Last week I met up with Kieron Gurner, who is a Project Manager and UX Designer at Calvium, at the Watershed Café to talk to him about the company and his role in the team. Calvium is a Bristol based company specialising in making beautiful, intelligent apps for forward-thinking organisations, specialising in digital placemaking to create unforgettable experiences that help foster a sense of place. From rich audio landscapes, to visually stunning augmented reality, they have worked with organisations such as; The National Trust, Historic Royal Palaces and Tower Bridge, combining digital and physical worlds in order to tell stories and create enchanting experiences. Here’s a transcription of our interview, enjoy.
How many employees work at Calvium?
So, at the moment there’s around 12 of us, it’s kind of always in a bit of flux because we’ve got a project manager that only works three days, we have a graphic designer that works with us every week or two, and there are content people coming in, but generally the core team is around 12.
Do you ever have freelancers that come in to do work for you?
Yep, we work with a freelance graphic designer Chris Price who is based in Bristol, and a few other designers every now and then. We’ve also got some sound producers and we’ve also partnered with a company called Zoober VR in Bristol, to do some of the AR, VR, 3D sides of things.
I understand you are a project manager and UX designer, what does that involve and what do you find most rewarding about your role in the Calvium team?
Yep, so generally the project management is essentially nagging people constantly to get things done, chasing up clients, talking to them about what we want from them for the developers to get started, making sure that all the developers are working on time and if anything is stopping people from getting on with their work, it’s our job to solve those things or reorganise things to make everything work smoothly. The UX Part of my job is partly about research about thinking how we can improve our design thinking at the moment, we are doing a big push on digital placemaking, which we can talk about in a bit, and partly it’s about thinking about how users get through the app in the flow, so it’s all the design that you don’t see essentially!
Would you say your role lies more on the creative side or democratic side?
Probably a bit of both, depending on what the projects I’m working on are, and every couple of weeks or so it probably shifts slightly one way or the other. So there are periods where I’ll be working a week or two pretty much solidly on just design work and then other times I won’t be doing any design work I’ll just be project managing stuff, so yeah it does shift. But we’re quite a flat hierarchical structure, there’s not really strong sense of people being the boss or managers, obviously, there are! But, it’s kind of encouraged to be quite open and to work out problems with everybody rather than it being like you can’t say anything to certain people because they’re your boss.
What do you find most rewarding about your role as part of the Calvium team?
I think the variety, its constantly changing I’ve been working with Calvium for about six years or so now, but I’ve only been full time there for 2 years, so when I left Uni I was freelance as a web designer and worked with them a couple of days a week, and then for various different projects, different kinds of periods I wouldn’t be working for them I would, in small ways but it’s always been, the role has always changed or the things that need to be done have always changed, so it pushes you to do something new, and similarly with the UX stuff and the project management, it’s only about six months old for me, I used to be a programmer there, and do little bits of graphic design and UX stuff but it’s only just come into its own, so it seems like it’s always a challenge, and the projects as well obviously there’s such a variety of things that we do and we get to work on.
How did you find out about Calvium?
They approached me actually, I think I was still doing my exams at UWE they were based in the pervasive media studio and our course leader Dan Dixon just happened to be sitting next to them in the hot desking and they were looking for an intern and I was working at a coffee shop just on the fountains in Bristol, and Richard our then MD just came over and asked if I’d like to come for an interview the next day, so that was that!
What does a typical day look like for you?
It changes a lot, it could involve a couple of meetings to catch up with where the projects are, make sure where projects are going it could be doing research, reading blogs and interviews and books and that kind of thing, probably a bit of design work usually, and then some phone calls to clients, and catching up with people from where we are!
Do you deal with clients directly?
Are employees at Calvium assigned a client that they deal with directly?
Generally, each of the project managers will be dealing with a set of clients themselves and we don’t tend to cross over unless someone’s on holiday or something like that. Obviously, because we all have slightly different roles, so I might not be managing a project but if I’m involved in UX I might be talking to some of their clients in that role, no one’s ever hidden from any of the clients, it’s always quite open.
What are your favourite projects that you have worked on at Calvium and why?
