Jan Chipchase’s guide for pop-up field studios

Jan Chipchase

A pop-up studio in Myanmar, Photo by Jan Chipchase.

Editor’s note: Jan Chipchase, a former creative director of Global Insights at Frog Design and principal scientist at Nokia, is the founder of Studio D Radiodurans, a research, design and innovation consultancy. His interest lies in field research and the exploration of human behavior, which he addresses in a booklet guide entitled Pop-Up Studio. We talked recently about this notion, the concept of a “studio” and about his plans for the future.

Nicolas Nova: Prior to discussing this new book, I’m curious about the very notion of “studio”. It’s a concept coming from design and architecture that found its way to field research, in the context of design exploration. What do you mean by “studio” and what does mean for field researchers ?

Jan Chipchase: Most of the work is commissioned as part of design projects that encompass concepting, prototyping, future scoping, strategy and so on. In that sense it is a space that needs to support collaborative learning, the exploration and iteration of ideas and designs. The studio is the closest model.

NN: The idea of having a “pop-up studio” close to the field is an intriguing notion. What kinds of activities can happen in this context (unlike getting back to the consultancy office/motherboard)?

JC: Like any approach there are pros and cons and the trick is understanding where and when it’s most appropriate. We explore some of the alternatives in the book.

The benefits of running a pop-up studio for the kinds of deep immersive projects we’re tasked with include:

The space inspires, supports different forms of interaction, collaboration and allows the team to move to a different level of understanding with one another – this is especially important on multinational teams. Done right you can see individuals and the team achieve a sense of flow. The psychology of the space is critical, and we also look beyond the project to how the experience is reflected upon.

Regardless of how things are normally done as a team you can reinvent the rules of how you want to live and work, which most people find invigorating. It might give the HR department palpitations, but it works. From a creative standpoint. It’s not so much thinking out of the box as challenging the notion of what a box is, the materials it’s made of, the properties of those materials and how they relate to one another.

It makes it easier to staff a research + design + strategy project with a single researcher and still give the rest of the team meaningful field experience, in that it impacts what they make or how they think and the outcome of the project. People naturally want to talk about the experiences that shape their life, not out of obligation to the project or the organisation that they work for but because it defines who they are, who they want to be and how they want to be perceived. That’s your delivery mechanism right there.

“People naturally want to talk about the experiences that shape their life, not out of obligation to the project or the organisation that they work for but because it defines who they are, who they want to be and how they want to be perceived.”

It also allows you to engage executive level (CEO, EVP, …) people. One of our rules is “no tourists”. Everyone, no matter how senior, is put to work. They are some of the biggest fans.

We have a dedicated synthesis and sense making process, but this model allows for constant (after each session, each day, at the end of each location) iteration on the questions, so that the next day when the team goes out they are pushing the learning forward. There’s a learning curve for individuals and the team and the trick is to know where you are on that curve – it’s only apparent when you’re in the field.

For design projects it allows the team to sketch out a product or service and go out the next day to explore and test hypotheses about its use, both in conversation and in reaction to storyboards or prototypes. There’s nothing sweeter than a talented prototyper in field.

In the discussions around live data (collecting and sharing data in real time) versus having more time for reflection before making sense of it, I’ve found the studio set up to be most effective for the kind of client work that we’re working on in that the informal spaces allow for a more rapid percolation of ideas without it feeling like hard work. Immediacy is alluring in client pitches: “you’ll see what we’re learning in real time!” but I’ve seen too many people, including colleagues talented in other things fuck it up. It’s a rookie move for a researcher and a dick move if pitched to uneducated clients.

However, that’s not to say that live data feeds are not valuable to the team. Some of the best projects we run are fluid in the sense of having the flexibility to react to unexpected challenges and opportunities. The trick is knowing how to structure a team, in choosing a space that can react to what’s going on and knowing what data to bring on stream, when and how. Live data feeds form part of the team’s intelligence and shapes how they react to things. It’s rarely about volume of data. You can look at more experimental projects such as RedMat to see where this is heading, and there are some concrete tools out there that empower the team.

It starts with the question: If our team could be anywhere to figure this out, where would we like to be and why?

I’m not claiming having studios in field is a new idea – it’s not. Arguably every design firm and many design courses have run something similar. But the feedback from clients and the field teams is that we’re both taking it into a different place. I look forward to being shown something better.

It’s taken me over ten years of running these around the globe to figure this out and I’m still learning, so plenty of things to explore.

NN: Can you tell our readers some anecdotes about these pop-up studios?

JC: On one project for Visa in Rwanda our fixer had travelled ahead to secure the right space for the studio – we had a team of eight up in gorilla country. We arrived to find it was totally inappropriate, depressing, yet somehow everything on our checklist of what we asked the guide to look for in a space was met. Two lessons: we learned how to communicate the values we look for in a space, and ensure they are met; and how to hustle up accommodation at short notice. Within 24 hours we found a new home within its own compound that was good.

After five weeks on the road in Myanmar the team opted to run the three-week synthesis and report writing up in the mountains, an hour’s flight away from the client-headquarters. The decision of where the team can be most effective needs to factor in client expectations, budget and family requirements. Many teams feel the gravitational pull of the corporate mothership, but the rush back to its embrace is often premature and counterproductive.

It takes courage. Go with your gut. You can find photos of that hilltop studio in the book.

NN: You recently started a new design studio, and you publish quite a lot of material (Today’s office, this book). What’s the plan?

JC: The desire to publish is really one of getting it out there and mentally moving onto new things.

In the past few days since we published Pop-up Studios a number of people reached out and asked why we were publishing this, they considered it a competitive edge. It is, but frankly we believe the in approach, think it has a positive impact on people and the projects they work on, so keeping it to ourselves didn’t feel like the right thing to do. If that’s all you have to maintain a competitive edge then the team isn’t particularly talented. I look forward to someone pushing it forward.

For the studio projects – most of the work is client confidential. If you really want to know what we’re up to, keep your ear tuned the questions we ask – the clues are there both in terms of clients and the direction of the research.

If you want the inside scoop, it’s best the join the team. We work with pros and with people starting out in their career. For the latter consider signing up to be a local fixer or guide – you can use this form to apply to be a fixer or guide.

As much as I believe in this approach its one of over forty methods that are explored in “The Field Study Handbook“. Anyone that doesn’t question what the right approach is on every project is doing themselves and their clients a disservice.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

One Response to “Jan Chipchase’s guide for pop-up field studios”

  1. Katerina
    October 3, 2015 at 2:32 pm #

    The idea of a pop-up studio is appealing because it borrows from the world of ethnography and applies its tools to concrete corporate projects, in relatively short and intense bursts of time.

    In a sense, the pop-up studio is all about creativity, too. But it endorses a specific type of creativity. It seeks to engender creativity on behalf of the researchers, it twists the rules of corporate hierarchy by immersing all levels of employees in the field work and it requires the openness of mind and perception to engage with a new environment. In essence, this is a problem-solving type of creativity as advocated by researchers such as Mark Runco. This certainly moves the agenda of creativity studies away from a cognitive and individual endeavor to something very team-based, concrete and with practical results.

    It seems that by operationalizing creativity, the pop-up studio project is creating a new ‘how to’ recipe not only for creative action but also for ethnography itself. I cannot help but wonder, however, in modifying the ethnographic toolkit, how does a shorter immersion affect the findings of the projects? And also, how does the research toolkit translate across cultural contexts? I certainly look forward to finding out more.

Leave a Reply