Winter 2009

Reputations: Karsten Schmidt

‘If we don’t take responsibility as makers we sacrifice everything sooner or later. We have the power! The people who create things, who make things work, we have the power. No politician has that.’


‘I’m not a very linear person I’m afraid,’ says Karsten Schmidt halfway into a wildly discursive interview that takes in everything from literature and architecture to education, designers’ social responsibility and the arrogance of creative directors who talk dismissively about ‘techies’.

Hailed as a virtuoso among new-media designers, Schmidt has collaborated on some of the most striking projects of the past few years, including the installation Forever at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and Advanced Beauty: Enerugii (both in collaboration with Universal Everything); the identity for Onedotzero 2009 in London (with Wieden + Kennedy); EDA award-winning projects for the London College of Fashion and KEF’s Muon speakers (while at Moving Brands).

Fid.Gen, his project to make open-source, machine-readable objects (for interactive projects / installations using reacTIVision software) that double as quirky abstract characters, was selected as one of the Design Museum’s Brit Insurance Designs of the Year, 2009. Other projects include work for clients such as Nokia, Audi and Google (the remarkable Social Collider). His most recent project is the open-source identity for this winter’s V&A exhibition ‘Decode: Digital Design Sensations’ (8 December 2009 – 11 April 2010).

Sometimes hailed as a ‘Processing guru’, Schmidt is at pains to underline his desire not to be defined by any one program or language; ‘code is far more flexible than any tool’. He is currently building a collection of Toxiclibs – ‘building blocks’ for Java and Processing development.

Schmidt argues, in essays and seminars, for a more interdisciplinary approach to the process of design (and design education), and the need for designers for become less specialist – more like the ‘Renaissance man’ (or person) of old.

In retrospect, Schmidt’s own education and career path has followed an ideal trajectory. Born (1975) and raised in Chemnitz, in the former East Germany, he didn’t know what a computer was until he jumped in the deep end at the age of thirteen, creating games in hexadecimal code on the GDR-made KC87 computer, learning tricks and techniques that are still useful today. The Christmas present of an Atari 800XL kicked off several years on the ‘Atari 8-bit demo scene’.

After detours into community service (as an alternative to military service), music and music production (his DJ name was Toxi), Schmidt enrolled at Dresden’s Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft Dresden in 1995 to study media-informatics, a four-and-a-half year sandwich course that embraced both theory and hands-on technology. He spent part of his time in industry at I-D Media, near Stuttgart (freelancing there later) and went to London in 1997 as a student intern at Omniscience. Before long, he had been appointed senior designer at the company, whose early clients included V2 and other Virgin brands, and he never returned to finish his course. He moved to digital agency Zinc in 1999, followed by Lateral in 2001, and Moving Brands in 2005, where he was design director and head of R&D.

In 2007, Schmidt formed his own one-person company, PostSpectacular, based at his north London home. The name, he explains, comes from Guy Debord’s theories about the Society of the Spectacle, since his practice ‘is anchored in open-source culture whose definition and effects are participatory’. In parallel with this, he is also part-time director of interaction for Matt Pyke’s Sheffield-based Universal Everything.

In recent months he has given talks at OFFF (Lisbon) and Flash on the Beach (Brighton).

John L. Walters: What were you like as a kid? Did you incline towards science, arts, music, sports?

Karsten Schmidt: I grew up in East Germany and my education was much like for everyone else in the country during that time. The polytechnic school system was standardised (as everything else) but tried to keep a fair balance and equal measures of subjects throughout the ten or twelve years of compulsory education. We had everything from the usual maths, science, languages, art, music, history, geography, philosophy to several years of electronics, wood, metal and plastics workshops. This was in contrast to the bias of many western systems where kids and their parents have to decide upon a direction relatively early on. As for sports, my family was very into the outdoors: we often went on long hikes and we were keen skiers and went most winter weekends since I was aged two.

JLW: When did you first encounter computing?

KS: I didn’t know about computers until my early teens, when the first Atari and Commodore ads appeared on West German TV (which we watched illegally). When I was thirteen, my mum signed me up to an after-school computer course where we learnt on brand new, state-of-the-art East German machines (KC87). They cost 5000 marks, which was three months’ income, and you really didn’t get much with it at all. A basic manual, like how to plug it in. A word processing program.

But from the beginning our tutors helped us to see the computer as an almost limitless creative tool allowing us to make things that didn’t exist so far, that required mental effort and improvisation to achieve them. We were pushed in at the deep end, writing programs in hex code, and we learned how to work under extreme constraints, how to abstract bigger problems into smaller tasks, how to be self-reliant, experiment and learn new subjects without adult supervision or direction, and how to collaborate with others. This year was a turning point, after which I knew exactly what to do in life (I had considered becoming a forester or lifeguard).

