I’d been watching a lot of Twin Peaks and was inspired by Agent Cooper’s surreal methodology for crime fighting. Within the fictional world — and this is a key part of Lynch’s modus operandi — our presumed rules of possibility are repeatedly undermined; leaving us not knowing if Cooper’s famous rock throwing technique is really a legitimate divining method.

I do like to take things away from my media though, and I wondered what value could be taken from Cooper’s pious paladin persona. Or, more specifically, from his methods.

While bordering on the kind of predatory mumbo jumbo that is exploited by homeopaths, mediums and scientologists (all still interesting subjects, rather than fields, of study), acknowledging that belief itself has a reciprocal material and phenomenal power shouldn’t be controversial. And with such a concession, the metaphorical floodgates open.

If the world is everything that is the case, and everything in the world is the case, then it is true that everything that is believed is the case, by virtue of being in the world. And, being the case, everything that is believed has the potential for further material consequences. Assuming, of course, that there is no radical mind/body duality and that our mental experiences are located within the world and not elsewhere, indeed if they even exist at all so conceived.

So it was in this context that the project began. I’d also recently completed a qualification as a DSDM agile practitioner and had been working with the relevant technology and stakeholders for some years. With the business case approved, it was a certainty that we would be bringing in some help.

A selection process resulted in a team of members from the Contentious, Agile Collective and Big Fan agencies; a really talented multidisciplinary team. And with an outsourced team, the same as if we’d have taken on this project in-house, a project space needed to be set up.

What is such a space? I’ll call it a psychic space, acknowledging both its primary psychological component and the material base into which its intelligibility is written. It’s also intrinsically social, being a shared psychic phenomenon and entrenched in learned intelligibilities.

Social space is territorialised, it has conceptual lines drawn around it. These lines are metastable, permeable, et cetera. But just because the lines are always moving doesn’t mean they’re not stable in a different way, it doesn’t mean they oughtn’t be respected.

Some more concrete examples of such spaces might include staging and production environments, a desk in an open office or a home working space, a native application interface compared to a collaborative web app, even a day where you wake up without enough sleep versus a well rested morning. These spaces have a huge impact on the experiences within them and what can be output from them, and are all essentially produced. By virtue of being produced they can also be architected.

For this project, two kinds of space were particularly apparent: the project space in which tasks were completed during our scrum sprints, and the brand space that was part of the website’s role to provide. Indeed, we effectively needed to produce the first space in order to produce the second.

Projects and personhood

Having space to get shit done, on an individual level, is the only way you’ll get shit done well. This much is a well understood idea, that in order to focus one must be able to focus.

Controlling distraction is done through space. Physical space can help but so too can psychic space, such as ‘do not disturb’ functions preventing notification pop ups. (Or, indeed, their analogue equivalents.) We can conceive of the space in which one works as being multidimensional — comprised of the physical, psychic and so on — as well as being singular.

What does this look like in practice? In this case, the space was created with agile sprints, individual remits, and a product backlog to which we could all refer. The backlog is basically a to-do list, and for each sprint we collectively decided how to allocate capacity to a subset of tasks based on the roles and expertise we each had. These factors combined to give us each a fortnightly set of expectations, and off we went.

So what is this space?

  • Area: It’s a clear bit of time, like an empty tabletop, for you to focus on your shit. Not having it cluttered with some other shit.
  • Borders: It’s unambiguous in its beginning and end. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to start at a regimented 0600 sharp, but it should be evident when you are or aren’t doing your shit.
  • Interfaces: In a system environment, it’s entering with certain inputs and producing outputs. In a collaborative environment, it’s knowing how your shit fits in with other people’s shit, and that your shit is your own and that others’ is theirs. The interfaces can be many-to-many, but ultimately they need to be predictable. Otherwise people might understandably struggle to get on with their responsibilities and deliver to known expectations.

The geometry of this space reflects the sovereignty of being that is ingrained into how we culturally regard personhood. It’s conceivable that, without much emphasis on the concept of ownership, a person could be comfortable producing within more uncertain conditions. But given the importance we tend to place on this concept, a lack of ownership becomes disruptive.

Brand and semiotics

We were making a spread of websites, templates that a variety of people would come to use over the lifetime of the product in order to deliver a brand experience. The spaces needed to contain everything that a person might need in order to deliver on the brand. This included not just the tools to use, but also the guidance on how to use them and examples of what to aim for.

But crucially we couldn’t predict all of the use cases that would need to participate in this space. Who knows what contexts and challenges might arise in the future; and could this space continue to be productive in a year, three years or five? Would it even be used at all if it was too inflexible? We thought not.

When learning a language, we speak mostly in sentences we’ve never heard before. A finite, random set of inputs result in a potentially infinite set of outputs. So we set about to produce a brand space that would empower people to speak the language of ActionAid.

This space was created with a website strategy, style guide, and implemented (later formalised) design language. The strategy expressed the purpose of the website in this branded context, offering a way of making editorial and design decisions. With that as a foundation, the style guide and design language could grow in parallel and be coherent with each other.

What’s this space, then?

  • Area: It’s not empty at all, a brand space collapses if it is empty. It can’t even afford to seem to be unstable. Even if things need to change, they should do so with the caveat that this is an update in method rather than character.
  • Borders: It wants to be unambiguous but it can never really be. It needs to be able to be found anywhere, even everywhere.
  • Interfaces: It needs to know who else is sharing the space in order to provide what they need, but only broad characterisations are necessary. Too specific an analysis could lead to over-optimisation and inflexibility.

The geometry of this space is porous, even gaseous. It needs to enable somewhat unpredictable interfaces and, as such, can’t sustain having a rigid border itself. It’s also radically rhizomatic, in affording a multitude of participatory network connections, as these interfaces are portable with each other. It allows the greatest degree of change, even contradictory change. And it has the potential to maintain coherence of identity throughout its growth.

Space is everything

On a project level, a closed path is needed to create productive space. This discrete object interfaces outside itself in specific and controlled ways. On a brand level, a territorialising path needs to be open to afford unpredictable change. The amorphous object interfaces in unpredictable ways and therefore needs to be radically malleable.

Even conceptually, the qualities of a space can have shape and with shape comes geometry.

What does any of this have to do with Agent Cooper’s rock throwing? Perhaps not the rock throwing itself, but the dream that inspired his method. Within the world of Twin Peaks, there was a consequential connection between the method and the reality. In non-fictional contexts, this is essentially geometry — even psychic forms have material properties that can give predictable results.

The geometry of Cooper’s rock throwing resulted in an answer to his question divined. The geometry of the spaces created in our project also shaped the results that we could produce within them, though by less fantastical means.

Space is everything.

Other things I learned:

  • Auxilia is a most delightful font. We thought long and hard about choosing an open source font, or at least non-proprietary. But Auxilia’s charms won the day.

Relevant things I haven’t read fully but you totally should:

  • The Production of Space, by Henri Lefebvre.
  • The Condition of Virtuality, by Katherine Hayles.
  • A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.
  • The Psychic Life of Power, by Judith Butler.

Also check out the project write-ups by Contentious and Agile Collective. They’re all great people to work with.