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Matters of Experience
Matters of Experience is a podcast about the creativity, innovation, and psychology driving designed experiences and encounters. Each week Abby and Brenda dig into the who, how, so what and why of exhibitions, branded experiences, events, spectaculars, and all the crazy things designers and creatives are putting out there for people who just can’t get enough.

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Being Successful While Balancing it All with Trent Oliver

Being Successful While Balancing it All with Trent Oliver

April 3, 2024
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In this episode, discover the transformative power of mentorship, visitor-centered design, and innovative storytelling with Trent Oliver. From fostering diversity and inclusion to balancing work-life as a parent, Trent shares insights on shaping the future of interactive experiences. If you’re curious about the unique perspectives and challenges of a successful woman-owned business, this episode is for you.
Trent is the Principal + Managing Director of Blue Telescope, past president of the Themed Entertainment Association Eastern Board, and a Praxis Member. Her background in stage management led her to experience design, where she has pushed the boundaries of interactive experiences with clients like Kennedy Space Center, The Henry Ford Museum, and Illinois Institute of Technology. Trent seeks out projects that engage the human experience, embrace diversity, and push the boundaries of technology.

Abby: Welcome to Matters of Experience, a podcast produced by Lorem Ipsum, an experience design company headquartered in New York City. Our podcast explores the creativity, innovation and psychology driving designed experiences and encounters. Thanks for tuning in today and supporting our conversation. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

Brenda: Hello, this is Brenda Cowan.

 

Abby: So today we’re focusing on a woman who has done it all in our industry and finding out what some of her challenges were professionally and personally, as her career has gone from strength to strength. It is a pleasure to welcome Trent Oliver, the principal and managing director of Blue Telescope.

 

BT, as it’s fondly referred to, creates location-based, interactive experiences for museums, executive briefing centers, and brand experiences. Trent has a desire to blur the lines between reality and technology, in honor of the good, Well, Trent, a big welcome to the studio today.

 

Trent: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

 

Brenda: Trent, I’m going to kick us off focusing on your incredible history of work in interactive experience design technology, entertainment, leadership. Abby and I would love to know what on earth attracted you to this industry in the first place, and as I was thinking about this question, I was thinking about how so many of us in this dynamic profession find ourselves here, having come from totally, seemingly unrelated backgrounds or just plain weird lines of work, right? Really weird. And the attraction in experience design to me anyway, is that everything seems to apply.

 

Trent: Yeah.

 

Brenda: And there seem to be no limits in either direction. So, I’m curious to know, is that your take also and what brought you here?

 

Trent: I was in theater. I was a stage manager. I moved up, I became an equity stage manager, and it occurred to me I could stage manage the best show ever, and it could still be terrible. I could be well run, yet terrible. And I found myself in commercials in LA. I found myself doing corporate theater here in New York, and I would interview here and there, I did videos, I did film, and I saw a little car go across the screen. And this is a very long time ago. This is pre-2000. And I was like, oh, how’d you do that. And I was like, that’s cool. I want to figure that out.

 

I got lucky. I started telling my clients back then when I was a producer, don’t call me unless you don’t know how to do it. If you don’t know how to do it, I’m interested. If you know how to do it, call somebody else. They can dance faster. I don’t want to dance faster. And I found myself owning a company, and we ended up doing interactive multimedia. And then wandered my way. I mean, I couldn’t have aimed for it.

 

Abby: You know what I was going to say? One of the things that really resonated with me is when Trent, you said that if you can’t do it, if a client can’t do it, you wanted them to call you. What do you think that is, that, not being scared to help people solve problems that you don’t have the answer to? What is it about that in you that motivates you?

 

Trent: I always found that when I wanted to learn something I’d go get a job doing it. Nothing makes you learn it faster than, oh dear God, I might get fired, you know, like, oh, if this doesn’t work, I’ve got a problem. But diving in and going to the best people you can find that do that and interviewing them, it’s phenomenal. They’re not worried about you. You’re not going to take their job and they’ll give you great advice. And I like learning. Learning’s great. If I weren’t learning, I would probably blow up my career and run away.

