The Internet connects us in a way like never before. Browse your interests a bit and, with the click of your mouse, you’ll soon discover an entire world of inspiration. That’s how it happened for Cedric Kiefer and Julia Laub, who founded onformative generative design studio in Berlin, Germany, in 2010. We talked with Kiefer about the company’s work and design style.
How did you and Julia meet and decide to create onformative? What originally got you interested in the type of information design that you currently specialize in?
How we got to know and found each other as a team is told best by our Skype visualization project, in which we made this our subject. We got to know each other via Skype back in 2008, when Julia found an interesting piece of my generative work on a blog and wrote me an email. We quickly realized that we are interested in the same topics. While Julia was working on the book Generative Gestaltung (Generative Design), I started to help her working on the book, and we got to know each other quite well via Skype.
One year after our first chat, we decided to found a studio focused on that kind of work, and I moved to Berlin. The Skype information visualization that we designed as a poster tells exactly that story by visualizing the first 3 years of our online communication. We first met via Skype on 08.08.2008. All of our Skype conversations and sent files from our first meeting then through our last conversation before we finally printed the poster are visualized in these data graphics. To sum it up we wrote, spanning three years, a total of 62,676 messages consisting of 2,531,434 characters.
Onformative claims to practice “generative design.” Could you explain the basic principles of what that is and where it is used?
Generative design is basically a new approach to design. Simply said, it’s about how images can be generated by using code instead of the traditional design tools. An image is no longer created “by hand,” but instead a visual idea is translated into a set of rules and implemented in a programming language in the form of source code. One of the great advantages is that, by changing simple parameters, whole imagery arises rather than producing only a single image. Depending on the interaction and special input and output, this often results in various different kinds of projects that can be used in different ways independent of the media. As described, the generative design process is not set to a medium, and the output can vary greatly depending on the application; therefore, it can also work in a completely different context. So our work ranges from generative corporate design tools like the Actelion Imagery Wizard to data visualization to all different kinds of interactive installations.
Another good example of the generative design approach allowing you to generate a whole variety of images rather than a single one, based on a defined rule set and some data used as input, is a project that we did for Montblanc. It’s an abstract data visualization of product specifications for the relaunch of the company’s new online shop. For each of the 200 watches sold in the virtual shop, we generated a unique artwork and animation. The product specifications (the DNA of the individual products) determined the specific appearance of the stage set for each product. And each product, thus, creates its own variation of the generative artwork following the rules of the algorithm.
You’ve mentioned that generative design allows designers to do things they normally wouldn’t be able to. What does generative design do differently compared to the traditional design process?
The design process is no longer divided up into concept, design, and production. Rather, the design process blends with the production process, and the product is created in many small iteration steps in which idea, design, and programming are always closely entwined. When writing one‘s own software, the creative work and implementation of these are mutually dependent, and the separation of design and production is abolished. Because one has very different insight into the working methods and detailed processes of one’s own software, there is far more room for experimentation at one’s disposal, which has a direct effect on the quality of the work.
We believe that generative design will establish itself as a new design discipline in the long term, in which more emphasis is put on the methodology than the visuality—a topic that we also keep trying to convey in our workshops. Generative design is, therefore, not going to replace existing design discipline, but it should and will be used in parallel with traditional design disciplines where it makes sense.
You’ve also mentioned that you draw a lot of inspiration from nature. What aspects of nature interest you the most? How do you incorporate nature into your work?
We don’t necessarily mean what you would normally understand as nature—such as animals, plants, and landscape—but we take it to mean the expanded notion, namely the nature of all things and phenomena which surround us. Ultimately everything is based on an algorithm, which gives those things and phenomena their appearance or behavior. To explore and understand those algorithms and to finally translate them to make them interpretable for a computer is an important part of our work. For example, that could be a physical phenomenon such as attractive and repulsive forces or a biological phenomenon such as the growth of organisms or plants, which can be used to solve a completely different task.
A very concrete example that shows perfectly how attractive and repulsive forces could be applied to solve a certain design problem is the so-called force-directed layout. It is often used to position the nodes of a complex graph in the two- or three-dimensional space in the best possible way, so that all connections have more or less the same length, with as little intersection as possible. To solve such a task manually is barely possible if a certain complexity is reached.
