Disegno #21

The Dead Letter Office


22 March 2019

In the 15 years that followed its privatisation in 1995, the German postal service sold all but 24 of its 29,000 post-office buildings and cut some 140,000 jobs. Following this sell-off, its services were relocated to banks, convenience stores or even, in rural areas, the front rooms of private homes.

The layoffs and offloading of Deutsche Post’s commercial assets were chiefly driven by the realisation that declining demand for traditional postal services – then decreasing around 1 to 2 per cent annually in many countries – was not simply a temporary blip but actually indicative of a lasting change in society. “We realised that being a national postal provider was an endangered business, that we had to redefine the role of postal providers in a digital world,” said Clemens Beckmann, executive vice president of innovation for the German post office’s mail division, when speaking to The New York Times in 2011. In subsequent years, Beckmann’s observation has been echoed by postal executives across the globe as countries seek to reimagine their services for citizens who no longer send letters, but who increasingly receive packages given the rise of e-commerce. By and large, however, imaginative solutions to postal difficulties are constrained by their status as public services and their need to deliver to every citizen’s address, six days a week. Consequently, strategies for reinvention have largely concentrated on the creation of digital services and cost savings.

In this climate of change, France’s La Poste has sought fresh ideas to stem declining revenues and believes it may have found one solution in a peculiar combination of consumer-focused design and Silicon Valley culture. Two years ago, La Poste announced the creation of Yellow Innovation (named for the colour of La Poste’s corporate identity), a start-upinspired research hub to develop and test new products for the consumer market. “People don’t send letters anymore,” says Philippe Mihelic, Yellow Innovation’s creative director. “The rate goes down by around 8 per cent per year, but La Poste employs 250,000 people. It must provide different services – develop the business in other ways – to maintain those jobs.” Although France is not traditionally renowned for its start-up industries, in 2016 alone – the same year that Yellow Innovation was founded – technology start ups in France, including ridesharing BlaBlaCar and audio brand Devialet, raised €2.2bn. In one of the city’s former rail stations, the incubator Station F opened its mammoth doors in late 2017 with space for 1,000 ventures. Funded in part by the billionaire telecoms entrepreneur Xavier Niel, and supported by the likes of Facebook and Microsoft, it’s now the largest organisation of its kind in the world. “It’s a curious wave,” Mihelic says. “France has had a culture of innovation which no one knew about before, but digitalisation has really made everything explode. At CES [the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where Yellow Innovation presents new products], we are now the nation with the fifth-largest presence.”

Desk clutter in the Yellow Innovation office in Paris’s second arrondissement.

During the heyday of mail, huge volumes of post were delivered multiple times a day – in France, as elsewhere. In early 20th-century London, for example, many districts carried out 12 deliveries daily; today, there’s only one a day and none on Sunday. Between 1907 and 1915, the US Postal Service estimated that one billion penny postcards were mailed each year. But since the 2000s, and the rise of both email and e-commerce, industrialised nations have largely turned away from snail-mail and towards package shipping as citizens increasingly shop online. Although this is rarely appreciated, most national post offices are mainly business-to-business companies, explains Mihelic. “The post delivers parcels to you, but you aren’t really a client of the post; you are only one step in the delivery process,” he says. “Because [letter services] were disrupted by email, and because we deliver less mail and more packages, La Poste must speak to the end-user directly and create new services.” Yellow Innovation emerged as the direct result of such concerns. La Poste is divided into five branches: Services-Mail-Parcels, La Banque Postale, Network La Poste, GeoPost and Digital Services. It was from the Digital Services branch that the idea first emerged for an innovation hub to design consumer products. “La Poste is actually a big driver of innovation, but it has always focused on incremental business-to-business innovation, such as how to improve logistics and efficiencies,” says Mihelic. “Yellow Innovation is the only division to focus on new services for the consumer market. We take ideas and make the best prototype possible in four months before testing it on the market.” If a prototype should prove successful, Yellow would either hand it over to one of the five branches for industrialisation, or work out how to manufacture and bring it to market itself.

