[Interview] Information as a service

Giuseppe Attoma Pepe, interviewed by Étapes magazine No. 237 (5 May 2017), shares his thoughts on the relationship between graphic and UX design.

CLARA DEBAILLY & CAROLINE BOUIGE: Why and how did you specialise in service design?

GIUSEPPE ATTOMA: I started out as an art director in Milan, but very quickly became interested in information design. When information itself became interactive, I started thinking about information architecture, i.e. how to implement such interactions in several dimensions, through a navigation process. Furthermore, information has become a service. At Attoma, we defend a systemic approach, which looks at the organisation and usability of a service through various contact points. We deal with projects relating to the real world, digital solutions, paper documents and customer relations. Service design is a way of designing interfaces – in a broad sense – between organisations and their customers.

CD & CB: What kind of problems do your clients come to you with?

GA: A typical example is when the RATP asked us to design the interface for their Navigo terminal: they were introducing a new payment platform, with a contactless transport card and a touch screen, and at the same time, they were closing their sales counters. So it was all about service, usability and the brand. This interface needed to tell the RATP’s story. Everything I’ve just mentioned relates to graphic design because it requires visual representation. There’s a formal component, with hierarchy issues, all part of the foundations of graphic design.

CD & CB: Does having large-scale industrial or service companies as clients mean you can innovate and take risks in your graphic choices, or do you rather favour a design language that users will already be used to?

GA: In France, there is a strange opposition between what is functional and what is beautiful. And there is very strong prejudice against anything relating to the business world. In schools, we tend to train designers on theatre posters rather than functional documents. In Germany, the UK and the Netherlands, every piece of packaging, bank statement and administrative form is designed. But in France, there is still this approach tied to the culture of creation, and things need to change. So to answer your question, I think that being able to explore an innovative graphic language in constrained contexts is a matter of will and intelligence. A client will never say “I find this shape too extravagant” if it actually makes sense. The challenge is how we use graphic design to achieve meaningful creations. And as long as you do, people will get on board!

CD & CB: Interaction design requires convenience and immediacy, so doesn’t these constraints prevent you from making radical choices, as opposed to creating a theatre poster?

Mobility is a new field of play for culture.

GA: Yes, but these objects don’t have the same functions. So I don’t need to trigger the same emotion or engage the target audience in the same way. Design is not art. But it’s true that graphic creativity is disappearing from interaction design. You need to create a convergence of interaction patterns. Let’s say you’re designing a search engine: you’re not going to reinvent the input field, or the shopping basket on a website. You’ll use existing patterns because it’s a language that makes sense, one that people have learned and are familiar with. A good designer will be able to manipulate this language to make the interface as efficient, convenient and user-friendly as possible. And this doesn’t forbid innovation altogether. But, indeed, the graphic language may seem more limited, going back to basics. Flat design, for instance, is elementary but it can also prove very subtle and interesting.

CD & CB: What is your view on flat design? Do you think it has the potential to be used in any context?

GA: There is a bit of that. When the first iPhone came out, Apple opted for a skeuomorphic graphic language, which simulates shapes and materials in a hyper-realistic way. It was very clever to give continuity of meaning to users, so they could easily recognise features. Later, when responsive design came along, we had to design elastic shapes that could be adapted to all media and formats. This led designers to work on vector shapes rather than images. Around that time, the issue of learning and recognising features became obsolete, since users had grown accustomed to that language. So we moved towards a simplification of signs and shapes, which gave birth to flat design. Now, the emerging trend is the return of text. After a flood of pictograms, the written word is making a comeback. The notion of experience goes beyond signs and pictograms, as it combines all semantic objects. This is why design aggregates all these concepts and integrates complexity into the project. But design schools are not completely up to date on these matters.

CD & CB: Where do the UX designers you work with come from? What are their backgrounds?

