At the beginning of 2023, Tim and I were invited to Munich to have a conversation with Max from Moby Digg for the Podcast “Taaalks”. Max, being a very smart guy and skilled interviewer, touched on a lot of subjects Tim and I haven’t spoken about publicly before. You can watch the video, but as we think the written word gives you the freedom to think and reflect at your own pace, we decided to make an edited transcript of the video, and there is a lot to reflect on and unpack further in future conversations.
About Digital Teaching and Learning
Max: It’s about actually sharing knowledge and giving insight. And I think it’s also about liberating, really, the idea of education. I mean, giving anyone in the world the possibility to learn about flexible design systems or creative coding. I think that’s so amazing.
Martin: I think there lies a big opportunity in creating communities for online learning, but there’s also a danger because everything that is digital is scalable. Certain things shouldn’t be scaled and there are certain things that should be limited, even though this limitation is artificial in the digital world.
Max: So by limitation, you mean limiting the basic circle of people who are part of the group, or what do you mean by that?
Martin: Yeah. I think you feel the presence of the people even though you’re maybe not having a zoom talk with them. You should somehow find a way to keep it human and to keep it limited to a manageable size so you can still be in contact with these humans and have this exchange. It is very different to create a community that wants to be taught by you and create a product that teaches. A community is part of the development of the taught content. If the community grows too big, collaborators turn into followers.
Tim: You cannot just digitize a person and the people really need the contact, at least to other learners, to make sure they grow and they have a physical experience.
Max: I also think that we now live in an age where the digital area or the digital level or layer would say is kind of merging more with reality. Now I’m experiencing that kind of mixing more and more. So, for instance, we are working for a theater in Skyborg, and there was the idea, of how can we actually use digital aspects in the play but not lose the experience of being in the room with all those other people who are actually watching the play. And I think that’s a super interesting question because it goes into all areas digital. Also in teaching.
Tim: Don’t get me wrong, I love experimenting with new possibilities. I even do it proactively, but I do it with a mixture of curiosity and skepticism.
How will new Technology Change our Role as Designers and Humans
Max: And if you think about technology and being a designer, what do you think, looking a little bit into the future, how will technology change our role as a designer then?
Martin: Tim and I talk a lot about new technology because of course they enhance our human capacities. But to a degree, that is scary too. We are forced to use every new bit of technology at a pace that doesn’t let us reflect on them anymore. We don’t do risk evaluations of the new technologies because we don’t have the time. We have to be ahead of our competitors or at least at the same speed as our competitors.
Tim: Yeah, especially for studios and agencies. It’s really important to see ourselves more as consultants and maybe even philosophers who have the ethical aspects of AI and all these tools in mind, right? Of course, AI comes with a lot of promising opportunities; on the other hand, it acts as a destructive weapon that we direct against our fragile and often already overstressed systems.This is something to keep in mind.
Max: In the mind of a creative person, there’s always this aspect of curiosity as well. So I think, for me at least, it’s always about trying out new things, playing along with them and understanding them to a certain extent, and then probably also intervening in them. And through that technology, being able to learn new areas, which wouldn’t have been possible before, because now I can write text, I don’t know, 100 times faster than before. And this will help me to find new ground. So I see what you’re saying. On the other hand, I think at a certain point, or now, it’s just a tool in a way and it’s something where you can play around and find new ways of creativity in a way.
Martin: Yes, technology makes our lives easier, but it also makes us lazier. This forces us to unlearn things that we learned before. It’s like the Google brain that we have now. We don’t need to know anything anymore because we can always go to Google and just read up on what we were knowing before but forgot already. The same thing I fear as well is going to happen with AI. When it is so good that it can write all of my texts, we will unlearn to write, which means as well, we unlearn to think because thinking and writing are deeply connected. I’m afraid of this and that’s why I’m also very skeptical about teaching AI at universities because I think especially learning requires a lot of failure, a lot of thinking and if we outsource thinking, we’re losing a lot of quality in education.
Tim: I totally agree.
