Wednesday 8 December 2010

Flow and the City

Flow and the City was first published as an essay in Luxury Briefing, in November 2010.


Flow and the City
by Alexander Gallé

The concept of Flow has interested quite a few interactive designers since the publication, in the mid-90s, of "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This article aims to increase awareness of Flow to designers and design-thinkers in other fields, not only in the luxury sector, but in transport design, urban design and architecture.

Csikszentmihalyi's book discusses the idea of human happiness as a state of mind, called Flow, wherein a person is so fully engaged in the interaction with, say, a work project or the study of a new subject, in the activity for its own sake, that s/he enters a state of low self-centeredness and complete absorption with the activity's own intrinsic purpose.

You would, for example, think of Flow as the condition Michelangelo was in when he painted the Sixtine chapel: he spent days on end in a state of heightened concentration, entirely dedicated to the work in and of itself, pausing only briefly to eat or drink, sleeping only out of physical exhaustion and waking up refreshed enough to simply continue where he left off and immerse himself in the task.

Aside from Csikszentmihalyi's analogies in the arts world, you could think of their equivalent in the sports world, e.g. Ayrton Senna describing a "heightened" state of mind during his races. You could think of Flow in the music world, e.g. bass players describing their flow of interaction with drums and melody as being "in the pocket" or "in the groove". Or, you could think about Flow in oriental forms of meditation and spirituality e.g. Zen, Taoism as well as some martial arts masters describing an altered state of consciousness.

In fact, there are a great number of experiences you could term as Flow in normal daily life: computer programmers getting into a state of Flow they describe as being "wired", mathematicians being "in the zone", etc.

Flow is, in other words, an innately positive experience, known to produce intense feelings of enjoyment, as well as optimal performance, personal growth and skill development (see figure).

Why the theory of Flow should be interesting to designers - and interaction designers specifically - is very simple: it is the ultimate measure of quality for any object which has been designed to match its interaction with users in such a way that the latter stop thinking about the interaction and become able to focus and immerse themselves in the task beyond the interface.

Just as you don't think about moving your left and right leg when you walk, a properly designed interface will let you interact with an object without forcing you to think about the interaction itself.

Automobile interiors, for example, have been largely designed to achieve this. A car that has been designed with Flow in mind is a car that you drive in such a way that it becomes like an extension of your own body. The car's interface doesn't obstruct your chain of thoughts as you accelerate, decelerate, turn left or right in order to go through space.

This is especially important in the automobile sector, for two reasons. The first is that we obviously don't want users to think too much about the act of driving itself when they should be paying attention to the road. The other is that driving a car is a very immersive experience: the driver is literally "inside" the car. From an interactive point of view, you "interact in" the car, becoming one with the car. The experience is very powerful, especially in luxury cars where - depending on the brand philosophy - this immersive interaction experience can be even more important than the car's performance itself. This is an altogether different and more intensive experience from other designed objects or interfaces where the object is something to "interact at". The "interacting at" part of driving happens between the user-car entity and the road / city. More on this later.

As technology and product design have converged, the impact of Flow on design has greatly increased, especially in terms of commercial success.

For example, the huge commercial success of both the iPod and the iPhone can be largely attributed to Flow. When the iPod came out, there were already a few mp3 players on the market, all performing pretty well in terms of playback quality and other intrinsic factors relating to sound itself. The key differentiator for the iPod was Flow: the way the interface "plugs into" the user's way of thinking about data. This was even more true for the iPhone, which not only turned the hardware into an "all-interface" object, but managed to make all interaction within that space very fluid, thus opening the possibility of Flow between the user and the information space behind the interface.

This is exactly the "invisible perfection" Coco Chanel described when talking about luxury. It is an approach to the making of things that places the user's experience of the product at the starting point of the design process, the object's functionality - and ultimately its commercial "raison d'être" - being to add quality to the user's experience of life, through the object.

So, if Flow-oriented product design creates such added value to commercial products that it elevates them into the realm of luxury, is it conceivable that other areas of design might also benefit from Flow thinking?

