Notes

Mindsets

Core mindsets underpin the processes and methods used in collaborative civic projects, enabling teams to unleash their creative problem-solving abilities for tackling complex design challenges. These guiding principles foster new directions, stimulate progress when stuck, and pave the way for success. Embracing these mindsets is crucial for becoming a proficient design thinker and innovative problem solver.

1. Do it

Develop a strategy that involves sketching, using visuals, and creating prototypes. When facing challenges, utilize tangible materials like markers and construction paper to explore and test your ideas. There’s no need to gather input from every possible user or explore all ideas before getting started. Taking action and creating tangible products will accelerate your learning process and provide a solid foundation for further development.

Consider whether the current approach balances discussion with actual creation and building. Evaluate the possibility of testing early ideas immediately rather than waiting for them to be perceived as “right” or perfect.

2. Start small, grow big

At the beginning of a project, avoid focusing on finalizing all details and involving every stakeholder. Rather, make context-based decisions and gradually involve individuals and stakeholders as the project undergoes multiple iterations. Expand your team and aspirations progressively throughout the project’s development.

Explore what can be achieved with a small team and a preliminary set of ideas, then identify strategies for expanding and refining the concept as the circle of collaborators grows.

Hi – this is Randy Plemel, I run a small consultancy Expedition Works, where we specialize in solving difficult problems for many people, including civic designers. Take a look at what we’ve done, and how we can help.

3. Short term, for long term impact

For lasting results, focus on immediate and short-term actions that can maintain their impact over time. Solely concentrating on long-term impact may cause stagnation, as projects, concepts, and prototypes become too complex to finish, hindering the ability to learn and progress in stages.

What are our goals for tomorrow, a month from now, and five years into the future?

4. Keep people at the center

Always consider the target user, as each activity offers a chance to discover unique, hidden, or unaddressed needs. Maintain a user-centric approach throughout the entire development process.

What would the affected people say about our design?

5. Invite diverse perspectives to the table

Designing for people excels when it unites individuals with diverse perspectives and disciplines, as the unique problem-solving approaches of various participants can result in innovative solutions.

Invite users or industry experts to provide fresh perspectives on your project. Their unique insights and experiences will unlock new ways of thinking and creative solutions to challenges.


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6. Stay curious

Throughout each stage of the design process, ask new questions frequently. This leads to novel discoveries and sparks inspiration.

What questions could we ask to inspire new ways of thinking?

Many of these mindsets were developed as a first draft working with the Knight Foundation on a Rockefeller Grant during the Reimagining the Civic Commons project I did with Njoki Gitahi and Jacqueline Cooksey.

Waypoint 003

We all need aids to navigation during our journey. Sometimes the waypoints are fixed and known; though often they are temporary and fleeting. Here are some of my current waypoints focused on Homecoming and our individual journey.



THE QUEUE

With the passing of Queen Elizabeth, we’ve seen a very British transition of power, with all sorts of rituals from days of yore, including the Royal Beekeeper  informing the Queen’s bees of the Queen’s death. But for me, the most British thing was The Queue: the 5+ mile long/24+ hour long queue to pay respects to the Queen, which stretched along the River Thames, and supported by Queue-side amenities such as restrooms (loo’s), aid stations, and pubs (!!!).


CALIFORNIA DREAMING

California, you beautiful place. Years of organizing have produced a state-wide movement toward allowing a greater range of housing then before, rolling back 50 years of unnecessary fixation on single-family detached homes. An array of bills have passed: AB 2097 which allows for ministerial approval of affordable housing on commercially-zoned lands, SB 886 which exempts student housing from CEQA review, and AB 2221 which makes it easier to build ADU’s. But the big one is AB 2097 which eliminates parking minimums near transit. 

All of this shows that state preemption allowing people to do more, and build more, on their land is an effective strategy. I don’t think we’ve found a unifying strategy about what constitutes “good” state preemption, versus “bad” state preemption. 


CONTROL PANELS

For a project I’m working on I’ve been doing a deep dive into control panels of all kinds. I’m especially interested in control panels from the Mid Century and control surfaces for complex systems. Our predominant interaction surface these days is a plane of glass or plastic, so having specific buttons, knobs, and lights excite me.


