Gagarin is an Icelandic design agency working in the field of interactive design. Our intern Florian Lohse visited the agency and talked to Art Director Kristín Eva Ólafsdóttir and interaction designer Nils Wiberg in the Reykjavik harbor.


How did Gagarin start?


Gagarin started out as graphic design agency, mostly for print. Around the millennium the agency evolved towards designing new technologies, like CD-ROMs, websites and multimedia projects for private companies and institutions.  In 2008, we decided to narrow our focus and we set our aims towards exhibitions.


Today, we are almost exclusively working in the exhibition field, mostly abroad.


What is it you are doing for exhibitions?

We consider ourselves as storytellers within the exhibition space. For this task, we use new technologies. We use the power of computers to visualize otherwise unapproachable information. We love to make abstract things tangible and physical. Some of us here know quite a bit of technology, so we can actually make things work the way we want them to work. The outcome can be unusual and is hopefully beautiful.

That’s what interaction design basically is about,

to create beauty and an understanding from information

Today, there‘s a lot of data and knowledge on immensely important topics, very often free for public access. But to understand it is often impossible for the non-expert. We cover that part: we go through all the databases, deal with bureaucracy and talk to people and gather information. And then, we make it accessible and tangible for everybody.


Speaking about tangibility, are you trying to get rid of the once popular “complete virtualization” in interaction design?

Interaction design used to be all about screen-based ideas, about designing websites and stuff like that. Of course, all web designers are also interaction designers, but most people I know really working in the interactive area have gone further in exploring new technologies. The web was very exciting when it was new, but now technology has gone further. Even iPads and touchscreens are common. We use all these devices, but we try to get beyond the established means of usage and to explore new fields.

Actually, we think touchscreens aren’t the greatest interfaces, I am sure our technology can do better.

For us, it’s always about merging the virtual and the physical.

I see the virtual sphere as a middle step, a frontier to be passed, before getting back to the physical world again.

In the long run, it is much more human to touch and to move something. I guess the human body itself will become the best interface in the end. From a psychological point of view, it makes much more sense to intuitively move physical objects around, than to have a virtual folder structure on a two-dimensional screen.



Do you have examples for the usage of the human body as an interface?

We recently used the Kinect-Camera of the xBox for motion tracking in some projects. With this device, we can already utilize human movements as an interface.
For example, we did an exhibition at the Norwegian Seabird Centre.

At the exhibitions entrance we built up an installation where visitors could move their arms like a bird, which was translated into the movement of a flying bird’s projection.

For another exhibition on renewable energy here in Iceland at the hydro power station Búrfellsvirkjun, we built an interactive table with a model of the dam and the hydro power plant. People could build up the dam on their own, exploring the behaviour of different dam designs, and realizing the energy of dammed up water volumes. This model was quite a success within all age groups.

Of course children liked to play with it, but also adults, even engineers had a lot of fun experimenting with the model.

It was a playful, tangible interface, but with a lot of truth behind.


What is your favourite kind of project?

We really enjoy the museum space. There is such a focused atmosphere of attention, because all the visitors come there in their free time and also sometimes pay for it. They want to learn something new. Of course, there is also a lot of pressure in this scene.

For example the scientists always want their science and accuracy to be inside of the exhibitions, it mustn’t be to much “Art”.

But that is what design is about: it has to fulfill a purpose, and it has to work with the interests of different groups. We really like these kind of challenges.

Our favourite projects are the ones where we can start to build a whole exhibition from scratch. We work like film directors, developing a dramaturgy and a story board for the new exhibition. That’s what we could do at the Norwegian Seabird Centre. We really spent a lot of time for defining the idea of the exhibition and outlined a story. In the end, we had nine installations there, that was really nice.


How is your connection to the rest of the Icelandic design scene?

The design scene in Iceland is quite inspiring as such. The way the design and art-scene works in Iceland is very nice, I guess there is a bigger outlet for design here than there is in Sweden.

So to say, creativity is more creative in Iceland, and in Sweden it’s more confined maybe.

How did you come up with the name gagarin?

It came about because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the failing of the socialists was a big disappointment to us! We wanted to pay a tribute. No, joking. It’s because Jury Gagarin was the first man in space, and when we founded our agency, we thought: Now we are going to be first in cyber-space!” That was in ’94, when you still said “Cyberspace”.


Images courtesy of Gagarin of Wild Reindeer Exhibition