Interaction designer Michael Wolf is the CEO of Formula D Interactive, an interaction and experience design agency based in Cape Town. Formula D’s educational solutions demonstrate complicated subjects in simple terms, so everyone can understand. They conceptualise, design and manufacture interactive exhibition displays, interactive museum exhibits and educational displays for every kind of learning environment.
We caught up with Michael to chat about interaction design, Formula D’s work and his upcoming talk at Cloudy with a Chance of Pixels Creative Symposium in Cape Town.
When did you first become interested in interactive design?
I grew up in a very boring small town in Germany. As I have two left feet, the local football club had no interest in developing my talent. So, I had to spice things up in a different way. While at high school in the 80s I first got involved in audio-visual design. I designed comic strips, sprayed graffiti, played in a band and started to fool around with VHS camcorders, which were still approximately the size of a newborn baby.
I remember that my first interactive experiment was a video feedback loop. I pointed my Dad’s camcorder at our TV and captured the screen whilst it played out to the screen at the same time. When moving a hand or object in front of the camera, this created interactive patterns and visual effects.
When did you decide to pursue a career in design?
After high school, I enjoyed a 2-year college course in visual communication and multimedia and was first exposed to interactive media authoring with Macromedia Director. I also bought my first Mac, a PowerPC with a sensational 16GB of RAM! At that time, I got completely hooked on interactive design and wanted to learn more.
I moved to Cologne and was accepted at an experimental design faculty, the Koeln International School of Design (KISD), which offered product design, interface design, service design, and other fields as parts of one integrated design approach. I learned that design is more about the approach to problem solving than a solution or specific tool or medium. At KISD, I looked into many different aspects of design. I designed furniture, corporate communication, and consumer products, such as an interactive table light using electroluminescent foil. I also did research into product sound design, modular housing structures and public spaces.
The last thing I wanted to be was a specialist as I believe that something important gets lost when designers become specialists. It may give us comfort to know that there is one thing we are particularly good at. The problem is that a graphic designer will usually come up with a graphical solution, a product designer will design a 3-dimensional item. The world is more complex and more exciting than that! However, at the end of my studies I had developed a strong affinity to the opportunities of relating user behavior to digital and physical interaction and the combination of the two, aka “interaction design”. I started to think about how interactive products could support, guide and influence behavior of users with computer processes instead of just using mouse, keyboard and screen. My final thesis was Soundgarten, a tangible sound lab, which enabled young kids to modify and arrange computer generated sounds by handling physical objects.
What was your first ever design job?
I did a lot of freelance work as a student. These were mostly corporate design jobs and websites. Together with a friend I started my first company as a student. We cut our teeth around crucial issues like managing design processes with clients, scope creep and making sure we’d get paid after the work was done.
After studying, I opted out of the business to take an opportunity at MARS Lab, Fraunhofer Institute of Technology. I was part of a small research group of artists, designers, programmers and an electronic engineer. This was a fantastic 18 months of experimenting with human computer interaction and learning from great people in a multidisciplinary team.
How did you become involved in the South African design scene?
I came to South Africa in early 2003 and fell in love with the country and its people. I knew it would be difficult to continue work along the same lines where I left off in Germany. But something in me also longed for a “reality check” after long years of studying and high concepts conceived in the “ivory tower” of a research facility. South Africa was perfect for this.
I took on a job as an industrial designer in a company designing electrical sockets and wall plugs, in Cape Town Ottery. My desk was right next to the toolroom. It couldn’t get more real. But I wasn’t content in the long run. I needed to get back into the space of interaction design. I knew that this was the most exciting design field to be in and I wanted to contribute and play a leading role in it.
What inspired you to start Formula D Interactive?
After having tried out some other jobs I realised that there was only one way to do what I wanted: I had to start my own business. At the same time, I saw the opportunity in designing interactive exhibits using cutting edge technology for museums and science centres, which not only seemed a market gap in South Africa, but also presented a great playground for interaction design. In just a few years Formula D Interactive managed to become the number one design company in South Africa for interactive experiences in spatial environments.
What has been your favourite project at Formula D thus far, and why?
One of my favourite projects is still our interactive frog wall at Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. It was our first large exhibit and it represents everything we stand for. We used gamification and engaging interaction design to educate visitors about threatened local frog species. With the frog wall we designed the first large scale multitouch display in South Africa. People had no idea what multitouch was all about, they didn’t even have iPhones at the time. However, aquarium visitors interacted
Since then we’ve produced many exciting large scale interactives for local and international clients. Currently, we are working on an 18m x 3,6m interactive projection of an underwater environment for the new science museum in Miami, which promises to be a milestone project in terms of artistic and technical realisation.
Another favourite project of mine with Formula D is a project that didn’t even happen in the end! In early 2011, we got a phone call from the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre. They had received a grant from Google. Their idea was to create an interactive exhibition about conflict, peace and peace keeping as part of a visitor centre on this topic. We were commissioned to come up with a high level concept which was later presented to Google. Unfortunately, the project was cancelled. The money was used to digitise Tutu’s archive and not for the interactive experience.
However, I think I had never been more inspired and fired up (and finally disappointed), specifically because I had the opportunity to meet the Arch personally over a cup of tea and discuss the project, a humbling and extraordinary experience. Who knows, maybe this project will happen one day. Looking at our world and Africa in particular we should be talking a lot more about reconciliation and peace keeping and the role South Africa played and should be playing in the future.
What’s the topic and key message of your Cloudy with a Chance of Pixels Creative Symposium talk?
The overarching topic of my talk will be ‘Interaction Design’. I will discuss Interaction Design as an outcome, but more so as a design process. Using relevant examples of my work at Formula D but also work of others, I am going to demonstrate the best practise in Interaction Design and explain why I believe that Interaction Design may become a guiding light to other design fields.
Which key points will you discuss at Cloudy with a Chance of Pixels?
What is the relevance of interaction design in today’s world?
Which design processes are involved?
How can other design disciplines benefit from Interaction Design?
Anything we can look forward to from Formula D in the near future?
I’d like to highlight our World Design Capital Project, the Learning Innovation Design Lab. This is a non-profit initiative which focuses on education and how designers can shape technology to help learning in South African schools. Currently, we run a Lab at Masiphumelele Primary School in Khayelitsha. We get kids to play video games and measure how this can have an impact on their learning path. Soon, we will help them to design their own games. We are currently crowd funding the project on Thundafund – You can go here to help out. Any small donation would be highly appreciated as we are in the process of upgrading the lab with low cost computers.
Watch some demonstration videos on Formula D’s projects here.
Keep up with Michael on Twitter.
Read more about Cloudy with a Chance of Pixels Creative Symposium here.