For The People Into The Wilderness
Notes on a pop-up studio in West Coast Tasmania
At the end of last year there’d been a lot of talk about For The People upping sticks and moving the studio down to Tasmania to work with clients remotely. Maybe just for a month, maybe longer.
I think I speak for the majority of the studio when I say most of us thought it sounded like a great plan. I’m not sure any of us thought it was serious.
But it was also around this time we got a tip-off from our talented pals at S1T2. They’d come across an Expression of Interest from the West Coast Council in Tasmania to develop a brand for the region. The key metrics, not only to grow visitors numbers but to grow the population.
I have to admit when we started the pitch I didn’t have much of an idea of the West Coast in my mind. Almost everyone in the FTP team had been to Tasmania in the last two years but only our Co-Founder Damian had visited the region. I suppose this was symbolic of the challenge.
For a researcher in a design agency briefs like this don’t come along every day. Usually upfront field research is dip in and out — running stakeholder interviews and community sessions over a period of a few weeks. It’s what we can do with time / budget constraints and most of the time it’s fit for purpose.
In the case of this brief, I felt strongly that this approach wouldn’t give us what we needed. Tackling the challenge in hand would require a deep understanding of this place, its history, the communities and their collective vision for the future. To do that we would need an extended and uninterrupted period of time in the West Coast. Somewhat fortuitously, the drive from Hobart to the main hub of Queenstown takes almost 4 hours. The only way to do it would be to set up shop there and not come out until we’d got what we needed.
We have just completed Sprint 1: For the past nine days we’ve been running a pop-up studio in Tasmania’s remote West Coast. In the context of our usual project timelines, this is a long time. Having just landed back, it feels as if we’ve barely scratched the surface.
The last long week was intense, exhausting and at times, confounding. But it was, without doubt, one of the best experiences of my working life so far. I am sure there will be many more reflections from the project team about what we saw, heard and felt while we were there. We’ll also be writing more about the overall challenge and how we’re thinking about solving it, as we progress through the project. The post below is focused on how we approached this first, short sprint: what we did, how we did it and some learnings we’ll take forward for next time.
What we did
Our base for the week and pop-up studio location was in Queenstown: a 145-year old mining town set in a valley on the western slopes of Mount Owen. (OK so not totally remote but drive out for 5 minutes and there’s nothing but trees). From here we covered the West Coast region; at least as far as sealed roads would take us.
We had nine days allocated on the ground. Our amazing client, Christine, worked magic to get us in front of key stakeholders and spending as much time as possible with people from the different communities across the region.
In just over a week we conducted over 40 hours of formal one-on-one interviews, community sessions and site visits with impromptu conversations, observation and travel time squeezed in between. We co-ordinated the schedule over Trello.
Beyond the research itself, we set ourselves the challenge of presenting back findings to Council and the Economic Development Advisory Group on at 9am on the last day of our trip. The promised content was not only a summary of insights and evaluation of hypotheses but also defined point of view on the strategic direction and narrative that the West Coast brand should take. Yikes! (Spoiler: It took approx. 14 caffeinated drinks and whole 12 pack of funsized Freddos in one day, but we made it.)
Here’s what we learned along the way…
1. Reading up just enough
As with any project, kicking-off came with a Dropbox from our client full of existing research, strategy documents and marketing material. As well as reading all of this, I was keen for the team to get to know the West Coast as best we could before we hit the ground. So I set about preparing a West Coast Field Guide.
Field Guides are a practice started by Amanda while we where working with a NSW Government agency across several different Sydney suburbs. Essentially it is a pre-read that sets the team up to make the most of their time on the ground and covers off area demographics, history, key sites to visit, artefacts to collect and any other tales, folk law or need-to-knows you can find via open data sources.
In our work with NSW Government we’d taken it suburb-by-pocket-sized-suburb. The West Coast region of Tasmania covers an area of over 9,500 km-squared, has five towns, two townships, and 40,000+ years of distinct geological and aboriginal history. It was a small challenge to read up on and summarise all of this in the few days we had before flying down. And yes, I failed to rise to it. The day before I flew, I had completed only the first chapter on Queenstown.
Not only was I disappointed with myself, I was anxious. I felt as if I hadn’t got my head around the place. I pictured myself staring blankly at our client referencing a key strategic initiative or a local recommending a must-see attraction. Sure enough the first ten or so pages of my interview notes are scrawled with basic historic and geographic background.
But in the end, it helped to lack confidence about how much we already knew. It meant that asking naive questions was a necessity, rather than a technique and it opened up many conversations we may not have otherwise had.
With any project like this there is a certain amount of preparation you will always have to do. Because of time limits we focused most of this prep on planning our research approach rather than doing detailed desk research. When it comes down to it, the rate of learning is so much faster on the ground. By the end of day one in the West Coast I’d doubled my knowledge on the place and clarified several points from the Council’s documentation. One day in field is worth ten in the studio. If you feel you’re going in unprepared, fear not — all will become clear on the ground.
