Describe the state of the industry in Montreal. Over the past few years, what changes to the industry have you noticed most in your area?
In terms of complex data visualization, FFunction has no local competitors. We do however compete internationally with about a dozen other companies. It’s still a fairly niche area. Most of our clients are based in the United States, and we still have very few clients in Quebec. I think this is because there aren’t many data-driven organizations in Montreal, so the demand for data visualization is just not there. The companies and organizations that do BI tend to do it internally. The data culture is just not very strong yet, but I think this is slowly changing.
I doubt that many agencies dedicated exclusively to data visualization will pop up here, because of the market’s relatively small size. A few of our direct competitors internationally have closed in the last year, actually. I think we will see existing data visualization companies spread their wings by opening new branches in different locations.
There is, however, a small community of people interested in data visualization in Montreal – designers, data journalists, academics and the like – that meet every couple of months under the auspices of VisMTL. You can keep up to date with events and news on Twitter (@VisMTL) or via Meetup.
Is there a design approach or insight you feel is unique to Montreal, or FFunction?
At FFunction, our approach has been to stay away from incomprehensible artsy data visualizations and focus on communicating information visually, to help people gain a true understanding of the issues.
These artsy data visualizations might be popular particularly in Montreal because we have a thriving community of multimedia production companies, so it’s no surprise that the interesting projects are often created for events; they’re more along the lines of data-driven installations or experiences. One example is the Jacques-Cartier bridge, which has lights that change depending on various dimensions like season and social mentions. These kinds of projects are great and highly engaging, but they’re meant to create a visual impact or excitement more than educating policymakers or for citizens understanding important information.
Another aspect that may be seen as specific to Montreal is the bilingual (French/English) component, but in fact, designing across languages is a skill that is in demand everywhere, not just in Canada. Large organizations like UN agencies have to produce material in many languages (almost always in French, Spanish and English, but often in other languages too), and they really see it as a benefit that we have experience doing this.
Why do you work where you do, considering the geographic location and the organization itself.
At its core, Montreal is a creative city. Fortunately, it's also an affordable city! We benefit from governmental tax credits in research and development, which allows us to stay competitive and to keep innovating. The linguistic aspect of Montreal is also very interesting; we slip between French and English at the studio, and this level of comfort with multilingualism has been useful in many of our projects especially for UNESCO.
What do you see as the biggest opportunities emerging within our industry? What are the greatest challenges?
Within our rarified corner of the design world, there are plenty of opportunities to innovate and to compete at a global level. However, I find that the programs offered by universities are lagging behind in terms of industry demand. For this reason, recruiting remains a challenge.
As an example, Montreal’s best design school, UQAM, has barely updated its program over the years to include interactive projects. Web courses are optional. Graduates have portfolios with wireframes that are halfway there, and clearly lack some basic UX practices. It takes a lot of training before they understand how to think about interactive projects. Information design is also not properly taught, and beautiful but misleading report infographics are given passing grades. I noticed that these problems are less prevalent with Ontario students, so we need to up our game here in Montreal.
I participated in a portfolio review event last year, and almost all of the students I spoke with told me they wanted to specialize in print/branding. In terms of the market, that’s just not viable. The reality is that Montreal has a good startup community, and they can’t find the right designers. I’m sure that if schools had better classes for web design, more graduates would be aligning their career in that direction and getting the skills they need to move the industry forward.
What do you feel is the most important, interesting or meaningful trend in design right now?
Technology is advancing so fast, designers have to keep up with gestural interfaces, Internet of Things interfaces, virtual reality interfaces, and probably the hardest one: the “no interface” trend. I think this will have the biggest impact on how we interact digitally in the future… until designers are replaced with algorithms entirely.
We are most well-known for our interactive data visualizations; they're designed to communicate data in a way that galvanizes the user, whether that user is a policymaker, a journalist or simply an engaged citizen. Our clients appreciate our expertise in representing information visually, and for that reason they tend to give us creative freedom.