kottke.org posts about Pentagram

LitlNov 12 2009

LitlLitl is a new netbook that seems to aiming for the same ballpark as the hypothetical Apple netbook. The interface is sort of iPhone-like, all apps run in a browser, and everything lives in the cloud (the device has no hard drive). Pentagram did the identity and assisted on the user interface for Litl.

The Litl webbook can be used in two configurations: like a traditional laptop, with full keyboard, used to surf the Web; or flipped upright, like an easel or picture frame, for broadcast of photo and video. The laptop configuration has been conceived as a "lean forward" mode, for active participation; the easel configuration conceived as "lean back," for watching.

$700 though...that may be a bit much for too little; a 12-inch MacBook is only $300 more.

Not so middle managementAug 27 2008

Joel Spolsky, popular tech writer and founder of Fog Creek Software, has an article in the September 2008 issue of Inc. called How Hard Could It Be: How I Learned to Love Middle Managers. In it, Spolsky details how he came to the idea of building a small company where middle management was unnecessary. He took particular inspiration from an article he read about a GE plant.

It was about a General Electric plant in Durham, North Carolina, that made jet engines, and it offered a portrait of the perfect work environment: a factory that had more than 170 employees but just one boss. All the engine technicians reported directly to the plant manager, who did not have the time or the inclination to micromanage. There was no time clock, and people set their own schedules. Pay was egalitarian (there were only three pay grades), and workers who assembled the engines could switch tasks each day so their jobs were not monotonous. The result? In terms of quality, the plant was nearly perfect. Three-quarters of the engines it produced were flawless, and the remaining 25 percent typically had only a slight cosmetic defect.

The no-management rule worked at Fog Creek for a time but as the employee count crept up, cracks appeared in the system. Employees became disgrunted, in part because of a perceived lack of availability of the only two members of management, the CEO (Spolsky) and the president. To fix the problem, Fog Creek established a small layer of middle management.

First, we eliminated the need to get both me and Michael in the room. You have a question? I'm the CEO. Talk to me. If I want to consult with Michael, that's my problem, not yours. Second, we appointed leaders for two of the programming teams -- in effect, creating that layer of hierarchy that I had tried to avoid.

And frankly, people here seem to be happier with a little bit of middle management. Not middle management that's going to overrule the decisions they make on their own. Not symbolic middle management that only makes people feel important. But middle management that creates useful channels of communication. If my job is getting obstacles out of the way so my employees can get their work done, these managers exist so that, when an employee has a local problem, there's someone there, in the office next door, whom they can talk to.

Given his inital progressive approach to building a company, I'm surprised that Spolsky didn't try something a bit different. For instance, Adaptive Path is structured using an advocate system. AP co-founder Peter Merholz explained the system to me via email.

It's a way of avoiding typical management structures, where you have people reporting up a hierarchy. Our current structure has two levels... Executive management, and everyone else. That "everyone else" doesn't report to the executive management. Instead, the report to one another through the advocate system. Each employee has an advocate. An advocate is like a manager, except they don't tell you what to do. They are there to help you achieve what you want, professionally. Employees choose their own advocates. They simply ask someone if they would be their advocate.

Merholz allows that what the advocacy system doesn't help with is communication across the organization -- the very problem that was plaguing Fog Creek -- and would likely work best alongside a light layer of middle management. But with the right guidelines and some slight changes, I believe it could work well in a company of 20-30 employees.

The Grey Dog's Coffee restaurants -- there are two locations in Manhattan -- use a slightly different system of rotating management. Co-owner David Ethan explains.

From a historic perspective, I like to think that it's one of the few truly bohemian places left in New York City, just based on the way we run it, like a commune. The management system here is that everybody manages. In order to work here you have two tries to show you can manage the place and if you can't, you're fired. Everybody manages about one shift a week and everybody's equal. People work hard for each other. I don't want to let you down because tomorrow it will be me. And I think they enjoy the responsibility of running a New York City restaurant. They get to pick the music, set the vibe, the lighting, everything. And they're all pretty laid back, so it's got a bohemian nature.

Running a restaurant each day and operating a software development company are quite different (for one thing, having a new boss every week wouldn't work at a company like Fog Creek), but rotating managers on a project-by-project basis might work well. (BTW, I think Adaptive Path at one point rotated the presidency of the company through each of the founders in one-year chunks.)

