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This Q&A is part of “Defining the Studio of 2015,” an initiative by AIGA and Adobe that seeks the insights of visionary design thought leaders who are poised for the future. In this series, these leaders share an inside look at their plans, predictions and aspirations for the studio of 2015 and beyond.
Tell us a little bit
about your studio and your role.
is a media design firm, which means we make everything from iPhone applications
and websites to multi-projector installations, mostly for museums and public
spaces. I am the principal/founder, so I run all of the creative engagement.
We’re a 30-person studio, so not terribly big, but big enough to do large-scale
projects like the Eisenhower Memorial with Gehry Partners; Cooper-Hewitt
National Design Museum, for which we are partnering with Diller Scofidio + Renfro;
and the 9/11 Memorial Museum, for which we’re doing all of the media design and
production. We were also the interaction designers for StoryCorps, which has
collected and archived interviews with tens of thousands of participants. We just opened a huge new initiative
called Gallery One for the Cleveland Museum of Art, which uses new technologies
to reinvent the art museum.
sets will be required of the studio of 2015? And what competencies should a
studio develop now in order to remain competitive for the future?
I won’t speak
for a general graphic designer studio, but I will speak for any studio doing
work in the digital space, which is to say online or mobile interactive. For
these folks, clearly design and innovation will continue to be critical, but I also
believe that the creation of interactive interfaces that look pretty or behave
in an interesting manner but aren’t particularly effective in solving people’s
problems is no longer a viable option. Most studios are going to require competencies
and design processes that lie outside of the established design approach that they
Projects, we’re starting to recognize that the types of design processes that
we’ve been utilizing don’t put out uniformly excellent interactive projects.
They may make products that are beautiful; they may make products that sound
cool, but when people actually go to use them, they’re not always as effective
as they should be, and they often require many rounds of development after
they’ve been deployed. So we’ve begun utilizing a development process called
Agile, which was routinely used—from an engineering standpoint—in Silicon
Valley. It’s structured around quick spurts of developing and deploying.
Certainly for our practice, Agile is becoming very influential, in that it’s actually
changing how we design things.
In terms of
skill sets, studios will definitely still need visual designers. But they’ll also
need strategists, interactive designers and developers. I think a studio’s
capacity to collapse a lot of those skills and disciplines into the same
individual, or to pull together tight teams whose skill sets work in a
seamless, integrated fashion, that’s the studio of the future. That’s the
studio that can develop and deploy projects fast enough, and with enough
precision, and with enough iteration to really get them right in a short amount
What role will
technology will play in the studio of 2015? What technologies must a studio
master to remain competitive in the future?
Our general understanding
of how we utilize computers is quickly and radically transforming. By 2015,
we’ll be closer to a mobile computing paradigm; we’re in the bridge to right now. Basically,
the desktop will become a small subset of the area where people are using
Today, how people consume
content, how they initiate and conclude transactions with desktops is, for the
most part, predicated on when they are in front of a computer. With mobile,
that just isn’t the case. You’ll have far more serendipitous usage within a
variety of ecosystems. But mobile is less resilient in terms of bad digital
design or web design, because interfaces are smaller and people are
busier—they’re out in the street or they’re in their cars. They don’t have time
to click through your Flash site . This shift toward mobile places an even
stronger emphasis on thinking through strategy in advance, to make sure that
what you’re putting on a site is actually really valuable.
We’ll also see an
ever-accelerating capacity for intelligent connections between data sets,
between different digital properties that you’ve utilized. Interoperability between
Apple and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Foursquare and new platforms will
continue apace. How will that affect design studios? It’ll further tighten their
audience’s interest in solving interoperability problems quickly and simply.
Pinterest is a good example
of this. Pinterest has been around for years and years, but it wasn’t until
they developed the right interface, one that people actually liked, that they
had such great success. It took them iterating over and over and over again in
front of their actual users—their actual audience—to build the exact right
balance. The tipping point for Pinterest, where suddenly they weren’t simply a
good idea that should be happening, but something that people really liked to
What will studios need
to do in order to keep apace with technological changes?
Our work on Gallery One for
the Cleveland Museum of Art project encapsulates some of the issues surrounding
technology and design that studios now face. When we started the project, there
were a lot of tricky interaction design problems we had to address. How do you
allow visitors to see 3,000 different artworks at the same time? Visitors needed
to be able see the Collection Wall from far away; they needed to be able to use it up
close; and we needed to figure out how give them the capability of searching
without having text
boxes. We also needed to integrate editorial components on different thematic
topics, displaying them on a timeline. So, super tricky ideas!
Our studio did some initial
sketches with the client and went back and forth, back and forth. And then we
did what we call design development, where the client has signed off on the
concept, but we have to figure out what we’re actually going to build. So we spent
six or eight months with graphic designers, interaction designers and content
people going through different paradigms for how to actually make the
interaction design work. It was laborious. And it was frustrating. Everyone was
going back and forth about their different assumptions about how visitors would
use the wall.