 

Abby: So just jumping back then into this idea that our industry is very multidisciplinary, not only for the people and where they’re coming from as they come into our industry, but sort of, the way that we need to have multiple people from lots of different disciplines sitting around the table to be able to do what we do really well. You need everybody there and I remember thinking as I was growing up, well, I’ve got a broad interest in lots of things. I like to do this, the painting, the video, the sound, the music. But thinking about my growth and how I ended up here, it helps to have mentors.

 

Trent: Yeah.

 

Abby: Did anyone ever mentor you along your road to success and how did it help you? At the time?

 

Trent: I would just go find people who were good at—like I didn’t know how to make a DVD. I called up a friend and said, let me take you to lunch and pick your brain. I joined, back when it existed, the Inc. Business Owners Council, because I was like, all right, I own a business. Do I know what I’m doing? I don’t know, and that was really interesting to learn that businesses all have the same problems, everybody has employees, overhead, health care. They’re all dealing with the same problems. And it’s useful to talk about those problems and hear from others that have found a way.

 

Brenda: Well, I want to pick up, and move along a little bit more of the conversation about mentorship, because I know that you yourself see mentorship and being a mentor as very important. And, you have been an advisor for an organization called Harriet’s Descendants, and the organization, folks, if you don’t know what it is, it mentors the next generation of themed entertainment leadership to embrace, engage in the work of equity, access and justice and mindfully expand representation, inclusion and diversity within guest experiences and creative works. And they’ve got this great tagline, which is, “think of us as a feminist, intersectional Dumbledore’s Army of themed entertainment.” I’m looking at you laugh, Trent, did you know that this was one of the taglines?

 

Trent: No.

 

Brenda: You must tell us how did you get involved with this organization, as a mentor, as an advisor.

 

Trent: Cynthia Sharpe is a principal at Thinkwell, and she’s a very creative, very opinionated, intelligent woman. And she and I were having a big discussion around 2016, and we had very strong feelings and this is what came out of that. One of the first years we went to IAPA and we had this interesting kind of round robin talk about like how, how can you go forward as a woman? Women haven’t been in the workforce that long. We don’t have, a lot of times, mothers that did it before. We don’t know how to go forward and how to make it not personal but breaking it down and making it kind of more of a math problem and not a personal problem.

 

But I will say that it’s something that all people should be involved in. If we are really looking at finances, adding half of the citizenry into the economics, adding people that we don’t see, that don’t look like us, that, you know, they’re not part of our everyday experience into what we’re doing. We’re going to expand our audience. That’s going to make everybody more money. So even if you are against it, it will make you money. And I think that financial case is a good thing to put forward when people don’t agree with just kind of the basic idea.

 

Abby: Why is it called Harriet’s Descendants?

 

Trent: It’s after the first female animator at Disney.

 

Abby: Oh, wow. I did not know that.

 

So, you started talking about women, so I’m going to keep going. I played, like, a lot of sport in school, and often we trained with guys, right, and I learned that you need to be agile and strategic if you’re really going to have success when you’re playing with the boys. And so, Trent, as the principal and managing director of Blue Telescope, tell us about being a woman in a leadership position in this largely male dominated industry, and do you have any stories to share or things that you had to overcome.

 

Trent: I never walk in thinking, oh, I’m a woman here. My mother told me I was smart. Whether I am or not, my mommy told me, therefore I believe it. And I’ll walk into anywhere thinking I should be here. It’s taken years to get that, and I often am clueless when I’m faced with either, you know, a male who isn’t enjoying a female having a conversation with him, or other women who kind of—there’s games in the playground that I never learned.

 

And then there have been times where it’s been overtly bad. We used to have a large client, the biggest pharmaceutical client in the world at that time, and I was at a conference and ended up with someone who could have put us out of business, got off the elevator behind me on my floor, and ended up having a full-on wrestling match. And I got lucky. I got my door open and got myself in and slammed the door and he wasn’t inside. And I was furious. I was furious for years. I could do nothing about it. There was nothing I could do. And that’s crazy.