I mentioned, a couple of paragraphs ago, that Flow thinking had transposed the "interacting at" part of vehicle design so that the user and vehicle become one entity, interfacing with the road or city. This leads one to the natural conclusion that a new field of interaction design would be called for to solve the frustration and unhappiness that exists between users and cities. Looking at user frustration, for example, notice the difference between computer rage and road rage: users might hit their monitors in anger over their computer's inability to connect with a printer, but you rarely see car drivers hit their car in anger at its inability to get them to their destination. The anger is in the poor "interacting at" part, i.e. the city and transport system which the user / vehicle interacts with (which, unfortunately, sometimes involves other users and their vehicles, or large clunky buses...).

In other words, the city itself, and certainly its transport system which is the cause of endless user frustration and unhappiness, needs to be re-thought from an interactive design point of view in such a way as to open up the potential for Flow. This would result not only in happier citizens, but also increase the level of productivity and optimise their performance.

For luxury car companies, it might mean treating customers like club members, giving them access to preferential car parks or even preferential traffic lanes in a given city. For example, in these hard times, how much would London be prepared to rent out its bus lanes to Bentley for? I'm aware that this idea might be very unpopular, but it might in itself trigger off a new way of thinking about cities and traffic that would enhance the luxury experience of the car as well as the flow experience of the other stakeholders (i.e. the total group of citizens).

In the context of Flow, what might an "invisibly perfect" city look, feel and behave like?

Well, continuing with the theme of urban transport... Contrary to current practice in public transport where users relegate control of the vehicle they use to a collective driver - i.e. buses, trams, underground trains, etc. - Flow thinking would almost certainly advocate much higher levels of interactivity between moving citizens and the urban space. Just as your iPhone doesn't take over your journey in information space, so the perfect urban transport system should not take control over your journey in real space, in order to increase citizen happiness and Flow. Instead, just as on the iPhone, design and technology must focus on working seamlessly in the background to make your highly interactive journey smooth, simple and effortless.

Hence, you can be fairly sure that the commercial success or failure of the self-driving vehicles Google has recently been testing will be a factor of the interactivity they still allow users to have with the city. Anyone who's ever sat in the back of a taxi during a traffic jam will recognise that there is little happiness to be gained from handing over total control to someone or something else. Equally, centralised management of vehicle movement is unlikely to yield anything like the same results as peer-to-peer interaction.

Instead, you can imagine a kind of "augmented driving" system that enables drivers to still drive at will, with technology ensuring smooth interaction between vehicles and the city, as well as between each other, so that traffic lights, for example, might be a thing of the past, as cars detect each others' presence and keep a safe distance from each other, despite crossing each others' paths. Just as we currently have net neutrality in terms of data flow, you could set some vehicle algorithms to ensure traffic neutrality, which means, for example, that a user's sudden decision to turn into a road beyond the lane s/he currently occupies would simply activate a "meshing", or "zipper" algorithm between two lanes of traffic. Once such a system were in place, and running safely and effectively, you would start seeing much bigger commercial uptake for narrower vehicles, like the Monotracer cabin-motorbike by Peraves, which has all the interior comfort of a car, albeit that the driver and passenger sit one behind the other, the way they do in a jet fighter airplane. An increase in narrower vehicles, in turn, would increase lane usability, as you get to fit more vehicles within the same lane width. This ensures faster and smoother traffic, and so the system slowly but surely evolves towards increased happiness and Flow as users interact effortlessly with the city space.

Once you 'get' this way of thinking about interactive object design, things like the recently redesigned Routemaster buses, for example, just look like they're missing the point, beautiful and iconic as they may be (believe me, as a designer, I fully appreciate their beauty as well as their iconic status). I cannot help but think that the designers of the original Routemaster would probably be very surprised if they knew we're still using buses at all. I mean, this is 2010... Looking at science fiction movies of the 20s and 30s, like Fritz Lang's Metropolis, we were all supposed to be flying around the city using anti-gravity fields by now... Having said that, it's true that there are some moments of delight to be gotten out of the Routemaster: the simple feeling of freedom you get from hanging off the back of one is wonderful. But how does that compare to the proposition, say, of getting to any destination in London within 10 minutes, or of being able to hold twice as many meetings because the city's design idiosyncracies don't form an obstruction to your day's plan? Even sticking to today's technology, compare the brief moment of joy hanging off the back of a Routemaster on a sunny day with the sheer exhilaration of scooting around the city on a Vespa...

