London-based design consultancy BERG is small — just 10 employees right now — but over the past couple of years, it has forged a strong reputation for coming up with innovative, artful ideas and technologies. Whether it’s stunning prototype work on iPad magazines for Bonnier, the publisher of Popular Science, or the hugely fun light-painting app Penki, the team has been inventing its way into the public eye.
I asked Matt Webb, the company’s CEO, what’s occupying him right now, and he said BERG is trying to balance client work (including projects for the BBC, the U.K. government and Japanese ad agency Dentsu) while trying to build out its own products, too.
“One of our own projects goes to market really soon, which is exciting,” he explains. “It’s called SVK, and it’s a comic we’re publishing, written by Warren Ellis and with art by Matt “D’Israeli” Brooker. It’s a cracking detective story, and it’s partially printed in invisible ink. The comic — it’s a physical comic — comes with an ultra-violet torch so you can read the hidden parts.”
Producing a piece of paper-based fiction is, perhaps, an unusual turn for a team better known for its grasp of technology. Given that the team loves comics, loves playing around and making toys, and seems to be part of a constant performance about inventing the future, then it could all look like a grand indulgence. But, says Webb, aside from these personal reasons, it’s actually a project with an ulterior purpose: to learn how to build out manufacturing and distribution.
“What we’ve got ready is a warehouse, pick and pack, and a web shop — all automated processes and ready to be filled with inventory. It’s neat, because this is where product is going: You have to own your own distribution if you want to provide a great end-to-end customer experience.”
He adds that this end-to-end handle on commerce is ripe for innovation and reinvention for practical reasons.
“If you own your own distribution, you can afford to spend more on making a quality product instead, made for a smaller number of more discerning people. You avoid the trap of needing a hit that sells millions and millions of something — but spending most of that on marketing and distribution, and having a bunch of failures — which is the trap I believe a lot of big mass manufacture companies are in. ‘Product’ will be reinvented, just as music and media were reinvented by iTunes and blogs: there is a world appearing in between the big guys and the little hobbyists. The middle is getting filled in.”
To get an idea of what he’s talking about, perhaps it’s worth examining how BERG’s process of inventing new products happens. BERG’s raison d’etre is, ultimately, “design fiction:” stories or narratives about how future products would work, often delivered through short films or talks.
Webb says the starting place for those stories has changed radically.
“If you look 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, the technology in our homes was the offcuts of the military, or of factories, of industry. Look at computers, which came in equal parts from the need to calculate ballistics in the world wars, and from Silicon Valley, which was at the heart of Cold War investment into space and rocketry. Or mobile phones, which came from battlefield communications. Or even dishwashers and washing machines, which were spin-offs of technology originated in factories.”
“Now you look, [and] the bleeding edge of technology in the home originates from consumer use. The iPhone is better than anything the military ever made. Toys are a great place to look for the latest technology. And even computers, which used to be driven by office use and mainframes, are now led by the nose by technology in personal tablets and laptops, used for games and consuming media. So we’ve flipped from the industrial to the domestic.”
This is something he thinks holds great possibility for all kinds of new ideas to rise to the surface.
“Although Apple has done enormously well on this flip — that is, the iPhone and iPad — I don’t believe this change has been fully understood or fully taken advantage of. We’re surrounded by these behemoths of mass consumption, mass production, mass media — and they’re all artifacts of an age of economies of scale, and margins measured in fractions of cents, and advertising at grand scales. These industrial assumptions no longer hold, and all kinds of new opportunities are opening up. So for me, I’m thinking about the home, and about short-run manufacture, and about robots, and about technology used by small social groups like families. How do we visualise and design for all of this? It’s all good fun.”