The value of exploring the unknown with design studio Bakken & Bæck
We chat with Amelie D, head of contextual research, and Iris C, writer, researcher, and partner at Bakken & Bæck about how agencies and studios can respond to big questions within the emerging tech landscape.
We at Y+L often work with a wide variety of clients in different industries and have learned over the past few years that the ability to adapt to the client’s needs is both a big challenge and possibly the largest opportunity agencies face.
From when we initially signed the paperwork to now running the company a few years in, what we do and how we provide value to clients have shifted in a way that seems quite organic. When you’re young, you might have a good idea of what you want to be when you ‘grow up,’ but whether you become that is something else entirely.
It’s a fair statement to make that the creative industry is catalyzed by a collective urge to shift and grow into new formations and evolutionary stages through exploring new ideas or trying to solve previously unconsidered problems.
To learn more about how other agencies approach creative development, we spoke with Amelie D, head of contextual research, and Iris C, writer, researcher, and partner at Bakken & Bæck, a technology-driven design studio based in Oslo, Amsterdam, Bonn and London.
Developing technologies through which clients can identify new opportunities is their main focus. But how does one of the leading design studios go about these challenges, and how does it shape the research that plant the seeds for new technology? Lucky for us (and you), Iris and Amelie were so kind to share their experience working at this boundary-pushing studio.
In December of 2022, the Bakken & Bæck research team published the results of their most recent research cycle, titled: Machine Windows: Views from the Latent Space. The project explored the possibilities and complexities of generative machine learning in a way that avoids accepting and oversimplifying the unknown.
As explained in the introductory essay:
“To imagine, describe and make sense of the world complex computational systems have constructed, given our inability to fully comprehend them, we fall back on metaphors, like the black box (2). While the mental image of the black box (rightfully!) conveys that deep learning processes are inherently hard to conceive in human cognition, it also reduces, simplifies and obscures the computational complexity it captures, and positions us as users without agency, and with little hope for further understanding.”
In doing so, the project developed a “machine window — an interface that acknowledges the barrier between human and computer logic, while still providing some means to look through it.”
Can we start with a little introduction of yourselves and what you do at Bakken & Bæck?
IC: I am a partner, writer, and researcher at Bakken & Bæck. In my role, I lead strategic communication initiatives and propose new ways to translate the key issues and questions that surround our work into narratives that resonate.
AD: I am the Head of Contextual Research at Bakken & Bæck, which means that I develop explorative, internally-driven projects and initiatives designed to help us investigate some of the big questions that we, as a studio, have around emerging technologies.
Can you give us some background on Bakken & Bæck, what the studio does, its history, how it functions?
IC: BB was founded in 2011, by Tobias Bæck and Johan Bakken. They met when Tobias was working at an NGO, where he tried to meet and work with Johan for years. Finally, he managed to wheel Johan in on a project. The collaboration was a success, and they decided to start their own design agency soon after.
Since then, the company has taken on different shapes and forms, slowly but steadily growing into the team we are today: a group of 80+ people from all over the world, who connect over an unconditional love for making digital things, and a shared ambition to push the boundaries of what’s possible on the web.
A lot of the work you’re both involved in is quite focused on the contextual research side of the company. Can you explain what that is and how that part of the company fits in with the ecosystem of Bakken & Bæck as a whole?
AD: As a research team, we investigate the tech-driven questions that come up either within the studio, or within the broader emerging tech landscape. This investigation can take the form of an internal research project, workshops and interviews, external residencies, public events, or other forms we are still exploring.
We do this work because it lets us explore topics we may not get to unpack in the client project context completely. It allows us to actively engage in some of the big questions within the emerging tech landscape, test new modes of collaboration, and helps us find our own way through complex topics.
IC: In terms of how this fits within the ecosystem of BB as an agency: we work for clients, we adapt to their needs. The services we provide are not focused on one industry, technology or process but distributed across projects with varying natures, which makes it hard, if not impossible, to pigeonhole BB as an entity. Are we a design studio? A software development company? An innovation lab? These existential questions haunt us from time to time, but at the same time, they remain unanswered for a reason.
In essence, we are interested in breaking new grounds in helping clients identify new opportunities by developing new technologies, designing new modes of interaction, outlining new business models, and proposing new working methods. Contextual Research has been one of these novelties, our way of looking at the ever-changing “blob” BB is, as well as addressing the questions and complexities that surround our work. We need to look ahead, remain flexible, and embrace the chaos.
What motivated you to build this particular arm of the company?
IC: If we want to grow and evolve as a design studio, we need to grapple with the many challenges and opportunities that come with the technologies we work with. By asking our own questions and engaging on our own terms, we can stay light on our feet, ready to move along with and respond to the tendencies and opportunities out there.
You’ve mentioned the two of you are working on “hands-on prototyping and collaborations with other makers, exploring the role that self-driven, experimental research-by-design can play within a studio like ours.” Can you explain what this looks like on a day-to-day or week-to-week level?
AD: While our research activities can take many different forms, 2022 has definitely been the year of extended research projects.
When we are in a research project, we are doing everything from researching and writing about the topic at hand to developing a framework for our investigations, orchestrating the involvement of related disciplines, to finding ways to share what we have been working on with the broader studio.
Outside of research projects or other specific initiatives, the pace is different. We focus on agenda-setting for what’s ahead and defining goals and priorities in collaboration with people across the studio. In these moments, we try to take a broader view — what have we learned, what have we produced, and what questions or ideas do we want to develop further?