A MOST GOV TECH THING

Supporting The Queue was a curious YouTube channel created by an agency, with a very small island name: the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. This YouTube channel was just a livestream running on a laptop, sitting on a cubicle, in a building somewhere in Whitehall. A custom back-end was coded to update the feed, and it unhelpfully used a confusing system of physical geolocation called What3Words, where three words are mapped to physical forms. This is both horrifying for using a confusing geolocation system, but amazing that this was cobbled together in 3 days according to a consultant who helped bring this to life.


WELCOME TO WREXHAM

Nominally about Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds buying a football club in Wales, the program is actually a portrait about a community trying to rebuild and find itself again. The show is certainly entertaining, but I find the documentary format hard to process and stay in the moment. It raises all sorts of questions as to the show’s authenticity, artifice, and storytelling ethics. Well worth your time.


MIDJOURNEY

I’ve been playing around with a suite of AI generated tools for a bit. We did a collaboration with an AI text generator for Issue 2. I’ve been playing with Midjourney every couple of days, testing out prompts and outputs. It is certainly a toy for now, but I’ve been looking to try to use it for projects with mixed success. Most of my time is trying to find ways to get Midjourney outside their “house style” of image creation.


Purchase this issue

These waypoints come from our third issue – Homecoming – which is still for sale. Please support local journalism and purchase your copy today!

Waypoint 002

We all need aids to navigation during our journey. Sometimes the waypoints are fixed and known; though often they are temporary and fleeting. Here are some of my current waypoints.


OUR IMPACT

It isn’t lost on us that writing a climate-focused issue has a direct impact on the climate. There is some hypocrisy here, or at least vanity that what we have to say is worth the carbon and energy. I’m not here to debate that last part, but we did spend some time exploring our energy chain to see what our impact is. Below is our environmental impact, on a run of 500 issues. We are assessing different carbon extraction / sequestration services to offset this release. But wow, this whole sector just screams i am a scam.

ITEMCO2 in kg
Manufacture45.33 kg
Shipping from LON118.11 kg
Shipping product to you81.20 kg
Mailpiece creation64.96 kg
Per return letter10.00  kg
TOTAL319.60 kg


WHO YOU THINK SHOWS UP

In racial disparities in housing politics  researchers Katherine Levine Einstein et al show that the people who show up to zoning meetings are richer, whiter, and more often own property then the community they reside, creating equity and inclusion problems. Even in highly diverse communities, meetings are dominated by whites who oppose new housing, potentially distorting the housing supply to their benefit.


VOICES STILL MUTED

The same group of researchers issued still muted: the limited participatory democracy of zoom public meetings which shows that participants in online forums are quite similar to those in in-person ones. They are similarly unrepresentative of residents in their broader communities, and similarly overwhelmingly opposed to the construction of new housing.


EPA DESIGN SYSTEM

The US Environmental Protection Agency design system and logo by Chermayeff & Geismar, led by design director Steff Geissbuhler, is worth your time to review, and celebrate.


BIG DUMB BOXES

I implore architects to think about the value of big dumb boxes. They don’t need to be plain or ugly – SoHo is full of them – they just need to be easily adapted to evolving building needs.


FORCED AGING IN PLACE

Baby Boomers will eventually want to downsize their homes as their household size decreases. Arthur Nelson explores the mismatch between existing housing and possible future housing in the study, the great senior short-sale or why policy inertia will short change millions of america’s seniors. He identifies existing housing policy which might cause seniors to sell their homes at a perceived or actual loss.


PARTICIPATORY VOICE

Brigitte Geißel and Pamela Heß write in determinants of successful participatory governance: the case of local agenda 21, and find that dialogue-oriented procedures of local municipalities only works if the municipality is strongly committed to participatory involvement of their citizens and if it has invested in staff and support to carry out the aims of its’ citizens.


COMMITTEE TO END PAY TOILETS IN AMERICA

I keep thinking about how there was a grassroots political organization in the 1970’s called Committee To End Pay Toilets In America which was the driving force in eliminating all pay toilets across America. Resulting in functionally eliminating all public toilets in America, because municipalities were loath to provide these as a safe service.


NEW REDLINING EVIDENCE

In a new paper entitled, New Evidence On Redlining By Federal Housing Programs In The 1930s by Fishback et al, the authors find that the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), from its inception in the 1930s, did not insure mortgages in low income urban neighborhoods where the vast majority of urban Black Americans lived. Meaning the infamous Redline maps (above) had less impact than original racist lending by the FHA in the 1930’s. 


