A report on the journey so far building our design studio.
Ten years ago, we decided to turn an idea into reality: We created a space to solve real problems through design and technology. A space for the ones who love to explore, learn, and create. A space where people are always at the center of attention. We named it Interactive Things, a design studio for digital products. Ten years later, Interactive Things has grown into a prolific, inclusive, and resilient organization.
Over these years, we were joined by team members that would become our friends. We moved into offices that would become our homes. We gave shape to ideas that would become businesses. Along this path, we experienced countless moments that will become everlasting memories. Late-night experiments with projection mapping on our neighbors’ house facade in preparation of the «Ville Vivante» exhibition in Geneva. Or catching a train with the whole team to go and present our work «Unwanted» at the Push Conference in Munich. Our journey so far has been more challenging and more rewarding than any of us could have envisioned. Our path has truly been created by walking it step by step.
We would like to take a moment to look at where we have come from, where we are today, and where we hope to go in the future.
We believe work ought to be more than a way to stay busy and stay in business. We believe that it must serve a purpose beyond this basic math of economics. It should have a concrete, positive, and lasting impact on people’s life. With our daily work, we aspire to achieve one fundamental goal: to promote data literacy and agency. Revealing insights that are hidden and enabling actions that are inaccessible for people interacting with data. This can mean assisting one individual at the time or empower a whole community at once.
In all areas of our work, we have always held a bias towards simple and sustainable solutions. This is reflected by our creative direction, preferring clear over shiny and timeless over trendy. Or in our technology choices, opting for simple architectures that are easy to build and maintain. But most importantly, we hope that what we deliver is simple for people to use and sustainable for clients to profit from.
«Together with our clients, we create engaging and meaningful interactions with their audiences. Always putting the human at the center of attention.» This is how we describe the daily work that we do here at Interactive Things. But what does this look like in reality? How do we make sure that interactions between our clients and their audiences take place and how do we know that they’re meaningful? Let us share with you two case studies where we can observe our impact.
For the years 2013 and 2014 we formed a longterm partnership with the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) to support their data-driven, interactive, and visual reporting. We worked with our direct contact Sylke Gruhnwald and reporters from different departments on stories about topics ranging from the worldwide oil consumption to the death penalty in Texas to the career of Iouri Podlatschikow. The resulting work was appreciated by the readers and recognized with honors by the journalism and design communities. More importantly though, through this collaboration, we’ve built up stakeholder buy-in for this type of digital journalism which led to the formation of NZZ Data (now NZZ Visuals), a fully-staffed department of reporters, designers, and developers. Today, they produce all of their data-driven publications independently and maintain their role as a national leader in digital journalism. Since our last joint project many years have passed and therefore much of the credit for the quality and quantity of their current publications must be given to the talented people that have built a functioning department on our humble foundation of tools, guidelines, and workflows.
When the World Health Organization (WHO) approached us, they pursued an audacious and ambitious goal: to build a platform that brings together the complete existing scientific information about the prevalence of interpersonal violence, its consequences, risk factors, prevention and response strategies. Consolidating data from close to 4000 studies and systematic reviews covering 50 years of research. Before our collaboration, high-quality data on interpersonal violence was scattered across a myriad of specialist websites, statistical databases, technical reports, and exclusive academic journals. After our collaboration, all this information has been consolidated into one easy to use website where policymakers, researchers, journalists, and the general public are presented with a more accurate picture of the magnitude, severity, and consequences of interpersonal violence for individuals, communities, and our whole society.
One of the basic principles for founding Interactive Things was our belief that content, design, and technology should stand on equal footing and work hand in hand to create outstanding digital products. Our process, how we work as a team and with our clients, is the result of this belief mixed with the mindset from Lean Production and the best practices from Agile Software Development. It’s a blend of established knowledge with our learnings. No magic sauce, no secret ingredients.
To simplify the collaboration between our designers and developers, we started to create living design style guides before such documentations were popularized as Design Systems. After reusing the same infrastructure from one project to the next for some time, we saw the potential for a more generalized approach: we poured all our learnings into Catalog, a tool to create living style guides for digital products. It’s free, open-source, and flexible. We use it for almost all projects these days and we’re proud to see that our clients use Catalog beyond collaborations with us.
