A guide to successful non-planning

Or how to learn something new, get massively inspired and make something out of nothing in just four days.

Let’s start with a quick bit of background: In Netlife we’re lucky enough to get a set amount of time and budget every year to be spent on something that raises our competence. Typically we’d spend it on going to a conference somewhat relevant to our work and listen to people talk on stage. Conferences can of course be both inspiring and useful but sitting in a conference hall for hours on end is (usually) a rather passive way of learning.

Also, time flies — and all of a sudden it was October. The budget had to be spent by the end of the year, but now the variety of available conferences was limited: Either they were far away, or they didn’t thrill us — so we decided to take a different approach.

Planning

We chose Amsterdam for its great design scene and closeness to home. Then we found which dates suited most people, and this limited the group to five. Our initial idea was to have a design studio we admire hold a workshop with us. We emailed a few studios, but — no surprise — the notice was too short and our optimistic plan failed. However, we didn’t let this stop us and decided to create a brief of our own. After looking at several approaches, we went for a simple solution. One theme, one word: “systems”. Other than that we only had some very loose ideas about what we wanted to do and where this would take us.

Process

Day 1 — kickstart and open up

With a limited number of days, 3.5 to be exact, we wanted to kickstart the thinking process right away. Immediately after arriving at the hotel, we went for a 2 hour individual photo stroll exploring systems — the task was subject of free interpretation. To avoid going in the same direction we introduced a randomiser to decide which directions we should go in. The photo challenge felt difficult at first since it was so open, but after a while we had endless photos and didn’t want to stop. Lesson learned the hard way: remember to check your mobile/camera battery before heading out.

The randomiser kept following us throughout the trip and is a pro tip for quick and fun decision making.

It turned out the neighbourhood had tons of systems laid out for us, and we all had different perspectives on what a system was. Here are some of the main observations we made:

a. The functional systems, which are made by someone
The usual suspects, such as traffic lights and signage systems. However, an interesting find was that the Dutch also have a system with different brick patterns in the street showing you what the space is used for:

From left to right: sidewalk vs street, parking vs street and zebra crossing.

b. The systems we make when something repeats itself
Another interesting find was how we as designers (or possibly just as humans) start making our own systems from the things we see. Things that started making us slightly crazy over the weekend were red and white stripes, bollards, white bricks on the ground, circles and so on.

c. The mainly aesthetic systems
In this category we found intricate ornaments and detailed patterns in window decorations, fabric, houses and stores — the result of someone making effort to transform everyday objects into something beautiful. We realised that the purely aesthetic side of things has some systems of its own.

d. The apparent lack of system (which in itself is also a system)
Street signs and house numbers were struck by apparent mayhem. They all used letters and numbers, but font-wise they were all over the place.

The same was true of window grids: no two houses next to each other had the same:

Already at this point we had some vague ideas about where this could lead us, but we decided to embrace the unknown and not jump straight to solutions.

Day 2 —research and inspiration

The systems we found in the Amsterdam environment got us curious about which systems are actually intended as systems and which just evolved into them; like the user friendly brick patterns and the randomised street signs. It felt natural to investigate the city’s history a bit further, so we headed to the Amsterdam Museum for a bit of research. The museum didn’t give us the answers we were hoping for, but we learned some other interesting things; for example that the city of Amsterdam was systematically build from the center and out, canal by canal.

Canal systems to the left, Marlow Moss at Stedelijk to the right.

From there we took a 90 degree turn to modern art history at the Stedelijk Museum — one of the few things we actually planned in advance. On display was an exhibition about De Stijl, a dutch artistic movement that included the iconic works by Piet Mondrian. It turned out we found some intriguing systems there as well, not to mention how we saw parallels to our own systems from the day before.

Mondrian by Mondrian, and Mondrian by bricks.

The day ended with a few hours heads down in our own sketchbooks writing, sketching and thinking before presenting our thoughts to the rest of the group.