In practice, Yellow Innovation has the freedom to identify problems or projects for development across any of the five branches of La Poste, or indeed any broader social topics of interest. “We work in many different ways because our mission is to help people,” says Mihelic. “When we hear people say that they have a problem in life, that’s the kind of problem we would like to resolve.” To address such issues, Yellow also has the leeway to work with freelance designers or independent companies as best suits the need of any given product. This is one of the key reasons Yellow Innovation has its own office and workshop in the second arrondissement, in the centre of Paris, independent of La Poste’s headquarters on the other side of the Boulevard Périphérique. Not only does this separate base mean that the work of Yellow can take place relatively free from the internal politics of La Poste but, as Mihelic adds, also that it is easier to attract talent because of the central location.

Mihelic and his team of around 30 people – comprising, among others, four creative directors, software engineers and product designers – seem to be racing through projects and prototypes. Much of this is down to Mihelic himself. Formerly creative director of the Fullsix agency (acquired in 2015 by Havas, one of France’s largest advertising organisations), Mihelic is enthusiastic about his work and seems to have his fingers in every project, revealing an obsessive attention to detail. During a walk-through of the Yellow office, Mihelic stops briefly to chat with someone working on a prototype of an in-progress project – high-fashion postal clothing. It looks like something a Tour de France cyclist might wear if their sponsor were La Poste (no, I don’t get it either), but Mihelic takes a quick look and asks for the drawings to be sent over later for a closer inspection. As much as Yellow Innovation is the business-to-consumer R&D wing of La Poste, Mihelic is clearly its driving force. When I ask whether he thinks he is controlling about Yellow’s output, Mihelic is reflective: “It’s difficult to say how I work, but I do give the team a lot of freedom. What I can say is that I know the people I work with very well and what they produce is often as I had imagined it. It’s a collaboration.”

116 Technology Yellow’s team is currently around 30-people strong.

According to research undertaken for a 2016 United States Postal Service (USPS) report, the most innovative digital-post systems are those of Finland, Switzerland, Italy and Austria. These four countries continue to provide traditional services, but have also used technology to diversify. This increase in digital services and diversification in the sector is pushing the post to ever-more-imaginative, occasionally ridiculous heights. Take Finland, where in 2015, Posti, the country’s postal service, reported a net sales loss of around €76m. Because of such losses, Posti launched an increasingly bizarre series of offerings, such as the ability to hire a postal worker to mow your lawn for €65 per month. In Switzerland, by contrast, where a unique political system sees citizens vote in referendums up to four times per year, Swiss Post has been developing an e-voting platform. Although critics have argued that hackers could tamper with it to rig votes, last year the Swiss government opted to expand e-voting across the country (in at least 18 of the country’s 26 cantons) by October 2019. On a broader scale, Swiss Post has also instigated a Development & Innovation business unit that looks to develop new products and business areas, including drone development for logistics, e-health platforms and carbon-neutral shipping.

In contrast to focusing on client logistics and efficiencies, Yellow’s mission is to concentrate on La Poste’s end-users. “We don’t have a brief, we have a baseline and that is to simplify people’s lives,” says Mihelic. “But my [personal] mission was that I wanted to build something that creates new businesses and tests a lot of things, whether products or otherwise.” So, what products or services might the French post office want to offer its consumers? If some of the answers Yellow Innovation has provided to such questions seem logical and considered, others are rather unexpected. At the logical end of the spectrum might be its redesign of La Poste’s branches based on analysis of local-user data. Although obvious in hindsight, the notion that post offices shouldn’t necessarily offer the same services in every branch but should be adapted to best serve the needs of their local communities is simple and resourceful.

To test its theory, Yellow Innovation is redesigning a branch of La Poste for students on a university campus in Roubaix, near Lille. “We created a methodology that explains that when a post office is close to a university it needs to provide certain services that are different to those of a post office near the Eiffel Tower or in the countryside,” Mihelic says. “The methodology enables you to determine exactly what kind of services you have to provide.”

