Daniel Jenett

Daniel Jenett

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In: Interviews

By Nick Finck

Published on March 7, 2001

Digital Web: Daniel, as always, we are honored to have the privilege to interview you for Digital Web Magazine. For those who may not be as familiar with what you do as we are, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do at Razorfish?
Jenett: The city I come from is about 45 minutes away from Frankfurt, Germany, and is fairly small with its 130.000 inhabitants. That is where I was born, went to school and stayed until I was 22. My studies brought me to Switzerland where I attended an American college in the French canton Vaud on the shores of lake Geneva (Fondue and Swiss typography with an American accent). After graduating from Art Center (Europe / La Tour-de-Peilz) in 1994 I worked briefly in Lausanne, Switzerland, to finally end up in Hamburg, Germany, to start my own company with a bunch of people that I met when working for a local ad agency, Springer & Jacoby.

Our company overnet GmbH was a partner of just another ad agency and we basically worked with their clients in the early days of CD-ROM and web development. Audi’s start into the web and its first CD-ROM came out of our shop as well as a lot of interesting stuff for Jung von Matt, the advertising partner of ours. (http://www.jvm.de). This was until in 1997 I decided to go out on my own and explore new opportunities and different and more professional companies.

In the time between 1998 and 2000 I was working in Berlin with Meta Design on the initial Audi-TT website, I was briefly working as creative director for Frog Design in San Francisco and finally returned to Hamburg to work as creative director for Razorfish. Since then I spent time with Razorfish in New York helping keep http://www.schwab.com consistent, and finally ended up in Los Angeles to follow my strong interest in broadcast and broadband. The first thing I did here is helping redesign go.com the Disney portal which can be found under http://www.go.com. Since February this year I am trying to help converging interactive and broadcast design skills to be prepared for the broadband/interactiveTV age. Projects included a demo for the Razorfish broadband summit, an iTV project with the American Film Institute and a broadband datacasting assignment.

During the last 3 years I was also playing with my design concepts on my own website and as a guest in some other online places, basically to find an outlet for my very own point of view which is more driven by an interest in design than in business. http://www.jenett.com Based on the work on my own website I had the chance to meet up with an incredible bunch of people all around the world, whom I highly admire, and whose input has shaped my point of view in a significant way.


Digital Web: For those of us who may not know, could you please explain to us a little bit about what iTV, fTV and Broadband is and what your role is with the development of that medium?
Jenett: Broadband refers to the web with high speed access (through DSL, cable-modem, fiber-optic or satellite). Interactive television is turning television into a medium with interactivity through digital broadcasting and set-top boxes. The combination of having TV in mostly all American households and being able to provide high-speed connections makes this a very interesting new medium. Future television and the future web will be always on, on demand, freed from broadcasting schedules and constraints but not liberated form the need to make money to support the creation of brands and content.

From my point of view there will be no big difference between either in a couple of years, customers/consumers will simply get what they are asking for. fueled by the desires that are placed in everybody’s heart and soul by advertising or whatever we will call the coming convergence of entertainment and business.


Digital Web: A little less than 10 years ago we saw a migration in the design world. We saw a lot of traditional designers migrate to web design. A lot of web designers come from backgrounds in film, video, animation, architecture, /files/includes/print.css and even marketing. How do you think today’s web designer will cope with the migration from the web to a more broadband medium?
Jenett: There will be film directors that can cope with the challenge of creating animated interactive environments (not to say experiences..), and there will also be graphic designers that look closer at pixels and typography. I have seen few web-designers being able to really tell compelling stories, and I have seen few film people really appreciating the complex richness of multidirectional interactivity. Seeing this there will be an incredible demand for little geniuses and suicidal workaholics! 🙂


Digital Web: Broadband and interactive media of that nature is in a very infantile stage. How long do you think it will take to get it mainstream? Where do you see this medium 5 years from now, for example? Do you think it’s a good medium to dive into if you currently do web design?
Jenett: When I started my professional life in 1994 there was no web, only CD-ROM and Director. Now we have universal consultancies that struggle to survive. I firmly believe that it is a good idea to spend time with the basics of design such as color, imagery, graphics, typography and the like. Sensibility and attention always pays off, as much as staying with the cutting edge of what’s going on in terms of technology and culture. What I am trying to say is that the web is just an intermediary step into a future that is much more shaped by motion and rich screen-based design. I used to work in Quark, then I worked in director, then I did HTML, then Flash, now I fiddle with my DV camera and with After Effects. A solid understanding of time-based design can always be of value!

If somebody asks me if it is necessary to understand technology to do good design I would answer the following: It is an absolute must to understand it, yet just understanding and mastering technology doesn’t do anything for your design skills.