Max: It’s a good point. On the other hand, I would argue that AI also can be an aim for having more experiences in a way. So I think some parts of your life, as you said, can be made easier and faster and therefore maybe you will be open to experiencing more in other directions. I know what you’re meaning by becoming lazy, but at the same time, I think it’s freeing up time to do other things, don’t you think?
Tim: I have to say that I don’t think this is a good argument in this context. Mark Zuckerberg uses it quite often, actually this is how Meta sells their products. They say it’s all about human experiences. But much value can we get out of new experiences, when their backend is highly suspicious?
Martin: I think we need to reflect more about the experiences we have already before jumping to the next new shiny thing. We seem powerless against our strive for growth, learning, and making new things. We have an almost religious belief that anything new is good and is going to somehow solve a problem that we had. We don’t even know if we had this problem. We just assume that this new technology is built to solve an old problem.
Martin: We don’t think about the new problems that we are creating. Design was supposed to be the profession that solves problems. Instead, by having a narrow perspective on the consequences of our actions, we are creating tons of new problems.
Tim: Yeah, we solve problems that are not really important anymore right now. We have completely different problems that we have to tackle. And those problems often come from technology. I’m absolutely not a pessimist about technology. I’ve always been tinkering with any kind of tech. But it also makes me very skeptical, I think, and this is what I try to teach my students in the end, I guess, being more skeptical about what we do with technology and understanding the basic patterns, the basic principles, and getting a more reflective view. And along the way they create amazing visuals. That’s something I love to do.
Max: Yeah, 100%. As I said, I think also to really understand it, you have to try it out and you have to go deep into it to maybe be then reflective of it and maybe create some criticism around it and so on and get the bird’s eye view.
Thinking in Systems and Codes
Tim: What I really like about your teaching, Martin, is that you teach people to think in systems. This could be a very nice solution because system thinking enables you to think in an abstract way of very complicated things and also consider the relations between all these different points.
Martin: The system thinking approach is an approach that wants to move our perspective from an atomistic view of the world to a holistic view of the world. Understanding the world of algorithms helps us as well to understand how our thinking is influenced. The things that we see, especially in social media, are all filtered. We think in a certain way because of the sources that we access and if these are controlled by algorithms then it is they who decide what we think. So I think this is an important lecture as well.
Max: But I mean, yeah, you have to understand those systems, right? So I always wonder now, me being a designer at heart, like, how do you start with things like that?
Martin: Well, my starting point was as well the crafts of communication design. I was interested in how to design things in a systematic way so I can save time and do more complex projects. I started not to think so much about the applications that I need to design, but about a system that allows me to create lots of different kinds of applications in a quite short period, almost to generate them automatically. The pragmatic part of design has been the gateway drug for me. Later I started to become interested in systems on a larger scale. Once I understood the basic principles of systems, I saw them everywhere. I understood that the same principles could be applied to different disciplines as well. So even starting with a craft, like designing things, can open up a whole new way of seeing the world. Learning is something that I enjoy and I want to do this for the rest of my life. So having this chance of starting somewhere that I’m familiar with, like design, and then exploring new fields is a joy, even though sometimes the things that you discover are very scary.
Tim: But how do you do that? I mean, Max, when you have something new you want to explore, how do you approach those new things?
Max: We are completely conceptual in the beginning really about writing. I mean, as you said, maybe in the beginning it’s all about writing. I’m trying to scope all the different aspects of it and then I think about the world. So for instance, when I’m a designer brand or whatever, I’m always trying to think about basically an environment. The trees in that world, the buildings, the cars, and they would look different and you know, the typography everything around it. So I would think about everything which is not the brand. And then I kind of have an inner feeling and an understanding of the world the brand lives in, for instance. And then I’m trying to do the design for it. So it’s more about trying to generate, I don’t know, assumptions of a certain direction something can be and a world where something can live in basically.
Martin: Creating an understanding of the environment your design is going to live in, that’s contextualizing what you’re doing. This is system thinking.
