Other Today is a London based design studio founded by Nat Hunter and Gareth Owen Lloyd that promotes the power of distributed and circular design to radically change how and where we make things. While it is widely accepted that Distributed Design is a way to reduce the planetary impact of products, we also believe that it has the potential to create a fairer distribution of power and knowledge — distributed does not just refer to bits and atoms but also to the distribution of knowledge, power and opportunities. As a studio, our practice is about enabling; we enable people to invent tools, share knowledge, re-code objects, craft materials and create systems to challenge the status quo. We help organisations set up makerspaces, hubs and labs; and we encourage the tools, machines and inclusive programming that creates inspiring spaces.
We are passionate about creating opportunities for makers, designers and artists to develop new work and tackle real world challenges and in line with this, we run one of four vertical studios on the Product Design BSc at Brighton University. Our students have focussed on creating designs that could be made anywhere by anyone; experimenting with novel methods of digital and social making. This has meant adopting an open design approach with accessible local materials, clear and open specifications and an emphasis on making.
We have not been designing products, but interventions into global supply chains. We have been sharing kits, inventing tools, hacking systems, re-coding objects, brewing, melting and crafting materials.
In the first term, we visited a port where products arrive in this country and a waste centre where they end up. We completed a series of micro briefs that explored modifying existing systems and distribution methods. The second term began in January with students leaving their comfort zone to have “non design” experiences. Some learnt new skills like skateboarding, others volunteered or cleaned their local area. We hacked products, interviewed experts, experimented and iterated and throughout, our studio has collaborated with the open design platform Wikifactory to share these ideas with a global network using video, open design instructions and social media.
Locked Down and Cancelled
Lockdown came late to the UK. Whilst Europe was singing from balconies and printing PPE, in March Other Today was still making the trip from London to our tutorials in the Fab Lab at the University of Brighton. At the time that lockdown was announced, our students had been preparing to turn the Lab into an exhibition space; we had built a system of CNC-cut pegboard panel displays and their projects would be on display at the work in progress show. The event would have seen hundreds of guests visiting our studio followed by a fundraising afterparty to raise money for the degree show. In hindsight, the timing of the cancellation was lucky and we narrowly missed becoming superspreaders! We were all sad to have lost the opportunity to see the projects in one place. Heading home that night we did not realise that lockdown would mean not coming back for almost a year and, for the final year students, the cancellation of their graduation show.
In the UK, people were restricted to one hour of exercise per day and only allowed to leave the house for an essential shop — an experience that quickly became apocalyptic, with empty shelves and snaking queues. Student morale was understandably low in this climate but while we were all disappointed not to meet and make together, by creating projects designed to be manufactured on Fab Lab machines and by other people, the studio had been set up well to cope with the restrictions of the pandemic.
The Virtual Studio
Studio culture, the experience of being around your peers whilst making, is so important when learning creative subjects. When lockdown happened, we were worried that we would lose opportunities for informal chats and that teaching would become isolated. Up to that point, all our teaching had been done in person. We needed a way not only to video call but to collaborate and participate. We tried what felt like every video chat software on the market and, like seemingly most of the world, we signed up to Zoom as our main video conferencing platform; it’s grid format best replicating a classroom environment and the ability to create breakout rooms perfect for tutorials and group work. Even the customisable backgrounds added a semblance of identity to the blank digital space and allowed both students and staff a degree of privacy if required.
Lockdown coincided with the four week spring break, but we had a hunch that it was important to keep a thread running through these weeks, so we arranged weekly check-ins. Only an hour long, these check-ins gave everyone a chance to just meet up on Zoom and chat, to see other students and share what they had been doing. It kept an element of studio camaraderie going, and students would join from their bedrooms, their kitchens and some from their phone as they helped relatives do shopping. We found that for some (not all) of the students, when you’re on your own in your bedroom, just seeing other faces and having a chance to say what you’re up to is a real bonus.
Although Zoom helped us communicate, we also needed a way to collaborate. In the app Miro, everyone can see their peers’ cursors moving around a whiteboard, placing images, links and post-its. Miro generously gave us a free account, and we began to discover the joys of having our research, slides and workshop materials all in one place. For teaching the more complicated concepts (for instance, doughnut economics and how to measure social impact), we created a visual mindmap of our thinking, used frames to turn the mind map into a slideshow, then set up post-it areas further down the board for a more hands-on thinking session. We broke out into three Zoom Rooms with a tutor in each one, and workshopped student’s projects for them to discover how they might measure social impact.