FINANCING CONSTRAINTS

New evidence from during the pandemic that the increase in home prices was driven by demand, as supply (or lack thereof) was a minor part. Elliot Anenberg and Daniel Ringo and write in Volatility In Home Sales And Prices: Supply Or Demand? how sensitive the housing market is to changes in mortgage rates. If we want builders to be able to produce a wider-range of housing types – to match the actual variation of American family units – then we need the FHA and Freddie/Fannie to offer a wider range of mortgage packages for multifamily homes, small units,  live-work, co-housing, ADU’s etc.


AESTHETICS OVER CLIMATE

I think a lot about this new seven floor residential building in my backyard. It’s designed by Dieguez Fridman and Beyer Blinder Belle. You are looking at a south-facing facade with zero outside shading. Which means that it’s at least 63 feet of uninterrupted and unshaded glass, where the heat of the sun bakes the occupants and increases the air conditioning load. The designer locked-in 50-plus years of unnecessary cooling because they decided they couldn’t add exterior shading, or an alternative facade design. 

This is bad.


Purchase this issue

These waypoints come from our second issue – Scorching – which is still for sale. Please support local journalism and purchase your copy today!

If I were the King of Zoning

Spend any amount of time on the internet – Nextdoor, Facebook, or Twitter for instance – and housing comes up, with contention reigns supreme; the online user interface optimizes for engagement (outrage) rather than understanding.

Facebook has to sell the ads to someone. Often the discourse becomes overly simplified into two warring camps: NIMBYS and YIMBYS, and all the different flavors across who and what gets built in our neighborhoods.


If you want to read more, our second issue Scorching is now on sale.


If I were the king of zoning in America, these are the initial policy proposals I would implement, in order to increase abundance, reduce cost of housing, and make sure that everyone has access to a safe home.


Mixed use by default

All the famous streets in America – Bourbon, Broadway, Beacon – all have offices, restaurants, or stores on the ground floor with more up above or homes above. Mixed use should be the default city-wide.


As-of-right zoning

A big problem in many cities is that there isn’t an as of right permitting process, it’s all conditional. As-of-right is when a building can be built as long as the building use and the size, shape, and location of the building conforms to the zoning.

This is how it is in New York City, but not places such as San Francisco. Shifting to this process streamlines the process, everyone knows what is allowed on a given site, it remove an unnecessary veto point, and it removes a potential point of graft: supervisors or council members can’t extort donations for approvals.


Diverse home types

We need to allow a wider range of home types to match American’s needs. We need: single room occupancies, co-housing, tiny homes, duplexes, fourplexes, and all the missing middle housing we used to build.


No Parking Minimums & Parking Maximums

Get rid of all off-street parking minimums which increase the cost of building units, locks in car dependency, and makes the street wall and sidewalk dead. On the other end, we need parking maximums so we don’t lock in car dependency and builders don’t over- build useless parking. There should be no off street parking allowed within a 10 minute walk of quality transit.


More Ownership Models

We need a wider range of home ownership models; we need more co-ops, community land trusts, community building trusts, co-housing, fractional ownership, long-term-tenancy, con- dos, etc. This requires both a more permissive legal framework, and a more expansive bank financing then we currently have. THE FHA needs to back-up and collateralize a wider set of loan products outside just single family homes.


Abolish Single Family Detached Requirements 

If people still want to keep or build single family homes, great. But if you want duplexes, triplexes, and quads we should be able to build those through- out our neighborhoods. These miss- ing middle typologies were prevalent throughout America until racist zoning came into play last century. It’s OK to admit we made a mistake.


Public Housing

Cities can borrow money cheaper than most organizations, have a vested interest in housing people, and provide for their residents. They should build housing like Singapore’s HPD through- out every city-owned parcel, and they should acquire land or buildings like Barcelona has to increase units. The US Government needs to repeal the Faircloth Amendment allowing municipalities the ability to build more public housing as they see fit to augment market-rate housing production.


Housing bonus next to transit

Any lot within a 10-15 minute walk from high-quality transit – subway, elevated, streetcar, or Bus Rapid Transit – should look like Paris. Who doesn’t love Paris? This would give us a neighborhood of 4-6 stories of mixed-use buildings, with small offices, restaurants, or stores at the base. This is how most of America looked for most of our short existence. Make neighborhoods great again.


