Studio D is a design, research and strategy consultancy with offices in San Francisco and Tokyo. We specialise in getting teams on the ground, anywhere in the world, figuring what is going on and applying what we learn to make an impact.
Most of our work is, and will remain confidential.
This is our fourth year in operation.
We freely admit to this being an experiment to see how far we can push our ability to deliver world class results with minimal infrastructure. The studio is run by myself and K, and our hiring cadence is in keeping with past years.
This year the core team spent half the year based out of San Francisco, the other half in Tokyo in order to set up a new office. The working principle has always been to have a home-base that inspires day-to-day. This is inherent in the fabric of Greater Tokyo, a city whose topology generates a disproportionate amount of serendipity.
This moment in history
The rise of human centered design and the consequent language of empathy masks a greater truth: that the intent behind the research is often not in the best interests of the people they pertain to serve. Furthermore, we’re at a critical time in the history of humanity — the rise of ML/AI driven decision making puts a greater distance between the decision makers, and those affected by those decisions. We need more people with the nuanced skills to connect with users, customers, constituents, and use their voices and diverse experiences to effect how organisations think and what they do next.
To this end we’ve redesigned the design experience from the ground up and, as you will read below, we proactively address the gap in skills we commonly see, and the need to reframe mindsets.
The advantages of being an Asian of Indiscriminate Origin (AIO)
Our philosophy is that we are only as good as our local crew. Most of the fixers we use are hired locally, tho we occasionally deploy international fixers that can operate at a high level across cultures.
What are the skills that make for a good international fixer? That person is well-travelled, curious about other cultures, not hung up on their own culture, well-networked, is a natural multitasker and fearless. Some have a superpower they are not aware of — something I refer to as being of Indiscriminate Origin (IO). It allows them to be taken as a local, and thus ignored by the majority of locals, wherever they travel. In this line of work, blending in is a distinct advantage and provides the space to operate unimpeded, from Lagos to Laguna.
If a person’s features are too closely aligned to a particular (locally recognised) ethnicity, for example in Central Asia those features could include “stereotypical” Han Chinese, Japanese or Korean, they are more likely to be taken as an outsider. Thus being of indiscriminate origin is a distinct advantage. The spread of people of Asian-ancestry around the globe means that being an Asian of Indiscriminate Origin (AIO) often provides a natural advantage. Such is the world in which we operate.
I’m sensitive to how this sounds, and put a high value on cultural diversity within my teams. I also understand how my white presence impacts the kinds of interactions I’m capable of having, or at least how they start out, and seek to balance that bias on all of my international teams.
Whilst being of Indiscriminate Origin is a competitive advantage for the international fixer role, everyone has the potential for meaningful social interaction, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or any other number of obvious and non-obvious attributes to the local communities on the ground.
To apply for a local fixer role, sign up here. Everyone welcome.
It’s been a busy year. In 2018 I’m planning to spend more time on strategic projects, and am looking to hire someone to ease my current workload. The ideal applicant is well organised, self motivated, culture-curious, and will need to be able to work closely/remotely with me.
Good to see Studio D alumni, Lauren Serota move to Yoma Bank to work on mobile banking services in Myanmar and Venetia Tay head up Audience Insights at Mozilla. Both organisations are lucky to have them.
We wish our Zimbabwe crew good fortune during the political transition. On the most recent Studio D project in-country, it was the level head of our local fixer, Pamela (who at that time was 4-months pregnant) that ensured we only spent one night detained by the security forces. Our crew had spent the day running rural interviews, took a turn off a main road to a bumpy dirt track to go deeper into the bush. After twenty minutes we came across a village that was obviously preparing for a political rally — a few hundred people sitting in groups — under the shade of large trees, in the grounds of a school compound, and along a wall. We pulled to a stop, our local crew went to figure out what was going on, and I sat on a low wall surveying the scene.
After a bit of to and fro with the local authorities, whose permission we required to run interviews, we decided to decamp to a nearby village, and return when the event was over. Being mistaken for journalists is a challenge in many countries, even more so at that time in Zimbabwe’s history — Mugabe was then 91 years old, and there was a lot of infighting and jostling within ZANU-PF as to who would take over when he was gone. It was a politically charged environment in which to ask questions, let alone questions about money, the theme of our research.
On returning to the village to run interviews a policeman “requested” an appointment at the nearest town. It turned out that by sitting on that wall, I had aligned our group with one political faction, and thus alienated our group to the others. In the eyes of a local politician, our leaving had proven our guilt.
The policeman escorted us to the nearest town where, arriving at dusk, we were detained overnight in the local bar-cum-love-hotel-cum-brothel so that a member of the local security apparatus could travel up the next day to interview us. Pamela, Cara and myself understood the gravity of our situation, and went into survival mode. It was a tense 24 hours.