Probably…NetPark for me, there’s an art organisation called Metal which is based in Southend-on-Sea and they have a house in the middle of this public park and they wanted to create the first digital art park, so it was a commission of three different artists five artists in the end and they each had to create a digital piece of artwork, so like an audio tour, that kind of thing using AppFurnace, so most of that job was just workshops, so me going down to meet the artists spend a few days walking around the park, workshopping their ideas, helping them technically get them started, so that as pretty good and rewarding to meet people and teach people new skills and get to work with artists like that. There are quite a few things that we’re working on at the moment which I can’t talk about because they’re not released yet. But I’m doing a lot more of the UX stuff working on that at moment, which is quite exciting and challenging a different aspect of my skill set.
What’s your favourite part of the process when working on a project?
It does vary I think I really like user testing, and I’m actually really getting into analytics at the moment, I guess both of those things are all about getting feedback, for what’s going on and trying to work out where the next steps are going to be and what you can improve and try to break down your assumptions, rather than just designing in a bubble.
When you finish a project with the client how long do you maintain and preserve the project?
Depends on the project, we do projects with arts council funded stuff and funded projects that don’t tend to have a long life after their launch, standard kind of month or so that afterwards we’ll be in contact, for larger projects the app is a bit more involved in what they’re doing and in their business then we tend to be doing maintenance contracts with them to keep everything going, and that can take lots of different forms, it’s generally regular touch base, see what we can do, see what could update. It’s definitely I tricky thing I found when I was freelancing, was separating out those two things and making sure that you’re covering the maintenance part of your contract compared to actually doing it and not just helping people indefinitely, I was a bit too generous I think!
What programs/software do you use on a daily basis?
I use Sketch, Google Docs, so word documents and spreadsheets that kind of thing, and bits of Photoshop and InDesign sometimes.
Could you tell me about the development of AppFurnace? and how/if you use it when developing projects for clients?
We used too, at the moments it’s not being kept up to date as well as it should be and that’s just partly due to the way the business has changed, initially the idea was to try and involve it in all client projects and leverage that, it ended up that Kevin was taking more of a consultancy role and making bespoke apps and AppFurnace didn’t give us the flexibility that we needed to really deliver on high-quality stuff and still make it open to all and up to date and all that kind of thing. So, we don’t tend to use it now, obviously for things like to NetPark project that was perfect because it was making six deferent apps all with a similar vibe to them, which we wouldn’t be able to do that all from scratch, so we don’t tend to use it for client projects anymore.
It seems like a lot of your projects have a locative element to them. How important is locationality to what you do at Calvium?
It’s part of some of the core stuff we do, or at least a lot of the apps that we do are location based trails that try and give the people a sense of the history of the space without it actually being there, and then some other part of the work is we work a lot of engineering companies to do internal systems that can be an internet of things, but lots of those because they’re internal projects they’re not really publicised, internal to different companies. So, it’s quite core to most of the stuff that we do, but not everything, we’ve definitely got projects that don’t involve location at all and we’ll do things like workshops or consultancy that doesn’t in involve any kind of developmental design, it’s just talking to people and working out what they need and giving them an idea of what kind of apps they might want to get made or help them work out if they didn’t need an app at all, to focus them on something else completely.
Why do you think a company might approach Calvium to work with them on a project?
That’s a good question, we’re quite friendly and approachable, I think we try to do a lot to break down the scariness that apps can present, the majority of people commissioning apps aren’t technical or they have a top level of understanding of technology that they’re working with so it helps to make them feel like they’re part of the team and there in the project and not that your just separate and delivering something to their spec. We work with this co-creation idea where we have workshops with clients ongoing to try and involve them in the process as much as possible in terms of testing that they do and that kind of thing, I think we do feel quite collaborative, that’s one of the comments actually we often get is that the process of doing it feels quite collaborative compared to other website projects people have worked on. We normally do weekly or 2 weekly catch ups with people even if it’s quite short and then if we are doing testing on site and meet people and try to involve people as much as possible. I think we’re also quite dependable, we also work we a lot of different agencies in and around Bristol, and we deliver things on time.
How did the pervasive media studio impact the growth of Calvium?
A lot! We were here for four years, I think mainly what the studio did was enable us to meet so many different artists and other technologists and academics, that would become collaborators and clients and just get us involved in different kinds of thinking and get us involved in fun little projects that would just step us outside solely being focused on making money, and it’s that kind of experimental research focused start that feels to me likes it’s still there! Lot’s of us are still encouraged to do training constantly and do research and propose new ways to take the business potentially or new projects we could work on, so it feels like there’s always new ideas happening and there’s always time to do research and improve in all sorts of different ways whether it’s learning new programming languages or new approaches to training or that kind of stuff.