And yet this process was
almost a complete waste of time. We spent so long talking about what we thought people would do instead of simply taking
our sketch, giving it to a developer, starting to build the thing, responding directly
to what was actually being built and revising based on people’s actual
engagement with the design. What we needed was a simple paradigm shift in how
we approached the process and deployed the technology. Lots of studios talk
about making this shift, but it’s a tremendous challenge to actually get
through strategy and design fast enough to get a project into a developer’s
hand, and still have enough money left to redevelop over and over again.
That’s a very expensive,
difficult and challenging process for an in-house department. But for a
client-services agency like Local Projects, it’s almost impossible, right?
Because your whole approach is fixed fee, fixed scope. How do you do this for
fixed fee, fixed scope? How do you do this within a client services
environment? When you get the scope of work document, it’s set. But once you
start building things, you begin learning from the process. You start understanding
what’s bad about it, and then it’s too late.
So what we’re trying to figure out—which I think represents the
studio of the future—is how to actually design things through the Agile process
that I mentioned earlier. Agile is typically applied to engineering challenges,
so you’re doing small revision cycles around specific feature sets. But we’re
revising it slightly for our needs. We’re saying, “No, no, no, it’s partially
about the feature sets and the engineering, but it’s really more about the
users.” If you can build out one small thing that works, not just from
engineering perspective but also from a user experience perspective, and iterate
around that with the other people who are using it, that is the approach of the
How will the studio team
be structured in 2015, and what steps should studios take now to begin building
the ideal team?
First, collapse different
roles into themselves. We have graphic designers who can do some basic front-end
coding, for example. Second, mix disciplines within individuals. Find front-end
developers who love design or are designers themselves. Entrust a programmer to
do interaction design. Find interaction designers who are also skilled graphic
designers. The more you can start to bring disciplines together within specific
individuals on your team, the faster you can develop these projects together.
We’re actually a very small
studio. We have different departments, but everyone sits together at a big
table. So it’s very easy for us to communicate. Everyone sits together; everyone
works together. I think it’s crucial to structure your office so that it’s flat,
so that everybody is aware of what other people are doing.
What’s the ideal physical
layout of the studio of the future? How should workspaces be designed to
accommodate the way you’ll work in 2015 and beyond?
For us, it’s a big, open
space, a bunch of big tables that everyone sits at equally. Nobody has a
separate office. And that can be uncomfortable, as the poor people in the
studio have to listen to all of your conference calls. But I think that level
of transparency is important. It also means that people need to be on their
best behavior, but that’s helpful as well. Oftentimes our most important
meetings are if I’m talking to somebody or two people are looking at a screen
because they walked by, and suddenly six people are gathered around them,
having a meeting. That level of transparency and spontaneity is only possible
in an open workspace.
What role will collaboration
and/or a multidisciplinary approach play in the studio of 2015?
I think having the capacity
to listen—to not just accept but encourage everybody to have great ideas both
inside and outside their individual areas of expertise—is critical. I’m
constantly reminding people to offer up any and all criticisms for our projects.
If members of my team don’t like something we’re working on, I need to know it,
and our colleagues need to know it.
I once had a lengthy
discussion with a junior designer who really didn’t like one of the core ideas
I had for a project. And I embraced that. I said, “That’s great, but you can’t simply
abandon my idea. I want you to go ahead and draw up my idea, but draw up any
and all conflicting ideas, and we’ll evaluate all of them equally. If you have
a much better idea, and people like your idea better, then we should do that.”
Any studio that’s not completely empowering in that way, that’s not collaboratively
harvesting ideas from its employees, that’s not tapping anyone with a level of
interest—not expertise, but interest—to solicit their feedback on what you’re
building, is missing the entire arc of creative development in the twenty-first
For the studio of the
future, it’s all about collaborative filtering, because the user—we call them
visitors—is the expert. They may not know how to solve the problem, but it’s
critical, if you’re building something, to get it in front of the actual people
who will be using it. Put it in front of someone who doesn’t know anything
about it, without any introduction, and watch them attempt to use it. This process
may be uncomfortable and unpleasant and inefficient, but it’s absolutely crucial.
How will studios work
with their clients in 2015?
With our toughest clients,
when we build prototypes, we don’t do introductions because it skews their
understanding. We simply build the prototype and say to them, “Use it, and if
you like it, let us know.” That’s really difficult in a client services
business because we’re there, ostensibly, to make our clients happy, and we can
help them be happy by contextualizing our work. But at the end of the day, when
people actually want to download your stuff from the app store, or people want
to go to your website, or people want to go to your installation, if it’s not a
knockout, they’re not going to want it or use it. And you’re not going to get a
knockout unless you have unfiltered, unadulterated, unprivileged feedback.
This is very different than
traditional creative processes, particularly within an agency model or an
advertising model. Those teams go out and they see new projects and they grab
links or they look at artist work and they put it up on a foam-core board and
they call it “Inspirations.” Then they take a little bit of this, and a little
bit of that, and put it all together. Then they present it to the client, and
hopefully that client says, “That looks great,” and writes you a check. Then the
team goes and makes it.
That’s not the model of the
future. The model of the future requires coming up with a rough idea and starting
to make it right away. Then, iteratively improve on what you’re making in order
to discover new things and make change as you’re actually developing the thing.
