2.16 Interview (excerpt) with Ben Fry

Ben Fry is principal of Fathom Information Design, a design and software consultancy located in Boston. He received his doctoral degree from the Aesthetics + Computation Group at the MIT Media Lab.

James Grady: Lately, everyone seems to want all content and design on all channels, and all media. I feel that people just expect dynamics and modularity in design immediately. It does seem like common sense—scalability and modularity in design—but I was just wondering where, or how you think about that in the design process?

Ben Fry: I think part of it comes from the digital thing. It seems like when it’s digital, it can just go in all these digital formats. People are starting to talk about screens now. That it’s like, oh they’re all kind of the same as far as delivering content. Everybody from ESPN to MLB, HBO, Comcast, it’s all screens. You view it on your mobile, or your desktop, or your laptop, or through your cable box, it’s like all the same stuff. I think that’s also contributing to it, because it’s like, oh yea, it’s just the same thing, and you put it in each thing, but it’s like a director who’s like, I can’t believe you’re going to watch this thing on this tiny little device. Also it wasn’t made to do that, right? Given the chance to watch a movie or not, you’ll probably watch the movie even though it’s not optimal. You really have to rethink stuff for all those different formats.

JG: I think this a huge design challenge. If I see one more commercial where they’re like, TV, tablet, it’s all the same. But you can’t represent that same content on all devices equally. You really have to think about it for those different forms.

BF: I think it’s not just space and scale—it’s also about resolution. The difference between print and screen is so different. Now we have as of two days ago, the iPad3. That’s going to get even weirder, but the thing is like all of the pieces that matter are about how you interact with it, how it’s going to be situated. The size is the easiest thing to solve. The next step that’s scary is that people start thinking about how we can automatically design for all of these different platforms. It’s solving the wrong problem, because that’s looking at it as a layout and space problem, or layouts and scale sort of problem. Even something as simple as news articles read online; there is actually some interesting psychology about reading on mobile devices. If you have a five hundred-word article, and it’s on a screen, and you’re just reading it off of a site, that’s one way. If you give somebody the same article on a mobile device, and you fix the design and all that, and have it in nice mobile, readable format, the article, it still feels twice as long because your expectations are so different for small screen and how you interact with it. What they found is that, five hundred words on a screen feels like two hundred and fifty words on a mobile. People don’t actually realize it’s a different number of words at all. It’s all perception. The change in type size, and fixing the layout on the phone is the smallest problem. How are you going to make an article go from five hundred words to two hundred and fifty-words? How to actually make sense of that?

JG: I think that some print designers, looking to go into digital or screen-based, work are many times still translating brochures into digital assets. Space and grids and all that stuff is still considered like print but it’s not. How grids work, and how it works on different scales is something that I’m really interested in.

BF: Muriel Cooper who originally was a long-term head of design over at MIT press during some amazing years ran the visible language workshop at the media lab. She came to the media lab, that was one thing in particular that they were looking at, but they were very graphic design plus computer science heavy, and so they’re saying now how do we do graphic design with the computer? They had a lot of different experiments with how do you do automated layout in different formats, and things like that. It’s interesting background material. Also because she was a designer, she never turned it into a straight programming problem. We’re looking for the algorithm for the optimal design, and how to automate it. How do we do a mobile algorithm or an on-screen algorithm, then things like that?

JG: I’m also thinking about designing in other spaces. My wife and I bought this new car when my daughter was born. It has what seems to be a really fancy interface: GPS and all these things, but the interface is absolutely terrible. You’re driving and there are four knobs that are all the same size. One is the radio, and one is the heat, and there are two others knobs on the other side, and there’s a GPS. I’d love to redesign the user interface and ergonomics of this. It makes me think about design in terms of multi-channels. I was wondering if there was anything outside of the screen base or something that you would love to design?

BF: Certainly, stuff like that intrigues me. I think what it’s more about is the whole design process. It’s one of the more pervasive things I took from design school—the process bit. To go back further, part of the reason I was interested in design at school was that I was interested in how you problem solve. Here’s this thing that doesn’t work, and why is it not working, and how do we improve it? It’s not even so much as like you just want to fix stuff. It’s the right direction and the right way to do this. How can you think about design process to actually address that? Rethink whether it’s a system for doing something, or an actual physical thing, or what do I need the work to do here, or whatever? I think it’s that. The thing I’m trying to do, plus another human trying to do it. Trying to put that together in an artful way too. It’s not a do it to get it done thing, but do it in a way that you actually enjoy the experience. That stuff can be so subtle. If those knobs just had a little bit of texture on them or they were sized differently, it would be a subtle shift of improvement, but so important.

JG: Its functionality, design, design thinking, aesthetics and emotions. Those sorts of the components are what I’m trying to think about. It’s not just about solving the problem or making it functionally correct. There is also the emotional element to it. I think that’s what I admire about the work that goes on at Fathom. There is a connection. It’s got a feeling to it that’s different than a lot of data visualization work. I really don’t like to say data visualization when I’m explaining what Fathom does because I feel it’s much more open than that. There is so much more. That’s what I admire about the work here.

BF: I feel like there is a particular direction we’re headed with this stuff that we’re still trying to sort out. I know we’re not doing the same thing as the data visualization folks. It’s not a traditional design shop. We’re angling around that. I think it will be helpful over time to figure out ways to articulate that with people to say, yeah it’s functional, but it’s also pretty. It’s functional, but it’s not, oh it gives you happiness when you use it. There is some sort of emotion there as far as like, you have to care about it a little bit, and you have to find it beautiful, and you have to want to look at it, or use it, or think about it. I don’t know. There are probably some wonderful non-English words about how we should talk about this.

JG: I’m sure.

BF: I hate the discussion about functional versus beautiful or all these other axes that are really just tired and boring, and like really have no bearing on what you actually make. Or they have so little bearing on the actual, the success of the stuff that you make.

JG: Totally agree. I’m trying to think about where design is going in terms of what I’m seeing, and also in the things I’ve always wanted to do and how it transcends so many more things.

During the Summer of 2011, I had the privilege to intern with Ben Fry and the team at Fathom Information Design. It was a fun, creative, and intellectually stimulating experience. I look forward to the future of our relationship.

3.0 Next Stop

For two years, I’ve commuted to Grad school from Boston to Providence by rail. The initially redundant trip has become a peaceful, productive and integral part of my creative process. Today I’m headed home, thinking about a conclusion for my thesis. The train tracks whizzing below me are an endless ribbon, a mobius strip, taking people by the thousands where they need to go. I see the continuation of my design career as an endless ribbon also—countless permutations of my own methodology that I grappled with, explored and unpacked in this thesis. I plan to “look closely,” and absorb the inspiration that is all around me, all around us, using different media as input and output, and blurring boundaries between mediums to create what will become known as 21st century design. The end of this book is just another stop along the way. All Aboard.

The next stop begins (6.11.2012) when I start my new full-time position at Fathom.

Thanks for reading. My entire thesis is outlined on this blog (starting at 0.0 Abstract and ending this post 3.0 Next Stop). Look for new work soon. Cheers, James