On Monday we launched our latest (and last) book, Legible Practises. This post shares the thinking behind the book, but if you just want to get your hands on it you can download the full PDF or order a copy via print on demand.
We wrote Legible Practises because we hope to bring attention to the craft of involved in stewarding institutions towards new new behaviors, new roles, and new purpose. This stems from a hunch that built slowly over five years, which is best explained in the preface:
...We have been lucky to participate in a global conversation with communities spanning from design to public service, technology to activism. Although each has its own set of tools and approaches, what struck us was the degree to which similar themes emerged again and again. The words may have been different, but the nature of the challenges and the styles of response were often remarkably comparable. Yet each spoke as though they were working in relative isolation.
Perhaps this should be no surprise, given the challenge of a world where many things seems to be changing, including the ways we live, eat, communicate, and just about everything else. As our needs span the silos of today’s society, the boundaries of our disciplines and the relationships between them will inevitably also have to adjust. Some are already doing this proactively; they know that it can be lonely on the edge.
To be an effective practitioner during a moment of flux is to be concerned with the discipline of one’s work as part and parcel to achieving better outcomes. The most accomplished practitioners do this naturally, but are often too busy to stand back and reflect publicly on a meta-level, let alone take the time to package and publish their approaches legibly. Sharing tends to focus on the endgame, without much elaboration of how it was played. When we read about promising social innovations in faraway places, we get half the story: sanitised of missteps, triumphant over adversity, effortless.
But hop on a plane and spend a day with one of these practitioners and a different story is revealed, a richer and more informative one. Last summer we had the luxury of doing just that. We listened closely to project teams as they explained their work in detail. We hosted three sessions, each bringing together two cases for a simultaneous discussion, concluding with full notebooks, large audio files, and our heads happily aching.
With this book we have zoomed into the promising practises of six groups to highlight shared tools and approaches, as made legible by concrete examples. In many ways this was a selfish act, one motivated by our own inquisitiveness and interest in learning from the best. More importantly, however, we hope to spark a conversation about the deep craft of social innovation as a reminder that, even when dreaming big, the details still matter.
Nesta, MindLab, IDEO, Community Solutions, Tironi & Elemental, and Government Digital Services were gracious enough to allow us to study their work. They provided the big dreams. We hosted a series of discussions, each bringing together a pair of cases, and then set to work distilling the outcomes into this text. Our work was to make the bridge between the dreams and the details explicit. We did this because we think that it might help others (including ourselves) learn quicker.
Each case is presented with a basic overview, a narrative that's a few pages long, a 'network of practise' diagram, and a series of points of practise that are illustrated by the case in question but by no means exclusive to it. In the one page overview we itemize the goal, theory of change (in our words), and strokes of luck. This last item is particularly important: if there were aspects of the project that would be impossible or extremely difficult to replicate, we've attempted to notify the reader of that upfront so that they can immediately start looking for alternatives.
The narrative does what narratives do: it gives you the overall arc of the story, describes the starting point and the status of the project (at time of writing), and introduces the main characters.
The 'network of practise' is a diagram we've invented to show a web of relationships between the points of practice in the book. This comes out of a taxonometric problem that we encountered when compiling the list of points of practice. On the one hand, it felt like we should divide them into a taxonomy with categories such as tools (data map, project blog, audio interview), methods (create upside, public beta), qualities (work at the extremes, create upside)… but this felt premature given that we've only studied six cases. We could certainly create a taxonomy, but that already implies a formality of knowledge that we were not comfortable with. One of the starting points of the study was the fact that different disciplines were all aiming at the same problem, which indicates that this moment is one of flux more than fixity. Using this network rather than a taxonomy avoids the problems of moving from one set of silos to another, and instead puts the emphasis on the individual points and how they connect.
As an open-ended system, the network diagrams show linkages between items and help the reader come to their own conclusions about the relationships between them in terms of scale, importance, and directionality. The diagrams include a mix of the points in the case in question, other cases in the book, as well as some points which are not covered at all in the book. Again, open-ended. Still in development. Evolving.
We've put our emphasis on decomposing the stories into building blocks: it's up to you to recombine them in whatever way is useful. Twopoints interpreted the networks so that each takes on its own visual form, its own identity. This leads to a good question: might we find a way to draw different kinds of institutional changes as typologies that have similar forms? Could we draw similar challenges in a way that helps an emerging community of practise develop a shared language for 'spiky problems', 'flat problems', 'round problems', etc? We have not engaged with that possibility here, for want to a large enough body of cases to do the idea justice, but perhaps at a future date.
Next come the points of practise, which are a mix of tactics, tools, qualities, and probably some other broad categories we've neglected to see. Each point of practice is told through the case it's attached to, but is relevant to other cases as well (as exhibited in the network diagrams).
A subset of the points of practise are illustrated with drawings by Lucia Walter. This decision came out of a desire to add some visual content to the text. Choosing between photos and illustrations was rather simple: people rarely take photos of their process (unless they're like obsessive like the author of this post). But resorting to illustration was also important because it gave us a chance to bring the texture of handcraft into the book. We selected Lucia because her work in pen and ink is obviously rendered as a playful mix of purpose and happy accident. The style of the illustration is an embodiment of the notion of stewardship that we explore in the text itself.
Legible Practises is not attempting to be a definitive. Rather, we've hoped to nudge the discourse(s) on institutional change, on social innovation, on strategic design in a direction that engages the material practices as seriously as it does the cognitive ones. Like all of our publications, we've taken the liberty to experiment with the formatting and the execution without letting that diminish the thinking. Whether any of these experiments have worked it up to you to decide. We hope you like it.
In parallel with publishing Legible Practises as a hardcopy book on beautiful paper, with two color inks, and a swiss binding, we've also made it available via print on demand using Lulu.com. We have experimented with Lulu in the past and while it's not as nice as bespoke printing, their global distribution is important. By making the book interiors black and white we've also been able to offer it for a very low price.
And while we were at it, we also made In Studio: Recipes for Systemic Change available via print on demand.