I always had an interest in maths but maths was much easier to understand in code form: it was an achievement to see a pixellated circle or my first 3D vector graphic drawn on screen.

For Christmas ’88 I convinced my parents to sacrifice all the western money they had saved over 25 years (from our relatives in West Germany) to buy an Atari 800XL from an Intershop, which could only be purchased with western currency. I had this little twelve-inch Russian B&W screen. Every colour would create a slightly different grey, so I learned to see colour in greyscales. (Once a week I got to check on our colour TV, just to make sure.)

After the wall came down I was finally able to buy a tape drive and actually save projects and I started becoming more active. I co-founded the local Atari club and joined the early [computer game] ’demo scene’, a tight-knit group of people all over Europe pushing their machines through hacks and insane craft skills (pixel artists). We organised parties, hosted competitions, created disk magazines, swapped creations via post and later via modem and bulletin board systems, the forerunners of the Internet.

JLW: Why did you decide to study ‘media-informatics’ at Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft in Dresden?

KS: In a world of technological convergence, it’s often more necessary or helpful to be ‘proficient’ in a variety of fields than to be ‘expert’ in one. The HTW course was planned as 50 per cent straight computer science and the other half dedicated to media production and theory. This covered media history, cognition, DSP (digital signal processing), electronics, maths, audio and video production, film direction, photography, graphic programming, visualisation, operating systems, databases, artificial intelligence, multimedia tools, but also a strong emphasis on hands-on craft skills with only pencil, compass and ruler allowed: constructive geometry and shading, typography, Gestalt theory.

The internet did not seem to play a big role in our curriculum, so during the Christmas holidays I taught myself HTML and made my first website, which I used to get a freelance job (remotely) with I-D Media, one of Germany’s first multimedia agencies. Because of this work, I ended up skipping a lot of my studies and then decided to do an internship in London from which I’ve yet to return.

JLW: Was your family creative or technical?

KS: My dad was a building engineer working as mediator closely with architects and constructors on various public buildings in East Germany. My mum studied pharmacology and worked her whole life in a pharmacy. I guess I got my interest in architecture and systems from him and my interest in biology from her.

JLW: Who were your early role models?

KS: My dad was a role model for sure. He taught me to always strive beyond mediocrity and question things, even though we’d later have fierce arguments (in a constructive way) about some topics. My philosophy and maths teachers were also highly inspirational to me. My interest in electronic music was awakened first by the American radio station RIAS Berlin (Radio in the American Sector) in the late 1980s and the German DJs Torsten Fenslau and Sven Väth who created the most amazing radio shows.

Because I mainly came to London to get a better grasp of the English language, I started reading lots of books: non-fiction, science, architecture, physics and a lot of Umberto Eco, Neal Stephenson, Fritjof Capra, Alain de Botton, Oliver Sacks, Ivan Illich, Frank J. Tipler, Jorge Luis Borges, David Bohm, Carlos Castaneda, Rudolf Arnheim, David Foster Wallace, Bruce Sterling, John Thackara. Most of the views I hold today I’ve got from their books.

Photograph of Karsten Schmidt by Jillian Edelstein.


JLW: Was there a breakthrough moment when you realised the potential power of computer code?

KS: It was a gradual development, although I realised early on that coding is a unique route to achieve results in many different media. The demo scene is quite insular: we were mainly concerned with improving (and showing off) technical skills and creating stunning effects rather than applying them to highbrow concepts. One personal exception was a sound-reactive demo I wrote and organised as protest against Neo-Nazism in Germany to which Alec Empire also contributed.

Essentially a computer moves numbers from one place to another, manipulates them or compares them against another number. Any concept, however complex, boils down to that. In the beginning, from the 1940s to the 80s, machine code was the main language for all the systems.

That’s why what a lot of the old-school people learned then is still valid – because you can treat concepts the same way. However working in Assembly (machine language) is so fine-grained and painstaking that even simple ideas take a long time to implement. So over the years I became increasingly attracted to higher-level languages that allowed me to work more efficiently on complex ideas. The first breakthrough was when I taught myself Java 1.1 (new in 1996). Working in such a powerful higher-level language kick-started my interest in linguistics and architecture.

JLW: Is coding design?

KS: It’s funny how the moment you start talking about code, you start being into a technical role. Because so many people are alienated. They know they don’t understand … but they want to protect their status as a ‘creative’.

