The LAB at Rockwell Group emailed me out of the blue a few years ago and asked if I could come in and meet them. The LAB’s co-chiefs, Josh Walton and James Tichenor, looked like they had been put together in the same factory as Reggie Watts: wild curly hair, beards out to here, nerdy and soft-spoken and painfully antidisciplinary. I say “painfully” because, as they told me, their work was so unfittable-into-the-usual-boxes that they often found themselves struggling to explain just what the hell it was that they did all day.
Of course, they knew what they were doing—how their practice spilled over the edges of “design” and “architecture” and “research” and “technology” and “prototyping” without quite being any particular one of them. They understood why it mattered. They just couldn’t figure out how to make it make sense to anyone else. So they asked me to help.
That was the brief: ”Make something that makes this make sense.”
Plenty of documentary filmmakers / boutique video studios / agencies can “tell your story.” But Josh and James needed more than that. Frameworks, metaphors, code—whatever you call it, they needed to find a language that fit the LAB before we could even start thinking about what story to tell.
What do I mean by “fit”? Consider these typical getting-started-on-a-project questions:
Why does it matter?
That’s storytelling. Step 1, usually. (And a tall order unto itself—just ask Ira Glass.) But there’s a layer underneath:
What is it like?
This is sense-making. I call it Step
0: The spot where all of us—from babies to MacArthur geniuses—begin when we’re attempting just to grasp something, much less express and understand it.
Sense-making is our starting point, our purpose, and our first love. It’s the through-line that draws together our own antidisciplinary work—from an app trailer made entirely out of magazine tearsheets to a thermodynamics explainer inspired by Twin Peaks, or an educational PSA starring an inflatable robot elephant to a critically-acclaimed news series “filmed” on a computer desktop. It’s got more in common with design, scientific inquiry, and kindergarten play than the typical stages of scripting + shooting + editing.1 And it connects the members of our mixed-up clientele, which includes media companies, tech startups, research laboratories, educational workshops, and nonprofit foundations.
Here’s why the LAB was our prototypical client: they required that Step
0, even if they didn’t quite know how to say so.
That said, they were also “prototypical” in that they never fully materialized in the real world: despite some more fruitful meetings, we couldn’t get our project off the ground. I think of them as “the one who got away.” But they’re still a useful avatar for the kinds of problems that this studio exists to solve, and the kinds of people we solve them with. A fit, in other words.
”Make something that makes this make sense”: If that’s what your brief boils down to, we’d probably be a good fit for each other too. Please do get in touch, so we can find out.
(You don’t have to look like Reggie Watts, though.)
Although don’t get me wrong, I love those too.↩