"I think that process of cutting things together is still evident in a lot of my work. I'm more about scissors than pencils."Tom Dennis sits down with the interactive prophet to find out what makes him tick.
CA: What first sparked your interest in interactive design?
BD: That's quite an easy one because it really does relate to when I got my first computer. I loved the fact that I could make something. I wasn't into numbers or the speed of the machine's clock or whatever; it was about trying to get reactions from people.
As for interactive, I think I made my mind up when I first saw Antirom's work. It was around 1994 and everyone was talking about virtual reality and 3D interfaces, and when Antirom's work for Levi's came out I was blown away. I call them the Sex Pistols of the internet.
CA: What about the internet as a place for design - could you see the design and interaction melding together even then?
BD: That's why Macs really spoke to me - because they removed all the technical crap and allowed you just to make things. I remember getting a preview of this magazine called .net (Computer Arts' sister title, launched in December 1994) and just thought, 'Wow, what's this internet thing?! That's amazing!'
I'd always been creating things. Before I got into the whole web thing I used to sell bootleg mixes and put breakbeat albums together for an underground label in London, all very much inspired by the steal-cut-paste nature of Steinski and, later on, Coldcut. I think that process of cutting things together is still evident in a lot of my work. To paraphrase Capote, I'm more about scissors than pencils.
CA: A lot of your work is very humanistic and emotional. Do you think some digital design lacks this?
BD: I like hoarding things. I like collecting things. But the shelves out there [points to magneticNorth library area packed with toys, records, magazines, books and all kinds of cult computers and gaming systems] are what define who you are. I suppose your shelves at home define who you are. They project personality. What compares to that now? Those are the things we try and think about here. In fact it's a core philosophy that just because digital can do something, it's not always the only way of doing it.
CA: Do you think that's something you've always strived for, to express the human element of digital?
BD: Yes, definitely. We all like saying something about ourselves and we like to stamp our personality on things and tell people how we think.
I like Tumblr because it's so transient. I don't have to write a big piece, I'll just post a picture and that in itself says something about my character.
CA: Your dad was a photographer and you're into your photography. How has this influenced you as a designer?
BD: I think it's something I've gradually grasped without being conscious of it. My dad was a massive influence on me, and I think it's because I don't have a traditionally trained designer's eye.
We have these arguments in the office, because I don't believe you can teach composition. You and I have it, right, but while I think you can learn a process, you can't explain to someone why an element of a design looks better 10 pixels to the left. It just does.
CA: What is it about interactive design that draws you to it?
BD: I think it's about making a connection, whether that's between you and a machine, or you, machines and another person, or just you and another person.
CA: So there's an emotional element to it?
BD: It's certainly emotional. When you watch a film, you suspend disbelief because it's a responsive process. It's a one-way thing. With interactive, it can actually be a physical thing, and so the barriers are different and it's sometimes harder to produce a response. I've worked on projects that have made people cry, and for me that's a massive achievement in an odd way!
CA: Cinema Redux was exhibited at MoMA and Josh Davis has been inducted into the Smithsonian. Is the US more receptive to code-based design?
BD: I've never really thought about it, but yeah, there is definitely more code-based stuff in the States than in Europe.
CA: Why? Do you think it's viewed as art regardless of how it was created?
BD: Exactly. Perhaps they embrace the technological side more, and maybe they're not influenced by this long lineage of European influence and graphic design that we have in Europe. [The US] also has a history of code-based design - people like John Maeda.
CA: Maeda actually told Computer Arts that he thinks digital and interactive have come too far, that it needs to re-engage with its audience on a more basic, human level. What do you think?
BD: I don't think it's human enough, actually. The problem comes where you have a division between the design and the development; where something looks a particular way and functions a particular way - the two are separate sides of the same coin. You can tell when something's been coded from the ground up by engineers who think it's the best thing since sliced bread.
At Flash on the Beach someone came out with this phrase 'deviners' - a cross between designers and developers. I always think it's weird when studios make something look a certain way then pass it on to a separate team, sat in a separate office, staring out of different windows - you end up forgetting or, worse, missing the point of the design and the project's intention. It's something we were really aware of making Biscuit Tin. We all have a Flickr account, which is a brilliant site, but you forget what you put into it - it doesn't really give anything back. So Biscuit Tin takes pictures from a random selection from your account and reminds you of the memories associated with them.
CA: What are your proudest achievements as a designer?
BD: If we're talking about stepping-stones, then I guess getting on stage for the first time was a big thing. I got to know Hillman Curtis through the Flash community and he offered me the chance to join him on stage at Flash Forward. Looking back it was a massive moment for me because I'd never done anything like that before, and then because of the opportunities it later gave me, like writing a book [Analog in, Digital out, New Riders, 2006] and focusing on more personal works. Being part of the Design and the Elastic Mind show at MoMA was a big thing too - it was mad, big queues around the block, and seeing the work on such a massive scale was really quite surreal.
And I'm really proud of MIXA. For many reasons this represented a paradigm shift in what mN does. It was our first product and we had to learn about tooling, product design and a host of other things. At times it seemed an impossible task but we stuck with it and iterated the original idea to get it made. Now we're on version two - which is the version we always wanted to make with the sliding-out USB.
CA: Who are your biggest influences?
BD: There are a lot of things that inspire me both inside and outside of design and the web. Hitchcock definitely - I watch a lot of films - and of course Saul Bass [Dawes created saulbass.tv as a personal project, highlighting the graphic designer's huge influence]. Then there are my biggest design heroes: Charles and Ray Eames. Their work is a constant inspiration to me, both from how prolific they were but also from the point of view that their portfolio seemed to be filled with a real charm and an abundance of 'joy'. I guess I loved the fact that they seemed to revel in just creating wonderful things.
CA: You've been working with Processing. What is it you like about it?
BD: Yeah, I actually created Cinema Redux using Processing. It's very friendly. I like apps that are like chess - you can understand the game and be playing it immediately, but to master it takes 50 years, so it gives you a framework.
CA: If you could create the perfect design application, what would it look like?
BD: Definitely something visual. Some of the technology coming out of places like MIT that is designed for kids is amazing. Einstein is another one of my heroes, and he said that if a child can't understand a theory visually then it's crap. And I think he's right, because all of his theories could be explained through sketches.
To me, the way I work is to punch in some numbers and see what happens. It's about experimenting. It's like a massive graphic equaliser and you're pulling and pushing at all the different levels to get what you want. I mean, what's the worst that can happen? When you experiment with design the world isn't going to end if it goes wrong, is it?