When you work with code, actually typing code is absolutely the last thing you think about … writing code becomes a background task, because you’re actually building a mental model of what you want to do. This is what makes code work. This is where you work as a designer. Mapping is what we all do automatically, but for code it has to become a conscious act.

JLW: When you’re designing something?

KS: Yes – even when you do a poster. You have a mental image and that image doesn’t pop into your head. You really focus on it, you have to analyse what happens and you have to break this process down into such small parts that it becomes encodable as code.

JLW: So is there an argument that some computer programs take away these mental tools?

KS: Well there’s something I said at ‘Flash On The Beach’ in Brighton – that Kenneth Boulding quote: ‘We make our own tools, and then they shape us.’ If you depend too much upon any tool – Flash or whatever – sooner or later your idea will be channelled through that tool’s metaphors, and there goes your idea!

JLW: But when you got into digital agency work you used programs like Flash and Director.

KS: Sure, I did Flash for seven years and I got bored and frustrated. With commercial software you invest your whole professional life in learning this tool and mastering it, and there are all those bugs. You go through all the channels to get them solved, and in the end they never get addressed because the marketing department has decided something else is important and the thing you wanted they never bring out. This is something which really upset me, especially with Director. There are people who have got stuck on one program and they don’t see any way out. It’s scary to think of building your whole career on one piece of software.

JLW: Something you were in danger of doing yourself?

KS: Not really. A lot of people say I’m a Processing guy, but the way I use Processing is just a little piece of the bigger puzzle. My only dependency is that I do mainly code-driven stuff. But I am totally convinced that code is far more flexible than any other tool, if you just stick to it, because you can apply it to anything. At the moment I’m more bound to Java as language, but this is a language, not a tool. I make my own tools.

JLW: But most people don’t …

KS: This is an underlying problem in the industry. We classify people based on the tools they are using. And we split up concepts and the responsibility over hierarchies.

So you have the creative director, who in larger organisations really just becomes a salesperson. And design directors, who come up with the concept but don’t actually implement it. And someone who does Photoshop, who’s just judged on their craft skills. And between all those people, there’s always a loss in translation. If you have those many different skills in one person, you get more signal out of it. If you can think conceptually and you can implement it what more do you want?

JLW: You’re fighting against quite an established attitude.

KS: I know I’m not alone. I may be attacking some structures, but a lot of my work is all about continuous improvement.

I’m not saying those things because I’m trying to upset people – I simply figured there must be a better way, which I wanted to try. I want to open people’s eyes that they maybe could look beyond the little horizon they have created. Because sooner or later we just become comfortably numb – is this is what life is about?

JLW: Collaboration is obviously important to you, yet your work appears to depend upon detailed, solitary coding. How do you make this work?

KS: Coding is not necessarily a solitary thing. For me at the moment it is, because I haven’t found anyone yet with whom I can truly partner on both the abstracted system level and hands-on coding tasks. With Universal Everything, for instance, Matt and I are often collaborating intensely during the initial conception phase, however in later stages my part does become a bit more solitary, though we try to feed off each other as much as we can.

For the Onedotzero project with Wieden+ Kennedy, the agency defined the initial top-level concept, took responsibility on the art direction and handled the production side, yet designing the actual generative identity concepts, metaphors, interactions and parameters and later realisation was down to me.

If you look back ten or fifteen years, software was planned on the ‘waterfall principle’ … It’s the same in a lot of agencies still today. It’s old-school project management: you spend a year, two years, in the planning phase, where you don’t write any code. You write functional specifications, technical specifications, all that stuff, lots of diagrams, but don’t do anything.

Then you start coding and you realise that a lot of the assumptions you made don’t work. Or the requirements have changed during those two years. So a lot of companies lost huge amounts of money. I know BMW started a big project and they lost millions on that, just on software.

Viral / HD-TV wind tunnel simulation, to promote Audi TT-sponsored art prize and the Australian launch of the car, 2007.


JLW: Like the National Health Service.

KS: Exactly. The idea is now that you don’t try to define everything in detail at the beginning, but add the detail as you go along. Instead of three-month reviews, you do weekly reviews. You have to totally change your approach. The bottom line is that you keep having ideas, you constantly work in code, you always have something running.

There’s a thing called ‘Pair programming’ where one of you sits at the keyboard typing and the other sits behind your shoulder – it’s quite annoying, but you constantly have a second opinion as to whether what you’re doing is right. Then you change roles.

JLW: Is that something you do?

KS: Yeah, yeah. Not so much any more because you need people who are equal. It’s hard, but it’s amazing – you see the energy in the room. You make constant progress.

