The State of the Art in Interaction Design

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h1The best designers are also engineers, and vice versa. Design is a technology.

Folkert Gorter

Folkert Gorter is Superfamous - at least that's the name of his Los Angeles-based interaction design (IxD) studio where he thinks deeply about content-driven networks, creative communities and visual publishing interfaces. And he's truly superfamous among interaction designers - people who explore ways to increase collaboration between people using technology and products. He and his team are the creators of Cargo, a Web publishing platform designed for art directors, photographers, graphic designers, and visual artists – as well as various other publishing projects that will make your brain itch (in a good way).

He's also one of the amazing voices in the SAY 100 design channel (curated by Tina Roth Eisenberg of SwissMiss), and spends most of his time thinking about how to bridge the online and offline worlds when it comes to content.

We checked in with Folkert to ask him about the state of the art in interaction design, whether he thinks HTML 5 is all that, and how he feels about the relentless appification of content.

Tina Roth Eisenberg calls one of your sites, But Does It Float, her happy place when she needs a visual Zen moment. What's your filter for curation? For us it's really a know-it-when-you-see-it kind of thing; 100% intuition, 0% protocol, no compromises, no exceptions. We never even talk about it. We only post what we consider to be the best: what really hits us, and publish that on the site using some basic agreements around formatting, crediting, tagging, etc. We don't debate. It's really easy. And fun.

You're an interaction designer. What problems or challenges are you most excited about right now in that area? Frankly, how to get back into the explorer's spirit of a decade ago. I was a lot more excited then: designers and artists and engineers were first discovering the creative potentials of the web, there were so many frontiers to explore and there was so much work to be done. That was an amazing time. Today design on the Web seems too nice, unchallenged, pretty, well-mannered. So I guess the problem or challenge to be excited about would be how to break out of that pattern and move beyond the 2D modernist legacy that is over forty years old and still so hot right now. We need to move much deeper into immersive experiences, vivid information spaces, dimensional interfaces, emotional design — we've barely scratched the surface of what is possible in virtual space. We were talking about suspension of disbelief in interface design ten years ago… what happened? Books to read on this stuff: True Names by Vernor Vinge, Permutation City and Diaspora by Greg Egan.

Why did you create Cargo, your Web publishing system? And what does it let you do that you can't do with existing CMS tools? We didn't create Cargo as such; it's not a project that was pushed from behind; it's being pulled from the front, by the apparent need for something like it, which is largely what is responsible for it. We merely helped it become what it wanted to become: it's like it enlisted us. I know this sounds weird. At the same time it's also our personal/public exploration of the possibilities and potentials of interface design and publishing & sharing media on the web, conveniently rolled into the larger agendas that the project itself dictates.

What are some interesting projects that run on Cargo right now? Apart from a seemingly never-ending list of great personal Websites, here's a few projects that I've liked: GOOD Corps, Slamdance, The Santa Fe Museum of Languages, Interview Magazine Germany, Under the Line, MoMA Design Studio, Project 12:31, MUSEO, Study Partner, Pattern Matters, and more here.

Why do you like to float stuff left? How did you know that! That way images on a web page behave like text; aligned on the left and ragged on the right. It's the most natural thing for a browser to do. It doesn't even have to think about it. If there's more room, it will display more content. Magical! It's one of the secrets of good web design; working with the browser; letting it do what it's good at.

Has HTML5 lived up to its potential yet? Why or why not? I think the question should be if modern browsers are living up to the potential of some of these more "sophisticated" models of user interaction like object manipulation, animation, multimedia, 3D, as defined in HTML5. And how well designers are understanding and using it. The question is if browsers and designers are living up to HTML5's potential. And the sad answer in most cases is not very well. Designers are supposed to inspire these standards into existence, yet it seems these days that the standards are inspiring the designer. And that's not a very inspired situation.

What's your biggest worry about the appification of everything vs. Web-based design experiences? That not enough people are designing and maintaining these Web-based design experiences, which is precisely what is needed in this regard. It's definitely what you'll find me doing: (perhaps naively) trying to prevent what happened to radio and television in the past. Efficiency, personalization, usability, "user experience!" — they're the enemy of the internet as a playful, individual, creative, mysterious, risk-taking, emergent space.

Why do you feel you need to use Rackspace's content delivery network for your projects? Media delivery speeds are almost unimaginable compared to traditional situations. Rackspace's CDN is great, and so is Amazon's. we went with Rackspace because while building Cargo they were a little farther along with their infrastructure and could do more of the things we needed.

What do mean when you say technology runs design? When creative expression moves from art into design, it becomes a technological expression. Whether that's carpentry, sculpture, typography, or web design. The best designers are also engineers, and vice versa. Design is a technology.

What other interaction designers are doing cool stuff? Who's stuff are you watching with interest? The BERG guys, George Oates, Remon Tijssen, Karsten Schmidt, Jonathan Puckey, Roel Wouters, Paul Neave, Alexander Chen, Marcus Wendt, Paul Prudence, Rafaël Rozendaal, Carl Burgess, Wilson Miner, Eva Schindling, Mr. doob, Andreas Schlegel, Golan Levin, Ben Cerveny, the Stamen guys, Scott Snibbe, Tom Beddard, Aaron Koblin, Ben Fry, Robert Hodgin, Matt Pyke, Marc Kremers, James Widegren, Cabel Sasser, and probably twenty more that I'm forgetting right now.

Give us a preview of what you're working on next. More experimental interfaces for manipulating data and content, and new kinds of functionalities to experience the art that we support.

Follow Folkert on Twitter @folkergorter

[Photo: Gijs van der Most]