Max: Yeah, and also I’m thinking about the problems really. We have to solve them with this brand. Like, whom do I talk to? Like, who are maybe other players in the game and in which world do we live and where will we be in maybe two, three, five years with this? Even if it’s a topic to think about. But yeah, it kind of opens up the brain. And then I’m always thinking about this kind of how do you say filter, I don’t know, kind of thing at the beginning, really broad. Everything is allowed. I’m trying to do a lot of experiments, and generate ideas. And then once I have the concept written down, I go deep with one idea, really, really deep. And then once I have this, then I go abroad again and try to, you know, design all measures, for instance, or something like that. But I mean, I’ve also been programming since I’m seven. I started programming quite early with super simple HTML stuff. Then later on in school, I did complete school websites and so on for my class and so on. And then I started with creative coding as well. But I think just the code mindset is interesting because you have to scope out what you want to do in the beginning, but then in the end the output when you work with creative code can be so playful, so much experiment.
Tim: I love creating a little machine that is able to generate a world and by tweaking a few parameters, it gets a different world. I really love that, it’s an interaction with a computer which I really enjoy.
Max: Yeah, and it’s also a style of writing, I think you can read who wrote which kind of code. Like the style of someone who writes code. So in the end, I always have the question: is the code more or less the art or the coder himself or herself? Because yeah, I don’t know. It kind of goes hand in hand, obviously, on the one hand. But on the other hand, I think it’s also funny that we as someone who create code, are giving away the last piece of it, which is really creating the last part in a way.
Tim: I think currently when we think about AI, for example, then we give a lot of the decisions to the computer. But in creative coding, it’s really about creating a system where you have the choice, how much control you want to give the computer at certain points, how you involve the user of the application, or even make it all random, all computer generated or based on data. And that’s something I find super interesting.
Sharing Creative Code and Knowledge
Max: For instance, GitHub is like this huge community where you can share code and so on. And I mean, a lot of people are also open-sourcing their code and giving away some of their intellectual property in a way. On the other hand, it’s your handwriting and your signature and then other people are kind of mingling around with it. It’s almost like I don’t know, in a crazy example, van Gogh would teach everyone how to do exactly his brush stroke and then people are trying to go with it, starting there. And do you have a problem with that?
Tim: To be honest, I’m quite open minded for people that use my code for their projects because I teach them a method and when they apply this method, I cannot say like, hey, this is my method. This doesn’t make any sense. And I love to see people working with it. But what I don’t like is when people start to copy my business model, but also I try to keep my view and my perspective onto the amazing people that I have in the community that do their own thing with my work. It’s also a lot about trust, right? They trust me, I trust them. I try to maintain contact with some of the people that really stand out, which is really amazing. I meet them sometimes when I give real workshops. And this is so cool to see how these people evolve over time, and you see that they implement creative coding into their life, into their business. An example: One of them, Fred, just decided to become a web developer. And he did something completely different in the beginning before, when he started with my courses. This is something that moves me very much.
Max: You grow together. I mean, that’s the thing, right? You find like-minded people, you have the same interests in a way, and then you also have the feeling, digital or not, that you’re going through a certain period of your life together. I was also wondering, do you think learning is collaboration in a way? Because you were also saying you learn so much from your students.
Martin: I think it should be a collaboration. This requires a certain kind of mindset that not everybody has. I think that you have to learn to be a good student and teacher and know when you need to be in which role. You have to enter the classroom with the idea of I’m coming to give and I’m coming to receive, but we can all contribute with a different kind of perspective.
Tim: In Bielefeld I gave a course in Creative Coding together with Florian Gubernator, a former student of mine. He has a master’s degree in physics and math, but I am, on the other hand, actually quite bad in those subjects. So we were sitting in front of the students and at some point we realized that I didn’t exactly know what the so-called modular operator actually does and how it works. So intuitively we started a conversation in the class, and he taught me how Modulo actually works. I was even thinking about changing my seat into the rows of the students. That was great! I love playing that role, becoming a student myself.
Max: Yeah. Super interesting how probably this also becomes more or less a tool of you or in your teachings, how you can actually create scenarios where someone actually feels that he or she can, you know, share the knowledge with you.
