’s also this damage, the Blitz, mapped out and modern, inarguable. I’m having a retroactive emotional reaction to the Blitz, is what. As if it just happened. All because of well-presented information.

This image is a screenshot of a completely fascinating project called Bomb Sight. It merges the 1940-1941 bomb census held at the National Archives with geographical information in public view. It’s amazing how bringing streams of publicly available data together seems to add a whole other dimension; it’s as if there’s something new being stated, even though the components are all well-known. I’m not sure how to characterize that new dimension, exactly; in some ways it seems like well-illustrated context, but there’s got to be more to it than that. Maybe it’s just the act of letting you hold a large amount of information in your head at the same time, letting you get a bird’s eye view of it in a way you can’t without the help of an accurate visualization. A table of dates and locations wouldn’t explain itself as well as this map does. It lets you see the forest in spite of the trees. It lets you make sense of it all in a very visceral way. I can work with this information, I can apply it and use that knowledge immediately; maybe that’s the extra dimension. It’s allowing me to take the next step without as much labour. It makes the reality of that data easier to see.

This is a plug for big data, for providing access not just to streams of information, but to the tools that allow people to combine them and work with that data in ways that make sense, without having to be an expert on the systems. It’s also an acknowledgement that data can change the way you understand a place, or an idea, or a ceremony, in a very heartfelt and immediate way.

You are indomitable, London. We won’t forget that, either.



Like most non-photogenic people, I’m not a big fan of sticking my face in front of a camera, whether someone else’s or my own. But the selfie is a legit trend at this point, and having read articulate people defending selfies at funerals, I’ve come to accept that the selfie is an expressive form of its own.

Thus, here is my own collection of selfies, possibly taken in order to fulfill some kind of buried psychological need to connect my physical self to this physical place with photographic evidence. Or something.

Rochelle MazarMy own self, in the glow of some overhead lighting at the V&A, my reflection in a rococo mirror.

Rochelle Mazar My actual face, for some reason, hanging out here with Highgate, from the top of Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath.

2013-09-25 17.43.53My shadow, looking up the path by the ponds on the Heath that leads back to my flat in Hampstead. I was there! I was really there, look!

Okay, I’m done now.

Interactive Media without Keyboards or Screens


This is my very favourite bit of fully collaborative digital space: it’s the interactive exhibits at the Museum of London.

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Simple, eh? Not much to it, really. It’s only a white table. Just a white table, with all the digital content projected from the ceiling. It’s really fascinating to watch people interact with it. Because they don’t behave towards it they way people tend to when they’re working with a computer. Here’s a woman with her young daughter experimenting with it.

Good collaborative design just works. It doesn’t require anyone to think too hard about the fact that there are two people giving input to a computer. It’s open, inviting, and no one feels odd about someone else joining them in the experience, very much unlike a workstation situation. There’s no over-the-shoulder issues here. It’s comfortable to work with as a group.

If you listen, you’ll notice that every time the system recognizes someone’s touched the controls, it makes a sound. They all do this, very subtly, but it really gives the systems a sense that they are physical rather than only digital. They are only digital. It just doesn’t feel like it.

The Museum of London constructed their interactive exhibits very, very carefully. They are extremely thoughtful and fit fluidly into the displays.

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The tables displaying materials are clearly designed to also incorporate a space for digital material to be projected from above. Interestingly, the staff are under the impression that the table is touch sensitive, but it’s actually not. (I tested it!) It’s all being controlled by the projector; it can tell where your fingers are. It’s no ipad, but it’s pretty close in terms of responsiveness.

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This bit of projection is on a much smaller table, and it’s a bit of a wedge shape. The projection and the design of the content is made to fit. There are physical objects on one side, and digital material right next to it. No screen, no keyboard, just simple, digital content I can flip through without reading instructions. This is genuinely doesn’t feel like working with digital content.

I really love these. The pieces of it are really fairly simple; it’s the design of the tables, installing the projector and the computer in the ceiling, and, of course the coding of the material. I keep thinking, we have content management systems like Drupal that will let us manage website content; it’s a short step to having a content management system for spaces like this. Imagine a space like this for a reference desk, rather than another bloody workstation. You could plug in a keyboard if you really had to.

