Xlab 2014: Jason Bruges: Shaping Space, Context, and the User Experience

After working in traditional architecture and interaction design, Jason Bruges launched his own studio in 2002, and since then, he and his London-based team have created cutting-edge digital experiences that fuse art and design, physical computing and interaction design, and architecture. Jason will inspire you at Xlab 2014 November 6 in NYC!

You were trained as an architect and worked for Foster + Partners before starting your interaction design studio in 2002. What inspired you to move from designing buildings to designing experiences?

From my student days I’ve been interested in making buildings more performative, dynamic, and four-dimensional. At Foster + Partners, it was all about conventional architecture—very high quality, high production value, and tightly controlled. After that, I worked as an interaction designer at Imagination, where we specialized in designing experiences. Projects were very theatrical and much quicker, whether it was a car show or an exhibition or a piece of pavilion architecture. It might last a year at most.

That is where I learned to look at things in a different way in terms of how work was sold, procured, commissioned, and communicated. Imagination was an amazingly multidisciplinary environment, with architects, 3D designers, and interaction designers working with R&D people, logistics experts, and multimedia designers. It was narrative design in its early form. We were creating ephemeral architecture, there only for a split second.

It was my background in traditional architecture, combined with being in an ephemeral, time-based world at Imagination, that helped me realize this combination was something I could explore in practice.

You’ve been called so many things: a digitalist, a lighting designer, an inventor, an interactive architect. What do YOU call yourself and what you do?

I tell people I run an art and design studio. Sometimes I say I’m a digital artist. If I’m pressed into explaining further, I tell them the core of what we do is creating architectural-scale art and design installations. And I also identify myself as an entrepreneur, someone who has sought out this type of work as a commercial opportunity. My world oscillates between owning and running a business and exploring the world of digital art and architecture.
Nowadays you seem to be doing more work for commercial enterprises (Channel 4, Bloomberg, Guinness). Is there a difference between your “brand” work and your art interventions for public/urban/civic spaces?

I think there has always been a pretty consistent proportion of commercial versus cultural commissions. I don’t think the percentage has changed, but certainly we’ve been doing some quite high-profile commercial work. There is probably no difference for us in the creative process, but significant differences in the parameters we’re running our projects against. 

Can you give us an example of what you mean?
Our work for Tate Modern (the client) and Bloomberg (partner and chief sponsor) was to design a series of interventions that would encourage the audience to interact with the Tate collection and with each other and create a digital community. We were very specifically trying to solve a certain problem with a series of design interventions. That is quite different from designing an installation for an art or cultural commission.

Tate wanted to increase engagement and create a technical interface between the visitor, devices, and social media, and capture these conversations. So we built a series of site-specific devices around the circulation spaces of the gallery. With these devices, people can take selfies, make little drawings, communicate with artists, and communicate with each other. A nice twist is that we reimagined and up-cycled Bloomberg technology, turning old screens into new interfaces and enabling them with Kinect and cameras so they can sense, for example, how many people are looking at the screen and change content accordingly. These are relatively complex objects that can undertake quite a few tasks simultaneously.

How does your studio work…what is the creative process like?

The way we work in our London studio is that we build in order to design. We’re half studio and half workshop. For each project, we are prototyping and making things all the time. This way, we can see them manifest physically as we’re designing, and that’s crucial to getting it right. It also helps our clients, who often have trouble visualizing something that initially seems very “out there.” If they can see it, they understand its power.

What current/recent projects are you excited about?

We’ve got a new project live in Toronto called Back to Front. It’s an artwork commissioned by a developer called Tridel as part of a new condominium development. Back to Front refers both to its location on Front Street and its proximity to the waterfront and Lake Ontario, which exposes the area to dramatic weather fronts. We created a series of six granite monoliths that describe the movement of people through the park and also provide some surprises to discover. Depending on where you stand in relation to the artwork, they translate the shadows you cast on the stone through the backs of the stones, using LEDs. They also sense changing levels of light in the park, picking up shadows from trees, the moving sun, and people walking through and create animated silhouettes on the other side.

A lot of your work seems to be in transitional spaces like train stations, parks, and hospitals. Do you have an affinity for these types of realms?

I’ve always been interested in these spaces and how they are inhabited by populations in flux. These are very rich environments for site-specific work. And if we can improve environments that need regeneration or areas that promote wellbeing, that’s even more interesting to me.

We’ve had a lot of interest in the work we did for Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London. There, we designed an artwork that would create a positive distraction for children on their way to theatre [surgery]. The corridor walls are canvas for a forest scene with digital lookout points that reveal various forest creatures, including horses, deer, hedgehogs, birds, and frogs. Across LED panels embedded in the wall at various heights, abstracted animal movements are recreated as interactive animated patterns of light that reveal themselves within the forest.

What is your advice to “traditional” experience designers who want to become more facile using digital technology?

A few things. First, don’t worry about the technology because it’s just an extended part of your palette, nothing more. The idea is still the most important thing. As long as you have some awareness of what’s being done out there or what can be done with technology, that’s enough.

I describe myself as having a working knowledge of technology. It’s not that I have specific things I want to use; the idea is still key. Then, obviously we have a palette with a technical skew and things we’ve worked with, or certain types of aesthetics that people enjoy. I say remain open-minded and don’t be afraid to try things out. You learn a lot more when you fail!

If you get caught up with the technology or the idea that “We’ve got to do something high tech,” it’s always only going to be as good as the idea.

People still want narrative. They want the story. So you have to think about things like, How will this make people feel? What is the spectacle? How will people interact with this space? How does the story manifest? How does the physical manifest? Technology is way down the list.

Read the case study on Bruges' Tate Modern Museum Digital Experience.

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