Who are you? What do you do?
My name is John V Willshire. I founded Smithery three years ago. It’s an innovation studio rooted in helping companies Make Things People Want, rather than Make People Want Things. I also make my own products, like Artefact Cards, which are blank playing cards for creating and shaping ideas. They help people play with their ideas in order to make them better. I’ve seen thousands of people use them to tap into creativity they never knew they had, but my favourite example was when our son James used them to draw ‘dragons’ for us to spot on a day out in nearby Ashdown Forest (the inspiration for the Hundred Aker Wood in Winnie the Pooh).
Close to the edge
We live in a small village called Plumpton Green in Sussex. Helen and I used to live in Brighton, and before that London, but we’ve been drifting out away from busy cities as we’ve got older and the kids arrived. I grew up on the edge of a town, and spent my childhood with friends hacking through the local woods, so maybe I’m subconsciously trying to provide the same for James and Charlotte as they grow up.
Balancing, a workshop in progress
Starting Smithery was the best decision I've ever made, but I didn't discover what it was until about six months into doing it. Nowadays, for anyone who works in an office, work life and family life have become harder to cleanly divide, largely because two incompatible systems, ‘email’ and ‘office’, have been compressed together without much care. Email has no respect for time nor geography, whereas the point of an office is that it is strictly constrained in both the ‘where’ and the ‘when’.
The danger is people pretty much end up working all the time, wherever you are, but are still expected to occupy a desk. In setting up Smithery, I tried to build a business around a family, rather than the other way around.
It means I can recut the traditional ‘three spaces’, and make the most of both time and productivity levels. I’ll work inside a client’s office, bumping up against the culture whilst working on things with them, work in the home office, being much closer to the rest of the family, or be out and about just soaking up interesting things (usually in London or Brighton).
Mornings, whatever day of the week, are family things for the first hour. The kids invariably wake us up sometime around six by shouting for us, or bounding in.
Then I’ll make tea for us, milk for the kids, and then we’ll all slowly wake up in the big bed. It’s only at about 7am that there’s a weekday / weekend split. Even if I’m working at home, I like working early, so we’ll all start getting up and head downstairs for breakfast. We usually just stick to cereal during the week, though we have ‘mixups’; you try and find interesting combinations of putting two different cereals together, just to see what they’re like. I think everyone does that with cereal though, at least some of the time.
The signal for ‘work time’ seems to be when I make coffee; I make two cups of coffee, white for Helen, black for me, using the Aeropress. It makes a super clean tasting coffee compared to most other methods, but’s it’s also really manual. It feels good to make something with your hands early in the day.
I’ll stick some music on to start working to. I realised something the other day - when I worked at the agency before (I was previously Chief Innovation Officer at PHD in London), I used to listen to lots of bands and albums on headphones, perhaps to escape someone else’s world. Now that I run my own thing, I seem to listen to ‘background’ stuff.
So a lot of what I listen to during the week are soundtracks. I’ve even tried to craft a perfect “get shit done” playlist, an hour and seventeen minutes to put on when something really needs doing. My Spotify and Last.FM algorithms are all messed up as a result though.
Urgency, or not
Here’s this divergent point from before - so 7 o’clock rolls around, and there’s no urgency about starting work, but we still start drifting downstairs. When we’ve got more time for breakfast, we often have eggs, but every so often we’ll make animal pancakes.
It started when James was younger, about eighteen months old maybe. One of his first words was ‘cat’, so when we were making pancakes I’d make him a cat (which is pretty easy in pancake batter - a big circle, small circle, tail and ears). Over the years though, it’s become a bit more complicated… dinosaurs were our most recent attempt, which turned out ok.
There’s something brilliant about pancakes as a lesson for life. No matter what you do, the first attempt, that first pancake in the pan, is going to be rubbish. You might just end up chucking it in the bin. But if you don’t make the first one, you’ve never get to make any of the good ones.
Our malleable world
After breakfast on non workdays, we can do things together that take a bit longer. We might make things with Makedo, the brilliant wee invention which is basically kid-friendly nuts & bolts for cardboard. What I love most about it is that it takes kids from pretending that a box is anything, to thinking about how they might make it work as that thing.
We’ve always enjoyed making things, of course, perhaps in a more formal way before we had kids though. Helen and I led a band called Gamages Model Train Club. Helen did a lot of making, especially with materials - blankets, toys, all sorts. I wrote a jokily angry column for a music magazine, which became angrily jokey. But then, you know, young kids change what you do, and have time to do.
Thinking about it now, I think we still have ‘hobbies’, but they’ve just become less formal. Rather than fixed targets for exploratory methods, it’s flipped around - fixed methods for whatever comes along. I’ve been thinking about the idea of This Malleable World - everything is made of things, so whoever you are, you can choose to make things out of other things.
As a family, I think our hobby might be just taking a general making approach and applying it to whatever comes along. Our hobby is tinkering with things.
Once we’re done messing around with things at home, we might pack a picnic and head out somewhere, either on our own or with friends. Living where we do, we’re lucky enough to be surrounded by great spaces to go and play around in; countryside, parks, beaches, old stately home gardens, all about a half hour hop in the car.
Let’s say the weather’s nice, it’s summer… we head to the beach, perhaps over to Birling Gap. The fascinating thing about Birling Gap is it’s gappishness - bits of it keep disappearing into the sea. Imagine a fragile version of the White Cliffs of Dover. It gives you a longer sense of perspective on things.
Finally, if it’s a weekend, I’m more likely to cook than I am during the week. I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but it’s only in the last five years or so I’ve felt happy enough putting recipes together myself, stealing little ideas from other places to try out. I’ve just about perfected my chilli recipe. Chorizo and a bottle of Poacher’s Choice as stock, that’s the secret.
Ideally, how does the weekend end?
I usually end up working on Sunday nights. When everyone’s disappeared off to bed, I head into the office, and just begin to noodle around with a few things for the coming week, or catch up on studio projects I want to make some progress on.
I really don’t mind though, I find Sunday nights to be a really fertile time for working, especially if we’ve had a great weekend. Plus, working this way means you can happily swap Sunday night for an afternoon in the park with the kids later in the week.
You can read more from John at Smithery.co, find him on Twitter @willsh, and work through better ideas with Artefact Cards.
All photos by Will Whipple. Will is a London based people based photographer with a healthy mix of technical and artistic depth. See more of his work at WillWhipple.com, and find him on Twitter @willwhipple.