GA: We’ve had multiple generations. Some came from ENSCI − Les Ateliers, others from Strate School of Design, some even have engineering backgrounds. Many of our colleagues also studied humanities and social sciences, as we have a fairly strong research section in our design office.

CD & CB: In your opinion, what makes a good UX designer?

GA: This may come as a surprise, but in my opinion, a good UX designer does not necessarily have graphic design skills. That said, at Attoma, most of the people working on UX do have a background in graphic design. What makes a good UX designer is their understanding of usage, their ability to anticipate the future and relate to the user, and to envision an experience that responds to a specific need. It’s more about storytelling than creating an actual object. You could say we deal with narrative design.

CD & CB: At what point in the project do UX designers intervene? How do they collaborate with graphic designers?

GA: We work with UX designers as early as possible, during eco-design workshops, where they actively collaborate with clients and experts, depending on the project. Initial sketches of important screens and situations are prepared. During this phase, graphic designers are not necessarily involved. When we feel we are on the right track, we create clickable mock-ups to get an idea of the user pathway. We need a realistic and functional prototype as soon as possible to be able to move forward. We are especially attentive to functional branding, to ensure the user experience is closely tied to a specific brand. So we identify the client’s fundamental components and design language, and find a way of incorporating them seamlessly into the UX.

RATP. Working with the agency for many years, the RATP asked Attoma to design the interface of its Navigo terminals.

CD & CB: Are there graphic solutions that are known to be more efficient and simpler, especially with regard to new interfaces?

GA: Yes, absolutely. That’s the case in typography for instance. For signage, you’ll use a wide type for legibility, which is not too cramped, with optimised line spacing. The constraints of perception and use cases directly influence the direction we take graphically. Is this a limiting factor? Not at all. The spectrum of possibilities remains immense, because these signs are tied to technical behaviour in the interfaces. This results in a wide range of combinations. Hence the importance of creating a clickable mock-up as soon as possible. It would make no sense to show our clients a static mock-up, which wouldn’t reflect the user experience. I’ve never had the impression we were limited in what we could do. But I’ll admit we’re not famous for our “wow” factor in terms of graphic design (laughs).

CD & CB: Are there any projects that give more room for poetic and aesthetic forays?

GA: The “appeal” aspect is always there. Over time, our interest has turned to use challenges in industry and mobility rather than luxury or culture, because these are sectors where things are moving fast. We inject the aesthetics, the appeal into the quality of the experience, the emotion it arouses; we work a lot on sensory perceptions. We strive to go beyond pure functionality, particularly in the field of mobility where we need to seduce the user. Mobility issues are especially fascinating. For some years now, I have been in charge of the design commission for the International Union of Public Transport (UITP − Union internationale des transports publics), based in Brussels, and we organise training courses on information design, which allows us to see the evolution of design projects in these sectors. In my opinion, mobility is a new field for cultural expression.

CD & CB: Could you give us some of the latest updates from Attoma?

GA: Kai Gehrmann, who runs Attoma’s Berlin office, has recovered the library of pictograms created by Otl Aicher for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, so we created a website to give everyone access to this database. This is our way of promoting the culture of European design, and making a statement on our own approach and inspirations. Furthermore, our Milan office is running a project relating to signage in the Doha Metro.

CD & CB: In your opinion, what are the challenges of UX design for the years to come?

GA: Interfaces are bound to disappear due to the intelligence built directly into objects, which will lead to a simplification of language. The main issue will no longer be the screen, but the service itself. On the other hand, we are progressing towards an automation of design. Designers will be increasingly required to create prototyping and mock-up generators to churn out ready-made solutions. We are already seeing this with WordPress templates for instance, which is very popular with end users. In my opinion, the designer’s job will no longer be the object, the form, the sign, but rather the relationship.

Schneider Electric. By redesigning the production supervision interface of this major industrial player, Attoma has helped Schneider Electric improve productivity and ease of use.

Do you want to know more? Engage a conversation? Contact us at attomalab@attoma.eu