By Kathryn Weinstein
All Images Courtesy of Danne Woo
Interview first appeared in UCDA’s Designer magazine (Vol. 40, Issue 3, Fall 2015)
Danne Woo is an interactive designer, entrepreneur, educator, skateboard enthusiast, and composer. In this interview, professor Woo shares a little bit about his life, interests, and projects.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
Graphic design is in my blood and I have been a designer since birth. I grew up in San Diego, California. Like my friends I spent a lot of time skateboarding, surfing, etc. Unlike my friends, I grew up in a family of graphic designers (my father ran his own design firm and my mother taught and was the Chair of Graphic Design at the School of Art and Design at San Diego State University) so family outings included design conferences, lectures, and art and design exhibitions. I was even named after my parents’ friend, AIGA gold medalist Richard Danne. When I was 10, I became the youngest member of AIGA and at the age of 12, I was hired was hired to design a typeface for Splash Media (which later became Flash).
When did you decide to pursue interaction design?
In 1990 when I was 8 years old my mother took me to the International Aspen Design Conference. This unique conference was called “Growing By Design” and featured parallel conferences: one for children and one for adults. Activities for children combined design, computer science, and engineering. I was introduced to interaction design in “LEGO LOGO,” an amazing workshop sponsored by the MIT Media Lab. I designed and built LEGO robots and used the LOGO programming language to control them. This experience left a huge impression on me that resurfaced years later. It was at this point that I fell in love with interaction design, even before I really knew what interaction design was. My definition today is very simple. Using design to improve a user’s experience when interacting with an object, whether that is a computer, cell phone or even something as simple as a spoon.
Did you ever consider pursuing a career path other than graphic design?
When the time came to decide which college to attend and what to study, I debated between graphic design and computer science. I also enjoyed music but I thought studying music would interfere with that passion. I was good at math and had a knack for computers since getting my Apple II, but graphic design was in my blood. I attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia (UArts) for two reasons. First, this particular graphic design program taught Swiss design principles, which I knew about from my mother who had studied at the Basel School of Design in the 1970s. Second, I grew up on a skateboard and a friend told me that Philadelphia was a great city for skateboarding. Academics are very important, but it’s also important to have other hobbies and passions. Skateboarding and music were mine.
How did attending University of the Arts shape your design sensibilities/aspirations?
The majority of the faculty at UArts at that time were alumni of the Basel School of Design and had studied with such masters as Armin Hofmann and Wolfgang Weingart. The Swiss design principles I learned at the University of the Arts provided a fantastic and important base. Once you understand the basics (grid systems, color theory, and typography), you can elaborate on them and bring your own twist and style.
During my time at the UArts, I included user interaction in every possible assignment. My thesis project was an interactive website that grew out of my love of music. The website called “American Stringed Instruments” allowed users to sample songs, listen to interviews, learn about the anatomy of a series of instruments, discover historical facts, and even digitally play a guitar, mountain dulcimer, banjo, and ukulele. I developed a CD version and designed the packaging also in the form of a stringed instrument that could actually be played. The biggest challenge was that I was one of the few students in the program interested in interaction design and ended up teaching myself how to code. This is one of the reasons why I am so excited to help build out the Interaction Design focus at Queens College. Access to these skills and knowledge was not available when I was an undergrad and I want to make them accessible to our students. Considering how easy it is to get funding to produce new devices through services like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, the need to understand how to design the interfaces for these devices is more important than every before.
What were your first jobs after graduating from University of the Arts?
UArts has a great portfolio day that is supported by its alumni. Luckily, Carol Smith, an alumna who interviewed me, offered me a job in New York in her small design agency called Creative Source. While there I quickly became the go to designer for anything digital or interactive. I spent about a third of my time designing and programming websites and Flash games for a number of high profile corporate clients. I learned a lot about the design world but was eager to focus more on interaction design. After three years at Creative Source, I was hired as a senior designer for the digital branch of a mid-sized branding agency in Chelsea called the Infinia Group where I worked with similar types of clients. About half of my time focused on interaction design and programming. I also liked working there and grew as a designer, but I was eager to do more with interaction design, user experience and programming.
Why pursue a graduate degree?