Car-free neighborhoods

A big impediment to safe streets are cars: they are great tools to travel fur- ther than 20-40 miles and can cross the country. But they have no place in cities. The number of people being injured or killed by cars has exploded in the last 5 years. Follow Barcelona’s lead by creating “Superblocks” where vehicles aren’t allowed. Paris also is following suit. Deliveries can be accomplished through e-bikes and safety vehicles can still access through gates.


I hope you found this point of view helpful. We are independently publishing a monthly zine / pamphlet with a lot of help from our friends. You can purchase the first two copies below and help keep this boat afloat.

The Bowerbird

With apologies to Harry Beck, TfL, and basically everyone.

A few weeks ago I got it into my head that what the world needs is another tube-like map, but for American housing. We continue to have issues with housing all our people – there are many people unhooked, people who spend too much of their annual budget on rent, those who want to buy but can’t, and those who want to downsize but can’t because the market is so hot.

These examples don’t just happen in high-employment markets such at New York, San Francisco, Boston, etc but are happening in Sun Valley, Columbus, Ohio and many other communities

What pushed me over the edge was Darrell Owens’ Who’s Who: The Dictionary of ‘-In My Backyard’ which put together a taxonomy and explainer of who’s who in the housing discourse.

The Bowerbird

The Bowerbird combines excuses to not build, the major players: government, NIMBY’s, YIMBY’s, builders, and such. Throw in some zoning and procedure tactics, and different typologies of homes, and all of a sudden we have a slightly disjointed faux-transport diagram.

You can get a print version in Issue 2: Scorching and since you are nice people, you can use the free shipping code, freeshipping



Besides being inspired by maps in general, The Bowerbird has great deal of legacy owed to the 1992 lithography by Simon Patterson called The Great Bear.

I’m looking for feedback and hopefully include a copy in an upcoming issue.

Toolchain, or how we make this happen

A few people asked how I put this together, as a one-person production house, and since I received so many recommendations from different people, I wanted to put them all here. I’ll update this as we evolve the toolchain. None of the products below are sponsored or have I been compensated in using them.

Everything below could be summarized as: yes this is all hard, and yes people have figured this out before you came along, and yes, this is why so much has moved to digital distribution. You aren’t a special snowflake, welcome to Matter Battle.

I was pleasantly surprised how much of the tooling was available on-demand, and much of it was interconnected. There are certainly one-stop-shops available and local print shops, but a big driver was allowing me to do this “after hours” so that my day job wouldn’t be affected. So negotiation with print houses during regular business hours didn’t seem to be a good use of my limited time.

Editorial

A lot of this involves a combination of Apple and Google web products at the beginning, then laying out on InDesign. Typically things have flowed this way:

  1. I start thinking by jotting quick thoughts in Apple Notes, allowing me to dash off quick thoughts wherever I am, which then syncs up via iCloud to my various devices.
  2. I’ll send questions to contributors via email which then get combined into a Google Doc. This is when the article or interview shifts to something which is going to happen for a future issue.
  3. Interviews are conducted on Zoom, which I have a closed caption transcription which I save out at the end of the interview. This gets dumped into the google doc as a raw transcript. I can then copy and past chunks to crate a rough draft, and any revisions.
  4. Any feedback, proofing, fact checking, or review is handled in the google docs. When every one is about 90% happy, then I can throw it into InDesign.

Production

I went back and forth on how to print all this out, from doing it all in-house or buying a RISO printer or having a RISO house print it or just use a print on print-on-demand service to fulfill the design. I needed to be excited about producing something different, and I needed the ability to outsource the production because I don’t have time to run a full-time in-house printshop. I wish I could hire a part/full-time graphic designer and had the room for a full production facilities, but maybe in the future.

I went back and forth with a series of print-on-demand services, but the size and cost for a product which really wasn’t differentiated from me just printing on my printer didn’t really get me excited.

For a hot second I was going to do the whole thing on a RISO printer here in NYC – but I idon’thave room for a printer, the learning curve I was afraid was going to be steep, and the size, cost, etc didn’t really align with what I needed at the time. Though if you are looking at RISO check out Secret Riso Club – they are awesome.

