This is the third part in my Visualisation Insights series. The purpose of these posts is to provide readers with unique insights into the field of visualisation from the different perspectives of those in the roles of designer, practitioner, academic, blogger, journalist and all sorts of other visual thinkers. My aim is to bring together these interviews to create a greater understanding and appreciation of the challenges, approaches and solutions that exist in the worlds of these people – the visualisation field’s ‘cast and crew’.
Benjamin Wiederkehr is the Editor in Chief of the fantastic Datavisualization.ch blog, working alongside colleagues Christian Niegrist, Jeremy Stucki and Peter Gassner. They are also the team behind Interactive Things, a design and technology studio based in Zürich, Switzerland:
Datavisualization.ch is the premier news and knowledge resource for data visualization and infographics. Our mission is to provide you with the latest research findings and most topical use cases in this field – including cognitions from self initiated studies as well as a review of outstanding projects done by smart people in the community. It is also a perfect place to share your opinion and discuss interesting movements, to get inspired and ignite new ideas.
We create engaging and intuitive User Interfaces and Data Visualizations that our clients love to use. We design with simplicity in mind and the future’s technology at hand.
I have been a long term admirer of datavisualization.ch as it provides some fantastic examples of and perspectives around the visualisation and infographic field. As a fellow blogger and somebody with a unique perspective of the field from the heart of Europe, I thought it would be great to discover more about Benjamin's background and his experiences as both blogger and designer.
Can you give me a brief outline of your training/career background leading up to where you are today?
I have always been interested and engaged in visual communication. Coming from a more graphic design oriented formal training, I began studying Interaction Design at the excellent IAD programme of the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK). During the day, I studied the principles and methodologies, and at night I experimented with technologies and tools and learned the required programming skills. I worked in parallel as a freelance designer in the field of user interface design and visualization. After graduating, I worked for one year at coUNDco, the company I supported as a freelancer before. Since 2010 I am the managing director of Interactive Things, a design and technology studio based in Zürich.
How long have you been running Datavisualization.ch and what motivated you to start blogging?
Initially, it started as the documentation for the Bachelor’s Thesis of my partner in crime, Christian Siegrist, and me. Because some of the content was confidential, we were obliged to restrict access. After the publication of our thesis we decided to pivot the direction of the website and make all content available to the general public. We wanted to include all the relevant things in the life of a visualization designer, from showcases and tools to data sources and events. With the foundation of Interactive Things, we decided to take what started as a personal blog one step further and continued to work on it as our company’s publication. The majority of the content is still written by myself but my colleagues have been very supportive with ideas and implementation.
When/what was your “aha!” moment in terms of discovering data visualisation?
I can’t recall a specific moment. Data visualization as a field simply became more and more the focus of my work and studies. Over time, I realized the huge potential that lies in communicating complex information visually and started to research the field more deeply.
Can you describe your approach to blogging – how do you come up with ideas for articles or identify potential subjects for posting? Do you find it challenging?
Do you have a specific communication/editorial strategy behind your blog posts?
Due to the origin of Datavisualization.ch, I always had a very informal tone in my writing. While I keep my audience in mind, I mostly write in the same way I would talk to a colleague. Sometimes my English is a bit off course, but with the help of our attentive readers I can correct the most severe grammatical errors. I don’t really follow an editorial strategy. There are some things I keep in mind when writing about the work of others:
- Provide links to the original source of the content like videos, images or interactive applications.
- Give attribution to the creators.
- Give credit to the person who submitted the project.
You have recently launched the Datavisualization.ch Inside posts, with two great articles to launch the series exploring the processes and tools used by visualisation designers – how did you come up with the idea to commence the series?
I have been playing around with the idea of sharing my knowledge from the trenches for a while. We made the decision to launch the series collectively at this year’s SEE conference by Scholz & Volkmer in Germany. While we enjoyed the talks and amazing works by Nicholas Felton, rAndom International and others, we came to the conclusion that seeing the process is oftentimes much more insightful and fun. You can learn as much from unsatisfying, and thus rejected concepts, as from the eventually implemented ones. Unfortunately, there are only few people in the design community, who share their approach and technique. In the past we have learned a lot from blogposts by Jer Thorp, Robert Hodgins, Erik Rodenbeck and Tom Carden from Stamen Design explaining the thoughts behind their work.
