Disegno No.5

Vitamins' Lego Calendar: playing with time


2 October 2013

Vitamins Design and Invention Studio's new Lego Calendar combines the analogue plastic toy with our existing digital organisational systems.

Vitamins is a London-based collarboation between the designers Duncan Fitzsimons, Clara Gaggero and Adrian Westaway. Known for its innovative approach towards rethinking everyday objects, the studio has invented wheels as collapsible as the rest of a folding wheelchair and designed wearable medical devices that are more streamlined and less intimidating than traditional devices.

Vitamins' wide variety of projects are unified by a playful approach that questions how we actually use and experience objects – an approach that is on display in the studio's latest project, a wall-mounted calendar made of Lego. The system is a new way to visualise time in order for small offices to plan their workflow over a three month period.

In the calendar, time is manifested as square plastic blocks of Lego that are each colour-coded to correspond to a particular project. The project uses an analogue format to make scheduling a fun and communal activity, but it also allows for digitisisation using technology built into any smartphone. Users simply take a photograph of the blocks, email it to a particular address, and the information is digitised into a Google Calendar.

The project was featured in the Forecast section of Disegno No.5. Here, to accompany a video made by Vitamins about the project and how it works, we publish an interview with the studio about the calendar, what it does and how it will soon be available to everyone.

What made you decide to do this project?
Adrian Westaway We think everyone could make their organisation a little bit better. We’ve not met anyone who thinks they are organised enough. Once we really had that idea in our head, we thought about how we organise ourselves in our projects and as a studio. People have lists on iPhones, post-it notes, the mega-list and then a mini-list that comes with them in a book. Then there are people who write things on the back of their hand or email themselves, we use that with the Google Calendar to do all of our projects. It just got really messy; we all did different things.

Clara Gaggero We also looked at how some companies we work with organise their teams and started seeing extreme cases of project timelines that are very detailed with all the tasks you need to do by a certain time. They were almost a bit too detailed. We have a small office, only 10 people in a room, so we need to know if they’re available or not, which project they’re working on and when they will be next available so that they can work on the next project.

AW Google Calendar is great for synchronisation if someone’s travelling. You don’t get that on post-its. But then, whenever we start a project, we never manage to sit in front of a screen and map out three months of work. You lose that sense of scale; especially just knowing what that much time looks like?

How did you decide to use Lego?
AW The pop-up reminders from digital calendars can be annoying; it would be great sometimes if you could just know these things without having to be prodded. Obviously a white board on a wall is brilliant for that because you can be on the phone, glance over, and you know. We knew that we wanted it to somehow take advantage of the digital, because we didn’t want to replace Google Calendars. And we knew we wanted to make it quite flexible, not putting in too much detail that forces you to work in a specific way. We didn’t want to erase all the little post-its on people’s desks. If they are useful, people should carry on using them. So with this picture in mind, we thought of using Lego. It’s just this fantastically modular thing that’s super tangible and really delightful, and would allow us to have sufficient resolution to do the sort of planning that we wanted to do.

How does the calendar work?
AW The calendar works over three months to know what you’ve done or if things are continuing. Each one of us in the studio has a Lego figurine and a row. Each column is a day of the month and each colour is a project. We chose the resolution of a half day so you can set it up one Lego block for four hours and another for the remaining four hours. This works more for the resource planning side of things.

CG You have to imagine that we, particularly for consultancy work, quote on time. How much time we spend on a particular project can now be measured in blocks. When we start putting it on the calendar then you can see it quite clearly.

Duncan Fitzsimons Also if something changes and you need to move a meeting or a chunk of work to three days later, you can take it off and move it along so you don’t lose track of how much time you have allocated. But also if there’s another project booked in, you have to remove that brick, and then you’ve got another three bricks in your hand that you’ve got to put somewhere. In a completely wonderful and lightweight way, you’re forced to keep track of all the time allocated and to reallocate any time you move.

While the calendar is fun to play with in studio, how does it work when you travel?
AW We realised that using an analogue system had massive limitations so we did look into some hilarious ways of solving that like making an arm that could ride along the top using lego technics. But this detracted from the beautiful simplicity of it. We then thought of someone taking a photo of it, which could be emailed across for people to see and that’s when the idea of the computer interpreting it came across.

As a user, when you want to synchronise it with the cloud or your digital calendar, you just take a photo of it with any phone. It’s not an app; we made it so that it’s just a photo that you email to an address specific to your calendar. That way, anyone can use it from any phone. The computer then immediately takes that image and pulls out the colours of the blocks and where they are. All of this happens in literally seconds and then, it syncs with Google, which identifies each project and each person involved at what time.

In the reverse situation where you need to change something while away, there is the problem that it can’t just magically change the Lego configuration if you change the entries on Google. What we’ve done at the moment is really cute – the calendar’s email address sends you back a picture saying 'Can you please move that brick to there.' You’re actually forced to be aware of what’s changed and it just took away another layer of tech. This is just Lego on a wall. There is nothing behind it. In fact, you’ve bought the tech already, it’s in your phone.

Can anyone go out and make their own version with some Lego?
AW The code for this to work will be open source. We’re going to put it all online soon so anyone can use it. We’ll see what happens but depending on the response that we get we might make a site where you could put in your team size and it would just give you a shopping cart of Lego, of the supplies you need to make your own calendar. But we want to see what people do with it. It’s still evolving and we’re still thinking about it and different ways in which you can use it. It started off as just us looking at each other’s post-it notes; it’s been really nice to get it to this stage.