Mitte is a place where old meets new. It’s Berlin’s historical centre, home to landmarks like the Reichstag, Museum Island and Brandenburg Gate. The borough’s also known for its vibrant alternative art scene. Small galleries, squats and the streets themselves host works by local painters, sculptures and street artists. This is where Studio Nand calls home: a fitting setting for a collective whose work fuses traditional design values with cutting-edge technology.
“There’s lots of hype about Berlin at the moment,” says Nand co-founder Jonas Loh. “Which is fine, as the city has to keep moving and reinventing itself, as it has ever since the wall came down. Compared to London, the atmosphere is relaxed, not so hectic. At the same time you have a lot of inspirations and can escape to nature quickly.”
Loh, Stephan Thiel and Steffen Fiedler officially founded Nand in February 2012, but they’ve been working together for almost seven years. The trio met at the University of Applied Sciences in Potsdam, where they worked together on an interactive installation for a theatre production. The project saw them experimenting with new techniques, hacking mobile phones and building high-res video players. It took three months to complete and became the blueprint for Nand’s working mode.
Loh, Thiel and Fiedler set up the studio to allow them to collaborate more frequently and intensively, but they also had loftier ambitions. “We’re a studio that’s especially concerned with bringing together experts from different fields,” Thiel says. “We work with linguists, synthetic biologists, people from technology domains. We try and bridge the gap between all of these and create interesting design products, services and experiences that communicate knowledge or show the potential of technology.
“The future of education and sustainable businesses is in bringing experts together to leverage their full, individual potential. Design functions as a glue in this process – fostering discussions, developing a wide range of ideas and communicating them in compelling ways.”
While acting as an interface between disparate disciplines, uniting them through design, Nand believes developments in technology and its applications should be made accessible to everyone, not just the few who work within its various fields.
“We don’t think it’s a question of whether we’re having a third industrial revolution,” Loh says. “It’s more a question about how can we restructure the role of the access to knowledge. One of the biggest challenges in technology-driven design work is getting it to touch people. Most of the stuff in generativity or experimental data visualisation artwork is always so driven by the possibilities the technology brings, being able to draw really complex forms or visualise massive amounts of data, that it doesn’t have any real point. It’s just tinkering around and being excited by what’s possible. It doesn’t really touch a broader audience.”
An emphasis on innovation
Another thread knitting Nand’s work together is an emphasis on innovation; a commitment to solving problems with an almost childlike ingenuity. Amæ Apparatus is a shining example of this. The project sees Nand visualise the negative feelings many people feel and suppress in the workplace, taking its cues from an 18-month period, in 2008 to 2009, when 23 France Télécom employees committed suicide.
Using galvanic skin response – a system measuring psychological or physiological arousal – a device was created to visualise spikes in stress levels using coloured smoke emitted from a backpack. An experimental short was produced showing the device in action. The video and the backpack were part of the Talk to Me exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It’s more conceptual than practical, but the project is proof of Nand’s ability to humanise technology, and use it in unexpected, emotive and fun ways.
Amæ Apparatus, like much of Nand’s work, is a project led by its idea. The medium is simply a vehicle to carry the concept. Working in this way means the studio often finds itself experimenting across a diverse mix of media. “It’s mainly our curiosity about tools and mediums that drives that,” Thiel says. “We are interested in how things work, and what you could potentially do with a new technology. That is why we work across such a large range of media, from web-based interfaces, to objects using software electronics, to industrial robots. We think there is true potential for innovation in this combination of media and platforms.”
Such diversity finds Nand regularly stepping out of its comfort zone. While each of the trio has their field of expertise, they’re all eager to get their hands dirty in disciplines they’re less familiar with.
“We call it T-shape,” Fiedler says. “You have an overview of all disciplines, and then you have the points where you dig deeper. It’s about adopting roles quickly. We can’t be experts in every domain. It’s about finding the right balance. Not getting tapped by specialising in a certain domain. Staying open to all the other things. It’s really important for us to get our hands on the technology ourselves, and not just consult other people: ‘You do this. You do that.’ If you’re able to deal with the technology yourself, you have a different perspective.”
There are no clearly defined roles at Studio Nand. Projects, and jobs within them, are split based on schedule and skills. “One of us will always be in charge of a project,” Thiel says. “This includes management and communicating with the client, research, concepting and production. Especially during research and concepting we exchange and discuss a lot among the team, to make sure we’re considering as many aspects of a problem as possible. So, it’s rather per-project than per-domain or task.”
The trio even speak collaboratively – Loh picking up the conversation where Thiel leaves it, Fiedler filling in any details they miss. They tackle new briefs in much the same way. Nand’s workflow centres on numerous small iterations and prototypes put together quickly, which enables them to refine the idea through subsequent discussions with clients.
“It’s this process of exchange with the client and external experts,” Thiel says, “that informs the design and leads to the final concept. Many clients are still surprised by this approach, because they see design as a final product. But this process is important and it is important to undergo this process in an open manner. It leads to much more holistic results.”
Research and development, as you’d expect from a studio that leans towards the more scientific side of design, is pivotal. “It’s crucial for us to work from a perspective where we have a deep understanding of the topic,” Thiel says. “The final design – whatever the medium or domain – needs to evolve out of such a perspective, whether it’s synthetic biology or Shakespeare.” Understanding Shakespeare is a project using information retrieval processes and data visualisation to offer new perspectives on the Bard’s works. It does this in five different ways, including a system summarising plays through an algorithm that chooses sentences representative of decisive speeches, and another focusing on stage directions, visualising when characters enter or exit the stage, sing, sleep and die.
Education is set to play an important part in Studio Nand’s future. Each of its founders teaches in Germany and across Europe, sharing their forward-thinking, collaborative approach to design. The trio also plans to further develop CreativeCoding – a site offering teaching materials for the creative use of technology, including tutorials for artists and designers who want to design with graphics, animation, interaction and dynamic systems. It’s currently only available in German, but Nand is in the process of translating the site into English, with other languages to follow, as well as working with Berlin-based designer Jack Wild on a redesign.
Whatever the future holds, Nand’s ethos remains the same. The ideals Loh, Thiel and Fiedler had when they met almost a decade ago still ring true.
“We wanted to create something new – an atmosphere for invention,” Loh says. “Germany is very slow when it comes to the adoption of new technologies. Which is not a bad thing, per se, as long as the decision is conscious. You don’t have that many companies working the way we do in Berlin, and we took the challenge of pushing the envelope in interdisciplinary, research-oriented design, without losing our base: the open-source community.”