Some interaction designers choose to work in the digital realm, shaping pixels into elegant interfaces and environments.
Javier is one fine example of this species.

Javier Cañada can be found in the intersection of social sciences and technology.

His natural interest in tapping the possibilities that new tech can offer blends seamlessly with his gifted mind for understanding people’s behaviour.

The elegance found in his works stems from a deep intimacy with the principles of design. It also has to do with having an eye for aesthetics. But above all, it is built on a work ethic that puts discipline, honesty and self-demand first.

Screen capture of the Ducksboard interface

The Ducksboard dashboard, designed by Javier and his team.

An abridged bio

Javier started early in the field of human-computer interaction.

One of his fondest childhood memories is of a Spectrum computer. If you were there at the time you will remember the change of paradigm that computing underwent.

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Photo by Bill Bertram / CC BY-SA 2.5

Years later, around the late nineteen-nineties, Javier was aiming for a degree in social sciences.

Past the midpoint, he moved from Spain to Seattle and started attending Washington University, where he met professors and researchers working on social sciences and new tech.

Some of them invited Javier to sit in night classes together with people working for Microsoft and Amazon. This put him in touch with the cutting edge in the emerging field of interaction design.

And it also made it very hard to go back to Spain.

Conventional social science studies had become plain boring.

After going through different professional stages, by 2007 Javier had established a small agency by the name of Vostok. Apart from conventional commissions, he was frequently requested by his clients to train their designers.

Building on this need, Javier set up the Vostok Programme, which has become one of his main sources of happiness and professional fulfillment in the present. More on this programme further down.

The Vostok agency eventually evolved into Tramontana.

 

A Guiding Principle

Q. This is becoming a classic starting point for many interviews. What do you believe in? On what premises do you base your work?

A. I believe that things are either right or wrong.

I cannot work for clients that make me feel bad.

Or for companies with dubious ethics, which pursue deceitful solutions known as dark patterns.

Those are user interfaces and systems that are carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology, and which do not take users’ needs into account.

When I am involved in a given project, it is essential for me to believe in what I am doing.

I try to choose assignments where the goal is designing ‘the thing’, the solution. I steer away from projects focused solely on marketing, where the energy is poured into shaping ways of selling something.

I try to choose assignments where the goal is designing ‘the thing’.

I also cannot work with people who do not have a feel for what they are doing. Those who are not trying their best. Those who are just passing by or just trying to impress their colleagues or bosses with tactics.

It is my belief that you should do things well, even if you don’t do a lot of them.

If you decide to go for it, you should do it to the best of your ability. I work by this principle, and so do my collaborators.

If you decide to go for it, you should DEFINITELY do it to the best of your ability.

I am sure my code of ethics will be considered old fashioned by some. The thing is, I might be taking fewer projects on board, but I’m also able to feel at ease with myself.

 

The design of interactions

Q. What does an interaction designer do? 

A. There’s a simple definition I sometimes use: “An interaction designer decides what goes on in the screen”.

Picture of a mobile app

Q. That is one vast field. In which parts are you most at ease?

A. I personally enjoy challenges related with information design and Big Data. I also enjoy dealing with complex ecosystems which either you get right or end up in a mess.

Q. What aspects of the interaction between people and things do you consider most important?

A. I guess it depends very much on the project.

I have shaped a simple model to explain my approach. There’s four elements to be considered:

  • The device and the hardware that goes along with it.
  • The interface, which is made up of pixels, and with which the user establishes a conversation.
  • The user, including his physical, cognitive and emotional traits.
  • The context, the precise moment and place where the conversation takes place.

I think design is a game played within those four corners. And the key to playing that game is understanding the fundamentals that bind together those four elements.

Mockup of app

The best part is that the same basic principles apply equally nowadays in Tokyo and in pre-columbian America.

 

User involvement

Q. What’s your take on user-centric design and co-creation? How much user input do you allow into your design process?

A. User-centered design involves focusing strongly on the last two elements I mentioned before. This means stepping closer to your real users, and that is a good thing.

No notable, memorable work of art was ever created by a committee.

Obviously, in order to bring information on board and understand what you are dealing with, the more sources the better.

But design is more than that. Turning information into a consistent, whole, well-built solution that is also beautiful cannot take place through a collective effort.

No notable, memorable work of art was ever created by a committee.

Let me emphasize that I make a distinction between creating and building. Building is all about teamwork – There is strength, not intelligence, in numbers.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Q. Do you always follow the same creative process? Have you got a go-to method or tool that you apply systematically?

A. The more experience I gain, the less I care about the process, and the more I focus on clarity.

I try to frame whether what we are working on is either a sequence of individual steps or an all-in-one big picture. One of the first things every project needs is to define itself as a map or as a story.

Notebook and pen

One of the first things every project needs is to shape itself. most projects are meant to be either maps or stories.

Q. How do you see restrictions within the design process?

A. Designing is solving an equation between form and function.

As a modernist, I believe there is only one optimal solution to a design problem. In this paradigm, restrictions play a key role in narrowing down the solution space.

Trying to design without restrictions is speculating rather than solving.

