After last year’s big success, expectations were high for this year’s edition of the decoded conference in Munich, Germany. To start with my personal resume: while the conference actually had a bit of a slow start, with the first four talks not always fully living up to the expectations, in the end, 2 excellent appearances by “Team Canada”—Kate Hartmann and Jer Thorp—saved the day.
Stephen Williams from Fluid Forms opened the conference, and talked about their experiences with "democratizing design". Fluid forms provides an online platform where users can customize and order data-based (or otherwise parametric) objects, such as wedding rings with the fingerprints, bowl based on local landscapes or clocks or jewelry based on a specific excerpt from a street map. They work with milling, wax printing, silver casting and etching techniques. From an interface design point of view, I found Cassius an interesting project, in which one could literally “beat one’s lamp into shape” by punching a sandbag to customize the form of a lamp shade, and the Earth Bowls look gorgeous, too, and are so "living the future"—simply enter an address and press order to create a bowl based on your home town's terrain? Almost surreal. Very interesting material, but, unfortunately delivered not very enthusiastically, and most of the time, just scratching the surface of the complexities of mass customization.
Next up was Herbert W. Franke, a true digital media veteran and, among many other things, one of the co-founders of Ars Electronica, one of the most renowned contemporary media art organizations. His talk started with some notes on the general importance of visual communication as compared to verbal communication and lead us from fractals over interactive 3D structures to ballet dance. I knew much of his talks already from his appearance at See Conference 2010, but frankly, once again, I was not terribly inspired or fascinated. In the end, it was just a strange mish-mash of primary colored fractals, ballet performances, cellular automata sold as “what happened during the big bang” and virtual reality looking like VRML from the 90s. There is so much we could learn from Prof. Franke’s perspective on today’s digital world, but his actual message remained quite vague.
Next on stage were Eboy, known for their uniquely styled pixel imagery. They built a “cool website” in 1997 with pixel art, became famous for it and can now live off remixes, commissions, poster sales, etc. It was interesting to learn how they maintain a modular system, essentially huge parts libraries of isometric elements - much like a crossover of graphical lego with Playmobil. Their talk was quite entertaining in some sections, and their style of colorful visual detail is quite refreshing, but again, much of the talk was just an express portfolio show (“and here is another project we did… and here another one...”) and did not add much to what you could have learned about Eboy by just browsing their website. Yet, at least visually quite stimulating and I can only recommend to check out the shop at their site, their posters are dope.
I was also very interested in seeing Lia on stage, as she is one of the pioneers of generative design. In her talk, she focused on demonstrating the process in developing generative snow crystal like structures. We saw—literally—step by step, how a simple star drawing code was developed into a visually complex end product, which I was quite excited about—when do you see people of this caliber actually live code on stage? However, I was quickly reminded that the format of opening 10 different Processing sketches, and then discussing individual lines of code, works best with five people around a table, and not necessarily 400 people of very different skill sets in a big hall. The code itself was not terribly surprising for anyone who has experimented with graphic programming before, and the only really distinguishing feature of the graphics—the partial occlusions—were not discussed at all and randomly popped up late in the process. Outputwise, I can see some value in her unique, autodidactic, exploratory “programming by trial and error” approach, but ultimately, statements like “here it says p is 0.4, but it could be 0.2 as well” or “sine is really interesting, but if you want to mess your graphic up really bad, try tangens” do not really help to understand that process or improve your own work. Somehow, I was looking for a bit more reflection and insight from a person who has so interesting output and such a long history. To her defence, Lia was hit badly by a cold/flu, so possibly, the talk could have been much more invigorating than it turned out.
After the second break, Kate Hartman entered the stage, and from the get-go, it was clear there would be a change of pace. She started with a live demonstration of whimsical, transformable hats on the conference organizers, and proceeded to show a lot of great design projects, mostly dealing with our relation to objects, and things. We saw plants that call you when they need water or tweet their constitution, conceptual clothes design for “awkward introductory glacier encounters” or opportunity to literally listen to your gut. Much of her design is based on one-liners, but I am just a sucker for these clever designed objects that makes us laugh, doubt, and ultimately, reflect.
Last on the schedule was much anticipated talk by Jer Thorp, and I think it is safe to say he rocked the stage. He showed Project Cascade, a playground/landscape design project (which I could find no online documentation for - anyone?), as well as his latest project dealing with the name placement algorithm and workflow for the 9/11 memorial. Jer is not only a captivating speaker, but also a great design and technology visionary, and at the same time has a great sense for the human and emotional sides of design. I find his approach of mixing human intelligence and intervention with data mining, genetic programming and smart UIs/visualization extremely promising and hope he will follow up on this route. Let us hope his quite similar talk from Eyeo is up soon, so all of you who missed it can learn from his insights, too.
The conference was followed by a quite nice aftershow party at the “provisorium” bar. Organization and venue of the conference were as great as last year, so all in all, I really enjoyed my time, despite the occasional yawn. I also like the general format envis precisely and reppa.net established with the conference and am already looking forward to next year.
Photo credit: Anna McMaster.