Benjamin Wiederkehr is the managing director and a founding member of Interactive Things, a design studio based in Zurich. Interactive Things has produced work for the city of Geneva, National Geographic, and the United Nations. He’s also a friend of ours. As part of a new, ongoing series of features on our blog, we decided to profile Ben and talk to him a bit about our industry.
We’re excited to share some of his insight on his influences, the use of small, close-knit teams, and the future of information visualization and Interactive Things.
Tell us a bit about yourself, and how you came to run Interactive Things.
Driven and inspired by the street art community here in Switzerland, I became involved in visual communication and information design. While I enjoy working with the static medium, I remember vividly the empowering feeling I got once I started writing code to create generative and interactive visuals. To sharpen my skills in this exciting area, I studied Interaction Design at the Zurich University of the Arts, and that’s also where I met my partners at Interactive Things, Christian, Christoph, Jeremy, and Peter. During our studies, we collaborated on a broad variety of projects ranging from physical computing to data visualization. The spirit among the five of us was truly infatuating and is probably the most important reason why we started Interactive Things one year after graduating in 2008.
What drove you to study UX and design when you first went to university? What was the first object you remember noticing the design of?
After some time experimenting, I really had a hunger for a sound foundation for my design work. There are so many factors involved in designing interactive products for the digital medium; I believe it’s important to have a good understanding of design principles, user behavior, and the technology that drives interfaces and visualizations.
To come up with things that will shape tomorrow, it’s important to understand the things that shaped the past, so to speak. The compelling and broad curriculum of the Interaction Design program at ZHdK made the decision of which school to apply to very easy for me.
If I think back to the first object that I consciously thought of as a piece of (information) design, two things come to mind: the narrative illustrations created by my father and the maps found in cartography books. There’s one specific book that I’ve kept around ever since. It’s the Schweizer Weltatlas, my geography book from 6th grade with an extensive appendix full of mesmerizing thematic maps that visualize ecological, political, and social data.
After working at coUNDco for a year, you decided to leave and start Interactive Things. What has the experience been like? Did you run into any issues that you didn’t expect? What‚is it like being your own boss and having a large part in deciding the direction of the company?
I need to point out that my previous boss at coUNDco and friend, Florian Wieser, was a big inspiration for the entrepreneurial part of running a company. The experience of starting my own design studio, summed up in one word, was awe-inspiring!
I had the pleasure to meet and work with immensely talented and passionate people who opened my eyes to much more than just the design work we were involved in. The cross-disciplinary collaboration with experts from different fields was, and still is, a challenge and opportunity at the same time. On one side we have to gain a basic understanding of the industry our clients work in, and we have to establish a shared language to describe the vision and approach of a project. On the other side, we love to explore unknown territory and learn the ins and outs of an industry we are new to. We strive to be constantly growing as professionals as well as humans. Naturally, learning lessons we didn’t know before is part of our daily work.
One of the most beautiful things in leading a team is that I get the chance to build something that is bigger than the sum of its parts. Don’t get me wrong; the people involved in Interactive Things are the heart, soul, eyes, and hands of the studio. But at the same time, Interactive Things is also a platform where ideas grow into products, and that is what makes us able to support ourselves and our families.
What would you say sets Interactive Things apart from other design firms? How does working with your friends and classmates add value to your work? How is your process different from that of larger companies such as coUNDco?
While we come from different backgrounds originally, the ongoing collaboration, the intense discussions, and all the personal experiences we shared over the past years have made us a truly close-knit crew. We are very conscious about this unique culture, and therefore adding new people to the team needs to happen organically and with much contemplation. Everybody in the studio shares a common understanding for what kind of projects we want to work on, how we approach our projects, and, most importantly, why we do what we do. We believe that our work should empower people and have a positive impact on their life.
Over the past years, I’ve observed how our process adapted to the changes within our group. Nowadays, we have two to four interaction designers working on one project at a time. This gives us the space to explore options in parallel during all phases of the process. Furthermore, this assures that we have an honest review of our decisions along the way. The majority of our projects are at the intersections of design and technology, accuracy and emotion, and people and business; so we need to carefully balance our approach and this is done best in a dialog.
We love the name “Interactive Things.” Can you speak to the value or utility of interactive visualizations versus static visualizations?