Pentagram's organizational structure provides a third possible way of avoiding a traditional system of middle management...although probably less germane to the Fog Creek situation than the previous two examples. The company is composed of several loosely connected teams that operate more or less autonomously while sharing some necessary services. Pentagram partner Paula Scher explained the system in her book, Make It Bigger.

As a design firm Pentagram's structure is unique; it is essentially a group of small businesses linked together financially through necessary services and through mutual interests. Each partner maintains a design team, usually consisting of a senior designer, a couple of junior designers, and a project coordinator. The partners share accounting services, secretarial and reception services, and maintain a shared archive. Pentagram partners are responsible for attracting and developing their own business, but they pool their billings, draw the same salary, and share profit in the form of an annual bonus. It's a cooperative...

She goes on to add:

Pentagram's unique structure enabled me to operate as if I were a principal at a powerful corporate design firm while maintaining the individuality of a small practitioner.

Working small with the resources of a bigger firm, that's the common thread here. I imagine there are many more similar approaches but these are a few I've run across in the past couple of years.

The 2008 version of Pentagram's big-ass wall calendarNov 26 2007

The 2008 version of Pentagram's big-ass wall calendar is now available, featuring the typefaces of Matthew Carter. If that's not to your liking, there's always this calendar by Massimo Vignelli set in, you guessed it, Helvetica.

Last 100 posts, part 8May 30 2007

Here are some updates on some of the topics, links, ideas, posts, people, etc. that have appeared on kottke.org recently (previous installment is here):

The Celluloid Skyline exhibition at Grand Central is well worth checking out...I was up there this past weekend. Pentagram collaborated with Saunders on the exhibit and wrote up a brief piece on how it came together.

My short post on Nina Planck's reaction to the recent "death by veganism", as she calls it, of a baby boy is a good reminder that I don't always agree with the things I link to. My only criteria for posting a link is that it's interesting, whether I think it's right or wrong or am still trying to form an opinion about it. Anyway, I got lots of mail about this one, much of it that said that the parents' veganism was beside the point -- which the prosecutors and jury in the subsequent criminal case agreed with (thx, matt) -- and that a headline like "Death By Stupidity" was probably more appropriate. After all, you don't see "Death by Omnivorism" headlines every time a baby with a more traditional diet dies of starvation.

Debra from Culiblog pointed out that contrary to Planck's assertion that "there are no vegan societies", the Jainists practice vegetarianism and veganism. On the other side of the aisle, meat fan Michael Ruhlman chastised Planck for going too easy on vegans, saying that "Veganism is a colossal arrogance, a refusal to admit to our own nature, a denial of our humanity. Sometimes it kills people. And it's not very much fun, besides." You can imagine the discussion that generated...although it was nothing like the 300+ comment thread on MetaFilter.

My opinion of Cars improved with a second viewing.

Discover's chat bot conversation reminded a reader of this old interview with the Ask Jeeves search engine (thx david). Back in 2002, I interviewed ELLEGirl magazine's AIMbot:

jkottke: Do you do anything to celebrate or recognize the changing of seasons?
ELLEgirlBuddy: do you do anything to celebrate or recognize the changing of seasons? that's a tough choice.
jkottke: yes, to celebrate or merely recognize. that is a toughie.
ELLEgirlBuddy: yes to celebrate or merely recognize that is a toughie? i dunno.
jkottke: you seem like an actual 13 year old girl.
ELLEgirlBuddy: i haven't really made a decision 'bout that.
jkottke: growing up is tough, isn't it?
ELLEgirlBuddy: i dunno.

And whoever posted the chat bot story to Digg (5696 Diggs and counting!) used the exact wording from my original post. You're welcome!

Prime, David Burke's quarter-million-dollar Black Angus bull, has his own web site. (thx, brian)

Regarding Alex Reisner's excellent baseball statistics web site and, in particular, the pennant race graphs, here's another interesting visualization of the pennant races...you can see the teams race to the end of the year like horses. (thx, scott)

Re: my post on better living through self-deception, I've heard that pregnant women tend to forget the pain of childbirth, perhaps because "endorphins reduce the amount of information trauma victims can store". Also related tangetially is this article on research into lying and laughing, which includes this simple test to see if you're a good liar:

Are you a good liar? Most people think that they are, but in reality there are big differences in how well we can pull the wool over the eyes of others. There is a very simple test that can help determine your ability to lie. Using the first finger of your dominant hand, draw a capital letter Q on your forehead.