 

That was the most over. You know, coming up in my life, there was lots of crap. I remember also after then a partner, a fabrication house that we partnered with, I had hired, a man from another company, and I brought him with me. We went to go talk to this fabrication partner. Suddenly, I didn’t exist. And, you know, they had a complete conversation, and I didn’t matter. And I was like, wow, this is very interesting. And also having the name Trent, quite often people will say, oh, Trent, he and I go way back, and I would just grab a guy and say, here, you talk to him and I’m out of here.

 

I keep thinking it changes and it kind of does, but it kind of really doesn’t.

 

Brenda: Yeah.

 

Abby: I totally agree. How do you, how do you see leadership? What are you aiming to be? Or at least, let’s say your colleagues think about you as a leader, what sort of things do you want them to say?

 

Trent: That I have their back. We’re selling a service, yes. Our service is out people, and our people need to feel that they matter. If you don’t feel like you’re important in your job, you slack off, you stop coming in. It’s not that important. And the people who feel that way shouldn’t work for us. But its helping people go to the next level. It’s picking the right people and putting them together to create. And I tell everybody, being a stage manager, taught me to enable creative people to do what they need to do.

 

Abby: How do you teach this, Brenda? So, when you’ve got a room full of all these amazing students, how do you teach leadership?

 

Brenda: I teach leadership by teaching how to listen, how to speak even when you don’t want to speak or you’re not sure what you’re about to say. I think that a lot of the leadership skills that I really break down with my students have to do with being able to have really challenging conversations and to listen and to be engaged and to be mindful.

 

As I’m listening to the two of you, Abby and Trent and we were talking about mentorships and important people in our lives, and I have to share a story of when I was 30 years old, and I just had my daughter and I had a friend, and she was 88, and Kathryn had been a fashion model in the 1930s. This woman had moxie. I think the word was invented for her. And spending time with her always involved smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and talking about men and talking about being a woman. And I’m getting a crazy flashback to that right now. And outside of, you know, her, endless words of wisdom, one quip of which involved her saying, “Brenda, let me tell you something. The legs, they’re the last thing to go.”

 

But more seriously, she would tell me, get out there and talk, and she would say, no one’s going to listen if you don’t talk, and so in a way, to your point, you know, when you asked a question about how I teach leadership, it really is about those conversational skills. And it might sound feeble but if you really look around you and if you really watch people and if you really watch the dynamics, it’s the people who, yes, can talk, but the people who have the skill of listening, they’re the people who go far.

 

I want to sort of extend this conversation about womanhood by bringing up the next absolutely obvious talking point, which is going to be about family, because this just seems inevitable in a way. You know, before I was a professor, I was in practice, for many years and raising a family and traveling constantly, working far too many hours. How’s this sounding, my friends?

 

Trent: Yeah.

 

Brenda: Yeah, sounding about right. So, I also ran a company which meant that I was always on the front line when things needed to get decided upon, when things needed to get done, and when I was interviewed for my current position, this professorship, one of the questions that I was asked was how I would feel about not traveling so much, about how would I feel about not being in the action and everything else. And they were really genuinely concerned about this. And I swear to God, I practically choked back tears. And like the idea was such a relief. And so, Trent, you’ve got a family of your own and your very busy, active position at Blue Telescope. How have you managed to balance your work and your life?

 

Trent: I don’t know that I do.

 

Brenda: Tell us more.

 

Trent: Becoming a parent was a lesson in futility. You can’t do anything completely, Just can’t. I can’t be there to be the perfect mother. There is no such thing. I can’t be at work and, you know, be a workaholic because I need to go home. You know, there’s so many things that when I was freelance and I was single, it was like, oh, I dove in, I did it completely, I walked away, I was done.

 

We’re 24 years old, the company is, and I haven’t finished anything completely in 24 years. But I read this amazing article from a woman who said, don’t give up. At the time, there’s so many women who would have kids and they’d leave the workforce and they felt that, you want to be there for your family, you want to participate. You had kids because you wanted them, not because you wanted to leave them behind, but that continuing down the work path and becoming really successful, she was like, I have been allowed to take my family on amazing trips. I have been able to do all these things for my kids. I’ve also been able to go to their recitals, and I think that that’s really important. I have not made everything my kids have done. I’ve made a lot of them. But my daughter will tell you I wasn’t there.