Digital Web: Just out of curiosity, what kind of tools or software do you use when you are designing for broadband?
Jenett: Tool: Imagination

Software: After Effects, Director, Flash, BB-Edit, PhotoShop, Illustrator, Word, Eudora, Final Cut, Sound Edit, Media Cleaner and sometimes Flame in the editing bay.


Digital Web: There is a large debate over how convergence will work in the years to come. Some say it’s interactive television on your computer and broadcast through the Web. Others say it will be data networks connected via the Internet and broadcasting to your television. Which direction do you see convergence going and why?
Jenett: The only interesting question is the big power struggle that goes on behind the scenes right now between the content distributors, the networks and all other big players. The question is what will be the character of the new medium and how to make money from it, so that it is self sufficient. In the end there will be just a bandwidth unrestricted network (or two), nobody will remember the difference between a PC and a television set and plenty of awfully designed interfaces and hopefully some intriguing ones.

The screen in front of the users will be defined by the content and not by the shape or environment it is located in.


Digital Web: You have worked for some of the world’s top design firms, including Frog Design and Razorfish. You were the Creative Director for Razorfish’s office in Hamburg. You worked with Meta Design when you did the Audi-TT site. What was it like working with those agencies? Do you think that larger agencies are not as creative or as effective as smaller agencies?
Jenett: The companies I worked for were all very different and I have learned so much from each of them that in the end it is hard to compare or have a final verdict. Meta Design was the place I dreamt of working for during all my studies; it was the number one for me. In a certain way it still is, it embodies everything about information design that I firmly believe in. Combining the understanding of the construction with the shaping of its form is essential and few people can make this clearer than Erik Spiekerman.

Frog Design is trying to take this one step further and is very much formed by the genius and character of Hartmuth Esslinger.

Razorfish of course is whole new kind of company that has taken the leap from a web design place into a place the designs businesses and opportunities in the new economy. The charm is that it still lives up to its outstanding quality standards and its New York Underground attitude, at least as far as the design department is concerned.

The trick for big international agencies is to align all employees with its core values and habits of the craft. At Razorfish the whole company spent a weekend in Las Vegas to refresh the spirit and get lost.

Do I think that creativity suffers in big companies? Yes. Why? Because even creative decisions are made by committee. Also big companies by nature require bigger and more timid clients so that the design usually is less of an issue and becomes a side thing. Did my creativity suffer? No, I am still interested and do what I think is right for me and our clients. Also I really think that design is not the same as business and I would never expect to completely fulfill all my ideas in billable projects.


Digital Web: Tells us about your comments in IMG SRC 100. You stated that emotion and design have to grow in an area that was developed by technologists, and that we must always be aware of the constraints and constantly challenge them. Can you elaborate on this? What do you feel is not going far enough to challenge the existing constraints of the web medium? What do you feel is going too far, too fast?
Jenett: By taking a look at where innovation usually comes from I felt that after the type design wave that was kicked off by the possibilities of desk-top-publishing (remember the days?), there was a new trend that was initiated by the computer interface itself. So everything had to be tiny, square-ish and looked like tools. Even things without any purpose look as if they are tools.. so my assumption is that subconsciously the work environment of the computer has shaped the look of our projects.

Is that good or bad? I would say after a while and everybody had its ‘small-type-face’ it becomes very boring and also hard to understand. It actually just looks like an information and functionality driven interface, but in reality it is just decoration.

If I remember right that was what I wanted to say with my quote.

Always challenging the constraints can only be achieved by knowing the environment very well. This plays into the question above about technology savvyness and my answer stays the same: Technology knowledge is a must, just technology is by far not enough!


Digital Web: I often see sites that go all out on the design yet never really prove themselves of any value other than the awe of eye candy. I also see sites that are so full of content that they become dull and drab, not engaging enough to bring the user in to ‘want’ to read more. What do you feel is the right balance of form and function?
Jenett: I think any project has to be measured by the initial intention, by the mission it tries to accomplish. http://www.schwab.com for example is an incredibly awful place until you start trading online, then all of a sudden it is very meaningful and its slim html is a delight. Once-upon-a-forest is a very useless place until you discover the secret narrative and voice of the author. It really depends to a large extent on how well the brief is hit with the design.

For me design is measured by how well an object communicates its entity through its appearance, or how well it communicates its context. I expect a sponge to look like a sponge and not like a pan! Only that way I can make sense of my environment and its meaning.


Digital Web: Tell us about your newsletter, Jet Move. How did this newsletter come about? What is its main focus? How do you go about selecting the bits that go into it?
Jenett: The newsletter that I am sending out every week is about how the change in technology transforms the medium we are working in, the medium that shapes how we see and experience the world. For the last two years I am trying to point at what happens to the web and TV/film world, providing weekly industry information to my friends and everybody else who is interested. It started off as a loose email that I sent to all my friends about things that I found interesting. By now it is a group of 250 people that are interested in broadband, iTV and film. Everybody interested can join from a link on my site.


