Interview Henning Fischer
On the occasion of the opening party of the Amsterdam studio of Adaptive Path, Liou Yamane had the chance to have a quick chat with Henning Fischer, the director of this studio and a senior design strategist.
Liou Yamane: Tell me a bit about your background
Henning Fischer: I have studied International Relations and German Literature. Then the web exploded and it immediately got me fascinated. I went to New York and did marketing, SEO and user group moderating, an early form of online conversation with clients. Then the bubble burst in New York in 2001. At the time I was working on e-mail marketing and newsletters, very data-driven design. The staff of designers were laid off one by one, so we had to do more with less. That’s when I picked up design and design tools, which was a great opportunity. I worked for some great people who mentored me at DMD (Diversified Media Design) in New York, teaching me a lot about digital and design. I wanted to learn a little bit more, so I attended the Illinois Institute of Technology and got a Master’s degree in design planning, which is really the process and strategy orientated aspect of the program. This fits with the workshop I gave today [Design Strategy at UX Intensive]. Some of my friends from graduate school started working at Adaptive Path and told me great things about it. So I did an internship in 2005 and joined full time in 2006 as a strategist.
LY: How would you define your work as a design strategist?
HF: Design strategists are the generalists of AP. They are competent in every discipline that we are teaching at UX Intensive: design strategy, design research, information architecture and interaction design. I have worked on all of these things. The staff specializes on one or two of those, mine being strategy and research. So we are brought in as do-it-all practitioners with specialties, so we can both lead and support projects.
LY: This is related to how AP sees itself as being “small and mighty”?
HF: AP prizes itself on being flexible. We have small teams of very multi-talented people with a high level of dynamism, so we can adapt to whatever the situations requires.
LY: Hence the company’s title?
HF: It does fit nicely with the name, I’ll give you that.
LY: What have you been up to last week?
HF: Last week I was stuck in Washington DC because of the ash cloud. It was a welcome break. I have been working the last 8 or 9 months for a client that is designing competitive services to a product like Nike+. We did user research in three different countries in Europe.
LY: That’s a pretty long time for research, comparing to what I see in my profession as an interaction designer and websites.
HF: That’s because we’re working on a product. As a company we tend to focus on products and services. It’s not our strategy or purpose to create campaigns, although we certainly interact with those kinds of things. There are a lot of talented people out there working on campaigns.
LY: Why did you decide to come to Amsterdam?
HF: I have been working in San Francisco for four years. I worked in New York for five years before that, and I spend two years in Chicago. Each of those experiences has enriched me in terms of practice. The opportunity of moving to another place and learning a different perspective on the practice that we engage in, was too good to pass up. A personal reason is that I have roots in Europe, as my family is German. I spent a lot of summers over here as a child. On the business side, we have a lot of clients in Europe, so being a bit closer to them and collaborate with them is something that always has been attractive.
LY: Before this, you would travel to Europe?
HF: You travel to Europe, and we have been effective doing that, but there is a 9 hours time difference and only an overlap of 1 hour. To get to the products and services we aspire to design we need to collaborate intimately and you can’t do that with a time difference.
LY: I get the feeling that setting up this office has been in the making for a couple of years.
HF: When I started my internship in 2005, AP was already talking about an office here. We want to work in places we like, with people we like. There has always been a strong cultural connection, Amsterdam is a lot like San Francisco except quite a bit flatter and quite a bit older. There is a really great design community here. There is a great openness to possibilities and to do business. We looked at a lot of different European cities and we chose Amsterdam for a variety of reasons, where one of them was that we really wanted to come here. We constantly preach you need to be empathetic in your design practice and your business practice, so you should go to places where people want to be. For the people of AP who aren’t moving permanently, hopefully Amsterdam will be a place where they can practice temporarily.
LY: I have been to Austin and I can see the connection with Amsterdam.
HF: There is the same connection with San Francisco. We haven’t really found an obvious choice on the East Coast yet. The reason why AP hasn’t got an office in New York is the same for not having an office in London. Things are more advertising and campaign-orientated there, which is fine with us, but it’s not our focus.
LY: What are your expectations?
HF: I am here indefinitely. My expectations are the same I joined AP with. We are here first and foremost to do good work with clients and build relationships with them. Secondly, we are here to become a member and active participant of the design community. It’s a benefit for us to take part in conversations.
LY: Would you say there is a difference between American and European design traditions?
HF: I don’t know that many European design traditions. I am a non-traditional designer given my background. But I think there is a dedication and understanding of crafts that’s lacking in the US market. Your visual designers are stronger. You have a much deeper and richer understanding of print design in particular. I think what American designers bring to the table, especially from the San Francisco design community, is that the web is something very native to us. The meaning of new and old is going to be interesting, I am looking forward to those kinds of conversations. We are missing some of the creative excellence in San Francisco that exists in places such as New York, Chicago, Amsterdam and London. Since in San Francisco it’s all about the web, and design is so much bigger than that. The last couple of years we have expanded into things like retail space on an experimental basis. Those are the things we would like to pursue here. I think it’s going to a bit of a little, interesting creative conflict. That’s why we are here.
LY: Michael Meyer is going to give a lecture about proximity on The Web And Beyond 2010. What are your thoughts on that subject?
HF: This is going to sound very abstract, but I was in New York during the blackout in 2004 when the power fell for 24 hours. We had a big party on our roof, but what was really fascinating, was the fact that people came out onto their doorsteps, their roofs, their porches and began to interact one with each other. You saw this richness of life and culture, that you wouldn’t ordinary be able to see. It’s interesting for a conference as The Web And Beyond to address the issue of proximity, because the web is something that creates distance in a lot of situations. The web is giving us a lot of powerful tools, but we are just learning what it can possibly do for bringing us closer. I look forward to Michael’s talk.