An unexpected consequence of the lockdown in the UK has been the speed of decisions that clients are able to make, says Tim Fendley, founder of the wayfinding specialist agency Applied. Starting a wheel in motion is a hard job, but once you are able, it can work wonders, he explains. Clients faced with making changes and big decisions at high speed are realising they can make things happen.
WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN BASED DURING LOCKDOWN?
Our office is in London, but I live in Bath. Before lockdown, I was commuting three times a week, working on a train. But our clients are all over the world so we’re used to different time zones and video calls.
DOES THAT MEANS THAT IT HASN’T BEEN A DRAMATIC CHANGE IN WORKING METHODS FOR YOUR TEAM?
We had the culture already, so having our team of 35 at home has been fine in that regard – they’ve been heroic actually. However, we’re definitely missing the creative culture of the office. We love pens and post-it notes and thinking out loud together. It’s been easier with clients though. We have clients who’ve in the past refused to do video calls and expect us to turn up, but now they’ve warmed to it. I do think we will still have to do some flights – you can’t beat being with people in the same room - but then again if you’ve built a relationship with people, following it up on video is a lot easier.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED OVER THESE PAST FEW MONTHS?
Firstly, we’ve been really lucky and have been busy. I think for those linked to retail, hospitality, and events it’s a struggle. We’ve had some projects stopped, but our clients are mostly very robust and wanted to continue. Our big clients, such as Google, Metrolinx in Toronto, and Princeton – are full steam ahead.
The thing we do is information design, public information, so what we knew - and organisations and governments are just beginning to realise this - is how to communicate a change in behaviour. We’ve got a lot of the tools to be able to do that, a lot of the techniques and experience and we’re now asked by a lot of clients: how do we get shops opened up, how do we get our transport systems to work; how do we run the campus when we have to socially distance? You can come up with a policy, such as 3 metres or only so many people on the tube, but then how do you make that happen?
HAS ANYTHING UNEXPECTEDLY POSITIVE COME OUT OF THIS TIME?
We’ve designed one project already and are doing a few more in a week or two. Suddenly all of the politics around decision-making is done. The thing I’ve noticed is timing has changed. Something that might take six months to plan, agree, check-in with people, and get approval, is suddenly overnight, ‘okay, let’s do it.” It’s lovely as a designer because what’s happening is good ideas are just being done. Because people are saying, ‘will this work? How do you know it will work?’ We’re able to explain how we know and then people saying, ‘great, let’s do it.” How can I say it any other way other than I have experience and I know it works.
WILL THESE CHANGES STAY IN PLACE?
I think on one hand things will go back to normal eventually, but on the other, it’s such shock for everybody, then something like this comes along and challenges that. So we say, ‘why are we doing this?’ Like how many businesses are saying ‘why do we have an office? Let’s get rid of it.’ They’ve never thought about that. A lot of clients will say ‘come along to the first meeting’ and then after that, we’ll do video calls every week.’ And that’s just a small thing. I’m a big believer in momentum. It has a big part to play in creativity and in business. It’s crucial. The speed of decisions means you keep momentum up. Getting a wheel moving is such a hard job, but once you do it can really do wonders. We’ve had a proposal for coronavirus briefed, written, and agreed in three days. Now that doesn’t normally happen.
YOU ARE HELPING TO NAVIGATE CITIES AND TRANSPORT SYSTEMS SO PERHAPS HAVE A GREATER INSIGHT INTO OUR INFRASTRUCTURE. ARE YOU FEELING POSITIVE THAT WE’RE GOING TO GET THROUGH THIS?
Fantastically positive, yes. I think there are missteps and some places that aren’t ready for this and don’t know how to react, but they’re going to get superseded really quickly. There will be a time to go back and review this time, but right now you’ve got to get on with it. What’s important that we need from our leaders and actually from our transport systems, is calm and practical leadership. When we look back we will see those who had it under control, those who made practical, swift decisions. We’ve written some articles about it and we’re calling it The Coronavirus Dance. We’ve got to dance between keeping ourselves and keeping our economy going. Will we go back to public transport? Hell yes, we will. But what we need is to dance with it. We need to work out how to do half-full tubes. That means don’t travel if you don’t have to. Stay Alert is rubbish; it should’ve been Stay Apart. Do things, but stay apart. Go shopping and go to work, but just keep away from people.
IS IT POSSIBLE?
The human race is unbelievably innovative. So the reason everything is happening at breakneck speed is that we have to sort it out. We’re massive exponents of trialling, of prototyping. As designers when we make a chair, we don’t just produce it straight away - we prototype and refine it. And then we modify and craft it and make it right. Every single system needs to be crafted and evolved. And when you get involved in transport systems, you can’t exactly prototype it, so you have to plan and trial. This environment is for fast rapid prototyping. Trial it, see if it works and if it doesn’t then change the rules and improve. It’s bold, but it’s the time to be bold. The organisations we’re working with are realising that we need to get things out there and see if it works and then make them better. Change your guidance, make it clearer, see what people understand and what they don’t, and then make it better. And a whole lot of organisations that’ve never really thought like that in the past are doing so. Brilliant.
MAYBE THAT IS SOMETHING THAT COULD LAST BEYOND THIS TIME?
Yes, and the other positive is people working together. The big thing I wanted to get across: managing bottlenecks, where people congregate. If you can manage that then we can behave. Our main skill is managing bottlenecks or flow. How do we get a number of organisations to realise that collectively we need to do something that makes sense to the end-users? We’ve worked out how to harmonise, how to get all sorts of stakeholders with different agendas to join in. The answer is one system for all. It’s a lot of hard work to get large organisations to do that, but what we’ve found is that this experience has cut through all of that red tape. I’ve noticed that people are now willing to work together, wanting to know how they can help each other. I love a deadline. When everyone has a focus. It really works.
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