Describing Bob, our new interaction designer, is no simple endeavor. On his website, he introduces himself as “interaction designer, editor, game designer, creative counselor, singer, drawer, songwriter, science maniac, nerd and part-time homo sapiens.”
But even that list doesn’t cover all of Bob’s interests. He’s also a car enthusiast (“I honestly don’t understand why every second car on the road isn’t a Mazda MX-5”), a foodie (“Tasting freshly harvested eggplant is like becoming part of the planet”), and an online espresso critic.
Perhaps the best way to describe Bob is to share an impression of his presence at the office. When you walk over to Bob’s desk while he’s not there, you’ll find his screen saver showing photos of parmesan cheese. When you do catch him, there’s a good chance he’ll be sporting a sweater with a print of the Virgin Mary.
All of this shouldn’t come as a surprise from someone who admits he prefers to surround himself with “eclectic people.” Wanting to find out more, I invited Bob for an interview. We talked about the artistry of Dieter Rams, the link between chopping tomatoes and being on stage, and why good design should trigger our emotions.
Bob, you studied interaction design at HKU, an art school. Why did you pick an art school over a technical university like Delft?
The reason I chose an art school — well, I wouldn’t call myself an artist, but I love expressing my personality in things, in art. In high school, I took art history and drawing classes for six years. Those were my favorite subjects by far. They gave me the freedom to tell a story through a medium, whether that was canvas or clay. I was afraid that if I’d go to a technical university, I’d only learn how to make something, rather than why.
Where would you draw the line between art and design? Can design be art?
Absolutely. In the conventional sense of the word, design is about application. Something has to be done, so there’s a design that allows people to do it. But clothing is design too, and catwalks prove that clothing isn’t designed just for function. It’s also about form.
That’s why design is a tricky term. In every discipline, it means something else. In the more visual disciplines, design is closer to art than in our [digital] discipline, where it’s about user experience.
I think it’s a semantic problem that we’ll probably never figure out. I’m not sure exactly where to draw the line, but I wouldn’t be able to step inside the Rijksmuseum and say: “Rembrandt was such a great designer.”
What about the other way around? Would you say that someone like Dieter Rams is an artist?
Yes, I think so. There’s his coffee maker, which obviously serves a purpose: it makes coffee. I’d never use it to make coffee — not because of my coffee snobbism, but because I think its a wonderful object. I just want to look at it and appreciate it from all angles.
Rams’s design plays with space, emptiness, and plasticity in a way that was unique at the time. Coffee machines can be purely functional, but he decided to add a dimension of beauty to it.
Vitruvius, the Roman architect, had a theory. He defined three pillars on which all good design rests. There’s utilitas, or what the object does. There’s firmitas, which says that things should be robust and durable. And then there’s venustas, which has mostly disappeared over the past 2000 years. The word is hard to translate, but it’s about the beauty of an experience.
Dieter Rams’s coffee maker works, and I’m sure it’s durable, but it also contains that venustas. It’s just incredibly beautiful to look at. If we want to be good designers, I think we should aim to give everything we create a certain beauty through its use. That experience is what links design to art.
So how do you apply that beauty of experience in your design?
I always try to find the user’s need. I design both form and function with that need in mind. There’s a common tendency to practice genius design like they do at Apple. They say: “We know what’s good for our users.” Apple succeeded at that, but there’ve been thousands who did the same but failed. That’s why I think it’s important to involve users at the beginning of the design process, to find their real needs.
Perhaps the big difference between design and art is that design takes a more human view. People won’t just look at your design — they’ll use it. What interests me is how a design shapes a user’s experience in relation to the object. That’s not just about how it feels to press a button. Design is about whether something moves you.
In that sense, you could say that music and films are a form of design too. While a sound can be beautiful on its own, music often tells a story. I’m not sure whether digital products can trigger the same kind of emotional response, but we should aim for that. Given the rise of voice interfaces, I think that’s certainly possible. The point is not to drive people to tears, but to design with a narrative in mind.
What do you do when you’re not designing?
I have two big loves. One is making music. Eight years ago, I first stepped onto a stage. What I felt was an unprecedented kind of flow. Music gets me into a meditative state that gives me exactly the right level of challenge.
My other love is food. I enjoy cooking for people and I love experimenting with ingredients. The world of gastronomy is one of the few places where attention to nature still exists. When you’re cooking, you have to deal with the ingredients that the planet gives you.
If food and music are your big loves, why aren’t you a fulltime cook or musician?
I have no idea. Working at a digital agency just feels right right now, although I do have the ambition to start my own restaurant one day. I’d also love to play more music than I do now, but it’s important to know when hobbies should remain hobbies. If they become your only interest and you fail at them, you’ll get very sad.
Am I right to see a connection between making music on stage and cooking for others? In both cases, you create something, and then you give it to someone else.
I think I like the recognition. When I did freelance design work, there was often a four-month gap between the client’s initial question and the final product. But when I served coffee at an espresso bar, that feedback loop took only two minutes. Someone tells you what they want, and almost immediately afterward, you get to hear it was fantastic. That kind of recognition feels great.
Yet the digital products you design are being used without you there to see it. There’s almost none of that direct feedback.
Yeah, it’s less direct. That’s why it’s so important to know whether something works and how people respond to it. Getting that feedback is something I’ll really push for at aFrogleap. It’s a condition for being able to do what I do. That’s something I’m willing to fight for.
So often, people design things without considering user needs. I’ve seen so many companies that just start, thinking they know how things work. They’ll finish something, have a beer and then consider it the client’s problem. But things don’t work like that anymore. Now that most people understand technology, it’s no longer just about whether people get how it works. It’s also about whether they enjoy using it. That’s a much deeper, “softer” way of looking at your product.
Whether you’re creating an app or a keynote presentation, you’re telling a story. You can go wild on fonts, but there has never been a book that got a negative review just because the typeface wasn’t right. It’s all about the story you’re telling.
Wanna see Bob in action? You’re in luck. On June 14, Bob’s band Yes Miss No Miss is playing at Volta, near Amsterdam’s Westerpark.