Projection isn’t the future of touch screens. LCD screens are tons better for clarify and crispness, and even for responsiveness, in the end. But projection lets you do the interesting shapes and massive sizes on the cheap.

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This is a video playing on a huge patch on a table. That’s simple and cheap to do with projection. It would be crazy expensive to do with an LCD screen right now. This way, they can easily adjust the size and location of the projection within the museum for practically nothing. An LCD screen, while a better piece of technology, simply isn’t that flexible. It’s also harder on the eyes, truth be told. A projection is a fairly gentle kind of light. As long as the video doesn’t require HD or too many fine details, a basic projection will work just fine.

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And an LCD screen is just not going to let you make a round interactive space. This is a simulated fountain, where, from all points of the table, you can touch the various fish to get more information. It works from every side, which means you can have multiple people interacting with it at once. And no one here considers the fact that they’re interacting with a computer. No one even looks up to see it up there.

I really love the work the Museum of London has put into these really innovative computing spaces. They’re demonstrating something really valuable and important here. If you want people to feel comfortable walking up to a display of digital information with no preconceptions about how they’re meant to use the space, you have to break the rules and create something that doesn’t look like a workstation. Workstations don’t fire the imagination, and they aren’t especially approachable. They dictate the kind of work that can be done at them.

I know it’s not comfortable to do any lengthy computing while staring down at a table. This is why I’m not convinced the tables formerly known as Surface (now called PixelSense) are as functional as they should be. But I think, if we want people to be able to, say, search through digital materials with the aid of someone else, or with a group of classmates, we need to break down some barriers to make it easier and more natural. The examples at the Museum of London are spectacular.

Lecture Benches: Audio in Museums


I’ve decided to call this a lecture bench. Sit down, select your content, listen while you look upon the objects described. Two birds with one stone: learn something, and have a rest. (Hey: those floors are really, really hard. Everyone’s feet need a rest in big museums!)

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It’s an audio brochure controlled by a touch screen and delivered through a set of headphones.

2013-11-05 13.27.58This is the high-tech version, I discovered later, because of the touch screens and the hancy headphones. (Is it only me, or does sharing headphones seem a little…intimate? Headphones seem like a personal item to me, for the most part. I’d rather plug in my beats, but maybe that’s just me.)

2013-11-05 13.53.56This is, I think, the older version of the lecture bench. You hold the big plastic handset to your ear to listen whilst sitting on this lovely leather bankette. No touchscreen control, you’ll notice. Just some knobs.

Museums are unique in that people come to see their stuff, and if their stuff were converted entirely to digital stuff, no one would visit anymore. Because the point really is to come see the stuff. Okay: maybe museums aren’t that unique, because a lot of people think the very same thing is true of libraries. But libraries don’t curate in the same way that museums do. Frankly I think that’s a bit of a tragedy. What these audio benches attempt to do is bring different media into the space to sit alongside the more physical objects. People don’t go to museums to listen to things, they think, but of course if someone’s there telling you all the interesting stories behind the objects you see, you absolutely are there to listen.

2013-10-29 12.07.27Here’s a very stripped down (and far less comfortable) version at the Wellcome Collection, with a telephone handset rather than headphones. What’s most interesting about this one to me is that the surface they’ve left for you to sit on sort of makes it look like you’re part of the exhibit when you sit down on it. As if you’re there to be looked at, with a label on the wall over your head. Not quite as inviting, obviously. But interesting.

2013-11-05 14.20.10At the Natural History Museum, they’re trying a similar thing through QR codes. You can look at the skulls and minerals and models of ancient animals while you’re there, but they want to knit more context and more information into them. There is so much information, and it seems like everyone is trying to find ways to knit it into a physical experience. You can’t write entire monographs on the walls. People won’t read that much text. It’s very interesting to see the variety of ways curated spaces are trying to bring digital media into their midst.