Nick Jordan | 06.29.16 | Insights

Why Everyone Needs a Lab


  • labs

Now through July 18th, you can see a digital art installation in the first-floor window of the 21c Hotel. Fraqture is made up of a 50 inch monitor, 540 LED panels and it spends its days distorting, breaking and rearranging images. It’s real world glitch art and the majority of the work on it evolved out of Smashing Labs.

Every Friday, everyone at Smashing Boxes is given four hours to experiment, prototype, and learn. Over time, Smashing Labs has proven to be crucial to the future of our company. And it’s an investment I think you should make in your company’s survival.

The future of innovation agencies like Smashing Boxes is to connect experiences across all types of platforms. I don’t mean “platform” the way IOS is a platform, but something more abstract. Your location is a platform and so are your daily tasks and routines. Your devices are a platform. Sensors, beacons, and RFID’s are platforms. Big Data is a platform. When platforms collide, you are building experiences that will become commonplace with companies like ours.

As entrepreneurial spirits, we’re always looking to future trends to gear up for whatever comes next. When we started with our Labs time over three years ago, we didn’t know what we were doing at first. Labs wasn’t meant to “future proof us”, it was just a time for us to learn and have fun. It was an experiment. Now that we’ve iterated a bit, we can use that time more intentionally. We tinker, test, design and build technologies that will serve our future clients.

Labs provides us the time and space to test concepts and rapidly generate ideas – often alongside people who don’t get to work together on a typical day. Take Fraqture. To bring the “glitch art as graffiti” concept to life, our designers and engineers had to learn new technologies and programming languages. They had to build hardware and connect devices, like the Teensy controller and the LEDs. One of our developers learned Clojure just so he could turn Fraqture into a photo booth. Oh yeah, Fraqture also smashes photos of people who walk by it. Cool stuff right?

This Friday in Labs, our whole team will be participating in an IoT design workshop inspired by Stanford’s d.school. We’ll explore the experiences we have in everyday environments, and how tools like IoT can make us healthier and happier in those spaces. Throughout the exercise, we’ll follow some simple rules of design ideation:

  • Defer judgment
  • Encourage wild ideas
  • Build on the ideas of others
  • Stay focused on the topic
  • One conversation at a time
  • Be visual
  • Go for quantity

This type of thinking, which is intentionally practiced in this exercise, bleeds over into our daily work. Our intentions and interactions with clients and our coworkers are improved because of it. Next stop, offering workshops like these to our client partners.

A lot of companies think they have labs, but haven’t really committed to creating the time and space for it. Instead, employees are forced to find innovation time themselves, on top of their regular workload. Even former Googler Marissa Mayer referred to Google’s famous 20% Time as “120% Time”. A lab’s no good unless it actually exists, you know?

It’s our mission to stay on the leading edge of innovation, design, and technology so we can lead the way for our clients as they step into the future. But, we as a service providers, shouldn’t be the only ones investing in future-thinking experimentation. Everyone needs a lab, because no matter how you twist it, those who do not invest in their future will become complacent. Complacent companies in today’s world are actually beginning to atrophy.

So what can you do today to create your own company labs experience?

Make time. Find excitable people in your company. Build a team interested in pursuing future forward opportunities and block out time for them. Don’t make them look for that time themselves.

Start small. Start with a small team and a small amount of time. Find out what works, then roll it out to more people, eventually to the company as a whole.

Fail. Failure is OK. No pain, no gain, right? As long as you learn something, you’re making progress towards your goal.

Celebrate small victories. Even the smallest of wins is worth celebrating. Once a month, we end our Labs day with a showcase for people to share their Labs project. After everyone has presented, the company votes on their favorite project, and the winner is awarded a cartoon-sized Thor hammer we call “The Golden Smashy”. Find a way to celebrate, and get your team excited about the possibilities of your new lab!

You may discover that you throw away 90% of what you make in your lab. To some, that will feel unproductive and costly. But, it’s not! It is a vital investment into the future success of your company.


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