Nothing in Common
Based: New York
Notable clients: Nike, The New York Times, Columbia University
“The web is in its adolescence, and with every new website or digital product that gets produced right now, a foundation of not only aesthetics, but also value is being laid out for the next generation,” says Eric Hu. “There's a lot of thought about the ultimate consequences of the work being produced.”
Eric is one of the most fascinating creatives we’ve come across in the past couple of years. The designer, art director and developer studied at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and then Yale, after which he set up Nothing In Common with programmer Paul Bouchon. The studio quickly gained a reputation for innovative digital work (particularly in the fashion, architectural, and music industries) but Paul left towards the end of last year as more and more projects tended towards consulting and art direction.
Despite this shift, Eric still sees having an understanding of code as an intrinsic advantage in the digital design process. He writes an excellent blog in which he answers questions from readers (ranging from the interesting to the bizarrely aggressive) and gives his thoughts on various industry trends. On the issue of the relationship between design and coding, he wrote: “It’s not necessary for a designer to learn how to code but learning how to read code is important. Learning how programmes work, how networks speak to each other, learning the process of what makes the systems we depend on, is not only useful but leads to a deeper appreciation of the world we have constructed. Know how a printing press works and the books you make will only be more beautiful.”
This reference to book making is instructive as Eric is a designer who’s fascinated by what digital products can borrow from the print world. “People complain that the physical and tactile qualities seen in print are often absent on the web,” he says. “Coming from a print design background, this gap was always something of interest. We believe the web has the potential ability to be ‘physical’ and feel real, but not in any skeumorphic sense. We have no interest in making a website feel like a book, but we have interest in making a web experience feel precious and real, by paying attention to typographic detail, animation, pacing, storytelling.”
The site for the Avery Review – a journal of architectural essays from Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation – is, Eric believes, “our most successful rendition of that thesis.” For each issue a unique colour scheme is generated which plays off the academic tone and makes the site feel very accessible. Meanwhile the considered use of typography and refined copy on the landing page allows you to instantly gauge the subject of articles without dressing them up unnecessarily through imagery or fancy intros.
“We have a love for the materiality of print, and the physical qualities of a book but it's not about a fetishisation. We love the qualities that paper affords, but not paper itself. We loved the experience of turning a page, but not the act itself. There shouldn't necessarily be an equivalent action of turning a page on a website, but the sequential nature and the anticipation it brings is something to think about.
“With things like the reading progress bar and interactive footnotes, we received a lot of compliments from users saying they really felt like they were reading a magazine,” he adds.
But if Eric’s at home in this academic design context, he’s also demonstrated his brilliance at the other end of the cultural spectrum. Ninja Tune records commissioned him to help promote The Bug’s album At War With Time. Paul and him developed *Soundbug, an interactive widget designed to look like a normal Soundcloud embed, but “when people press play expecting to hear music, this is where we fuck with them.”
He says: “The idea of re-appropriating the visual language of a popular web service as a cloaking device wasn’t a novel idea, but we were excited at the idea of this piece of content we were crafting existing primarily on other websites like Pitchfork and The Wire.”
Eric and his collaborators think a lot about the fundamental interactions that occur between digital products and their users, and he articulately challenges some well-established truisms.
“There needs to be a level of generosity when making things for users from different backgrounds and perspectives,” he says. “Functionality should be an inherent value in most cases. No matter how zany something is, a user needs to intuitively know where to click. However, the conversation shouldn't end on that note. Mark Weiser, former chief scientist at Xerox Parc, is a strong advocate for this idea of "beautiful seams." He was talking about ubiquitous computing and the tendency to want to go towards a feeling of seamlessness. There's a similar discussion in user-interface design. We often hear the adage that good UI means no UI or that something should be invisible. It's hogwash. Design serves not only users but it transmits cultural ideas.”
This is Nothing In Common’s brilliance – matching super-clever thinking and idea generation with end products that wear this intelligence very lightly.