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If you think the analysis of a database and creativity cannot go together, we want to prove you otherwise. In the process of finding and shaping our fellowship project idea, we explored the data and information of the Material Archive by developing an exciting card game. Thanks to this perhaps somewhat unusual approach, we not only found answers to our questions but also an unexpected new love for working with cards.

© Mario von Rickenbach / Nadya Suvorova

As media and game designers we are particularly interested in exploring how to better understand, visualise and experience the materials the world is made of in a playful and creative manner. That’s why we knew from the start of our Innovator Fellowship at the ETH Library Lab that we wanted to work with the data of the Material Archive. The Material Archive is a national network that provides access to knowledge about materials through the digital database “materialarchiv.ch” and the physical collections of the ten members of the network, one of which is the ETH Material Hub.

A Repurposed Childhood Game

To get an overview of all the data within the network and also to collect ideas for our upcoming fellowship project, we decided to get productive and design a material card game that uses data of real materials. Maybe you remember the card game “Top Trumps” from your childhood? Usually, the card set depicted fast sport cars or the fittest soccer stars. The goal is to beat your opponent by having a card with a higher value of a certain property like strength. While this game is pretty simple, it works with real data and therefore was excellent for our project. Our intent was not redesigning the game but using it as an existing structure for a quick prototype.

The “Material Quartet” prototype card set. © Mario von Rickenbach / Nadya Suvorova

Diverse Materials and Varying Information

By reverse engineering the API, we downloaded all the pictures and data from the Material Archive. Basically, this means that we examined what the web page is doing and did the same to access the data. For the card set, we needed comparable numbers of physical properties that are shared by most materials. To do so efficiently, we programmed a tool that helped us evaluate the information by filtering it according to different physical properties.

Through this process, we realised that it is not easy to compare materials. The collection of the Material Archive is very diverse, and the offered information varied highly. Eventually, we decided on 54 materials that are comparable in density, elasticity, thermal conductivity, elongation at break and tensile strength to create the “Material Quartet”.

The game works as an alternative visualisation of the Material Archive since it settles between physical samples and the digital archive and thus provides a different entry point to the archive. We first produced two prototypes of the set and finally designed a package of the cards and printed 30 copies. The game is not meant for sale, but was our personal tool to launch our fellowship.

The “Material Quartet” in its final packaging. © Mario von Rickenbach / Nadya Suvorova

Cards as a Creativity Technique

By starting this mini-project and jumping right into the data, we also gained insights on how the Material Archive could improve which we passed on to the institution. For example, one of our feedback points concerned small issues like missing images of materials or further questions for the curatorial team like the comparability of the material profiles or consistency in length, detail and writing style of the entries.

Moreover, we discovered that working with cards is a fruitful way to develop ideas: you can move them around, build scenarios, align them to stories. Cards also push you to focus on the most important points since there is limited space to write and draw on cards.

Another card set to develop scenarios for our upcoming interactive documentary. © Mario von Rickenbach / Nadya Suvorova

Ubiquitous Sand – The Background Story

Our research has revealed that in order to dive deeply into a topic in our fellowship project, we cannot work with the whole Material Archive collection but instead need to concentrate on one material group. Despite its tremendous collection size, the Material Archive presents a lot of building materials and less basic materials. But one important component of many building materials was missing in this collection: sand. We decided that this is the topic we want to focus on next.

After water, sand is the second most used resource on earth. It is utilised everywhere: from glass production to concrete and toothpaste as well as for electronical chips. Usually, we take it for granted without much thinking of where it comes from and how it is extracted. But recently, the accessibility of sand as well as illegal mining and its consequences have been garnering more attention.

With our fellowship project we hope to contribute to an interdisciplinary exchange amongst a new generation of experts in impactful fields such as architecture, building engineering and material science.  By using an artistic approach to zoom out of specific perspectives we would like to raise awareness about the complex systems and processes sand is a part of and the environmental impact of human sand use.

Our next step is to validate a design prototype for an interactive documentary to tell the story of sand from a new perspective and in a playful way. And once this is possible again, bring a partner and come play our “Material Quartet” in one of the ETH libraries.



We would like to thank Stéphanie Hegelbach (master student Architecture, ETH Zurich) for her support in writing this blog post.

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Nadya Suvorova

Interactive Media Artist and Designer

Mario von Rickenbach

Game Designer and Artist

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