I have focused on urban transport, because it is such an obvious sector open for improvement, and because it illustrates most clearly the lessons that can be learned from interactive design's application to information space, and its direct parallels in the interaction with real space.

Ultimately, however, I believe the lessons hold true for any sector that puts people in a position of interaction with each other, with the space between us and with the constructs we have put in it to live our lives. In all sectors, Flow is achieved when the medium of interactivity itself disappears from the user's awareness, so that s/he can complete a task the way one interacts with, say, an iPhone rather than with an old and clunky operating system.

What are the implications of this? Well, once agility, smooth movement and Flow are achieved in a particular sector, shared physical space users (e.g. citizens) all become much more aware of the creative potential within the space itself, which leads to second and third generations of development that are inconceivable from the point of view of the observer who considers the first generation.

For example, there are today colossal businesses like Twitter, Google and Facebook that rely on opening up the potential for happiness which can be found in an intrinsic feature of information space - searching it, or sharing it, for example - in a way that Tim Berners-Lee couldn't really have conceived of when he designed the http web protocol and the html web development language.

In the same way, augmenting interaction with the city space will quickly open up new opportunities of interaction we have yet to even imagine. Millions of people increased their general level of Flow and happiness with the ease of buying and selling online, using first generation web companies like ebay and Amazon: at that point, in the online world, what could be more satisfying than being able to see every possible version of a product at the click of a mouse? Similarly, the idea of getting to one's destination within 10 minutes from leaving one's home is just the first generation of applications one can associate with augmented Flow of interaction with real space. Compared to what we have today, it would be luxury, and not just of the "invisible perfection" type. But it would be just the beginning.

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Friday 22 October 2010

Technological evolution: fine wines and fast cars

"Technological evolution: fine wines and fast cars" was published in Luxury Briefing in October 2010.


Technological evolution: fine wines and fast cars
by Alexander Gallé

The FT Innovative Design and Technology conference is taking place later this week. I'm itching to hear the speakers and am beginning to feel the adrenaline boost that - in the manner of Pavlov's dogs - technologists feel at the expectation of new "brainfood".

There was a time, not so long ago, when "technologist" was a job title. A technologist was a person who proposed and evaluated IT solutions to a commercial problem. The term quite accurately reflected the can-do-it-ism of the dotcom era: "being digital" was above all else a way of seeing industrial processes - including labour and machinery - as information processes, as bits rather than atoms.

But being a technologist today is really much more than this. After all, showing that bright and beautiful things are possible, and showing the way to achieve them, is more than a job title. It's an attitude, more closely related to a political outlook than a profession. 20th-century intellectuals may have believed in statism, whether socialist or conservative, but 21st-century thinkers seeking human progress, liberty and emancipation cannot, in my view, be anything but technologists.

A technologist attitude is what makes possible the creation of a new fine wine to beat all fine wines, by applying new technology to the process of picking the grapes, of transporting the grapes, of macerating the grapes, etc. This is what has been achieved with Chêne Bleu, the fabulous wines produced at the Domaine de la Verrière near Mont Ventoux, whose white wine (Aliot) won a gold medal at the IWC, and whose reds (Abélard and Héloïse) each won a silver.

These wines are, of course, luxury products. The combination of pioneering spirit, pure love of the subject, and dedication to technology elevates the quality standard to new heights, as well as the price tag: starting at £60 a bottle, this wine is clearly "not for everyone".

Taking the "not for everyone" approach to extremes, the new McLaren 12C was launched last week. The price tag is what it is, of course. But, more than anything, what this car epitomises to me is technological evolution.

For example, a feature once seen only on the McLaren F1, such as the ultra-safe carbon fiber "tub" seat or monocell (which allows the F1 driver to just walk out of a burning car without so much as a scratch on him) used to cost over £100,000 to make. On the new McLaren, it costs only £6,000! Give it another decade and it'll probably come as a standard in every production car around the globe.

Technologists such as Frank Stephenson, the new McLaren's chief designer, are the brains among us who take the "not" out of "not for everyone". Left to their own, away from the finger-wagging politicians, they ensure that new technologies become more available at lower cost to a wider segment of the producing sector, leading eventually to an overall improvement in the quality of everyday products. Moore's Law - twice the speed at half the price - is a rule which has applied to new chip technology for the past 40 years, as anyone familiar with the "Gordon Gekko on the beach with a brick-sized cellphone" scene from Wall Street will be aware of.

