Columns / Insights

Designing Digital Environments

Nathan Moody

Nathan   Moody
How did you discover you wanted to be in the field of digital and environmental design? I’ve always liked design, music, film and art that challenges people—works that aren’t completed until the viewer, listener or user puts something of themselves into a piece, meeting the creator halfway. It took years of dabbling in many different industries to finally find that at work.

How did you get your first job? When Kodak issued their first professional digital camera, they opened a learning facility focused on digital imaging. I was lucky enough to be hired between semesters of college as a teaching assistant, due to some personal and professional experience I’d had using computers for art during college. More than half of this facility’s instructors were getting flown out from the San Francisco Bay Area. That was my first clue that San Francisco was really the hub of what, at the time, was called “interactive media.” Friendships with the instructors blossomed, and eventually I was hired by David Biedny to come out to the Bay Area as his assistant. With him, I practiced computer journalism, web graphics, visual effects, motion design, interface design, video editing and teaching. He was my first mentor, and his generalist approach and unceasing curiosity put me on the path toward where I am today.

What tools do you find indispensable for your work? Paper and whiteboards get ideas expressed, and iterated upon, faster than any other tool. Hands, gestures and even vocal sound effects can express motion, velocity, mood and continuity. I have a bit of a reputation for being visually expressive. Perhaps the most overlooked tool in design is the spoken and written word. Without them, others are forced to evaluate only how an idea is executed; communicating articulately about influences and how you’ve framed the problem allows others to critique the intent behind a piece.

All that said, within our shop, 3-D and procedural animation tools, such as Touch Designer and Cinder, are becoming an integral part of our design process at all levels. However, for the final, polished product, we mostly rely on tools our software developers make for us, so we can dial in colors, spacing, timing and other parameters in real time, using software.

What excites you about digital design right now? We’re well into the first decade of true choice for how users interact with products, services and brands. Not only can we choose not to employ a mouse and keyboard, but we can decide if we engage with users in the home, at work or outside of both. This gives designers unprecedented choice, the ability to design for specific contexts, and to create experiences that can leverage, adapt, or playfully confound user expectations, as befits the message, content and brand. Signs point to this trend continuing, and the choices broadening. We’ll see if the industry as a whole rewards generalists or requires deeper, vertical specialties.

You seem to have an interdisciplinary approach to your work, bridging interactive, motion and experiential design. Does each medium fuel your work in the others? I get a huge amount of inspiration from other media, especially the processes they use to produce work. I beg, borrow and steal from other discipline’s techniques all the time. A visual effects-style pre-visualization might be the right way to sell an idea for software. Producing polished concept art, as done in games and film, might be the best way to explore and present experiential and spatial concepts to clients. Architectural studies and program layouts are extremely important in how Stimulant looks at digitally activating a physical space. A sprint-based methodology may work well in a design project where outcomes are uncertain. To live one’s creative life locked into just the best practices of your specific discipline seems myopic and uninspiring.

What emerging technologies and innovations will have the biggest impact on how you design in the next few years? Real time 3-D frameworks, and the graphics hardware that powers them, are our medium most of the time, and we can never have enough graphical firepower to produce emotionally and intellectually engaging media. This is driving our technical and design toolset and knowledge in new and exciting directions.

In addition, more and more technologies are being developed to make anything an input surface, or an output surface. Moving away from the glowing 16:9 rectangle is a slow process, but it’s happening as certain technologies either get developed or become commoditized (thereby driving prices down). But we’re at the point where any arbitrary object—a wall, a banana, carpeting or a dinner plate—can be an input or output device. That really broadens our palette of interaction patterns and paradigms in a thrilling way.

Describe the unique design considerations for experiential or exhibit design, for example your #dBcube or Space Needle Interactives, as opposed to 2-D digital experiences. Traditional digital interaction design is predicated upon user personae, branching but mostly linear user flows, screen schematics, wireframes and the like. Most often this is in support of websites and applications that run on specific platforms. Those techniques don’t always work when designing interactive installations.

We worry about users of different heights, or environmental conditions—light, heat, sound, vibration—that change throughout the day and can impact how well certain sensors work or how our output looks. We worry about a user not completing a task and feeling embarrassed because they’re not at home on their laptop, but instead surrounded by peers or strangers. “Clickpaths” are often meaningless: our applications are rich with intelligence, but sometimes in ways that are utterly nonlinear. “Stickiness” of content can be bad, especially if an exhibit needs to move a certain volume of people during a day, so we go for impact and insight instead. An understanding of architectural theories of placemaking is a huge help, as well, in understanding how people place meaning on the spaces they inhabit, making opportunities for digital activation more obvious.

Our experiential designs often need to be very short, but highly impactful. They often need to be shallow, so that users are connected with ideas, brands and each other as quickly as possible. They also need to be sexy, to attract users, convey brand and to simply be a lot of fun, regardless of what content we’re conveying.

What is the most important skill you need to succeed in digital exhibition design? Communication. After that comes empathy, and after that comes actual design ability.

Do you have any advice for people just entering the field of digital environmental design? You can have a specialty, but don’t put blinders on in your professional practice. Be endlessly curious about everything and everyone. Never dismiss anything as irrelevant: Probe it with questions and listen deeply. Separate yourself from your work, emotionally: care about the work, but the work is not you, and critiques aren’t judgements of character.

Finally, have fun and surround yourself with great people, whether that’s a great barista crew at a coffee shop, a fun group of exercise partners or a pool of designers at a studio. We’re on this planet for the blink of an eye, so you might as well get paid to do something that’s worth looking forward to every morning, that keeps you endlessly excited about what the future holds.

Nathan Moody is design director of San Francisco-based smart space design firm Stimulant. He has designed award-winning interfaces, interactions, illustrations, motion and sound for two decades, in almost every digital medium and communication channel, for some of the world’s best known companies. His broad range of experience informs his cross-pollinated, holistic approach to the design, art and craft of experience design. Moody is a published author, awards judge and frequent public speaker.


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