JLW: Do you think ‘traditional’ design can learn from this?

KS: Yes! But again there is this whole astigmatism or stigma – yeah, it’s astigmatism as well! – there’s this whole stigma with creatives and software, because they think they don’t need to be technical. ‘Technical is something techies do, I’m a creative – I don’t touch that!’ This is the biggest problem and I don’t understand why designers have such big egos! What justifies that?

JLW: So it’s a cultural problem?

KS: Yes! That’s why I’m trying to get into education, doing workshops and lectures, to try and change perceptions and show viable alternatives.

But within the colleges everything is so channelled. Like, I’m supposed to do a Processing workshop soon, but the essential skill is not to learn a program, it’s to think in code. It disturbs me when people pigeonhole me as a Processing guru …

In workshops, it’s always the girls who do the most interesting work. They somehow grasp the potential on a more human level. Like boys really tend to get stuck into the technicalities. They show off – I can show that to my friends! It applies to the whole addiction to tools we have.

JLW: But ultimately a tool is to get …

KS: … stuff done! It’s the thing which we often forget.

JLW: So how can we change these attitudes?

KS: You need to think about the bigger picture – what technology is today. It’s totally distributed. The most important thing in the next few years will be the interactions between the systems we have – the semantic Web (which Tim Berners-Lee has been talking about). And they need to be designed. If we don’t take any role in that as designers, we’ll get politicians designing things, and we know what happens then, because they simply don’t care.

JLW: So you’re talking about designers taking leadership …

KS: Yes. There’s a French industrial designer, Jacque Fresco, who basically says: ‘The world belongs to the makers.’ If we don’t take responsibility as makers we sacrifice everything sooner or later. We have the power! The people who create things, who make things work, we have the power. No politician has that.

JLW: You talked about design being a verb, a process, and make a lot of things that have no fixed end result …

KS: It’s about building new platforms and this is what Toxiclibs is all about. The long-term aim is to have this collection of building blocks, like Lego, that can be mixed and matched and plugged together to form something bigger. Those libraries are my main output for myself and increasingly others, too. I do commercial projects or art commissions and they indirectly fund the development of those libraries. The idea is that while I do the project I think about what parts can be written in a way that they become building blocks automatically.

Once the project is finished, or even while I’m still working on it, I already have those building blocks in a generic way, and I can put them in those libraries.

I haven’t got a specific purpose for them, but I know that at some point the libraries will click together like a Swiss Army Knife.

JLW: Are you getting a sense of who is using them?

KS: Not really. But I really want them to be generically reuseable so they can be used in all contexts possible. So that even when Processing is not around anymore, the work I put in is not lost. The issue Processing has is that it appeals mainly to beginners, who, in an open-source context, are not really contributing but consuming.

I got into a huge flame war with the Processing community a few years ago, because I said that Processing is absolutely great for instant gratification. It’s extremely easy to write a bunch of lines and you get something on screen which does something cool. I don’t think there’s anything which beats it at the moment. The thing is: this is quite addictive. It was designed for people who are absolutely new to programming, to make it possible to have almost no learning curve.

But those people grow up. And they want to do more and more complex things. And there, Processing absolutely fails in my eyes. They sacrificed so much for that initial gratification part that from the architecture point of view, once you reach a certain points it throws spanners in the works, actively. And I think this is wrong.

It teaches you wrong ways to think about code, because the way the language is designed, it is mainly designed for those small pieces – interactive experiments. I’m sketching all the time, but I can’t sketch in Processing any more because it doesn’t allow sketching on the bigger scheme. And then you have to switch tools. And you realise that the things you learnt in Processing are not as valid.

For me the long-term view is so important because if you think about technology, it is so recursive and nested. We put so much effort in, it’s impossible not to think about what happens to my stuff in two years time.

JLW: Are you aware of the Long Now project?

KS: Sure, I’m a big fan of Stewart Brand, and his whole model of thinking. You know the TV programme he did – How Buildings Learn? (BBC, 1997) There’s this story he tells about an Oxford University building where they had these big oak beams in the main hall that were about 400 years old. A buildings inspector comes along and says the thing will fall down, and everyone worries about what to do, because there are no more oak trees like this any more. But they called up the gardener and he said actually there are five oak trees down the woods, and they were planted 500 years ago when the college was founded. This is how we should build stuff!

JLW: So are you an architect or an artist?

KS: I see myself more as a designer. Yes I do eye candy stuff but this is not the main thing for me. The eye candy is what makes it sellable to clients. The underlying work for me is to create.

First published in Eye no. 74 vol. 19.


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