I won’t share how it ended.
The report from Zimbabwe is here.
In Studio D, the metric for a good project is that it changes the life-trajectories of the team. In January this year we published a report that explored the impact of aging, and declining populations — Japan will lose 40 million by 2050, and China will lose 400 million by 2100 respectively. Listening to life-stories is the most heartwarming aspect to this work, and the timeline of our Chinese respondent in her 90’s was something to behold. Read the report: Transformation: Aging in China and Japan.
As a value-add to Loftwork, our partner on that project, we also trained up their novice team.
Studio D Grant
This year we offered a modest research grant, with a brief to live at the edge of the grid for at least a month. We had 73 applicants, with project proposals spanning the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, to the Western Sahara, equatorial border zones to remote atolls, Canada’s High Arctic to Australia’s Northern Territories, by way of remote Bhutan, Indonesia, Georgia, Chile and China.
The winner was selected for their vision, skill, quiet confidence born from a track record of delivering interesting projects, and modesty — all things I look for when we hire people onto Studio D projects. The winner, and selection process is written up here.
The Field Study Handbook
Six years in the making, the Handbook was published in May this year.
The accessibility of a book this dense relies heavily on the deft hand of technical illustrator Lee John Phillips who was initially hired for 6-weeks, but stayed on for a year. The Handbook is far better for it. The rest of the team are K, with proofreaders Crystal Wakeham and Nils Kuehn. The original plan was to launch on The Field Study Handbook site, but a chance conversation with Dan Rubin in Iceland when I travelled to the 1st Edition printing press check nudged me to a Kickstarter.
With a hard deadline for a project in Tokyo, K and I had two weeks to set up the Kickstarter, three weeks to run the campaign and six weeks to fulfill. Timo Arnall was kind enough to shoot a video in a day and Lee John Phillips provided additional collateral.
It took a lot of effort, but we pulled it off. Thanks to the community, we blew through our target on the first day, and raised a total of $336k.
More important than the money, we stayed true to our DNA: an obsessive level of detail on the core product, creative rewards and experiences that are on-point for us, novel for most. While most Kickstarters downplay the risks, we embraced them, embedding them into the very nature of A Short Walk, that requires weeks spent at altitude, in one of the remotest parts of Afghanistan. The team hit every deadline, shipping all rewards before hopping on flights to Tokyo.
The 1st Edition and Studio D Edition sold out during the Kickstarter.
A couple of podcast interviews from that process: Monocle with Daniel Giacopelli and On Margins with Craig Mod. Craig will also join the Borderlands Expedition as Studio D’s Writer In Residence. If you’re wondering whether the book is for you, read this critical practitioner’s review.
If you’re interested in the detailed profit/loss/value generated by a self published book project, read The Anatomy of a Kickstarter.
Two other publications this year. Sustainable Data is an illustrated guide to reframe your relationship with data, and is ideal to share with your left-brain colleagues. We also launched the comprehensive Field Study Template Kit, our no-nonsense set of tools that we use to run exemplary international field study projects. All template kits are worthless if your intent is misaligned—this is designed to be used with the Handbook, that provides the why-to the kit’s how-to. We also publish a gratis Education Edition for those integrating the Handbook into their teaching.
A curious thing happened this year. Momentum.
The main launch of the year, the M1 Messenger (for lefties and righties) includes a subtle feature that exemplifies what we stand for. Most messenger bags have a stabilisation strap that overcomplicates the design and everyday interactions. Instead we placed a small grip-pad on the front of the strap — it rests on your chest as you ride, and holds the messenger bag into place—it’s discreet, functional and works without making a big deal of it. As with all our products, it is designed to wear in, not out.
Other 2018 launches include the Kashmir Travel Folio, B1 & D3 straps, the Fuji and Hodaka Pack Systems (named after our favourite Japanese mountains) and the Expedition Tool Roll XL for motorbikes and 4WDs.
Our product lineup continues to be informed and inspired by Studio D field work projects and wonderful, sometimes quirky, client requests. There are after all only Six Rules For Off-roading in China.
To be notified of new SDR Traveller launches, sign up here.
Follow the SDR Traveller Instagram to see behind the scenes photos from studio projects, plus photo submissions from our customers.
The studio strategy is to invest in a limited number of high-touch engagements — we’d rather meet and get to know 100 people that are aligned to our mission, then 100,000 that buy stuff but couldn’t care either way. We offer three primary formats: Masterclasses, Retreats and Expeditions.