Day 3 — making it happen

Time to move forward and start making something. First we gave ourselves some time for free visual exploration individually. Talking together is good, but sometimes your brain needs a bit of alone time to process and generate ideas.

It became clear that this wasn’t really taking us anywhere and we figured we needed a common goal to work towards. We started with emptying our brains and writing down different hypotheses we had formulated and laid them out. This showed us that we had covered pretty much everything from concrete ideas to deeper meta thinking. Instead of spending time trying to organise and prioritise all of the ideas, we kept it simple with a new round around the table; one post-it each, one thing you want to work further with.

From a mess to a plan.

Conveniently, it turned out that we all wanted to work with more or less the same issue. We decided to emphasise the apparent non-systems and how they reflected the process we were going through ourselves. How could we use this to inspire our colleagues to do something similar, and maybe next time drop the conference and go exploring as we did? At the same time we wanted to make a story open enough to be interpreted in different ways. And we wanted to use the visual inspiration we had found in our system hunting.

10 minutes later we had a rough plan of what to make and could start producing. Enthusiasm was high! Fast forward 5 hours, and our solution was up and running. In this time the five of us organically divided tasks, flipping from one thing to another: writing text, editing photos, making graphics, finding typefaces — all based on the inspiration and research from the first two days. In addition we set up a React app, bought a domain, and filled in the content as we went.

The basic premise was to show all of it in randomised combinations and layouts. It was an interesting challenge with lots of tweaking to create interesting results, without being unreadable or completely unusable. We found that five people working together in the same direction gave us an enormous progression in short time. Everything we had talked about just naturally made its way into the solution — probably because we had shared all our thoughts and ideas along the way.

Being in the zone got us working late. And no e-mails or other distractions could take us out.

Day 4 — finishing touches

On the last day we distributed the final tasks and got to it straight away. We also realised that our site might need a front page. And a title. This got us all engaged hands on in the same document. Everyone writing simultaneously, bouncing off each others’ ideas and taking ownership of the content. This confirmed the good group dynamics we had through the whole project, and we felt confident about the result and rather proud of what we had done despite the short amount of time.

Working at De School

Result

For us this was an exercise in opening up our creativity and thinking freely. We wanted to explore and challenge ourselves to do something different than what we usually do. We also wanted to address some issues that kept following us: How can something be systematic and random at the same time? How can the lack of a (visible) system become a system as well? And how can we make something out of nothing, without a plan or a clear goal?

Since working with websites is what we usually do at the office, we had no ambition for this to be a digital solution. But with the time and resources we had available, once we got our plan together a website seemed like the obvious way to tell the story.

To see the result, head over to noplan.camp and explore for yourself!

When the solution started to take shape we realised new potential for printed material, inspired by this surprisingly effective random layout generator. So we decided to print a booklet and some posters when we got back:


Bonus: Why did it work?

1. Group dynamics and size

We were five people with the same level of ambition, initiative and easygoingness. This is probably the one key element you need, although it most likely helped that we also enjoy each other’s company.

2. Just the right amount of planning

Plane tickets and a place to sleep. A bit of research in advance on current exhibitions, co-working places and spare time activities might come in handy. As for the rest, you’ll figure something out — enjoy the unexpected.

3. A deadline

In our case it was the limited number of days we had available. We had to be strict, as time would be filled up with client projects back at the office. But also, and maybe more importantly: before going, we said yes to presenting our trip internally two days after we got back. Knowing this probably gave us the extra boost to deliver.

4. Quick decisions

Once we decided on something we jumped on it and avoided looking back. Also, an underlying premise for us was wanting to do something else than usual. So when in doubt: just do the opposite of what you’d normally do.

5. Togetherness

Working alone is a good thing sometimes during the creative process, but bringing everyone together for the final result gives you the opportunity to make a lot more in a short period of time. It is also a lot more fun than working on your own.


Written by Marte Veys Berg and Sissel S. Johannessen
Our co-travellers, -photographers and -makers: Will Hindson, Julie Elise Hauge and Robin Sandborg.

Thanks to Chris Atherton and Anja Schönhaug.