“Whenever I tell people I grew up in a communal house in Amsterdam, it inevitably turns into a 30 minute conversation about the pros and cons of communal living and what it’s like to grow up in an environment like that,” says UX designer Irene Pereyra. “So I decided to make a documentary to explain.” But her resulting web-doc—a collaboration with Anton Repponen, with whom she runs Brooklyn-based agency Anton & Irene—isn’t a straightforward piece of filmmaking. Instead, it’s an interactive experience, one where the studio combines its digital design skills with traditional storytelling techniques.
First and foremost, One Shared House is a great, eye-catching piece of digital wizardry and UX design. And that’s to be expected: it’s what Anton & Irene are increasingly becoming known for, and which has attracted an impressive and diverse client list (USA Today, Porsche, Nintendo, Google, and Wacom to name a few). This new site has allowed the studio to show off its full potential: it’s a web equivalent to navigating a communal flat, one filled with twisting corridors, rooms acting as subtle pieces of exposition, and bright colors that seem to represent the different personalities of roommates.
The site’s content aims to draw comparisons between the ’70s feminist commune where Pereyra grew up and the modern day culture of shared housing; at the end of the experience, viewers fill out a survey about their own living preferences (would you share a living room? A bathroom? Groceries?) and that feeds into an infographic about contemporary living habits. The design of the platform is fun, intuitive, and also extremely cheerful.
Since the film and story take place in Amsterdam, the studio decided that the art direction should be in homage to Dutch graphic design, i.e. filled with geometric shapes, simple and legible Modernist typefaces, and strong contrasting blocks of color without texture or gradient. “This Dutch style of design is not something you really see often in the increasingly homogenized medium of web design,” insists Pereyra. “We’re hoping to show that just because the platform is ‘online’ doesn’t mean it has to look and behave like every other website out there.” Particular inspiration came from the work of Karel Martens, whose studio Pereyra visited in Amsterdam during the documentary’s production.
The film plays in the top left hand corner of a geometric grid, and users can choose to read accompanying essays and information by interacting with the rest of the blocks. “We wanted to make sure that viewers of the documentary could choose their own path through the content and determine their own level of involvement in the story,” explains Pereyra. “If they want to stop the film and dive deeper on certain topics, they can, but if they don’t that’s ok too.”
The trickiest part of the project was working out how to strike a balance between inviting interaction while also allowing viewers to “lean back” and enjoy the movie. By drawing from early computer game design, specifically the early ’90s education hit Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, the studio decided to do so by keeping interactions simple and minimal—not distracting for those who might want to watch passively.
“I want viewers to hear my story first, and then make up their own mind in the survey,” Pereyra emphasizes. “It’s been quite amazing seeing the results come in. For example, we assumed that young people would be more open to sharing than older generations, but our data is actually showing the exact opposite. I’m also quite surprised that more people are willing to share a kitchen than a bathroom, whereas in my personal experience it was a lot easier to share a bathroom with others than a kitchen. The funny thing is that I now have the data I was looking for, but I am still not sure why people answered what they did. I set out to get some clarity on the topic, but in a way the results have left me with more questions than answers.”