Some people draw the letter Q in such a way that they themselves can read it. That is, they place the tail of the Q on the right-hand side of their forehead. Other people draw the letter in a way that can be read by someone facing them, with the tail of the Q on the left side of their forehead. This quick test provides a rough measure of a concept known as "self-monitoring". High self-monitors tend to draw the letter Q in a way in which it could be seen by someone facing them. Low self-monitors tend to draw the letter Q in a way in which it could be read by themselves.

High self-monitors tend to be concerned with how other people see them. They are happy being the centre of attention, can easily adapt their behaviour to suit the situation in which they find themselves, and are skilled at manipulating the way in which others see them. As a result, they tend to be good at lying. In contrast, low self-monitors come across as being the "same person" in different situations. Their behaviour is guided more by their inner feelings and values, and they are less aware of their impact on those around them. They also tend to lie less in life, and so not be so skilled at deceit.

The skyscraper with one floor isn't exactly a new idea. Rem Koolhaas won a competition to build two libraries in France with one spiraling floor in 1992 (thx, mike). Of course, there's the Guggenheim in NYC and many parking garages.

After posting a brief piece on Baltimore last week, I discovered that several of my readers are current or former residents of Charm City...or at least have an interest in it. Armin sent along the Renaming Baltimore project...possible names are Domino, Maryland and Lessismore. A Baltimore Sun article on the Baltimore Youth Lacrosse League published shortly after my post also referenced the idea of "Two Baltimores. Two cities in one." The Wire's many juxtapositions of the "old" and "new" Baltimore are evident to viewers of the series. Meanwhile, Mobtown Shank took a look at the crime statistics for Baltimore and noted that crime has actually decreased more than 40% from 1999 to 2005. (thx, fred)

Cognitive Daily took an informal poll and found that fewer than half the respondants worked a standard 8-5 Mon-Fri schedule. Maybe that's why the streets and coffeeshops aren't empty during the workday.

Pentagram's Paula Scher illustrates the typical lifecycleApr 05 2007

Pentagram's Paula Scher illustrates the typical lifecycle of a blog discussion for the NY Times. More and more, I'm seeing threads skip immediately to steps 9 & 10: "Impugn the character of thesis author" and "Impugn character of anyone who even considered agreeing".

A look at the newly redesigned TimeMar 16 2007

A look at the newly redesigned Time magazine, available at newsstands today. It's been noted elsewhere that it looks more like The Economist than it did and that the photo on the cover of Reagan crying is actually a photo illustration...the tear was added digitally.

Update: An interview with the guy who added the digital tear to Reagan. Did that Worth1000-grade Photoshopping really warrant an interview?

Pentagram has redesigned the Doomsday Clock, whichJan 18 2007

Pentagram has redesigned the Doomsday Clock, which depicts the world's proximity to nuclear annihilation. The funny thing is that they designed the 12 o'clock face, which will never actually be needed because we'll all be dead before the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has a change to move it forward.

Lisa Strausfeld's team at Pentagram has designedDec 12 2006

Lisa Strausfeld's team at Pentagram has designed the interface for the One Laptop Per Child computer. "Users can move outward from the Home view, where they can set preferences like color, to the Friends view, where they can chat with their friends, to the larger Neighborhood view, where they can locate other users and gather around an activity."

Update: The OLPC human interface guidelines document has a lot more on the interface. (thx, bob)

Beautiful-looking 2007 calendar designed by Paula Scher andNov 29 2006

Beautiful-looking 2007 calendar designed by Paula Scher and her team at Pentagram.

Item of note included in the announcementNov 10 2006

Item of note included in the announcement of Luke Hayman's addition to the NYC Pentagram office: he and Paula Scher are completely redesigning Time magazine, due to launch in January 2007. Hayman was formerly design director at New York magazine.

Hillman Curtis has added some new (toSep 19 2005

Hillman Curtis has added some new (to me) videos to his series of interviews with designers, including interviews with the folks at Pentagram and David Carson.

Tags related to Pentagram:
design Paula Scher Time magazine magazines NYC food

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