Do you think it’s important that there are environments like the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol?
Yes definitely, the great thing about the studio is, it puts people who don’t have any technical skill together with people that do have technical skill, and people who have maybe business ideas or just academic questions with creative thinkers that can bring these things to life in totally different ways that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise, you can’t really set those things up, it has to be a slightly open environment where people can just chat, I think any kind of matchmaking process can be a bit forced whereas everything that comes form that feels a bit more organic. Even the stuff that doesn’t take-off I think, has positive impacts on people, even if it’s just the people who are involved in the Watershed community more broadly, the installations they do here, and the studio talks and all that kind of stuff, that does impact positively on Bristol generally, because its open ethos and people can learn from it and take stuff on, so it’s not some kind of closed ivory tower.
What areas do you think you are innovating in?
So at the moment, we are going to be working at lot more with regeneration projects, we’re looking a lot at ‘digital placemaking’, the idea of placemaking, which is term which is getting quite popular in architecture, which is the idea of connecting people with the spaces they use and I think it is particularly interested in the idea of cities being developed where there’s no culture essentially around these new development places and the regeneration of old heritage sites, and that kind of thing which can feel a bit hollow and actually there’s no sense of place and character and connection, people don’t really want to live there, so you need to create spaces for people to spend time, cultivate business around those spaces that make it a nice place to live and vibrant place so there’s an economy there as well. I guess it’s kind of thinking about spaces, and buildings and regeneration in a micro sense like a village style trying to design it from the smallest amount outwards rather than just putting a massive housing block on the edge of a city and not just letting it kind of tend to its self. So, ‘digital placemaking’ is our approach to trying to do that through digital, whether that’s through things like the heritage style walks that we’ve done before, or working with artists and arts organisations to deliver theatre projects and that kind of thing. We did a project with a housing association in Norrebro in Denmark (AAB Housing Association), basically there was a massive housing estate area and it had lots of social issues, lots of crime, people didn’t want to go out that kind of stuff, so they wanted to launch a project where they would interview lots of people living there all their lives, people who had recently moved there, different ages all that kind of stuff, and create an audio trail of those stories kind of in the area, obviously they did lots of PR and marketing around the app as well, and since the app launched there was a massive reduction in the amount of crime and anti-social behaviour, which is great! It’s that kind of thing trying to make sure, it doesn’t always have to start from something there being a problem, obviously, you want to make a place nice to live before there’s a problem to solve it, so stuff like that I guess it’s trying to create a better sense of community or create a connection to a place digitally, so we’re working on a few different projects like that at the moment. It’s a difficult thing to balance because it’s very difficult to only do projects that are either socially or culturally investing in other people, but if you don’t ever do anything that’s interesting or exciting like that, that’s improving things it feels a bit hollow.
Where does the funding come from for a project like that?
That’s a good question on that project, for things like regeneration there would be some money set aside for that kind of activity, and that could go to all sorts of different things, so that’s just one aspect of a new big building development project that they do. It might come from councils or potentially a kind of private organisations that are running housing associations there, then there’s quite a lot of privately run housing associations in this country.
How important is design in what you do?
It’s really important! I think the way we try and approach things we spend a lot of time thinking about the design structure of the code and how that’s documented and how that’s maintained, as well so not just visually. We try and think about how processes work, we are constantly trying to design a better process for our clients to go through when they are working with us, and for us to work together. Essentially just seeping into everything we do, we try and be designing everything! In terms of visual design and UX, it’s something we’re definitely growing at the moment. The five original founders of Calvium all came from Hewlett-Packard labs, they were based next to Frenchay actually, they had a massive lab there, I believe that one has been closed down now, most of their jobs were research and they were doing stuff with digital and location-based social, before the iPhone came out, so pre-modern technology, they would be doing these kinds of experiences with GPS backpacks on and headphones, and physical maps that you’d hold to work out where you were going. So, the iPhone essentially created a way for them to condense all that thinking, so in terms of all that research stuff, I think that stepped back, strategic thinking, seeing everything and focusing back in on trying to work out better ways does seep down into everything and everyone.
How would you describe Calvium’s design aesthetic?
