Q&A with Jake Barton of Local Projects

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. 

Local Projects 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.

What skill 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 currently utilize.

At Local 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 of time.

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 computers.

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 use. 

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 future. 

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 century. 

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 critical. 

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 these lines. 

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” list.

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 flipside.

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. 

What creative 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.