The Other Interface. The design of a new collection platform
The Other Interface is the working title for a new collection platform that seeks to provide a visual, narrative, and future-proof online environment for connecting people with the National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning. While the Search Portal focuses on users searching for specific collection items, this ‘other’ platform for the collection is designed for those wishing to explore the collection more intuitively. In this article, we delve into the concept and design of the platform, which is being developed as part of the long-term heritage programme Disclosing Architecture.
14 May 2023
Nieuwe Instituut manages the National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning, which houses a vast array of drawings, correspondence, photographs, posters, and models from the archives and collections of Dutch architects and urban planners. Moreover, its library boasts an international focus with books and magazines on architecture, urban planning, spatial planning, interior design, art, design, and digital culture. This expansive collection contains countless stories that – whether found, sought, narrated, or documented – emerge from research, exhibitions, lectures, or loans and always from unique perspectives.
These ‘Stories’ add depth to the collection and, like the ‘hard’ collection data, are a valuable source of information that The Other Interface grants access to. By allowing users to retrieve related stories from the data and vice versa, browsing the website and collection becomes more intuitive and stimulating.
The platform offers an accessible means to explore the collection by utilising filters and clouds. Through the power of Linked Open Data, new connections can be established between collection pieces from the National Collection and other collections worldwide. Linked Open Data connects metadata assigned to objects in the Nieuwe Instituut’s database, as well as to objects in other heritage institution collections.
The collection platform is bilingual, inclusive, and multivocal, welcoming authors inside and outside the Nieuwe Instituut to share their unique perspectives and stories. By fostering collaboration in this way, heritage is democratised, belonging to all.
The new collection platform’s design is a joint effort between the Nieuwe Instituut and the design studio Linked by Air. Before commencing the design process, Nieuwe Instituut consultant Gerlinde Schuller worked on the platform’s information architecture, investigating how digital technology provides opportunities for new forms of heritage participation by enabling more input from users, the public, and communities.
Schuller’s research yielded several key findings. Firstly, users prefer stories to abstract data, as storytelling can hold an audience’s attention longer. Additionally, users value surprise, and stories told from different perspectives can stimulate opinion formation. To satisfy these needs, a collection system should integrate non-linear storylines and provide opportunities for user interaction while also assuming that archivists and historians are willing to relinquish some of their influence and transfer it to users.
Building on her findings, Schuller developed a systematic storytelling method that considers users’ evolving behaviour. Specifically, her research indicates that browsing through data is becoming as important as targeted searching. The platform was designed to accommodate this trend, with different behavioural profiles in mind, which led to the creation of various filters and search options.
During the design process, Dan Michaelson, partner at Linked by Air, developed four design principles for the platform based in part on Schuller’s research.
Drawing on Schuller’s information architecture and the resulting behavioural profiles, the design process took into consideration a diverse group of users with different behaviours. Consequently, the platform is designed to welcome curious visitors with informal search queries as well as researchers seeking new ideas and connections between data.
Furthermore, the design process also took into consideration user profiles defined by the Digital Heritage Network (NDE). These profiles do not focus on target groups based on age or interests but rather on modes of use, such as Browsing & Discovery, Experience, Remix collection and datasets, Co-creation, Archival search, Experimental search, Learning, and Gaming.
The platform is structured to cater to these diverse users and behaviours, with multiple zoom levels that are accessed through a ‘cloud interface’. Users can click on different levels to explore the data in greater detail. They start by selecting an entry point, such as Archives, Objects, People, Stories, or Publications, and then navigate through increasingly refined selections. For example: Objects -> Objects on Material -> Objects on Chipboard. Or: Archives and components -> Archive components by name -> Archive components Aldo van Eyck -> Archive G. Boon.
The platform offers various filter combinations to refine search results further. Different zoom levels cater to intensive intentional research or random exploration of the collection, and they also support users who move between these modes and combine them. An early prototype was tested with users to validate the design ideas and helped simplify, clarify, and refine the design.
Relationships between things
At its deepest zoom level, the cloud interface allows users to explore horizontally to discover new relationships between objects, makes, and attributes. Below the cloud interface, the platform also emphasizes ‘Stories’, a space for contextualisation. Though not part of the collection, they offer perspectives on it and relate to the data users obtain. Metadata accompanies the Stories, offering starting points to explore the collection further.
This editorial content helps to connect archival records that might otherwise be unrelated in a process of ‘speculative archiving’. These relationships are established based on Linked Open Data. To further stimulate speculative archiving, new stories are constantly being added from different authors and through co-creation.
To find more information about a specific subject, object, or person outside of the Nieuwe Instituut’s collection, data from other external collections is also retrieved via Linked Open Data. The term ‘Serendipitous Linked Open Data’ emphasises LOD’s potential for making chance discoveries of valuable information.
Data versus Interpretation
The third principle underpinning the platform involves visualising the relationship between data and interpretation. It raises crucial questions about where we derive meaning from. Is it from the database, the metadata of objects, or from the act of creation, interpretation, and context? These questions were central to the initial discussions about the product, which also drew inspiration from the Nieuwe Instituut exhibition Atelier Nelly and Theo van Doesburg, designed and curated by Koehorst in ‘t Veld.
This exhibition’s design featured a timeline of facts presented on the top part of its display structure, accompanied by a more interpretive and contextual layer below. The latter showcases, for instance, photos of Van Doesburg’s work, as displayed in exhibitions or his studio. Both layers illustrate distinct approaches to creating meaning.
Linked by Air has employed a similar design strategy for The Other Interface. The cloud interface at the top of the screen provides access to data. As the user scrolls down, they encounter Stories that offer context and interpretation, regardless of their location within the system.
The fourth design principle focuses on capturing a sense of drama. The experience of walking through the depot or conducting research in the National Collection evokes a unique feeling. The repetitive layout of cupboards, shelves, and boxes creates a distinctly weighty and theatrical atmosphere. To translate this sense of drama in the graphic design, the Nieuwe Instituut and Linked by Air worked with Amsterdam designer Rudy Guedj. The resulting design features a cloud interface that resembles a galaxy, complete with thematic constellation lines. The use of colour helps to enhance the sense of beauty and drama within the platform.
Last year, an interdisciplinary team was assembled to work on this project.
- Gerlinde Schuller oversaw the information architecture, collaborating to establish the platform's initial outlines and determine filters to enhance user experience.
- Triply with Lifely as the developer, created the Linked Open Data infrastructure. Lifely is also involved in developing the Nieuwe Instituut's corporate website.
- Linked by Air was responsible for the design of the platform. This New York-based agency has designed digital solutions for organisations such as MoMA PS1, the Smithsonian and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, and TEFAF.
The beta version and beyond
This beta version of The Other Interface will be further developed throughout the year by adding new features, such as a timeline and filters to facilitate searching. Ensuring high-quality data is also an ongoing focus. This includes making increasing numbers of archives accessible at the object level, digitising more photos and drawings, exposing Linked Open Data, and expanding and refining descriptions.
If you are interested in providing feedback or participating in the user group to test the platform, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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