 

Abby: They’ll remember that one time.

 

Brenda: That one time, forever.

 

Trent: Yeah. But, at a certain point, it was either I was home, or my husband was home. And travel comes and you do it. And then you come home, and my kids have gone with me and set up a booth, you know, I took my daughter to Munich because I had to go there, and it was like, you’re coming with me. Now, that’s amazing.

 

Brenda: That really is.

 

Trent: That’s amazing.

 

Brenda: It’s important. Let’s take a little pivot. Let’s talk about Praxis. So, dear listeners, Praxis is a consultation group of industry practitioners, and they provide this comprehensive list of services in exhibition development and design, media, software, hardware, interpretive and master planning, and so much more. And as a part of your work, Trent, you’ve recently put together a survey of best practices on how new technologies can help us navigate the new challenges our profession is facing. What are some of the challenges that technology is addressing and how is it that technology addresses them best?

 

Trent: Everybody, you know, they’re like, oh, tell me your offering, what’s your latest technology? And it’s like, throw that out. That has nothing to do with anything. We have to figure out why. Why are you doing this? What is it, what is the kernel of what you want people to do, feel, think, you know, how do you get to them emotionally? What is that? And then once we know why, there are a million ways to figure out the how. And technology is a tool. It’s a hammer. It’s a nail. It’s you know, okay, a touch screen, not that anybody needs more screens in their lives, but how can we find ways to spark joy, to educate, to surprise, to have fun? You know, fun is a perfectly good why. Looking cool is not a good why, because that will fade very quickly.

 

And the technology, it’s just going to keep rolling. I don’t think we’re surprised where it’s going. Okay, Apple Vision Pro, all right. It hurts my head. Yeah. the HoloLens was quite good also, but the idea of AR, augmented reality, virtual reality. AI is remarkable. I think that it’s going to be the most fascinating thing in our lives. I think it’s going to be good and bad. And I think it’s really interesting and I’m happy to watch it.

 

All of these things will happen, but they aren’t the important part. How can we use technology to help all of us go forward? And how can we create things that are useful?

 

Brenda: Do you happen to have a personal favorite that you’ve done over the years that, Blue Telescope has produced?

 

Trent: We created an injection simulator for Ipsen Pharmaceuticals. I got to say, it’s really cool. That is really cool.

 

Brenda: Oh, wait, what is an injection simulator?

 

Trent: It’s actually, it’s a physical device. Here’s a bust of a human. And around the neck and shoulders is a silicone shawl, that you would use, you know, that’s like a medical dummy. And you pick up a real syringe that’s of course, attached, and you pull it back as if you’re filling it with medicine. But on the screen in front of you, it shows the medicine going in. And as you go to inject, it will tell you here’s the muscles you’re trying to hit. Did you hit them? Yes. How much medicine did you put in and how much went wild. And it’s very specific and it’s very accurate. And I think that’s really cool. That’s a nice invention.

 

Brenda: Yeah. And frankly, strangely compelling. Abby, would you want to give someone an injection?

 

Abby: I would love to do that. You used the word specific. I want to pick up on that, because a lot of the things that I’ve seen of your work have to be specific to be successful. I think it’s a challenge to try to bring that to a visitor who maybe doesn’t have the background. And, our job, in a way, is to try and frame the interactive or the exhibit moment, and I find that really sometimes a challenge, right? To put the context around this moment that you’re doing in this case, you know, injecting like, why am I doing it? How does it help? Why is this cool and all the other reasons.

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And so how do you go about your process? You’re obviously not focusing on the technology first, which I completely agree with. I think that’s wonderful. You’re listening to what the client needs are, but how are you planning out, can you just try to paint a picture of how you come up with an exhibit idea.

 

Trent: I don’t know. A long time ago, we used to do a lot of pharmaceutical trade shows, and we used to say, you need to be able to see it from far away and know there’s something interesting. So, a big, then a medium when you’re there, something that most people will do that engages and is interesting but allows those people who are really the nerds to dive in and really go to it. And I think the same is true for museums.