Digital Web: You mentioned how the market is affecting design agencies and start-ups. I don’t think a day goes by where I can’t find a headline about some agency laying off 1/2 of it’s employees or some going under because their web site didn’t bring enough interest in the start-up company or their products to make a profit. People often refer to this as ‘dot-com demise’. Do you think this trend will change? Do you think there will be any traditional web design agencies around in the years to come?
Jenett: I don’t think there will be any more web-design agencies in 5-10 years. Not because they all went bankrupt but because there will be no such thing as the web left. Everything will be linked in an IP way, but the computer-based network will only be one part, TV and other home and mobile appliances will play a much stronger role than now. Also the technology will become more and more of a commodity or will require specialization that goes beyond the capabilities of design agencies.

I do believe that there will be design agencies, they will be specialized in design, not in anything technical. They will only stay on the top of the possibilities but will provide what they do best, which is building brands in form, function and narratives.


Digital Web: What would you say inspires you? Is it Television, art, architecture, animation, people, places or what?
Jenett: I try to be least inspired by things that are close to what I try to come up with. So hopefully I am not too much inspired by other websites or projects. Of course everything you see that you like you have a hard time to forget.

My very own design process is a mix of trying to integrate my real life observation into the work and by sticking to the concept. If a project, for example, has to be highly functional, I try to find out what can be done to make it that way and then I emphasize these elements.

If it is highly emotional I try to show this. In general I think it is hard to put in words what you do while you work, my goal for projects that I care about is to be as original as possible. I achieve that by doing something, stepping back taking a look at it, redoing it, following an idea in that process, doing it all over again.

Inspiration has come from the places I lived in, the books I read (and I am not talking coffee table design books!), the teams I worked with, the friends I have. And all the other things in life.


Digital Web: Are there any new projects you’re working on that you can talk about?
Jenett: I think I can not talk about the projects at Razorfish for now but I can tell that it is broadband and iTV related. In terms of my private design research I will bring out an overhaul of my own site that reflects more of the current thinking of mine within the first quarter of 2001. I am also working on my kubrick.org submission and some motion graphics/film ideas of mine.


Digital Web: What are your favorite or most visited sites on the Web? Also, if you could, give us some insight as to why you like to visit them or why they are your favorites.
Jenett: I can not answer this question, I visit too many places. In the upcoming redesign of my site I will try to give credit to my peers, but basically I think we all are hanging round in the same places, right?!


Digital Web: How would you define creativity?
Jenett: Creativity is the ability to create something that has not existed before, yet is close enough to our understanding of the world to be understandable. It is all about context and which connections I make to communicate and delight the other human beings around me in a new way. I think basically it is about one person in relation to the other people in the world.

I am often surprised how hard it is to really do something that is not just a knock-off of somebody else’s stuff; the more you know the harder that gets.

Sometimes I am not even sure if we can be really creative at all, or if the term makes any sense. Think of it, we are all using the same ingredients over and over again, type, color, form and rhythm.


Digital Web: What would you say is beauty in design?
Jenett: Beauty means understanding. If I understand the connotations of a project, what the designer wanted to communicate, I feel a mutual understanding. This to me means beautiful design. If I can understand the wall paintings in Lascaux I will consider them beautiful, this is the deeper meaning.


Digital Web: Is there anything you would like to say to the readers? Any words of wisdom or inspiring remarks you would like to pass on to future generations of web designers and new media artists?
Jenett: Design is not a business, design is a way of understanding the world. I am sure almost everybody was doing design BEFORE he started working in the business. The same is true for all the other souls out there that did not have the fortune to end up turning the elemental desire of visual creation into their daily bread. Just keep in mind that this is why everybody has an opinion about design, and only trained and experienced designers actually know that there is more than one way to do things right.

Always learn typography; design is older than the computer and will stay around after this phase. Learn sequential thinking instead of spatial. Viva la revolucion!


Digital Web: All right, that just about wraps things up. Thank you again for taking the time out of your busy schedule to do this interview. We look forward to seeing more of your work both in broadband and web design in the future. Until then, we will continue reading your Jet news and keep a close eye on the progress of broadband access.

Related Topics
: Motion Graphics, Flash, Web Guru

Daniel Jenett works for Razorfish, New York.

Nick Finck is a 13-year veteran of the web and considered a web craftsman by trade. His skills traverse web design, web development, user research, web analysis, information architecture, and web publishing. Nick founded his first web consultancy in 1994 in Portland, Oregon, and has since created web experiences for various Fortune 50 and 500 companies including Adobe, Boeing, Blue Cross / Blue Shield, Cisco, CitiGroup, FDIC, HP, IBM, Microsoft, PBS, Peet’s Coffee, and others. He currently resides in Seattle, Washington and is a co-founder of Blue Flavor, a web strategy company that focuses on people-centric solutions. More information about Nick can be found on his web site, NickFinck.com.