2. Sticking to team rituals
Doing really great field research is exhausting in any context and for any period of time. From the moment you step off the plane or out of the car you’re absorbing information and asking questions.
We knew we had a jam-packed itinerary. We also had the challenge of running five community sessions in five different towns which had been openly publicised across the local newspaper, radio and shopfronts. We had no idea how many people would show up to each session so we had to be prepared to adapt what we were doing on the fly.
Amid this relative chaos we quickly established two daily rituals both with a dual purpose; to give respite and create a systematic routine for processing all the information we were collecting.
Ritual #1: 7.45am coffee at Tracks
Every morning we started each day with a coffee at Tracks in Queenstown Station. While the rest of the week we spread custom around as many local businesses as we could we got together every morning in the same place. It’s a big cafe with enough space to spread out laptops, notebooks and run through the agenda for the day. On the mornings we were there until 9am, we got to hear the train toot as it pulled out — our signal to get on the road.
Ritual #2: 10pm download on the road
We tried to keep these to 10 minutes and we filmed them. Most nights we were driving back from a community session along hairpin roads in the pitch black. As a result the clips don’t make the best viewing but doing it this way meant we could get our thoughts out into the open and capture it all in a scenario where pen and paper doesn’t quite fit the bill.
All in all we did a pretty good job at keeping disciplined. We recorded downloads six of the eight nights and we drank coffee together every morning without fail. These activities combined only took around 30 minutes out of 14–16 hour days but they kept us clear-headed, caffeinated and on-track to get where we needed to by the end of the week.
3. Keeping 2.5 out of the wild
When the brief for this project originally came in, no surprises, almost every hand in the studio went up. The team we put forward in the pitch was as such: Amanda, Jo and I would go to the West Coast. Damian, our Co-Founder & CEO and Jason, our ECD, would stay in Sydney and support from there. It seemed like a sensible configuration; I had no idea how important it would be to the outcome of the week.
A little over a month from submitting our proposal we got sign off. This gave us two weeks from commission to field kick-off to get everything ready. Jo had been sick, working from bed, nurse Miguel by here side. Amanda and I hunkered down prepping session guides, publicising community meetings and ploughing through desk research. Four days out, Jo sent us a message: she was still too sick to join.
I went into free-fall panic. There was no way two of us were going to be able to cover the interviews, site visits and community sessions we already had booked; let alone build out a strategy presentation by 9am on Friday morning. We patched a plan: Jason would join Amanda and me for the first five days on the ground then support from Sydney for the last four. Brand new FTPer Pete Conforto would also step up and support from HQ. The final configuration was the same in numbers and in principle as our original line-up with one advantage. Rather than a 3 + 2 we had a 2.5 + 2.5.
When you are doing a study like this it’s easy to overlook how integrated you become in the life, mindset and outlook of the place, even in such a short period of time. From arriving in Queenstown we were in constant contact with the community; we ran community meetings 7–9pm every evening Sunday –Thursday, every visit to the shop was an opportunity to speak to someone new and get a little bit more insight into the place, even our temporary studio site was an office backing onto the West Coast Council Chambers.
The final objective of this project is to build a brand for the West Coast that is not only true to the people and place as it is now but that sets a bold vision for its future. We needed to present back a strong point of view on what that vision could be by the end of the week. We were certainly doing a good job of ticking the former part of our objective. But with very little breathing space or downtime in our schedule, I was finding it difficult to connect with the latter.
Fortunately, by the time it came to Thursday we had three coaches on the Surry Hills sideline keeping us to game plan. Even better one of them knew the field having been in it for days. At 5pm on Thursday we had a time-out with Damian and Jason to take them through what we had so far. They urged us to go bolder; to lean into the edges we’d been skirting around.
Usually putting our work through this filter comes second nature. But with 7-days of back-to-back research to process and an average of 4 -5 hours sleep a night I, personally, had fallen back on what we’d found out rather than thinking big about where we could go.
We needed to make a leap and by the time we got off the phone we only had 15 hours to do it. It was a late night — but we made it to across the void and the work we presented was 100x better for it.
Without Damian and Pete out of the wild completely and Jason as our translator — as well as Amanda keeping us disciplined about staying connected with them — I doubt we would have been able to produce the level of work we did in such a short period of time.
This is the very beginning of this project. The end of this first trip marked the end of Sprint 1. We have two more Sprints to go and hopefully the opportunity to build long and sustained relationship the West Coast Council and community well beyond this. Tomorrow we’ll all be back to the studio in Sydney to get feedback and start building out the brand.
There’s a lot to do and long way to go. But the experience we’ve just had and the incredible support we received from our client and the whole community in making it happen has set us on course to build a brand and set a vision that can live up to a big requirement: To spark a whole of region transformation and build a sustainable foundation for future growth in the West Coast.