 

You have to be a little puzzling. What is that? Why is that? And go there and have it be interesting that even if I don’t know, it’s kind of fun. Let me check this out. Maybe I’ll learn something. You know, you learn stuff just by watching, you know, and there are people who aren’t going to interact. Are they still going to get stuff? Hopefully they will, but allow there to be enough content for the nerds to dive in because, you know, everybody should get to. But it does have to be something that’s accessible to everyone.

 

Abby: So, some of your work with exhibit experiences, really focuses on the visitor. How important for you is the visitor when you think about your strategy for design?

 

Trent: I think that’s the key. I mean, it doesn’t make any sense otherwise. Whatever you’re designing, if you’ve got the why, you got to know who is coming through and make sure that they feel they’re represented.

 

I have a pet peeve that sometimes museums kind of live in rarefied air and I’ve been in discussions in a big round table where everybody is extremely educated and really smart and coming up with really good points, but they’re missing the undereducated. And if you’re going to speak to people who maybe don’t have a master’s and a PhD, you have to have people in the room that also don’t have a master’s and a PhD so that you can speak to them. You know, if you want to speak to people as a community, you have to bring the community in.

 

We did a project recently and it was on black feminism. We were lucky enough that Tessellate brought us in for Women’s History Museum, and we got to create the interactives that they designed. We brought black feminists to the table to do the work because I can’t speak to anybody else’s experience but my own and I believe everybody should feel that.

 

Abby: Good for you. That’s fantastic that you did that.

 

So, let’s chat a bit about AI because you touched earlier. How do you see museums of the future? Do you think that they will be heavily designed with the use of AI? Do you think a lot of our industry will become obsolete?

 

Trent: Have you seen the meme that as long as clients don’t know what they want, our jobs are secure? I don’t know for sure. Yes, some jobs will become a little obsolete, but, like, AI takes all our meeting notes. How fantastic is that? If you need to create—all right, I need a picture, kind of like this, kind of like that. I personally can still see when it’s AI, and I’m like, eh, but sometimes it can give you an idea of where you’re trying to go. And maybe it can cut down some of your discussions of like, do you mean this, do you mean that, you know, and then go to the people to create it. Authentic human experiences, I think are going to be very important. I think we’ll know the difference. I’m fascinated to see where it goes. I could see where terrible things could happen, and I could also see where amazing things could happen.

 

Abby: Well, that sounds like the fate of human nature.

 

Trent: Yeah.

 

Abby: The good and the bad.

 

Brenda: Well, I want to know, Trent, what is it that you’re currently passionate about in this big world of yours? What is it that you’re just really excited to be showing up for every day?

 

Trent: Blue Telescope is the Rubik’s cube I get up and I work on every day. Now, I know I should have solved it by now, but it’s interesting. What’s the right blend of jobs? You know, we need to have stuff we care deeply about because that’s why we get up in the morning. But we also need to have stuff that’s fun, fast and profitable because without profit, you can’t do the stuff you care about. It’s kind of like, I’ve heard flying a helicopter, you’re constantly moving, you can’t stop your hands because you’re constantly doing it. And I feel like that.

 

Brenda: Well, I know what you’ve got to do next, okay, being that you are willing to keep learning and interested in constantly learning new things, and you clearly have the ability to be in endless motion, right, all the time. It is time for you, Trent Oliver, to learn how to fly a helicopter.

 

Trent: Oh no, no.

 

Abby: Yes, I second that notion.

 

Brenda: You heard it here first.

 

Abby: Yeah, yeah. Trent, up in the air.

 

Trent: When I was young, I was never afraid of heights. I was never afraid of rollercoasters, any of it. Now I’m like, oh no, no, no, I couldn’t. If I got four feet off the ground, I’d be scared.

 

Abby: I think it’s something, yes, it’s something to do with aging, and the fear starts to kick in.

 

Trent: Yeah. Something in your head. You get dizzy.

 

Abby: Another biological thing that happens as we age.

 

Brenda: Oh, here we go. And, well, that’s another whole podcast.


Abby: Well, Trent, I cannot thank you enough for coming on today and sharing some of your experiences.

 

Trent: What a fun thing.