With the Datavisualization.ch Inside articles we provide tangible examples from our daily work. We try to include as much as possible from the early stages, like sketches or data mining results, to convey a coherent final result. This reflects our approach to concept, design and implementation, that we use while working with clients. Besides that, we don’t believe in something like a “secret sauce” that magically turns ideas into something awesome. Instead, it’s an iterative process, where removing is just as important as keeping things. Our intention is to provide inspiration and guidance to fellow designers, who may be just starting out in this field.
From a technical point of view how has Datavisualization.ch, the site, evolved? For example did you begin with a WordPress type blog then move towards a bespoke design? Your site looks great, how did you arrive at the current design?
We started the website using Wordpress as our engine and the excellent Grid Focus theme by Derek Punsalan. With its clean and beautiful grid-oriented user interface and content presentation it exceeded our demand. Once we transformed the site from a documentation to a news resource, we refined everything from content and taxonomy to design and branding. During the first months of blogging, new requirements started to emerge and thus I iteratively refined functionality and design to meet the content’s needs. As they say: “Form follows content”. After the launch of Interactive Things and the consolidation of the publication and the company we collaborated on the refinement of the whole website. We stripped away external content, simplified the user interface and tied it together more closely with our content on other outlets like the Vimeo Channel and the We Love Datavis Tumblr. It still runs on Wordpress, but with much improved performance thank’s to Jeremy’s coding skills and our new hosting partner.
How did you come to establish Interactive Things, your design and technology studio? How did you come to form with your collegues?
I worked as a freelance graphic designer back in school and turned towards interaction design during my studies at the ZHdK, where I met with a bunch of the finest designers imaginable. We worked together on various projects and it became apparent that this collaboration is both prolific and exciting. After graduating we chose to gain more professional experience in working with international clients from different areas. While working for other companies, we clearly saw the opportunity for us to start something independently, once we were obliged to turn down interesting projects that we could not work on due to our daytime jobs. Long story short, one year later we came back together and started making our vision tangible and founded Interactive Things.
How would you define your visualisation/design style? eg. Who would you describe as being the most influential authors/designers that most closely match your approach?
We always strive for clarity and engagement in our designs. Much of these decisions are taken before the visual design comes together. We believe that the user experience needs to be planed holisticly within all areas like copywriting, visual design, interaction design, performance, etc. From an aesthetic point of view, we are influenced by the International Typographic Style and the Bauhaus design philosophies. Designers and thinkers like Dieter Rams, Mies Van der Rohe and Edward Tufte act as our role models with their thoughtfulness and approach. We mix that with more experimental working people like John Maeda, Ben Fry and Martin Wattenberg.
A chance for you to recommend or publicise others – apart from the more obvious and popular visualisation sites. Which other blogs or designer’s websites would you recommend for readers to take a look at?
One big recommendation I would make is to look outside of our field. Exploring the work of artists (like Golan Levin), architects (Zaha Hadid), movies, video games, scientific visualization research, physical computing labs and the likes can be very inspiring and refreshing. One example would be the dance company Chunky Move by Gideon Obarzanek, where they combine body tracking, generative design and music, to create exciting visual performances.
Are there any designers, particularly around Europe, who you would identify as producing particularly innovative work right now?
I am inspired by the work of the Density Design Lab from Italy, the Medialab-Prado from Spain, Moritz Stefaner and Golden Section Graphics from Germany. Furthermore, a lot of very exciting stuff is happening at the interaction and graphic design schools. Unfortunately, these oftentimes stay a bit under the radar and don’t get the attention they would deserve.
Finally, if you were limited to following only five people on twitter, who would they be?
In no particular order:
I'm really grateful to Benjamin for his time and effort in offering such an interesting perspective on life as a blogger and I wish him and his colleagues all the success in the future. Apart from the datavisualization.ch website, you can consume Benjamin's updates via Twitter @datavis, the We Love Datavis Tumblr and Facebook.