In a hotel in Scotland, guests checking in are met by a ‘chandelier’ of 20,000 rotating steel discs high above their heads, swirling and turning to catch and reflect the light of St Andrews Bay outside. On a dark street in San Francisco, passing the windows of Dolby Laboratories, pedestrians’ heads are turned by what seems like an impossibly long ribbon of swirling colors, a multisensory installation that transforms motion data into abstract visuals and sound. In a gallery in Shanghai, a meandering river of color fills multiple screens, real-time visuals generated by an algorithm and music composed by AI to reinterpret the shifting behaviors of rivers. And on a 104-foot-high media wall in Dallas’s AT&T Discovery District, a portrait-filled screen visualizing the huge amounts of data we hold in our phones evolves and changes, creating a focal point for the public plaza. All of these are by Berlin-based digital art and design studio onformative, founded by managing director Julia Laub and creative lead Cedric Kiefer little more than a decade ago. They now boast long-standing client relationships with some of the biggest brands in the world, among them Adobe, Google, IBM, Nike, Porsche, Samsung and Sony.
For these clients and others, onformative, which describes itself as “challenging the boundaries between art, design and technology through an experimental practice,” uses data-driven and generative design to create ambient personalized content and live wallpapers for devices ranging from smartphones and TVs to watches and speakers, client-commissioned and studio-initiated spatial concepts and immersive installations, 3-D animation, and experimental and research projects.
Studio-initiated art projects and client-commissioned design projects inform each other with a fluidity that sets onformative apart from many other digital studios. As Roger Ferris, creative director and lead for the digital experience design at the AT&T Discovery District, says, “When I think of onformative, I think ‘innovative’—onformative has an unusually high degree of technical knowledge, coupled with an elevated design sensibility.” But other factors are at work in the approach and process onformative applies to all its projects, an approach it has held from its inception back in 2010. “Right from the start, what we were interested in doing was combining different disciplines, experimenting with new technological developments and exploring new ways of creative expression,” says Kiefer. “We love to find out how approaches can be combined, to build interfaces and new solutions, which in return often reveal new ideas. In this process, we are guided by an emotional approach, seeking to create a connection between the human and the machine through design.”
onformative’s studio-initiated art projects are, as Kiefer says, “underpinned by pure curiosity, and therefore the outcome is totally open. We initially thought Meandering River would become a physical sculpture, but during the project, we were inspired by the satellite pictures and by the technologies at the time and integrated these in the process to then get to a completely different outcome. And one of our first artworks, an embodiment of sound called unnamed soundsculpture, uses a dancer to interpret a musical piece and is a very interdisciplinary interpretation of the idea of a sculpture.” Zephyr, the large-scale generative sculpture created for the Hotel Fairmont St Andrews in Scotland, is physical in its outcome, but the process of developing it included a complex combination of different technologies to find the aesthetic outcome, which included data from the coastline where it is located.
Then there are hybrid projects, commissioned with a very open brief and developed in a collaborative process between client and studio. Dolby Labs’s Collide is one such piece; onformative took the idea of sound and movement as a creative inspiration and came up with the idea of synesthesia to interpret the brand in an abstract, aesthetic way, both captivating viewers and demonstrating a clear connection to Dolby. And there are the classic digital design projects, “where a client brings a problem or a desired outcome, and we get a brief, which means we work towards a certain goal,” says Kiefer. “We develop aesthetic content for products that needs to fulfill a certain purpose.” The distinction between open, hybrid and client-commissioned projects is one “we question over and over again,” as Kiefer says. “On the one hand, the answer can be quite simple [at] its core—or let’s say in theory—but in practice, there are many thin lines and interpretations.”
That practice varies greatly from project to project. “Some clients provide a concrete brief and come with references, implying a specific idea of the outcome, whereas others are very open,” Kiefer explains. “As our approach is quite procedural, we do not define our work through specific style or design language but by this approach. Trust plays a huge role in this process. The more the client trusts us in the process of developing the visual direction, the more exciting the outcome, as we can inspire each other in the course of the project. I’d say for us it is mostly about the approach to how to get to the goal together with the client.
“For IBM Watson, we were tasked with giving an avatar, an authentic and trustworthy identity, [to] an increasingly human-like technology,” Kiefer continues. “The process was preceded by an intense research and exploration phase to anticipate possible scenarios. [We] then developed a corresponding visuality, showing that design in this case is also a lot about communication. In a project for General Motors, we developed a prototype that would enable a form of communication for an autonomous car. During the research phase, we worked with a number of different technologies—including VR—to create a design for the communication, which needed to be intuitive and distinct in order to transfer messages clearly.” For the commercial and cultural center TX Huaihai in Shanghai, onformative was invited to develop a digital art piece on the topic of urbanization. The result, Coexist, aesthetically adopts the prevailing contrasts found in the city from a macro- and microperspective into a playful complexity, fed by data drawn from the city of Shanghai. It’s a great example of how data-driven design can be applied, as is FLUX, a data-driven art sculptural installation created for the IBM Watson Headquarters in Munich, which visualizes the different facets of the Internet of Things and cognitive technologies. The outcome, displayed via 32 curved screens that cycle through imagery created through streams of living data, “creates an authentic and unique narrative of the organization,” as Kiefer puts it.
The use of data, believes Kiefer, is one of the key innovations and directions currently shaping not just onformative’s design practice, but also client solutions and the world we live in—and, in particular, the integration of data to personalize digital content. “One example can be found in the development of consumer electronics and the requirements it brings to the respective content,” Kiefer points out. “There is a clear trend towards creating an emotional connection to the devices we use daily. Our collaboration with Samsung on The Wall, a range of screens featuring exclusive digital artworks as aesthetic content for a new generation of TVs, [provides] a good example of this: Geometrical shapes and generative patterns react to live data to create kinetic walls via many applications and options. Users can personalize the device and integrate it into their own interiors.” For AT&T Discovery District’s media wall, an hour-long piece of original content needed to work on multiple levels. “It needed to be very ambient and artful so that it could be enjoyed simply as ‘art,’” says Ferris, “but it also needed to tie in a conceptually meaningful way to AT&T and the AT&T Network without appearing corporate. Like a fireplace in a room, we wanted the piece to create the right mood and energy level for the District’s public plaza. Because the piece would play for a full hour at a time, it needed to evolve and change over the course of an hour. And it needed to work equally well when seen both day and night.”
onformative’s need to stay on top of technological shifts and advances is supplemented by a continual desire to find inspiration in the ‘real world’ from attending international festivals, conferences and exhibitions, but by also making the most of Berlin, a city “where there are endless possibilities to be inspired by big and small art events, design meet-ups, talks and projects,” says Kiefer. Teaching and conferences are integral to the team’s activities, which they feel are things that inform and intersect with their practice on a regular basis. They also offer “a great way of pausing and reflecting on our own development as a studio,” Kiefer explains. “And we highly value collaborations with artists, freelancers, architects, sound designers or other creative minds as it keeps the inspiration alive.” It’s evident in their work for clients like Ferris, who says: “Some studios are strong creatively. Other studios’ strength lies in their technical chops and innovation. In my experience, studios typically stay in these clearly defined lanes and operate within their core area of strength. It’s very unusual to find an agency or studio that has a very high degree of technical knowledge and a very strong design aesthetic. But that’s when the magic happens. When you couple innovation and technical expertise with an elevated design sensibility, you get a lot of firsts. And you get award-winning results. onformative is that unique kind of studio that crosses categories and creates magic.” ca