On the more unexpected end of the spectrum, the Yellow Innovation team has also designed a connected hard drive and an electric bike. Lumi, the office’s first project in collaboration with product and interior designer Pauline Deltour, is a portable networked hard drive linked to a lamp that signals when photos have successfully uploaded to the cloud. Le Vélo (the electric bike), another collaboration with Deltour, is an impressive example of Mihelic’s strategy to build expertise and prototypes as quickly as possible. Mihelic is also quick to point out that although it may seem like the Yellow Innovation team is designing one product after another, what the office is really attempting to do is to create products connected to a network of potential business opportunities for La Poste. “We think of each product as a services platform,” he says. “So, Le Vélo is an electric bike, but it’s also a services platform. It’s like an Apple watch in that anyone who wants to develop a new functionality or new service [for it] can do so.”

If Deltour’s Le Vélo bike frame isn’t overly headturning (perhaps a good thing for an urban bike), its details are certainly noteworthy. Computerised navigation systems have been integrated into a bright yellow box between the handlebars. Ingeniously, the user interface for the navigation system has been incorporated into the brake levers as buttons on either side. A slimmed-down battery with four hours of travel time is hidden within the down tube of the frame, while a smaller battery pack – which can be charged with a USB to cover journeys of up to 30 minutes – plugs in discreetly underneath the cross bar. “The idea behind the bike was that it should be super urban as well as super flexible,” says Deltour. “Its electric components should be invisible, so that you can’t tell it’s an electric bike.” Although the result is a single object with a corresponding app, Le Vélo paves the way for La Poste to implement (and earn money from) a range of related infrastructure such as cycle lanes, maintenance garages and charging points. When I ask whether or not that infrastructure will be put in place in advance of the bike coming to market, Mihelic says no: “At this point, we are simply testing a product. When someone buys the first bike, then La Poste will have to move forward on the infrastructure.”

A protoype for Lé Velo, an electric bike designed by Pauline Deltour for Yellow.

As of 2018, however, Yellow Innovation’s flagship project is Monimalz, a digital piggy bank that has also been designed by Deltour. First pitched as an idea back in September 2016, Monimalz became available to buy in France in November 2018, with a view to launching in anglophone markets in 2019. Sold online at monimalz.com, as well as at Le Bon Marché and Publicis Drugstore, two high-end Parisian department stores, Monimalz is Yellow Innovation’s first product to be taken from prototype to production. Monimalz is a piggy bank linked to an app that allows parents or other friends and family to send money to children virtually. One option on the parents’ app interface allows them to establish a list of chores that can be completed for money that is then deposited into the bank. Another option is similar to WeChat’s redenvelope function, which allows any amount of money to be sent for birthdays, holidays or no reason at all. “Initially, we had the idea to create a connected piggy bank,” says Deltour, “but from the very beginning we had big debates about why we wanted to have a money display in a child’s room. Because of that, the money aspect is now only a small part of what Monimalz can do.”

Those initial concerns encouraged Mihelic, Deltour (who led on the design of the physical object) and the rest of the team to expand its functionality. Now, Monimalz includes educational features: it can tell a child the weather in the morning after a musical alarm goes off, or bedtime stories in the evening after a teeth-brushing game; there’s a word-a-day lesson in English and an automatic deactivate function in the evening that disconnects it from wifi. Future iterations may include coding lessons. For those who might express concerns about the gamification of the parent-child relationship or worries about data collection and its later monetisation, Mihelic argues that Monimalz information is fully securitised. As for the financialisation of parenting, it is worth noting that parents have long used the motivating power of money to cajole their children into performing chores. There is, however, an option to somewhat de-monetise the Monimalz and incentivise children to complete chores for “nuts” rather than money. The “nuts” can then be used to buy accessories for their virtual Monimalz.