Can you tell us a little about how you decide what you’re going to research? What’s the main catalyst? Is it problems or questions you see arise in a broader sense — like society or within the industry in which you work?
AD: The topic for a research cycle can come from many different places — it can be a question that has arisen in a client project, an idea or topic that has taken seed in the studio, or a new trend in the emerging tech space that we want to better understand.
Deciding which of these topics to pursue is both a collaborative and strategic exercise. We look for topics that come with exciting questions, present a creative challenge for people across multiple disciplines, and feed into how we want to grow as a studio. A good research area for us is one that does all three.
You’ve outlined “cycles” for research for 2022. Can you tell us a little about them, how they became the topics of the year, and where you’re at right now with the development of the research of these topics?
AD: We decided to work in “cycles” because we saw the need for a more strategic and structured approach to our research activities — instead of one-off initiatives or investigations, we use defined cycles to create a framework and a little bit of space for a more targeted exploration of a topic we are preoccupied with as a studio.
Our first cycle, called Machine Windows: Views from the Latent Space, is an exploration of new ways for us to think about and engage with machine learning systems. Our goal was to find engaging, interactive ways for people to understand a little more about generative machine learning systems, and to be able to poke at these complex technologies that we increasingly rely on but understand less and less. Supported by the Building Talent fund from Stimuleringfonds, we were able to run a residency with machine learning researcher Claartje Barkhof, who developed a pair of interfaces that we are working on sharing soon.
Our second cycle was an investigation into the volatile world of web3, and specifically, DAOs. Finding it impossible to navigate the hype and hubris of the web3 space, we opted to take a hands-on approach and find out for ourselves what it means and what it takes to run a DAO.
We are still in the process of gathering and distilling our learnings from this one.
How do you know when a research project is ‘done’?
AD: An important part of both our roles is defining the frame around a research cycle: what are we investigating, what’s our approach, and what kinds of outcomes are we looking for. We do our best to define and articulate the conditions of each initiative in advance, in collaboration with the disciplines who are involved in each cycle.
Of course, things don’t always go according to plan — this kind of work comes with a lot of unknowns. An important yardstick when assessing the status of these projects is: have we learned what we set out to learn? If the answer is yes, then ‘done’ is in sight!
In our earlier discussions, you spoke about the challenges of running a technology-driven design studio; there are, at times, problems that arise in terms of being able to communicate/translate different “languages” between workers with different knowledge sets within the company. Can you explain a little more about that?
IC: Emerging technologies became important to us when we saw how our digital design work got implemented on the other side of the fence. We decided to remove the fence all-together and built an in-house team of design-minded frontend, backend, mobile, machine learning, blockchain, and spatial computing engineers, while our design team became increasingly more tech-driven.
The technologies we work with have become more and more complex, and their adoption has been speeding up over the last few years. These tendencies ask for a new sense of trust and newly drawn boundaries between human and machine systems. These boundaries exist where the language, behavior, and needs of people meet those of the machine. As a tech-driven design studio, we need to have an understanding of both sides; this can only be enabled through an act of translation.
How do you ‘translate’ or ‘communicate’ these languages within Bakken & Bæck? What’s your strategy for communicating complex ideas, tech-based concepts and research projects to the wider, maybe less tech-savvy audience?
IC: Our projects are often complex, multi-layered, and chaotic. To make sense of it all, we like to speak about our work in a language that everyone understands, which is an ongoing challenge. In team and client settings, we aim to listen carefully to what others say, avoiding preconceived ideas or jargon to create that mutual understanding. Sometimes this also means that we must redefine terms, spending time making them our own as a collective.
That doesn’t mean we shy away from complexity — on the contrary, we acknowledge our knowledge gaps and augment them to create a more nuanced view of a situation. Contextual Research is one way of doing that. We’d like to step off our high horses and approach questions with curiosity. Our goal is not to articulate perfect answers but to touch upon the challenges we see and translate those in a way both our clients and we can act on. Communication is key, whether it happens through words, images, or experiences.
It seems at least from the outside that Bakken & Bæck is quite passionate about looking inward and focussing energy and resources on in-house projects, not just commercial projects for clients. Do you think this is true? How do you think this ideology came to be within the company?
IC: BB has always created space for individuals to bring their own perspectives and experiences to the table, building a company culture that celebrates openness, curiosity, and inconsistencies. We actively encourage the team to look at emerging technologies and the many ways we could interact with them by putting our different strings together, creating this multi-lens perspective. There is this shared belief that this is the only way we can discover true value beyond hype and speculation and formulate new solutions to age-old questions.
We know that many technological inventions result from coincidence, unlikely combinations or lucky accidents. There’s not always room for this type of experimentation within client projects, as they often require predictability. That’s why we decided to create our own avenues for it. Of course, many of these internal projects never see the light of day, but it does create an arena for people to express their thinking and to collectively define these new languages and methods we are searching for and feed that back into our client projects. Sometimes this works out; sometimes it doesn’t — it remains a balancing act for a commercial studio like ours.
What do you think are the benefits of creating in-house projects within the company?
AD: In many ways, these internal projects give us the opportunity to color outside of the box — to experiment and play, to center our own questions and learning, and to test new modes and constellations of working together. They give us a chance to explore on our own terms, develop our confidence and perspective on these topics — and bring these broader reflections and applied learning into our other projects.
If readers want to learn more about your works/ Bakken & Bæck/ both, where should they head?