Martin: I completely agree that the teacher has to be a student too, everything evolves and so should teachers, but I think there has to be something else that makes you a good teacher, and that’s not just the knowledge you have. Teaching is more than just passing on knowledge. Teachers also need to have the ability to bring a group of individuals together. So when I teach systems, I make sure that the principles are the same, but the way how they are used by the students can be very different. When I’m seeing someone in class working with 3D software, besides someone working with paper and scissors, it makes me very happy, because it shows me that the same taught principle works for different kinds of tools and ultimately different kinds of individuals. It also helps me to see which ideas are coming from which kind of tools. I found out that the choice of tools very much influences the learning process.
Tools & Systems for Independence
Max: I always try to think about architecture. If you think about really all the architecture, let’s say brutalism or whatever, it’s not that old, but I mean, they developed a new method of using concrete and so on, and therefore the forms completely changed. Now just being aware of becoming aware of the tools we have, and then maybe even programming your tools, I think that’s a super interesting part of being a designer. That’s why I also love writing code, because it’s generating a complete own tool set. But just being aware of the systems or the tools which generate part of the output is super important, I think. And then switching those tools from time to time, maybe even trying to go into completely new areas to generate new tools, I don’t know.
Tim: A tool can hold the whole visual identity in it.
Martin: This is what I like about tools as well. Tools can be a new kind of design manual. You don’t need to interpret any rules anymore because they’re embedded into the code and you can pass it on to your clients and they can’t do much wrong. They can interact with the parameters that you predefined. But the other thing that I find very valuable about smart tools versus automation of generative design is the influence of the human using them. The things that excite me the most are the human interventions that are not completely logical.
Max: I just always wonder because I have an agency, we have people here working for clients and so on, how do you apply something like that? Not just within the agency, but when you pass on the identity to your clients, for instance?
Martin: Okay, yeah, passing on an identity to a client is a design project in itself. How your system is going to be applied can vary much from how you designed it. You have to have already in mind when designing, in which context your design has to work, how your client is going to apply it and how you have to pass on the system to them. Even if the design manual is online, interactive, they can download the different assets and templates and work with them, it might not be all you need.
Max: Yeah, that’s always the problem with generating those systems and then, I don’t know, seeing as a designer how they kind of live on and trying to, I don’t know, navigate that maybe a little bit, but then in the end sometimes it also gets put out or whatever.
Max: Yeah. It’s way more important to actually guide the client and to think through their heads or whatever at their shoes and be there as a guidance in terms of where we can be in a few years, what do we need to do to get there? And then I will get all the tools necessary together for that client and there will be certain aspects that I can’t do. I mean, especially in coding, there are so many languages. The setup you need nowadays to do a web project is insane if you think about it.
Tim: It’s a big problem in agencies and studios: Of course they benefit from a well-working team of creative technologists that have this birds perspective on what’s possible, what languages should be used for certain use cases and deliver ideas to the creatives. But the problem is that they are quite rare, highly demanded, which in turn entails a high risk of fluctuation and significant dependencies. This ends up in a high risk.
Max: We did a project now where we generated basically 10,000 NFTs with Python scripts and then preselected them based on a database and stuff like that. So I would say that’s also generative coding but at different levels. And I did a lot of coding there and it was a lot of fun. But for a client itself, I think that’s what? That’s the end product, the kind of end result. I’m more interested in thinking about the why and trying to navigate there and then I see who we need or what we need to get there. And I just am super interested in general in that aspect because, I mean, I’ve been doing creative coding for many years and I think this whole area there’s a lot of fear attached to it starting out. And I want to be a catalyst for the community in a way that I bring more people to the table and think it’s such an interesting idea of using actually more or less algorithms and design systems or code. Systems to generate visual output and writing your own tools that would help a lot of designers to develop more rigid tool sets in a way or creative spectrum or whatever. And that’s why we are also doing, for instance, this creative coding atlas because I also think there are so many cool people out there who are doing this.