What was, only a few years ago, available exclusively to the richest and biggest companies, is now available to the smallest of market entrants, thus boosting competition in new market sectors and increasing accessibility for everyone. Luxury designers, take note...

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Monday 12 July 2010

Luxury Briefing: the Alfa Giulietta website

"Love & Mayhem: the New Alfa Giulietta website", by Alexander Gallé, originally appeared as a column in Luxury Briefing's July 2010 edition.


Love & Mayhem: the new Alfa Giulietta website
by Alexander Gallé

When I first started writing the Luxury Briefing column, a few years ago now, the idea was to call it "Love and Mayhem", focusing my analysis of the luxury sector's online activities on websites that make your heart beat faster.

Just as the best theatre plays display man's struggle with the forces of Eros (Love) and Thanatos (Death), just as Jean-Luc Godard judged that all you need to make a good movie was a girl and a gun, my thinking was that the best experiences - both online and in life itself - are the ones that bring you ample doses of love and mayhem. There can be no doubt about it: the best online experiences are informed by the language of film, and what is luxury about, if not to bring you the best possible experiences?

Alfa Romeo is a brand with a heart. Because of this, it sits in a brand category of its own. If you have any doubts about this, go on YouTube and watch any car review show you can think of. It's all about torque and horsepower and little niggly facts that make the critics compare and contrast different cars against each other, until you get to an Alfa Romeo. Suddenly, the sternest critics are prepared to throw it all away, they forgive the car any possible weaknesses they would normally pounce upon, and talk about love, about heart palpitations, about latin passion and the pleasure of driving careless and free like a leaf in the wind.

The new Giulietta's website presses those very same buttons. Just as there are plenty of sceptics that will tell you the electrics on the dashboard aren't up to standard, there are plenty of web usability analysts that will knock this website because this or that button isn't where the user would expect it. It is perhaps not completely obvious that there are, in fact, two sites (the Everyday Thrills part, and the Alfa Ego part) so that some people who just don't "get Alfa" will probably remain in their tepid state of lust deprivation.

My guess is Alfa is really appealing to all those people who have had a soft spot for the brand over the years, who perhaps always liked the brand but felt a little disappointed that the key Alfa ingredients were somehow missing from their latest models, and who are therefore prepared to spend a little more time over this site to see if the new Giulietta lives up to the heritage.

To those people, even the loading bar looking like a speedline will add something to the experience, even the way the camera tracks into the scudetto will make them want to forward this site to their fellow Alfisti.

So, yes, it'll probably take them a little while longer to find where they can download the technical specs but, by Giove, listen to that engine roaring and purring, look at that jewel of a car floating through that blood red landscape... Doesn't this website make you just want to fall in love with Alfa all over again and book a test drive?

Visit the new Alfa Giulietta site at

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Sunday 9 May 2010

Luxury Briefing: Luxury vs. Action Heroes

Luxury vs. Action Heroes, by Alexander Gallé, originally appeared as a column in Luxury Briefing's May 2010 edition.

Luxury vs. Action Heroes
by Alexander Gallé

BaselWorld, to be frank, can sometimes be a little disappointing...

Or rather, it can be if you're more interested in watch brands' communications than in their complications. The moment you walk through that long corridor at Geneva airport on your way to Basel, all you see is an endless row of ads displaying three-quarter-angle product shots with tired slogans on plain-coloured backgrounds, the only difference being the logos underneath them. None of them really stand out, and very few of them will even try to do something resembling a lifestyle campaign. The ones that do go there inevitably end up complementing their ads with some word-kit-generated platitudes about experiencing luxury or indulging oneself in a unique world of craftsmanship.

There are the exceptions, of course, brands that have understood that people don't buy a £20,000 watch because they want to know what time it is - a £50 quartz watch will do just fine if that's all you want - but because they're enchanted and engaged. Some companies, like Patek Philippe, try to own an aspect of time itself: long time, time expressed as a legacy, leaving something for the next generation, etc. Our own studio's work for Corum, from 2005 to 2009, tried to own another aspect of time: the now. This aspect of time inevitably takes you down the road of "seizing the moment", from which came the idea that there is a Corum watch for every exceptional hero you want to be. Want to become a great statesman? Buy the Romvlvs watch. A billionaire? Buy the Coin watch. A great adventurer? Buy the Admiral's Cup... What all these great careers have in common is that you need courage to take the first step. You need courage to quit your day job and run for candidate, start your own business or travel the world.