After four years at the Infinia Group I learned about a master’s program at New York University called the Interactive Telecommunications Program or ITP. I went to one of their end-of-semester shows and instantly realized that this was exactly what I needed. The show was a mix between a gallery opening and a science fair with all sorts of amazing, very interactive, imaginative projects on display. Since ITP is part of Tisch School of the Arts, the program is very creative, but there is also a strong focus on technology and user interaction. I knew I had to do everything possible to attend this magical place. I applied a year after learning about the program and was incredibly excited to receive my acceptance letter a few months later. The two years I spent at ITP were easily the best, most creative and innovative two years of my life. I worked on projects that combined my love of design with my other passions for programming (Type Galapagos), electrical engineering (Circuit Board), physical computing (Bocce Draw), data visualization (Datavisual), music innovation (Light Hum) and game development (Splat!,). After graduation I was accepted to stay on for another year as a Research Resident Fellow. As a Fellow I led workshops, held office hours, assisted in several classes, and worked on my own research projects focusing mainly on data visualization and design software development.
You have started several businesses; could you tell us a little bit about BigPlay and Datavisual, Inc.?
These companies grew out of either a need that was not yet filled or a project that was already underway and had the potential to go further. My first company, Datavisual, came out of my need for a better tool than off the shelf software to design data visualizations. While I was at Infinia Group I spent 5 years designing large data books and websites. The only tool that I had to work with was Adobe Illustrator, which is inefficient for creating large numbers of data visualizations. I spent years looking for a better option, but was unsuccessful. I ended up programming a custom application for my particular needs and realized that I was not the only one with this issue. So I turned my custom software application into a more productive tool. Datavisual currently has more than 2,000 users from 130 countries, and has generated more than 500,000 visualizations. Datavisual is about to release a team account system to facilitate collaboration between designers and data editors within organizations.
BigPlay started out as a simple project I created with two friends, Phil Groman and Federico Zannier, for a class at ITP called Big Screens. We designed and built a game that allows large crowds of people to interact with large digital screens using their mobile devices. The first iteration was a multiplayer video game called Splat that allows up to 130 players to play simultaneously on the same screen. When players log into the game using their smartphones they are assigned one of the bird avatars that is sitting on a telephone wire and a button labeled “Poop” appears on the phone. The object of the game is to poop on the passing cars below to earn points for your team. The first time we showed Splat we actually received a Guinness World Record for the most players playing a video game at the same time on the same screen. BigPlay was commissioned by AT&T and VICE to create a game for their Mobile Movement event at SXSW where hundreds of players played the game including celebrities like Shaun White and Lady Gaga.
What are the skills required to become an Interaction Designer? Do you have any advice for students wishing to enter the field?
Interaction design is very much about understanding the user and designing an engaging experience. Whether you are designing a website, an app, or something else, it’s important to research the user’s needs, test prototypes, gather feedback, and iterate on that feedback from the very first design to the final product. My main advice for anyone interested in this field is to prototype early and often, get as much user feedback as possible, and design specifically for your audience. I also highly recommend having at least a rudimentary understanding of what it takes to bring your designs to life. It’s important to understand the basics of code and physical computing, as well as design principles like layout, typography, and color.
In a field that is rapidly evolving, how do you manage to keep current?
Hurrah for the Internet! There are so many blogs, tutorials, and open source software available online that it is much easier to stay up-to-date with the latest techniques, libraries, and applications. I also rely heavily on Twitter. If you follow the right people or organizations they will keep you informed on what is up and coming.
If you had unlimited funds, what project would you like to pursue?
Wow, there are so many projects that I would love to work on. I am very interested in Genomics and Bioinformatics. I would love to combine my passions for interaction design, type design, and this new-found love for DNA to create a software application that takes a user’s DNA sequence and outputs a completely unique typeface based on that data. It would be very much like a signature or fingerprint. I have many more ideas that I would love to explore, but that is my main interest right now.
What are your predictions for new developments in the next decade?
Because of the open source software and hardware movement, as well as crowd funding sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, there has been a huge rise in the number of digital hardware products coming to market including the Pepple watch, MakerBot, Oculus Rift, and Leap Motion. This trend will continue to grow over the next 10 years. Because of this increase in hardware there is quickly becoming a need for user experience and interaction designers to design content for these devices. So the future looks very good if you are interested in this field.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I am personally inspired by creative uses of code, music innovation, and other forms of artistic expression. When it comes to inspiration for interaction design specifically, I love to just people watch. Seeing how people interact with every day objects and devices helps you understand how to design better interfaces and more engaging interactions between user and object. I recently drove across the United States from San Diego to Brooklyn and stumbled across so many inspiring areas in our own country. The natural beauty of the landscape from the desert to the green mountains of Colorado, the diverse people, culture and art, and the incredible engineering marvels of the roads themselves were all very inspiring. I believe that travel and experiencing personally unexplored areas of our world is very important as well.
What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
Do what you love and follow my passions. Learn from any mistakes along the way to improve your future self.