At the beginning of this year, we found out (and let you know too) that PAN Studio, an experience design practice run by Goldsmiths BA Design graduates Sam Hill and Ben Barker, had won the first Playable City Award for their project „Hello Lamp Post”. Arts venue Watershed in Bristol picked PAN’s entry out of 93 participants who pitched innovative ways of using technology to create playful public spaces. Well, the winning project is finally being implemented, so for eight weeks starting from the 15th of July, people around Bristol will be able to awaken street objects such as lamp posts and post boxes and chat to them via SMS. If you have a look at their website, you’ll be able to get an idea of the conversations that are happening around town.
Here’s a chat with PAN’s Ben Barker about Hello Lamp Post as well as other things.
Nadia: Your project has just started to be put in action in Bristol. Do you know how it’s being received so far?
Ben: People seem to be really enjoying it, we’ve had heaps of people responding in serious, playful and daft ways. I can’t wait to see the variety of responses we have by the end of the 8 weeks.
Nadia: Can you explain a bit how it works? Does the same object always say the same thing when awakened? For how long can the conversation with a specific street object go on?
Ben: Different object behave in different way, a lamp post doesn’t have the same agenda as a post box. Time of day, familiarity and type of object affect the way a conversation flows. Conversations are normally, though not always, exchanges of three messages each- though you can always return and see if an object remembers you, if it has something new to say. The mechanic works by texting hello, followed by the name of an object, then a hashtag and its unique number. After that the conversation should just flow.
Nadia: A lot of people are skeptical towards new technology because they fear it isolates us in our own bubble of technology-led experiences and away from each other (escaping in computer games, listening to music in headphones etc).Can a project like this one help create a community? Are people interacting with each other as well as with the objects in any way?
Ben: Our experience of space is increasingly mediated by technology. The idea that it isolates is often erroneous, technology affords new types of community, as well as increasing the chance of serendipitous happenings. Our responsibility as designers is to understand how the systems we make create and encourage that, to ensure, if we use technology in a project, that we don’t forget that it’s human behaviours we create. We hope that „Hello Lamp Post” makes people aware of the character and fabric of their city, that it’s encouraging them to look around and be more aware of their fellow citizen. People are effectively leaving messages for each other, so person to person interaction is at the core of what we’ve made.
Nadia: PAN studio is specialized in experience design. To what degree can an experience be designed, since each of us is trapped within their individual set of senses and thoughts? For instance, we will never know if other people perceive a certain colour the same as us.
Ben: A big part of designing experiences for people, or enabling them to have richer ones is creating a safe space to do something new, whether that is roaming about in the back corridors of a museum or using a lamp post to talk to someone they wouldn’t normally. There is of course a question of what constitutes an informative, meaningful experience for a given audience, but that is a core challenge for any designer. However, when it comes to experiences, it’s often about what new inputs, behaviours or environments we can create. If you perceive blue differently, then that only adds to richness of the overall outcomes.
Nadia: The word “design” is used more and more nowadays, sometimes for things that have nothing to do with design practice. What does design mean to you?
Ben: Design is a very malleable word. Like most disciplines, it allows for a broad range of practices and ways of working. Striving to define it can be a wasted effort, I think the important thing about calling yourself a designer is that it helps you communicate and frame your activity. Taking ownership of the word can be difficult, but I think for me designers are people keen to challenge the world through the way people relate to it. There is an explicit social imperative at the core of what design is. A lot of the current work going on in both speculative and service led design is making it easier for all practitioners to own their activity without feeling a need to frame it as either art or technology.
Nadia: How did you start PAN studio and what do you think sets it apart in the competitive world of British design start-ups?
Ben: PAN started out of a desire to create conversation around how we value experiences. Sam’s work in this area and our conversations on its importance meant we decided to create PAN as a space to talk about and make work that allowed us to explore it further. We don’t tend to think in terms of being a start-up, we’re a design practice first and foremost. Pan gives us a space to explore the things we care about. When we work with clients we hope it’s because they value the same things we do.
Nadia: PAN studio made our awesome promotional video for the BA Design course, so that probably means you have good feelings towards your alma mater. What would you say to a youngster who asked you if they should choose Goldsmiths to study design?
Ben: The course is loads of fun, but it’s also hard work and will challenge how you think about design. As an aspiring designer you should be trying to equip yourself with the critical skills not just to work in the design industry but to define and shape the world around you. From the first day you arrive at Goldsmiths you are a designer and made aware that you are now responsible for shaping both design as a practice and society as a whole. If that challenge appeals to you then it’s the best undergraduate course in the country.