The Monimalz piggy bank is the first physical product from Yellow Innovation to hit the market. The base unit of the device can be accessorised with magnetic decorative elements that transform the Monimalz unit into one of three animals.

The fact that Yellow Innovation’s design team has incorporated a de-monetised option for its connected piggy bank speaks to the fact that, although Monimalz is a networked object, it seems to have side-stepped the pitfalls of many Internet-of-Things devices. Unlike a smart home-security system or connected smart fridge – the former of which might malfunction and leave your front door unlocked and the latter of which might be used to increase your health-insurance premium through monitoring your diet – it’s difficult to see anything overtly sinister in Monimalz. Although children can receive money from friends and relatives via its interface, they can’t then call those same relatives via Skype. Similarly, although Monimalz might remind a child to do their homework, it’s not possible for them to use the device to fact-check answers (and thus be tracked and traced) via Google, as with an Alexa. It is, mercifully, more limited than smartphones, which a quarter of children under six now own, according to a recent study by technology website musicMagpie.

The Monimalz itself is a minimal, blackboardgrey semicircular shell of injection-moulded plastic that can be customised with interchangeable magnetic pieces to create three different animals: a panda, a monkey or a whale (complete with tail). The shell rests on a charging dock, cleverly disguised as feet on the panda and monkey, and as eyes on the whale. It’s adorable, without being overly cutesy. And there’s not a pig in sight. “We asked kindergarten children to draw their ideal piggy bank and not one chose a pig,” Mihelic says. Hidden beneath the semicircular chassis is a grid of hundreds of square LEDs that activate when Monimalz receives money either virtually or physically. The team worked with a sound designer to engineer a distinctive noise when a coin is dropped in. “Although we want to produce as many innovations, as many products, as possible within a short timeframe,” says Mihelic, “it’s important that we make things that are simple, beautiful and impactful, and much of that is down to the details.”

Monimalz’s digital interface.

The icons that appear on the Monimalz body also carry over into the app interface. There’s something charming about the marriage of the body’s pixellated aesthetics with the slick, graphic illustrations of the phone-based app. The games are played between the app and the Monimalz body where the phone acts as a keyboard and the body a monitor. Kids can choose to play Johnny Smoothie, where a fox encourages them to select the correct type and number of fruits to make a smoothie, or Space Cochon (aka Space Pig), a game of simple arithmetic exercises, in which a flying pig shouts encouragement for correct answers. Even the packaging has been as carefully considered as anything from one of France’s luxury brands. Opening up the main box, you discover a nest of smaller boxes holding the body, the magnetic animal masks, an energy supply and the dock – all beautifully designed in rich, candy colours. One suspects that much of the strength of Monimalz’s aesthetic, and that of Yellow Innovation more broadly, is down to the influence of Deltour. There’s a strong sense of discipline to the designs of all her products for Yellow Innovation, but none more so than this. From the object to the app to the packaging, nothing is superfluous. Given Deltour’s four years working under the methodical eye of Konstantin Grcic in his Munich office before leaving to set up her own Paris-based studio in 2010, this is hardly a surprise. “Something I learned early on,” she says, “is that for any project you have to rethink your process of working.”

Where the role of the designer in consumer-sector postal services may previously have been restricted to corporate rebranding or limited-edition stamps, the model being developed by Yellow Innovation carves out interesting new territories. La Poste is still publicly owned and therefore the provision of employment remains an important motivation. Given the simple fact that people no longer send letters in large quantities, the postal industry must change if it is to survive. Whether or not Yellow Innovation proves to be a long-term success or to have any significant commercial impact on the French post office remains to be seen. As Mihelic admits, “because La Poste generates €24bn per year, anything we do here at Yellow is ridiculously small in comparison. We’re like the chien de traîneau [sled dogs] for the group. We put things on the market, we test them and perhaps tomorrow they might make big business. But it’s the business the post can create around the objects we test that is really important. The real business of the post is not visible to us, the consumer. It’s through networks, not objects, that we will solve problems.”