Tim: Amazing initiative. I really love it. It’s really cool.
Max: Yeah. And it’s such a small community, but it’s slowly, very slowly growing.
Tim: It’s also a nice name. I think if you have Atlas as well in it, it means like, creating a map for like minded people also that have the same kind of focus as well. Mapping the scene. That’s … nice!
Max: Yeah. And then in the end it’s about them not only cataloging but obviously giving more in a way and maybe giving away tool sets, maybe giving away knowledge through other teachers, and so on. And I think that’s the way I mean, we’ve been talking about that a lot now.
Tim’s and Martin’s Future Plans
Max: About the whole community aspect. Yeah. I mean, looking forward a little bit in the next year or so. I think you were talking a little bit about the collaboration between the two of you guys. You can plug it in. I’m super curious about what you have planned for the coming year.
Tim: Here’s the backstory: When I learned to know you in person Martin, I followed your work for many years: I knew it from books already around 2005. Actually, to me you were quite a famous designer. I just observed how your work evolved over time, becoming more and more systematic, which interested and even inspired me a lot. I am happy that today we are close friends and peers who work on a common ground, having discussions on a regular basis and follow a common goal: To fuse our ideas into a coherent and holistic way of teaching design in the age of technology. At this point we won’t tell too much about it, but I’m confident about a massive drop next year.
Martin: Yeah, me too. I think the interesting thing is that often we talk with different words about similar things and people understanding that we are actually talking about the same kind of things will benefit them a lot. We don’t want to lose our signature subjects, but we want to create more synergies to also get a fusion in between the different kinds of worlds that we’re coming from. I think a lot of things that we always talk about are like mental blockages that people have, like certain things that they don’t grasp or don’t understand because certain terminology has been used or certain images have been used in the past to explain these subjects. We want to break this a little bit free and as well show its potential of it. And that’s very exciting also because I’m learning a lot from Tim as well because he’s already been doing online courses and building a community for three years. This kind of teaching, being in close contact with the community, doing this digitally and also doing it in a different way, like learning by doing and seeing the whole publication process as a process, which people also can see and support as a process is very interesting to me. I also learned from Tim to slow down. To have a healthy publishing frequency. You’re tempted to publish too much, too fast, and to reflect too less. I want to reserve the time to properly research and formulate something before I publish it and don’t want this pressure in my head needing to constantly publish, and never being able to take time off to regenerate.
Tim: I think I am quite qualified to teach a healthy pace, because I have experienced all the massive shit you that happens when you are completely overworked. This may surprise you, but I strongly embrace these experiences! Most failures are very important milestones in the process of personal development. I am very deep into these subjects, learning patterns and habits, embracing proactivity, seeing the beauty and the potential to learn in failure. In the end i think proactivity is the most valuable skill: Following individual, intrinsic goals, not being steered by an external system. My business is my school for living a better life.
Max: I love that mindset because in a way, it’s also connected to what you said. You don’t really know how it will be in the end, but, I mean, you’re just learning so much by trying and failing and failing and trying and failing and having maybe a lot of fun by it, by doing it. And then in the end, you have produced a lot more in a way, than just thinking, I don’t know, weeks and months about it. Even with this series, for instance, I was thinking, I don’t know, months about it until we did it. And then we just said from one moment to the other, we said, like, okay, in two weeks we’re going to do our first show. And then we did it, and everyone was like, oh, my God, there’s so much stress. But then we just did it. A few first live shows through Instagram. And it was so cool. It was completely natural and we knew, okay, we want to proceed and keep doing this.
Tim: Yeah, sure.
Max: Cool. Guys, thank you very much for taking the time and jumping on the sofa was a blessing to have you guys here, and yeah, thank you so much.
Martin: Thank you for the invitation. It’s been great to be in Munich with you guys.
This is an edited transcript of the edited interview, published on 14.2.2023 on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZDjxx2ByxE
The hosts of the interview series Taaalks are Max and Korbi, the co-founders of the digital design studio Moby Digg: https://mobydigg.de/en/
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