Result: Corum is courage. Unlock yourself and conquer the world. Unlock and Conquer.

Nothing expressed this better, of course, than Corum's owner himself: Severin Wunderman, Mr. Courage incarnated. A Holocaust survivor who went to America as a kid after the war, who founded Gucci Timepieces in the 70s, who beat cancer in the 80s, who bought Corum in the 90s and designed some of the most theatrical and interesting watches in the 00s. When Severin Wunderman passed away, about 18 months ago, a huge source of courage and creativity simply vanished from the watch industry.

How delightful, therefore, to have found a new brand that expresses these values with all the more aplomb. And how refreshing to see that it is a small brand, with an even smaller advertising budget.

I remember thinking a few years ago how great it would be if luxury brands could get more involved with extreme sports. Most millionaires today are under 40. Many of them have made their fortunes from dotcoms and cool tech companies. Many of them like to do the kind of sports that'll either make your heart stop or pump more blood to your brain than could possibly fit between your ears. So, you would think luxury brands would be falling over each other to attach themselves to something other than golf or tennis. How about skydiving, freediving, snowboarding, parkour or rock climbing?

Enter Linde Werdelin, who not only make the watches to give you that adrenaline rush, but who have also embarked on a new and exciting communications route: graphic novels. Action heroes and heroines, all sporting the coolest gadgets on their wrists while flying, running and swimming to the Earth's most extreme extremities.

What's even more exciting is the level of interaction you will see with the brand communications over the coming months, until the newly branded site is officially launched. Much of the audience's feedback, ideas for new characters and stories, are discussed openly on the brand's own Facebook page. New pictures of character illustrations and outlines for future stories are presented and discussed right there. Nothing gets a fanclub going more than this kind of open-source, open-minded, peer-to-peer way of interacting with the audience.

Of course, you need an action hero's nerve to do something like this, because getting it wrong when you stand out that much will make your brand that much more vulnerable. The stories will have to be engaging, the characters will have to look sexy and ultra cool, and the content will have to have its own emotional rewards rather than just look like a feature-length ad for the watches themselves. But Linde Werdelin's rewards will be there for years to come, as new episodes come out in time for new collection launches. Walking down that corridor in Geneva's airport will become something to look forward to with all the excitement and anticipation of a kid waiting for the newsagents to open, so they can buy their latest fix of action and adventure.

Monday 1 February 2010

Michel Dyens, brand identity and website

Gallé create brand identity and website for Michel Dyens, the luxury industry's leading investment banking and M&A specialist.

If I had to choose one person in the luxury sector who best incarnates its values, it would have to be Michel Dyens. For what is luxury if not courteousness, culture and quiet confidence? Aside from these great personal qualities, Mr Dyens's knowledge of this industry is simply encyclopedic.

Van Pul & Thieltgen: brand identity and website

Gallé create brand identity and website for Van Pul & Thieltgen, the Brussels-based executive search company.

Van Pul was an interesting brief, since the company brings into the executive recruitment market an approach that is very much that of a luxury brand, both in its values and its aesthetic approach.

The company was created by Mischa van Pul - ex-partner at Russell Reynolds and Heidrick & Struggles - and Catherine Thieltgen, an ex-Unilever executive now dedicated to business coaching.

Their added value lies in the complementary nature of these two services, providing not only a very 'boutique' and focused way of working that you just don't get from the larger players in this sector, but also an approach to human resources that is highly original and, well, unique: human resources as a raw material that an artisan needs to craft in order to deliver a made-to-measure 'product'.

This is how Van Pul approach the task of placing and nurturing the executives they take on: like a piece of the finest wood that needs to be crafted and shaped into a beautiful and useful item of furniture.

Our own treatment of the brand aimed to bring to the foreground this idea of 'craftsmen in executive search' as well as the added value of the two complementing partners, which is expressed rather well in the slogan - Heroes are Made - as well as the isotype: aside from being perfectly symmetrical and balanced, it actually looks like an instrument that might be used by a precision-driven craftsman.