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119 minutes w/ wouter ebben

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Hi, could you briefly introduce yourself?

Hi, my name is Wouter Ebben and I am graduating at the department of interaction design.

How is the whole graduation experience doing it for you?

It has been pretty gruesome. But I’ve learnt a lot from it, more than I thought I would actually.

Could you tell us about your research project?

No, I’m afraid that’s classified. But I can say this: with my research project I am proposing a system that can be utilized to create physical (3D) objects based on data. So a system to create data visualisation objects. Data as a subject is getting more and more attention, and as a designer I am mostly concerned about the way we visualise this data. Although this project focuses on the visualisation of data (by physical means), the added value of spatiality is in my opinion of a more elementary nature. In other words, apart from the added value specifically to the data visualisation part of the objects, the physical form in itself is already an added value.

What were some important influences for the creation of your project the way it’s constructed currently? maybe certain artists or artworks you’ve looked at for inspiration?

Well, I looked a lot at existing data visualisation methods, as well as existing spatial data sculptures. And also geometry in maths. But not any specific artist or something.

Does your this project, to you, feel as like it’s the ‘Mona Lisa’ of your work so far?

No, it doesn’t. Actually, finding a good subject for my research project wasn’t working out very well for me. So eventually, after about six failed attempts, the department assigned me this topic. This doesn’t mean however, that I don’t like it. Personally, I feel quite strongly that physicality, materiality and tactility add a lot of value to the experience of many things. In a world where our lives are spent more and more in the digital realm, I want to advocate the use of physical media. So that’s partially what drove me for this project (also, I want to graduate). The same goes for my thesis, whose topic is closely related to my research project.

Could you tell me about your thesis then?

Certainly! My thesis is about data sculptures, which are physical representations of data. There isn’t one set definition, but usually data sculptures are direct externalisations of the data. Which basically means as much as form follows data. But there is of course always some aesthetic expression by the artist. Contrary to what you might think, more often than not they are difficult to read at first sight. You have to learn how to read them.

In what way are the subjects of your thesis and your research project related?

In my thesis I look at the properties of data sculptures and how they differ from two dimensional visualisations. Because it is quite a niche subject, I also studied some product design, art theory and psychology literature. My main goal was trying to paint a picture of the subject and see what data sculptures could bring us.

To what sense would you like your these projects, and their methodology, to correspond to your practice after graduation?

Hmmm… I feel quite strongly that the integration of the digital realm and analog/physical world is going to be a very big part of our lives, and I think a lot of great things can be done there. I wouldn’t mind being a part of that, but at the moment I haven’t got the foggiest about what I want to do after I graduate to be honest. I might become a designer, but I might just as well become a butcher. But I think at first I will venture more into front–end web design. I enjoy it and would like to get better at it, and it’s also a good field of work to make some cash.

Another subject: Where did you do your internship?

My internship was at Kossmann.dejong (kossmanndejong.nl) in Amsterdam. They call themselves exhibition architects and I think that’s a fitting description. They design exhibitions for museums. I had a wonderful time there.

In what way has the experience of doing an internship changed you, or, your (design) beliefs or (work)habits?

I can’t say it actually changed my beliefs, or even my work habits, but one of the things I learnt a lot about was how to make good presentations. This will probably baffle my teachers if they read it, but that’s because I never have the time for the proper preparations haha. Also, it made me change my mind about working in a team/company as apposed to being my own boss.

Did they serve avocado during lunch?

They sure did! The lunches were great! All organic as well, and always gezellig (you just can’t translate gezellig…). Perhaps sociable if you must.

Could you inform us on your partner, (if you had one), client and type of assignment for the practical assignment?

I worked for, and with the design innovation department of Philips design. My assignment was to design an object that would provide information to the parents of premature born babies. These babies are living in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) and are very fragile. The object is supposed to be placed at home so the parents can stay informed, because they can’t be at the hospital all the time. The object had to look friendly and not like a (medical) machine. The object – I named it Vigilo – communicates by means of light and movement. A heat map (of colored light) shows the position the baby is in at the top of the object, where the darker the color, the more weight presses down at that point, while at the bottom of the object, different colored lights indicate when the baby is being fed. Meanwhile the object moves up and down based on the rhythm of the breathing.

There is also a “neutral” state that gets activated when the baby is asleep, or when the hospital staff has to do something with the baby. In this state, no information is provided.

The object is shaped like an egg, to refer to the fragility of the baby and also the baby in the incubator. The movement of the object makes it appear to be a living object, symbolizing the new life that has joined the family. The heat map is pink because this color is associated with babies in many cultures, but even more so because it has the psychological effect of easing the mind. The light that indicates the feeding of the baby is colored orange. The idea behind this being that the color orange stimulates the appetite, hopefully moving the parents to eat at the same time, to give them an even more in synch feeling.

What will you be doing in 5 years from now?

Pffffwoooeee, I have no idea! But I hope I’m hiking in a beautiful country, or climbing the most beautiful rock face I ever had the privilege to climb. But maybe, just maybe, I’m working my ass off. One can always dream though. Maybe I can even combine the two.

Do you have tips or advice for upcoming graduate students or new students?

A bit cliché, but in my experience the most important thing is to work with subjects you really enjoy, and keep enjoying in the longer run. Also: using your hands can be very helpful. Sometimes just go and build something with paper or what not, designing with your hands and not with your head can produce completely different insights and results. Furthermore, the most important lesson I had to learn is to make decisions, even if they’re bad, at least you can move on and you have something to work with. If you have to you can always make changes later, so don’t let indecision hold you up too long. Oh, if I can, I would like to add a link to a video on youtube that I find inspiring and good advice: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmY4–RMB0YY. It’s really worth the entire 36 minutes, or for the short version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijtQP9nwrQA