Wow, this question has been answered before by much smarter people than myself, but let me describe a concept for interactive visualizations that influences a lot of decisions I make in my work.
In the paper “The Eyes Have It: A Task by Data Type Taxonomy for Information Visualizations”, Ben Shneiderman introduced a visual information seeking mantra that goes like this: overview first, zoom and filter, then details-on-demand. An interactive visualization should provide the user with an overview of the entire collection first. Then, the user should focus on the relevant items and dismiss the irrelevant ones. After finding the items of interest, the user can get more detailed information on demand.
In the transition from a static to an interactive visualization, the manner of consumption shifts from author-driven to reader-driven, without a predetermined ordering. That doesn’t mean that interactive visualizations can’t follow a narrative, though. Instead, it introduces new types of visual narratives with both a clear storyline and the possibility for exploration. Edward Segel and Jeffrey Heer wrote an excellent paper about such approaches called “Narrative Visualization: Telling Stories with Data”.
How do and your team find a healthy balance between the artistic, technical, and business concerns that are clearly present in your work?
If I look back at the work we’ve done in the past two years, I see a clear tendency toward integrity and relevance in data, clarity in form, and simplicity in function. These attributes are independent of the balance between the artistic, technical, and business concerns, but they are foundational for the people who use the products we design. I believe this is what counts in all scenarios. For us as designers, we try to strike a balance between artistic, scientific, and technical work by selecting the right projects to work on.
When you were tasked with visualizing the mobile phones of the city of Geneva, how did you take the idea from the city and the LIFT conference and make it distinctly in your style? What was interesting to you about the project?
Frankly speaking, we didn’t know much about creating an exhibition-like experience for people out in the public space. The challenge and the potential we saw in the data set were enough to get us excited and convinced that we would want to work on it. Paula Scher of Pentagram once said that you create your best work when you’re not completely sure how to execute your vision into the final piece.
In that sense, we were experimenting a lot with aesthetics, behaviors, media, storytelling, and technology. We knew that to reach the passerby, we needed something eye-catching, and to convey the stories embedded in the data, we needed something more informative. This led us to the decision to use two different mediums to present the data: a series of posters and an animated large-scale projection.
Geneva is a very open and innovative city. Still, the excitement and level of engagement from the mayor’s office as our client was truly fascinating to us. All involved parties were a pleasure to work with and played a big role in the success of the project.
Datavisualization.ch has become a destination for those interested in data visualization. Where did the idea to start a publication come from? What is it like not only working in data visualization but also writing about it and curating it?
The website actually originates from the thesis documentation that Christian and I wrote back at the university. We documented our research findings and shared them with the community, as we strongly believe in an open exchange of ideas. After graduating, we continued to write what we learned from our work in the field of data visualization.
At the same time, we started to document not only our own work but also cover projects from all over the world that caught our eye. When we decided to start Interactive Things together, it was clear that we wanted to continue to write about our passion that turned into our job. You see, it was less a conscious decision to start a publication, but more a natural progression of what we had already done for the past few years.
This is a fast-paced and constantly evolving space. What are your crystal ball predictions on what dynamic visualizations look like, and how may they be different in the next few years?
There are a few things evolving side by side that will influence how visualizations will look a few years from now. First, although visualization has been a research topic for quite some time now, I still see new approaches being developed not only in academia but also by practitioners working in the industry. Second, the constantly improving computing power and the adoption of new technology allow for more complex, engaging, and connected visualizations to spread quickly over the web. Third, the vast amount of data being produced every day demands increasingly sophisticated tools for exploration, evaluation, and communication. To come by the increasing load of data, visualizations will need to scale in terms of performance, density, and interactivity.
What should we be expecting from you in the near future?
The team at Interactive Things will continue to create the best work we are capable of for our clients and learn a few tricks and lessons doing so. We are excited to broaden our horizon with projects ranging from knowledge visualization over persuasive design to tangible displays. At the same time, we will continue to hone our individual skills and strengthen our collaboration. Personally, I am currently pursuing my master’s degree in Interaction Design at the ZHdK and thus balancing academia and client work. It’s exciting to engage in a pure design research project without the typical boundaries of a commercial project. The insights that I gain in my academic work will flow back into our daily work at Interactive Things, inspiring us to constantly improve the design service we provide.