I’ve always wanted an excuse to use Newspaper Club, a UK-based print-on-demand service to print on real newsprint. After receiving their free sample pack, I thought that the format was different enough from what I’ve seen in the zine/pamphlet market that I made the decision to go down this route for the first few issues.

Once the print production was decided, then Newspaper Club had easy to follow templates I could use in In Design.

Oh Adobe InDesign, you expensive, useful, and clunky piece of software. It’s a thing to cause frustration and make life easier. Adobe PageMaker it is not. A big part of the initial time investment was getting bth inspired by other newspaper examples, understanding what content I needed to include, and creating a clear hierarchy. I’m probably 80% there. It could be better.

There were multiple half-sized sets, and then full-sized sets printed in-house.

Once I was happy with the layout I ended up purchasing a single copy proof from Newspaper Club where I added a bunch of extra pages with varying sizes, colors, fonts/types, etc so I could be confident that the full run would look good and be legible.

Once I finalized the content, then creating the PDF and uploading it to Newspaper Club was easy, and they had automatic digital proofing, which was nice to confirm that the investment wasn’t going to go sideways.

Then in about 5 days my stack of 5 boxes showed up at my door. Then I had to get them to actual readers.

Fulfilment

There’s really no fun in fulfillment, only a set of interlocking arcane rules, regulations, and existing form factors which were decided in time immemorial. This is where the digital, currency, taxes, and mail all intersect in a Gordian knot. I think I know what I’m doing, but the scale is so small that I think I can afford some mistakes.

Storefront: WooCommerce

I know WordPress and it was easy enough to spin up a new WordPress instance on my existing Site Ground hosted environment. WooCommerce is a plugin by the makers of WordPress which allows you to create a digital storefront inside WordPress. There are lot’s of different settings, and it can be a bit overwhelming. But with this I can calculate taxes, shipping, weight, etc. for a range of products, and create coupons and track sales.

I looked at sites such as Big Cartel and other on-demand storefronts, but I wanted to own the toolchain.

I thought of also using Etsy as a separate sales channel, but the pricing and overhead might not be worth it and I frankly haven’t wanted to spend the time looking deeper into it.Instagram Shop interests me, but it has taken long time to get “approved” and I don’t trust Facebook at all.

Plugins used

  • WooCommerce Payments – Accept payments via credit card. Manage transactions within WordPress (backed by Stripe, I already had a Stripe account)
  • Facebook for WooCommerce – connects WooCommerce product list to sell in Facebook/Instagram
  • WooCommerce Shipping & Tax – automated tax calculation, shipping label printing, and smoother payment setup.
  • MailPoet 3 – helps make email easier for WooCommerce (free below 5000 emails/month)

Packaging: 12×9 Manila envelope

Packaging is complex and there are many different rules the USPS follows. This took a ton of time to understand, and now I know why some zines/pamphlets are the size they are in order to optimize for mailing. Because our issue size is larger than a First Class Envelope, we ship using the Large Envelope (Flat). In the future we might adjust our form factor to optimize for smaller shipping, especially if we want to ship more overseas.

I’d love to upgrade this to something more distinct or unique, but for now I’m trying to keep shipping costs low so I can pass that savings onto readers.

Shipping: PirateShip & WooCommerce

Shipping has been the hardest to figure out. I love the USPS and it is a force for bringing America together. But, it and everything around it is antiquated. Figuring out shipping has taken way more time than I anticipated. I’ve been testing out two different systems, with some different costs:

  • Pirate Ship: has really great integration with WooCommerce, and it’s easy to both setup recurring shipping templates, and I particularly like that I can pre-purchase postage on my account and just draw down from that. There’s connections to USPS, UPS, FedEx, and DHL which is nice in case I need to send things overseas, but they aren’t necessarily what I need right now. The cheapest option is First Class Package Commercial Pricing, which tends to be about twice expensive as First Class Postage.
  • WooCommerce Shipping: a free extension (really another plugin) to WooCommerce which handles the USPS shipping and prints out First Class Postage.

Label Printing: Rollo x1040

This thermal printer was suggested by multiple members of a builder/maker group I’m part of (hello The Prepared, you should become a member too) and it was the path of least resistance. It’s…fine. I use 4×6 labels and it works ok.

The future

In the future I’d love to explore the following to make the packaging a little nicer:

  • Custom Washi Tape from maybe MoMo Washi
  • Stamps & embossing
  • Alternative envelopes

Pick up a copy!