This means our entire design process should not be predicated on development last,
per the typical scope of work model. It should be predicated on development first. Now, how you do that within a client
services model is very tricky. I don’t know about other firms, but Local
Projects is currently figuring out the best to do that, because it is so
How will the client, or client
expectations, change as we move toward 2015?
If you are Jet Blue, and
you really know what you’re doing, then you understand that you are not in the
airline business. You’re in the website business, right? Because that’s where
people experience your brand and buy
your products. If you’re a client and you understand that, then you really know
what you’re doing.
Local Projects works
primarily with cultural institutions and not-for-profits, and today those
organizations aren’t necessarily there in terms of their thinking. So I think
it will take a while, but as this paradigm shift continues, and as the dominance
of mobile and digital continues apace, clients’ understanding will evolve along
What are some of the biggest
challenges design studios will face in 2015? And what steps should studios begin
taking to prepare for the challenges that lie ahead?
I think the biggest
challenge studios face is competition for talent. Here in New York City, it’s a
massive problem to recruit and retain great people. Another challenge is just
the high level of competition with other studios. It’s hard to retain your edge
within the field, because there are always people who are younger, who are
skilled in a different way, who have better access to new ideas, new approaches
and new collaborators.
It used to be that it would
take you a while to get established, and then you make your way up, and then
you get to the big firms and then people call you no matter what, because
you’re one of the big firms, and that’s how it works. But that’s not how it
works anymore. When I was 20 years old, I had to work for another firm. I
didn’t have the capacity to compete with a large firm, because who would ever
know about me? But now it’s different. The good news? If you’re 20, and you make
something amazing, people will pay attention. People will put it on Twitter;
people will blog about it and maybe TIME will include your work in their “Best Inventions of the Year”
This presents a huge
challenge to studios, from a competition standpoint, because suddenly you really
have to stay on your toes. You can’t just assume, “Well, we did this amazing
thing in 2012 and we did this amazing thing in 2010, so we’ll be around in
2015.” As a studio that has been
around for a decade, Local Projects takes this very seriously. That parameter
also makes things invigorating, because there are all these amazing
opportunities out there. I love meeting talented, hyper-ambitious young people
who are making things happen without a sense of reservation. But these young
people face their own set of challenges, because mentorship can be so valuable.
I worked for the same firm for seven years and it was incredible. So there’s a
Another key challenge would
be making very high-quality work even as new technologies are continuing to
evolve and change. Within the digital space it’s very hard to make things that
feel worthy of being around for more than a year or three years or five years—things
that people really care and that they really like. And, at the end of the day,
that’s the most important thing for our studio. We need to make things that are
valuable enough that they’ll stick around.
Take our work on the
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, for
instance. We need to figure out what constitutes the right move for the museum,
both for the present and for the future: how to future-proof technology and how
to integrate the work itself with the institutions’ visitor databases, interpretive
materials and educational work. That’s a big challenge.
possibilities do you think the future holds for your studio and the design
field as a whole?
At Local Projects we’re
really focused on what we call experiential learning. So looking into taking
information and ideas, and translating them into experiences. That’s really
different than digital content publishing, which represents 99.1 or 99.5
percent of everything that is out there right now. When you go to a blog, or
Twitter, or YouTube, all that stuff is just content, whether it’s words, or
video, or sound. So even as we live in this wildly interactive, participatory
world, most existing formats are really just about shuttling packets of media
back and forth.
Our studio seeks to focus
on that .9 or .5 percent that is interested in making experiences out of
things, or communicating deep or complicated topics through experiences. So
visitors to a museum understand the creative aspect of artwork not by reading a
label, not by hearing a story about it—although we love storytelling—but by
actually being creative themselves. Gallery One is all about inviting visitors to
be creative themselves within the context of a creative museum.
We’ve used this same
forward-thinking approach in our work for the New York Hall of Science,
explaining ideas about physics or engineering by inviting visitors to make
things and develop a better understanding of the principles of science through that
process of making. Another great example of this is the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
We wanted to build a museum that was all about storytelling. So how do you do
that? You invite visitors to tell their own stories. Super simple concept, but
a radical shift in approach. There’s not a label on the wall that says, “This
museum is about storytelling,” because we are actually inviting you to tell
your own stories. And then we take your stories, and we share them with other
visitors. That’s a radical paradigm shift.
In your opinion, what
are the most exciting developments that the future holds for the studio?
Mobile. Mobile will
continue to get us much closer to experience because users are carrying their
devices with them. And most of those users don’t want to just read stuff on
their device. They want to look at stuff; they want to alter things; they want
to use sensors to better understand their environment. So as interpretation
continues moving into this experiential realm as we approach 2015, that’s
incredibly exciting from our standpoint because our work seeks to embed users
in various experiences.
Today, designers are designing to
enhance understanding when form and content are conditioned by context and
impact over time. “Defining the Studio of 2015” seeks the perspectives of visionary design thought leaders
who have organized their studios—physically, technologically and
culturally—with an eye toward the future.
Section: About AIGA -
experience design, graphic design, interaction design, AIGA Insight
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