Oliver Reichenstein: Structuring information

What exactly is an interface? And what do we need to design better ones? Oliver Reichenstein gives a charming and philosophical talk about his experience of living in Tokyo, handling the unknown and reading visual language.

Warmly welcomed by Eric Spiekermann, Oliver Reichenstein enters the spotlight. The interface designer from Zürich and the founder of “Information Architects Inc.” starts off his talk with a short introduction of himself. Before “information architect” was an actual profession, Reichenstein studied philosophy. From early on he had been passionate about programming, which led him to one of his first jobs. Being a young designer Reichenstein was given the opportunity to work for a big airline, which – later on – would have a big impact on his life.

„It’s not a what, it’s a how”, says Reichenstein about interfaces. © Sebastian Weiß (Monotype)

While working on an interface project for Swissair he got to know a hacker, a 60 year old woman, who had found a way into the airline’s system, that allowed her to find cheap business tickets early on and give them out to business partners. Reichenstein stayed in touch with the hacker and one day, he was given a flight to Tokyo from the elderly lady. At that time, he did not know, that this trip was to become not a vacation, but a life-changer. He would stay in Tokyo for the next ten years.

The Text and the Context

It was the moment he landed in Tokyo, when he became an “interface fanatic”, he recalls. For the first time, he felt like seeing the world through children’s eyes again. Everything was new to him, there was almost nothing he could read or understand. And by not understanding the language he was given

“You become an expert in reading when you don’t understand a language.”

the exciting chance to observe rather than trying to understand the verbal language – or to put it in other words “the text”. Accompanied by frequent laughter of the audience, the talk of the charming Swiss goes on. While explaining, that getting to know the context is also an important part of “understanding”, the slides show examples of Japanese humor and everyday life situations, which were hard to truly understand for a person coming from a different cultural background. He assures the audience of the importance of the superordinate information to get the entire information.

The Interface

“So what is the interface?”, Reichenstein throws out. He shows some screenshots of old operating systems but quickly moves over to a quote by computer scientist and former Apple employee Jef Raskin: “The way you accomplish tasks with a product, what you do and how it responds – that’s the interface.” The complicated part about this definition is the way, Reichenstein points out. “The interface is the way, it’s not a thing, it’s not part of a thing, it’s not a ‘what’, it’s a ‘how’”.

Oliver Reichenstein

Oliver Reichenstein

Digital Designer (Zurich)

Oliver Reichenstein studied Philosophy in Basel and Paris. He worked as brand consultant for Interbrand Zintzmeyer & Lux for four years. In 2003, he moved to Tokyo where he founded his Information Architects Inc. (iA). Today, iA is one of the leading Web design agencies.

Examples from simple tools like a hand-axe, a knife and scissors flicker across the screen. By their form-language they show you where to hold it, how to hold it and what to do with it. It is the entirety that makes up the interface, it connects text and context.

To design better interfaces it is best to study every day life. We encounter them every day and as long we don’t have to think about them, it is a sign for a good interface.

Written by Jannis Riethmüller