 

Abby:  It’s been really—I feel like I’ve met a kindred spirit.

 

Trent: Oh, me too. This is great.

 

Abby: Yeah. This has been amazing. Thank you so much.

 

Brenda: Thank you so much, Trent.

 

Trent: Thank you.

 

Abby: And thanks to everyone who tuned in today. If you like what you heard, subscribe for more episodes of Matters of Experience, wherever you listen to podcasts, and make sure to leave a rating and a review and share with a friend. We’ll see you next time.

 

Brenda: Thanks everyone!

 

Trent: Bye.

 

[Music]

 

Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp and recorded at Hangar Studios. Tune in next time for more fun discussions about experience design.

 

Show Notes

Blue Telescope

Harriet B’s Descendants

Praxis Museum Projects Group

Injection Simulator – Ipsen Biopharmaceuticals

National Women’s History Museum and Blue Telescope Named 2023 Gold Winner

 

Trent is the Principal + Managing Director of Blue Telescope, past president of the Themed Entertainment Association Eastern Board, and a Praxis Member. Her background in stage management led her to experience design, where she has pushed the boundaries of interactive experiences with clients like Kennedy Space Center, The Henry Ford Museum, and Illinois Institute of Technology. Trent seeks out projects that engage the human experience, embrace diversity, and push the boundaries of technology.

Abby: Welcome to Matters of Experience, a podcast produced by Lorem Ipsum, an experience design company headquartered in New York City. Our podcast explores the creativity, innovation and psychology driving designed experiences and encounters. Thanks for tuning in today and supporting our conversation. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

Brenda: Hello, this is Brenda Cowan.

 

Abby: So today we’re focusing on a woman who has done it all in our industry and finding out what some of her challenges were professionally and personally, as her career has gone from strength to strength. It is a pleasure to welcome Trent Oliver, the principal and managing director of Blue Telescope.

 

BT, as it’s fondly referred to, creates location-based, interactive experiences for museums, executive briefing centers, and brand experiences. Trent has a desire to blur the lines between reality and technology, in honor of the good, Well, Trent, a big welcome to the studio today.

 

Trent: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

 

Brenda: Trent, I’m going to kick us off focusing on your incredible history of work in interactive experience design technology, entertainment, leadership. Abby and I would love to know what on earth attracted you to this industry in the first place, and as I was thinking about this question, I was thinking about how so many of us in this dynamic profession find ourselves here, having come from totally, seemingly unrelated backgrounds or just plain weird lines of work, right? Really weird. And the attraction in experience design to me anyway, is that everything seems to apply.

 

Trent: Yeah.

 

Brenda: And there seem to be no limits in either direction. So, I’m curious to know, is that your take also and what brought you here?

 

Trent: I was in theater. I was a stage manager. I moved up, I became an equity stage manager, and it occurred to me I could stage manage the best show ever, and it could still be terrible. I could be well run, yet terrible. And I found myself in commercials in LA. I found myself doing corporate theater here in New York, and I would interview here and there, I did videos, I did film, and I saw a little car go across the screen. And this is a very long time ago. This is pre-2000. And I was like, oh, how’d you do that. And I was like, that’s cool. I want to figure that out.

 

I got lucky. I started telling my clients back then when I was a producer, don’t call me unless you don’t know how to do it. If you don’t know how to do it, I’m interested. If you know how to do it, call somebody else. They can dance faster. I don’t want to dance faster. And I found myself owning a company, and we ended up doing interactive multimedia. And then wandered my way. I mean, I couldn’t have aimed for it.

 

Abby: You know what I was going to say? One of the things that really resonated with me is when Trent, you said that if you can’t do it, if a client can’t do it, you wanted them to call you. What do you think that is, that, not being scared to help people solve problems that you don’t have the answer to? What is it about that in you that motivates you?

 

Trent: I always found that when I wanted to learn something I’d go get a job doing it. Nothing makes you learn it faster than, oh dear God, I might get fired, you know, like, oh, if this doesn’t work, I’ve got a problem. But diving in and going to the best people you can find that do that and interviewing them, it’s phenomenal. They’re not worried about you. You’re not going to take their job and they’ll give you great advice. And I like learning. Learning’s great. If I weren’t learning, I would probably blow up my career and run away.

