CCS: Communication Design (Graphic Design) Programs

'08

Brett Renfer

Collins

Director of Experience Design

“What I enjoy most about my career is seeing people interact with my work,” said Brett Renfer, the director of experience design at Collins in Manhattan. “I remember being at this party that some might say was sort of ‘stuffy.’ People were just sort of chitchatting but not really looking like they were having fun.

“What I enjoy most about my career is seeing people interact with my work,” said Brett Renfer, the director of experience design at Collins in Manhattan. “I remember being at this party that some might say was sort of ‘stuffy.’ People were just sort of chitchatting but not really looking like they were having fun.

“For this event, we made interactive maracas, which, when shaken, would trigger these amazing visual fireworks;a digital explosion hanging overhead. I remember the expression on that first person's face who shook them. It changed the feel of the entire party! People smiled and realized they were having a good time.”

As the director of experience design, Renfer conceptualizes and builds interactive installations for clients. Usually this involves projections onto large screens or pieces that physically move themselves. In addition to projects like the interactive maracas, he has worked on other pieces for Google, Intel, JetBlue, the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, the Whitney Museum of Art and the National Building Museum.  One of his most memorable projects was Plug-In-Play, which he worked on at his last job at the LAB at Rockwell Group, a New York-based technology group embedded in an architecture firm. The LAB was commissioned to design and build an 18-story interactive projection for the 2010 ZER01 Biennial that was visible for miles.

“This was one of my favorite projects for several reasons,” said Renfer. “It was such a large scale. You could see it from everywhere in the city, even from the freeway! And since it was a public piece, we got to see how a wide range of people interacted with it. That was a lot of fun.

“As we were designing this particular piece, we also got to try a lot of weird, crazy prototypes. Lots of experimenting, which led to an amazing experience for the whole city.”

Currently, Renfer is working on a permanent installation for the Museum of the Moving Image in New York that highlights the career of Jim Henson. He expects it to be completed by January 2016.

“I'm really excited about this project because it is a great story about an American artist who constantly was experimenting with new technology,” explained Renfer. “We are incorporating some of his iconic puppets (like Kermit and Big Bird) and have placed the visitor in the role of someone who works at the Jim Henson Company.

“Story telling and using metaphors are at the core of experiential design. Before we even start designing, we have to determine what the story is and the best way to tell it. Then we get to work on the prototypes—making things! I learned the importance of this trial-and-error approach as a student at CCS. We were always encouraged to experiment with our work—to test new ideas.”

Outside of the studio, Renfer has been developing another aspect of his career—teaching. He is working with colleague Adi Marom on a course for the master’s program in design and technology at The New School. This particular course focuses on interactive spaces and is expected to be a permanent part of the curriculum. He also teaches at New York University (NYU) and has presented workshops at colleges across the country, including CCS (October 2015).

“Teaching others has allowed me to really crystallize my thinking on the design of interactive spaces, including some of the challenges,” he said. “For example, since this work is so technical (coding) and involves fabricating prototypes, I’ve had to find low-tech ways of testing out my ideas to make sure everything can be done effectively while still meeting deadlines.

“This challenge inspired me to develop open source software tools so that other designers won’t have to focus as much on the coding and technical side of projects and can give more attention to the creativity of the piece. For example, if they are using a camera as part of an interactive installation, one of my projects, TSPS, makes it easy to use the camera to track people and objects. Instead of focusing on the code to do so, it allows artists and designers to focus more on the graphics or responses to the user interacting with the piece.”

Looking ahead, Renfer aspires to someday run his own studio. He has adapted to fast-pace life of New York, but this native-Michigander still holds a special place in his heart for Detroit.

“I don’t think I would be as successful in New York today without first having those early experiences in Detroit.”

“It provided me with the time, space, energy, focus and raw materials I needed as a developing artist/designer; you don’t have the same opportunities in New York. As a student, I was able to take over all of MOCAD for a multi-installation show—this would be unheard of for someone still in school in other big cities. Never underestimate how exciting it is to work in Detroit.”

To check out more of Renfer’s work, visit http://www.robotconscience.com. ;;