Who attends? About twenty percent of attendees have a background in research, the rest hail from UX, strategy, product, brand and engineering, plus a bunch of roles that won’t appear on any mainstream corporate org chart anytime soon. Significant value comes from meeting, and connecting members of our tribe in an unpressured environment that leads to long term friendships and collaborations (it’s the furthest thing from networking that you could imagine).
The Handbook helped galvanise demand for field study training and we put together a one-day Masterclass format that shares the fundamentals, through focussed talks, group discussions and hands-on exercises. They’ve proven popular
In 2017, Masterclasses were delivered in Brisbane, Edmonton, Melbourne, Singapore, San Francisco, Sydney, Toronto and Vancouver — up to three in each city. Thanks to our local promotion partners Meld Studios (Australia) and Frontier (Canada) for making those sessions run smoothly. A shout out to our friends in Singapore for being self-organised enough to issue an invite and sell out two sessions.
The process of running these is surprisingly smooth, mainly due to the maturity of the platforms, including cross-currency ticketing, securing suitable venues (and being confident in those choices), through to catering. There’s a moment of calm before each workshop, before the first attendee of the day turns up, such as one of the three workshops in Sydney (above), after which it’s full-on-sociable for the day.
This was our first year running retreats, three-days up in the mountains, with a small group of people, in locales that we have run projects and spent time.
Field / Retreats in Yoshino and Sichuan provide training on running international field work projects. The Focus/Hida co-hosted with Craig Mod was more open ended exploring the theme of side projects. Both formats build on the popup-studio approach discussed in the Handbook, that enables group interaction, and supports meaningful connections with diverse attendees that fly in from around the world.
Most attendees extended their trip, for example for Field / Sichuan to head up to the Tibetan Plateau for week-long hike. The local Studio D team can provide light logistical support to ensure you get off to a good start.
The prep work is already underway, and I’ll be leading two Studio D expeditions in 2018, one to the Pamirs in April, and another to Afghanistan in June. The studio has built up a good working knowledge of the region and we decided to share our experience with a select group of people curious enough to explore the edges. There is one spot left on each.
The expeditions are to remote, geopolitically tetchy parts of the world and part of the fun is figuring out how to operate effectively in those environments, and get back safely. Occasionally very tough, guaranteed interesting, a good journey changes who you are, and what you want to become.
After being a hermit for a few years, heads-down writing/editing/designing the Handbook, it feels like I’ve emerged, eyes shielded from the sunlight. I gave a few talks for private clients.
The tension with all public facing activities is between wanting to put the word out, and maintaining a low profile. I look forward to disappearing for another few years.
Experiments allow us to explore the edges of systems and behaviours in ways that clients are not yet willing to commit to. None have a business model behind them or any expectations on return on investment. Thus far, past experiments have lead to significant client engagements.
In 2017 we ran a number of new experiments that explore trust systems. As a rule, an experiment needs to be ethically challenging to be worth doing. Let’s just say, nobody quite knows where the experiment starts and ends.
The most rewarding aspect of starting one’s own studio is connecting people who share similar values. Our tribe is culturally diverse, geographically dispersed, uniquely skilled and inherently curious about the world out there.
Similarly we sometimes interact with people whose values are fundamentally at odds with us. The money you turn down defines you as much as the projects you take on.
During Paddy to Plate, where we mapped the rice ecosystem in Myanmar, we chanced upon a moonshine distiller, that made a rather fine tipple. Inspired, and perhaps a little impaired, we commissioned a batch of our own, treating the liquid gold with the design-reverence it deserves by Geoff Brewerton. The result is Hidden Cup, our batch of Studio D moonshine.
As studio founder, I receive a disproportionate amount of the credit for making things happen. None of this is possible without a dedicated pool of collaborators and subcontractors. The studio would not run without the smarts and dedication of my business partner, and the Studio D’s Creative Director, KM.
What can you expect from us in 2018?
Every year starts with a blank page. We can achieve anything we put our minds to, the only question is where we decide to focus.
Studio D runs projects that challenge minds and flutter hearts.
To our clients, extended team and friends new and old, we look forward to seeing you in 2018.
Jan Chipchase, Founder, Studio D
p.s. Our 2018 Masterclass schedule will include Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Helsinki, London, Paris, NYC, Shanghai, Stockholm and Singapore, plus customised sessions for clients. The 2018 retreat schedule will be announced in January, and will include our first outside Asia. To be notified of new retreats, sign up here.
Photos on this page: Geoff Brewerton & Lauren Serota in Myanmar, Cara Silver in Zimbabwe, Dan Rubin in Sichuan, China, Om Malik in the Artic and Australia, China, Iceland, India, Japan, Lebanon, Myanmar, Tajikistan and the United States by myself.