Theoretically, the ideal case would be full-on specifications.

In this scenario we would know everything about our device, about the user’s body and mind, and the context of use. We would be aware of all the possibilities the interface could offer. Time allowance and budget would be clearly defined. This context should hypothetically lead to a perfect solution.

However, the information and restrictions available are, on average, limited, and this leads to products that are not as refined as one would desire.

It is the designer’s job to define boundaries when those are not given.

Trying to design without restrictions is speculating rather than solving.

 

The importance of tangible stuff for a digital designer

Q. You are very fond of particular products, which you collect. What do you see in them?

A. I take into very high consideration the work some designers did with radio receivers and sound systems between the 1930s and the 1980s.

Back in the day those devices were advanced consumer products, and you can tell how much effort and attention to detail was poured into their development.

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I find amusing the way those designers blended tangible elements such as materials, dials, buttons or switches, with abstract concepts such as frequencies, waves, volume or channels. Hardware and software were developed as one, which is something you seldom see today.

I love the idea of being outlived by products in working condition.

Another major difference with current consumer electronics is the willingness to achieve long lifecycles.

Those old radios were made to last not one but two lifetimes.

I love the idea of being outlived by products in proper working condition.

 

Mastery and training

Q. You run a training programme that focuses on interaction design and follows a very personal approach, based on sharing experiences and knowledge. Could you tell us about it? Why do you do it?

A. The programme lasts six months, and only eight people take part in each edition. I only hold it when I have the time and energy to do it to the highest standard.

The programme started in response to a demand from companies I worked with, since they were asking me to train their junior designers.

Vostok Programme class of 2014

Some of the participants in the 2014 Vostok Programme

I shaped it the way that matched the most my way of teaching.

The format resembles a family meeting. The group engages in in-depth discussions on a wide variety of topics, and looks respectfully into the past and courageously into the future.

I deliberately avoided the ’30 sessions / 30 teachers’ formula. It does not allow to follow-up with students and really help them get better.

I also steered away from trends. I think that if you understand the design decisions behind Henry Dreifuss’ model 500 telephone you know what it takes to design a good iPad app.

A good designer, capable of shaping today’s and tomorrow’s products, must be fluent scanning and decoding contexts.

I respect and celebrate classics. I want students to understand the historical context as a force shaping both form and function.

For example, you cannot fully grasp the Bialetti Moka coffee maker without understanding the futurist movement and Italy’s colonialism in Abisinia. The Moka was born out of that context, and thus its shape and function.

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Photo by Giuseppe Zeta / CC BY-SA 2.0

The same happens nowadays with the Fitbit strap, the Toyota Prius or with GoPro cameras. The zeitgeist, the sign of the times, dictates what should be done, and how it should be done too.

A good designer, capable of shaping today’s and tomorrow’s products, must be fluent scanning and decoding contexts. A bad one follows the mob. I try to train the former.

One final thought. I know I want to train small groups, with smart, capable and motivated people. I usually turn down many applications. The good thing is that, being a small group and all, they always develop a feeling of brotherhood that is very valuable.

Q. It is often hard to explain the way that artisans, artists or people with a lots of tacit knowledge work. There is a continuous stream of micro-decisions which are taken following a fuzzy, intimate logic. What is, in your experience, the best way to pass your knowledge on to others? How do you transfer subtlety, attention to detail…? Do you believe such sensitivity and touch are ingrained or are they mere capabilities that can be effectively trained?

A. I think it can be both something you are born with or something you can learn. And if you have to learn it, you might use it with greater awareness. What is ‘it’? Design principles, three or four dozen rules, knowing how to equalize it all to reach the optimal combination.

To me the difference between someone who learns something through study and someone who has acquired the knowledge in an informal manner is the ability to put wisdom into words.

I sometimes find that students are not aware of their knowing something. They can make good design decisions but cannot explain the whys behind them. Their know-how is not structured or verbalized.

To me part of the learning process consists of putting things in order inside one’s head.

Table and two notebooks

 

A new era

Q. Dieter Rams or Gabriel Lluelles are some of your personal heroes. They set design principles and put them to practice several decades ago. How do you see their work in connection to modern technologies, which were not around back then?

A. Rams’, Lluelles’, also Hans Gugelot‘s works are timeless. They were really good, but at the time it was probably hard to predict how long-lasting they would eventually be.

40+ years of flawless function is their testimonial to masterful design.

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Gabriel Lluelles, designer of the Minipimer hand blender.

I am sure that nowadays both large corporations and small enterprises have talented pros giving birth to amazing new products, services, interfaces… If this stuff stands the test of time, it may be regarded in the future as other classics. In the meantime, my heart belongs to the Rams, Lluelles or Gugelots.

Q. What is the impact of new resources and technologies for making interactive systems (Arduino, 3D scanning and manufacturing…) on your work? Do you build physical prototypes or focus solely on the digital layer?

A. For now my work is almost entirely digital. Yet I have the feeling that in ten years from now we will all be working on hybrid solutions, where hard and soft are not as detached as nowadays.

 

All pictures © Javier Cañada and Inés Quijano except where stated otherwise. Published with permission.