The people on our team might be designers, developers, managers, but they all are first and foremost: humans. It is of utmost importance to us that everyone feels accepted, valued, and needed as a person. And we know that making working here a fulfilling experience takes attention and investment. We care for fair compensation, work/life integration, and continuous learning. We provide a transparent salary and financial benefit system; budgets for conferences, education, and training; flexible work hours and work quota; time and support for self-initiated projects and research; and two extra weeks of company holidays in addition to the four weeks of personal vacation. The physical and mental wellbeing of our team is one of the essential metrics to measure our company’s success.
With five white, male, Swiss partners, we’ve started on an uphill path towards team diversity. Today, our team is still tipped to the male side with close to 40% women and 60% men. We’re well aware that this imbalance poses issues and we’re committed to improving this. Our plan for this includes strengthening the standing of our female team members, making sure that our environment is welcoming for female co-workers, and a declared preference for female applicants for open positions in the future. Still, when you walk around our studio, you will encounter a vibrant cultural and linguistic diversity with people coming from 10 different countries, speaking 7 different languages.
Over the past ten years, we have had the pleasure of working with a diverse group of people who since moved on to pursue their own aspirations. They have all made meaningful contributions to our organization and remain with us in spirit. Whenever possible, we try to reconnect with them should our paths cross again and keep in touch should they diverge.
This is the moment when we’d like to thank all our alumni: Adina Renner, Anna Wiederkehr, Chiara Kühne, Christian Laesser, Denise Osti, Ece Kavlak, Estelle Hary, Flavio Gortana, Greta Castellana, Ilya Boyandin, Jonas Wyssen, Joseph Ricafort, Julia Punnacherry, Kallirroi Retzepi, Mark Hintz, Martina Frantzén, Matiullah Mohmand, Nadine Prigann, Piotr Fedorczyk, Thomas Preusse. We’re grateful to be able to call them part of the Interactive Things family.
Founding our studio happened synchronously with finding our studio. The search for the right location to give space to our new company was over when we discovered a small 24 square meter room in an old villa full of creative agencies. We felt ready for business after ripping out the old carpets, painting the walls, replacing the lights, and setting up three desks with three chairs. These early days are long gone, but our attention to detail when it comes to layouts, objects, materials, and colors of our working environment, has influenced our studios ever since. From the residential neighborhood in Hottingen, to the lush lakeside in Seefeld, to the bustling corners of Langstrasse.
But, what’s true for interface design is true for interior design as well: how it looks is less important than how it works. When you visit our studio you’ll find an environment that’s calm, quiet, and orderly making room to think and work. Come see for yourself, we’re always happy to welcome visitors.
When visitors join us in our studio, there’s one impression that we hear from them repeatedly: The atmosphere feels light but focused. The team at Basecamp would attribute this to the Library Rules that help people be productive in an open floor plan office. We’d like to think that this gentle productivity mirrors the personalities of the people on our team and how we interact with each other. Yes, things sometimes do get loud and excited but for the majority of the time, we keep it pretty cool. The big benefit of calm communication culture is that even quiet voices can be understood clearly. This helps us to include the widest spectrum possible when we discuss and collaborate.
Although we believe that our culture grew organically from the principles defined by the founders and refined by the whole team, we know that we can’t take for granted that everyone feels right at home at all times. To provide us with the necessary space to achieve this alignment, we started our Team Forum in 2017. It’s a quarterly all-hands conversation about the important but hard stuff: it provides an opportunity for everyone to bring forward their thoughts and feelings in a communal and safe setting. People are invited to share their questions, observations, critiques, or suggestions for how our studio can become a more empathetic, more inclusive, and more enjoyable workplace. It has been one of the most impactful additions to our set of routine meetings.
Routinely taking time to clear our minds from the project work has been a longstanding tradition of ours. These are opportunities for our team to regroup, reconnect, and recharge. A few formats have emerged as team favorites:
Ever since we started working as a design studio, our team has embraced public speaking as part of our job. This includes teaching at universities, giving talks at conferences, or facilitating public workshops and covers our core competencies data visualization, interaction design, and interface engineering. Sharing our knowledge is as important for our own professional growth as it is helpful to our audience. Expressing our opinion or illustrating our approach demands clarity in our own thoughts. As a result, preparing any presentation involves reflection upon our own craft and by doing so, forces us to look at our work, process, impact, and responsibility with clear eyes.