A force-directed layout, though, can also be easily adjusted and expanded if the data set changes. It’s also suitable for interactive applications, in which the user can for example dig deeper into a dataset and the layout aligns itself immediately to find its optimal shape based on the users decisions. Here’s an example.
One of your recent projects, Unnamed Soundsculpture, has attracted a lot of attention. What was the inspiration behind it? What were you hoping to create and show? What tools were you excited to use? What do you want someone viewing the project to take away?
A lot of our projects like this one are self-initiated and experimental projects, as we see this as an important part of our daily work. Provoked by our curiosity, we are always in search of new forms of expression. We gain abundant experience from our experimental work, enabling us to apply new and unconventional methods of design in our upcoming projects. Most important is to keep being curious about new technologies, in this case: Microsoft Kinect. The availability of new technologies in combination with generative design strategies sparks new ideas and often results in personal projects that help us to quickly develop and prototype new concepts and ideas for our clients as well. Take a closer look, and test the possible boundaries yourself.
The initial idea behind unnamed soundsculpture was to work on a sound visualization in collaboration with artist Daniel Franke and dancer Laura Keil. Instead of digitally analyzing the sound what would probably be the traditional approach for a sound visualization, we asked Laura to interpret a musical piece, Kreukeltape by Machinenfabriek, as closely as possible with the movement of her own body. She was recorded by three Kinect depth cameras, in which the intersection of the images was later put together to a three-dimensional volume point cloud. Doing so, we were able to use the collected data throughout the further process. The three-dimensional image allowed us a completely free handling of the digital camera afterwards, without limitations of the perspective. The camera also reacts to the sound and supports the physical imitation of the musical piece by the performer.
The body—constant and indefinite at the same time—bursts the space already with its mere physicality, creating a first distinction between the self and its environment. Only the body movements create a reference to the otherwise invisible space.
You develop a lot of the design tools you are using yourself. Much of your work is also done using tools that are developed by the larger software-development community. Why is that so important, and what would you say are your most-used software tools? Can you speak on the importance of open-source and giving back to the community?
Existing software often restricts implementation possibilities and can even predetermine solutions by dictating what can be done with these possibilities. By writing your own software, you break through such barriers and simultaneously create new ways of working with the design process. This process, in which the tool grows and develops with the design, is what excites us.
Of course, we also use existing software when it makes sense to do so because we believe the skillful combination of existing software and our own software is the most effective way to reach the best results. Ultimately, one rarely writes everything anew but rather builds on existing components or takes elements from others’ libraries or code snippets. One combines the existing with the new and, through this combination, creates new results based on one’s own ideas. This is possible thanks to the active exchange in the processing community, a software framework that we often use to develop our own tools and applications. But while profiting from the open source community, we also try to give something back by contributing some of our developed tools and libraries and by writing tutorials and articles about specific topics that we have been working on. Our website’s Lab section hosts some of those examples from libraries to read data from Google Weather or Google Analtics to articles about digital fabrication techniques. The Generative Design book is also a great resource of code examples. Those examples are freely available here without the need to buy the book. It’s definitely worth a look.
One of the key aspects of your kind of design is working with new tools and techniques, even before you have a commercial need. What tools and techniques are you looking forward to using? What has been your favorite tool to use?
As mentioned above the self-initiated projects are always a great chance for us to get to know new techniques and try out different hardware without any restrictions. This could be something like the Kinect 3D-Camera, that we have used not only for the unnamed soundsculpture but also for some other projects since then like Magic and Storytelling, an interactive presentation about the history of storytelling augmented with virtual magic in real-time, which we produced for the TED talk of Marco Tempest, a New York-based cyber illusionist. But we also played around with other techniques including RFID, CNC-Milling, Lasercutting, Robotics, and 3D Printings, just to mention some. A new little piece of hardware that we are looking forward to getting our hands on is the LEAP, a small device not much bigger than a USB stick that can track your fingers in 3D space and is actually 200 times more accurate than the Kinect. We already have some interesting ideas for how we want to use it, but it’s not available yet. We are excited to get started as soon as the first SDK gets shipped.
What projects are you currently spending your time on? What should we expect from you in the near future?
We are currently spending some time promoting the launch of the book, as well as giving workshops and talks. Besides that, we are working on some totally different projects at the moment. So expect nothing; then you’ll be surprised.
Check out onformative’s work here.