That’s difficult because we don’t have a visual designer in house, we tend to work with one or two different graphic designers in Bristol, or with clients graphic designers, so I don’t we’ve got a signature style, me personally I am definitely minimal, very very simple, paired back as much as possible, but it tends to change from project to project.
How do you think the rise in popularity, accessibility and power of smartphones has affected the interactivity and emersion in digital user experiences?
It’s everything we do now, it’s so ephemeral, you just wouldn’t be able to imagine a life without smartphones now, because they’re so powerful and allow you to do so much, they allow you to set up a recording studio wherever you are or be a photographer. I think as these things have become more and more part of daily life, people don’t feel as scared of trying things out, by trying to do digital experiences, like an audio walk, it doesn’t feel a bit deal anymore, and hopefully as that becomes more pervasive, the ability to have better access to Wi-Fi everywhere and outside will improve the way that we interact with that again and make it easier and more accessible and the capabilities as well I guess, what you can do when you’re having an experience or your interacting with physical objects and all that kind of stuff, I think it just opens up possibilities in people’s minds and breaks down the fear of what technology can do.
Do you think it’s only positive?
Absolutely not, I think it’s the same with everything I mean the internet is a really amazing thing, but could also be used really negatively. I think there are lots of potential things that could be negative, in terms of drawing people’s attention away, or there’s a potential of closing down connections between other people like social media, is it creating the illusion of social occasion and actually not really getting people to interact? It not about the thing for me, it’s not about social media that’s not the problem, it’s the way people use it and I think in that example it’s such a new concept for us, we’ve never had anything like it in human history so it’s going to take a bit of time for people to work out how they should interact with it, and it feels like it’s starting to change very slowly now compared to what it was, but maybe that just my perception. I’m quite an optimist though so I’ll always see the positive eventually.
Why are you based in Bristol as opposed to other major cities in the U.K? and how does it shape what you do?
I would answer this b y saying that, Bristol has got an amazing new media community there are so many creative organisations here and places like PM studio, that just offer a lot of connections and potential for collaboration with other people to do interesting stuff, so one aspect but also, I think the quality of life is quite good here compared to somewhere like London. In terms of what’s available here and the price of housing and all that kind of stuff it feels like having an employee base here is kept everyone happier, than having them in the centre of London, but we still work with people internationally and have lots of ties in London, and other parts of the country as well so I don’t think it’s had a negative impact on what we do. I guess because we’re quite focused and we’ve focused in o trying to deliver something people want, and we’ve kind of become experts in delivering that. It’s changing at the moment, there’s a lot more people moving out of London I know a few years ago quite a few agencies came to Bristol from London, and obviously, more and more people are moving out to Brighton, Manchester, Leeds all over the place
What opportunities/threats do you perceive from changes in the future?
I would say the expansion of people using smartphones, better availability of Wi-Fi, better availability of technology, internet of things, people’s perception of AR and VR growing! Things like Pokémon go had a massive impact on a mainstream understanding of what mobile games and AR can do for lots of different reasons, I think it’s kind of opened up the mind now about what you can do and what can be found enjoyable, and you can really start breaking down the social barriers of people wanting to get involved in all that stuff, so I think that’s exciting. In terms of threats I guess, maybe economy, I’m quite optimistic so I don’t tend to focus on that much really! Probably economy and potential of money in projects and that kind of stuff.
What do you think about VR and AR, are they areas that you are planning to explore?
I definitely think they have potential, but I thinks there’s a massive difference between what AR can offer and what VR can offer partly because VR is at the moment and for the foreseeable future will merely be an individual experience, so when your locked in a VR experience, people around you can’t really share in that, other than to launch at you falling over things and reacting to stuff, they aren’t really experiencing the same thing like AR you could share that, multiple people can be looking at what you’re looking at, there’s loads of little AR games and things that use physical objects and toys. I feel like there’s a lot more social possibility in that, what you can do with it, but I think the possibility of VR games and experiences could be great but probably more on a personal gaming level than something more open and sociable.
What’s next for Calvium? What projects and innovations are you working on?
So, I think it’s mostly, going into digital placemaking and we’re working a lot on that with people around that in terms of taking places, adding a digital layer onto the world and trying to make that reasonably seamless where possible. Whether that’s through connecting people with the history of places or the potential future of places or connecting people like the community project I was talking about, I think all of that’s up and coming in the future.