Every invitation to give a presentation is an honor and we treat each and every one of these opportunities with the care they ask for. Over the years, a few events have stood out to us, though: We had the chance to moderate panels at the annual SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas twice in a row (2011 and 2012). We were invited to speak at conferences and working sessions from different agencies from the United Nations and the European Union (UNECE, ITU, EU Publications Office). We were invited to present at all three installments of the Visualized Conference in New York City (2012, 2014, 2015). And finally, we were asked to present our work to internal teams at Silicon Valley’s most interesting companies like Mozilla, Trulia, and LinkedIn.
To provide a rough approximation for the combined reach of our talks and lectures, let’s look at a few numbers: We’ve given more than 100 presentations over the past 10 years. This is roughly split into 50% lectures, 30% meetups and local conferences, and 20% international conferences. A typical lecture in front of a class reaches 20 students, a meetup reaches 30 to 60 attendees, while a conference reaches a couple 100 attendees. This adds up to 10’000 people who have seen our work presented on stages big and small. We had to let that sink in for a moment, too 😳.
Our work is influenced by the inspiration, knowledge, and motivation we get from the books in our library. We collect essentials about interaction design, data visualization, and programming but also curiosities about visual illusions, creative business, and human behavior. Through this collection, we stand on the shoulders of giants and we owe them our sincere respect. Let us share with you some of our team’s favorites.
It was part of our founding vision for Interactive Things to mix production with plenty of experimentation. We didn’t want our studio to act as a conveyor belt for client projects nor did we want to work in a space disconnected from real-world constraints. Although client projects are the main driver of our business, we always made room for self-initiated and self-directed projects in our lab. It’s a physical as well as a metaphorical space.
The physical lab is a working area inviting the exploration of interactions and experiences beyond the daily used screens and input devices. It provides controller boards, sensors, actuators, as well as all kinds of devices from different phone and tablet models, to Leap Motion and Google Cardboard.
The metaphorical lab is the time between client commissions, the projects without contracts, the pro bono work for the common good. Here we conduct and showcase experiments, write and publish articles, or build and release open-source software. Some of these experiments have grown into award-winning publications, vibrant communities, or software used in hundreds of other products.
Before there was Interactive Things, there was our blog Datavisualization.ch, a news and knowledge resource for data visualization and information design. We published the website to feature the latest research findings and most topical use cases in our beloved field. As the workload for Interactive Things increased, our priorities shifted from collecting visualizations to building them. And so, we stopped active publication on Datavisualization.ch after 7 years in 2016. The community that we were able to build and reach through this blog was instrumental in the success of our service business. To this day we meet people who fondly remember our articles. And yes, we do miss it a little bit ❤️.
The speakers’ list for the first installment of the Eyeo Festival back in 2011 read like the fantasy football super team at the intersection of design, technology, art, and science. Ben Fry, Casey Reas, Zach Lieberman, Golan Levin, Emily Gobeille, Nicholas Felton, Amanda Cox, Wes Grubbs, Natalie Jeremijenko, and many more. We knew right away that we could only justify flying to Minneapolis if we bring home more than inspiring memories. We wanted to create something out of this opportunity to meet so many of our role models. We brought home recordings from in-depth interviews exploring their beliefs and motivations captured during the time we spent together. The result is a ten-part series of inspirational interviews we called SubstratumSeries.com.
Connecting with others through digital channels has merits but lacks the human touch of face to face interaction. It’s also easy to get carried away into the vast space of a worldwide community. To nurture the local community as well as the global one, we have always contributed to local events here in Zürich and later started to organize two of own event series.
For the past ten years, we’ve seen an astonishing transformation of the relationship between people and data. There’s no area of our society and no sector of our economy that has not been touched by this transformation. Yet, the immense value of data is not being realized equally. Literacy and agency for working with data have remained in the hands of the few instead of the many. The field of Human Data Interaction is of essential importance for an equitable future. We at Interactive Things dedicate our expertise and passion to creating solutions that serve organizations and individuals alike.
Since our first year, we’ve served our clients from our hometown Zürich. We’ve enjoyed the many benefits from this little big city embedded in the heart of Europe. Ten years later, we believe that the time is right to reach out to a broader audience and we’re determined to play a meaningful role in the global community. Coming 2020, we will open a second location for our studio in New York City 🇺🇸. Interactive Things NYC will act as a companion to our studio in Zürich which will remain fully operational and continue to be our headquarters. The primary focus of our US-based office will be customer acquisition and customer care for the North American continent. All our productive work will continue to be done in Switzerland. This is a big step for us and we’re approaching it with the appropriate dose of caution but also with an extra serving of zest and joy.
We can’t wait to get to work on our next ten years and we hope you’ll join us for the journey!