Pushing the Boundaries with Nik Hafermaas

Creative risk-taking in media, technology, and space

When he’s not running the graphic design department at Art Center College of Design, Nik Hafermaasis creating new ways to combine digital interactive media, high-tech materials, and architecture through his studio Ueberall. He says there is no better place for innovation—and risk-taking—than XGD. And he’ll prove it by debuting eFLOW, his prototype installation using E Ink Prism™, a color-changing film from E Ink®, at the 2015 SEGD Conference June 4-6!

>>Take a risk with Nik Hafermaas. Get registered for the 2015 SEGD Conference: Experience Chicago.It’s only 3 weeks away!!

Nik Hafermaas is an award-winning public artist and designer whose work reflects his passion for creating visceral experiences using digital interactive media. “In one way or another, I’m always trying to liberate two-dimensional content from the digital realm and set it free in the physical space so that people can interact with it.”

As chair of the Graphic Design Department at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Hafermaas has been at the forefront of a radical shift in how designers are trained. He insists that Art Center graphic design students learn not only the traditional foundational skills of drawing, form, and color—but coding as well. Today, Art Center students begin coding in their first semester of study. “In the digital world, coding is the new basic skill for designers.”

Hafermaas’ presentation at the 2015 SEGD Conference—part of the Experiential Learning Series focused on innovation using technology and new media—is entitled “Pushing the Boundaries: Adventures in Mediatecture—Creative Risk-Taking in Media, Technology, and Space.” He’ll talk about his recent collaboration with E Ink and will debut his eFLOW prototype at the conference venue. He spoke with SEGD about it this week.

What can you tell us about your project with E Ink?

E Ink is known for developing the electronic ink or ePaper displays used in eReaders, smartphones, wearable products, and other consumer electronic products. They always believed their technology could scale from the smaller displays to a product that was usable in dynamic architecture applications. E Ink wanted to show how it could be done and combine their electronic ink technology with an artistic vision.

They had seen our eCLOUD installation at the San Jose airport and the airFIELD installation at Hartsfield Atlanta International, so they knew we were interested in using dynamic, digital, interactive media in public-scale architectural installations.

eFLOW is an interactive sculpture that serves as a proof-of-concept prototype. It’s the result of our nine-month collaboration. The prototype will actually be installed at the Sheraton Chicago hotel during the SEGD Conference for attendees to see and experience.

Wow, what has the collaboration been like? How has it worked? 

It’s a dream come true. First of all, it was such a wonderful circumstance because I was wringing my hands trying to find a material more versatile and easier to work with than liquid crystal (which we had used in several installations). I wanted to find another product that provided the visual performance qualities I wanted but was more robust.

To be an artist and have this access to R&D is the best possible scenario. Right now there are six engineers working around the clock to make this happen. Once you establish trust and a common language, the collaboration is great. We have weekly conference calls and periodically I fly to Boston to meet with their engineers. What’s not fantastic about working with incredibly smart, dedicated people who complement your own abilities?

Why is E Ink making this investment?

Their goal is to prove how their product can go to super architectural/urban scale. eFLOW is our proof of concept. And they realize that this type of artistic collaboration is the best and most exciting way to introduce something genuinely new.

So tell us a little more about eFLOW.

Well, you’ll get to see it yourself in Chicago. But eFLOW is a 16-ft.-long sculpture, suspended from the ceiling. It is a long organic-looking volume that resembles a bionic sculpture, suggestive of a deep-sea creature. One of its interesting features is that the entire volume will behave as one undulating form. With this material, you can drive color changes from one end to the other in a swift, organic way…so the visual effects are both organic and very unique.

eFLOW combines the Prism dynamic film with custom hardware, a Kinect sensor, and an iPad interface. It visually comes alive when triggered by sensor input. It detects the presence and movement of people and reacts like a shy deep-sea creature. Here is a video showing the animation.

How does the technology work?

This material is similar to that used for e-readers. Imagine you have millions of tiny little capsules containing color pigment sandwiched between two layers of film like a laminate. The active layer consists of the pigments within the capsules. When a voltage is applied between the two film layers, either the white or the black pigment moves toward the surface based on the polarity of the voltage. By changing the voltage, you can change colors and create different effects. It doesn’t have to be black and white; the capsules can contain any two different colored pigments.

Unlike light-emitting displays that are impacted significantly by ambient light, this works like a printed surface, so any light will make it visible and it can’t be washed out by the sun. This is a huge advantage and also consumes much less energy. Another advantage is the film's mechanical flexibility.

Those of you who attend the conference will be the first in the world to see an application of this material three-dimensionally at that scale. Here is a video of the animation.


eFLOW by Nik Hafermaas/Ueberall


Sounds exciting—and a little risky?

Exactly. There is always risk involved in pushing new boundaries or in trying to be innovative. I’m OK with that, and I think that XGD in particular is ripe for that kind of innovation.

Can “traditional” environmental graphic designers embrace this kind of innovation?

EGD/XGD is the best place for innovation to happen. It’s a mindset to embrace, and we can all embrace it.

Not only have our tool palettes expanded tremendously with new digital technology, but the number of venues where our work can make an impact in the visual world has gone through the roof. There are so many opportunities for design innovation to be applied. Brands are no dummies, and they get this—sometimes better than we do!

We’re in the second digital revolution. The first one glued us to our little and big screens, and the second one will liberate us from them and get us reconnected with the physical world in meaningful, beautiful ways.

>>See Nik speak at the 2015 SEGD Conferenceand get inspired to innovate! 


Artist: Nikolaus Hafermaas, Ueberall International
Project Management: Jeano Erforth, Ueberall International
UX Design, Software Development: Ivan Cruz
Engineering, Fabrication, System Integration: E Ink Holdings
Photos: Ueberall

New Member Offer

Click to access the 2020 "Never been an SEGD member before" $185 sign up offer

Upcoming SEGD Events

2022 Branded Environments
2022 Xlab
Digital Signage Experience 2022