 

Abby: So just jumping back then into this idea that our industry is very multidisciplinary, not only for the people and where they’re coming from as they come into our industry, but sort of, the way that we need to have multiple people from lots of different disciplines sitting around the table to be able to do what we do really well. You need everybody there and I remember thinking as I was growing up, well, I’ve got a broad interest in lots of things. I like to do this, the painting, the video, the sound, the music. But thinking about my growth and how I ended up here, it helps to have mentors.

 

Trent: Yeah.

 

Abby: Did anyone ever mentor you along your road to success and how did it help you? At the time?

 

Trent: I would just go find people who were good at—like I didn’t know how to make a DVD. I called up a friend and said, let me take you to lunch and pick your brain. I joined, back when it existed, the Inc. Business Owners Council, because I was like, all right, I own a business. Do I know what I’m doing? I don’t know, and that was really interesting to learn that businesses all have the same problems, everybody has employees, overhead, health care. They’re all dealing with the same problems. And it’s useful to talk about those problems and hear from others that have found a way.

 

Brenda: Well, I want to pick up, and move along a little bit more of the conversation about mentorship, because I know that you yourself see mentorship and being a mentor as very important. And, you have been an advisor for an organization called Harriet’s Descendants, and the organization, folks, if you don’t know what it is, it mentors the next generation of themed entertainment leadership to embrace, engage in the work of equity, access and justice and mindfully expand representation, inclusion and diversity within guest experiences and creative works. And they’ve got this great tagline, which is, “think of us as a feminist, intersectional Dumbledore’s Army of themed entertainment.” I’m looking at you laugh, Trent, did you know that this was one of the taglines?

 

Trent: No.

 

Brenda: You must tell us how did you get involved with this organization, as a mentor, as an advisor.

 

Trent: Cynthia Sharpe is a principal at Thinkwell, and she’s a very creative, very opinionated, intelligent woman. And she and I were having a big discussion around 2016, and we had very strong feelings and this is what came out of that. One of the first years we went to IAPA and we had this interesting kind of round robin talk about like how, how can you go forward as a woman? Women haven’t been in the workforce that long. We don’t have, a lot of times, mothers that did it before. We don’t know how to go forward and how to make it not personal but breaking it down and making it kind of more of a math problem and not a personal problem.

 

But I will say that it’s something that all people should be involved in. If we are really looking at finances, adding half of the citizenry into the economics, adding people that we don’t see, that don’t look like us, that, you know, they’re not part of our everyday experience into what we’re doing. We’re going to expand our audience. That’s going to make everybody more money. So even if you are against it, it will make you money. And I think that financial case is a good thing to put forward when people don’t agree with just kind of the basic idea.

 

Abby: Why is it called Harriet’s Descendants?

 

Trent: It’s after the first female animator at Disney.

 

Abby: Oh, wow. I did not know that.

 

So, you started talking about women, so I’m going to keep going. I played, like, a lot of sport in school, and often we trained with guys, right, and I learned that you need to be agile and strategic if you’re really going to have success when you’re playing with the boys. And so, Trent, as the principal and managing director of Blue Telescope, tell us about being a woman in a leadership position in this largely male dominated industry, and do you have any stories to share or things that you had to overcome.

 

Trent: I never walk in thinking, oh, I’m a woman here. My mother told me I was smart. Whether I am or not, my mommy told me, therefore I believe it. And I’ll walk into anywhere thinking I should be here. It’s taken years to get that, and I often am clueless when I’m faced with either, you know, a male who isn’t enjoying a female having a conversation with him, or other women who kind of—there’s games in the playground that I never learned.

 

And then there have been times where it’s been overtly bad. We used to have a large client, the biggest pharmaceutical client in the world at that time, and I was at a conference and ended up with someone who could have put us out of business, got off the elevator behind me on my floor, and ended up having a full-on wrestling match. And I got lucky. I got my door open and got myself in and slammed the door and he wasn’t inside. And I was furious. I was furious for years. I could do nothing about it. There was nothing I could do. And that’s crazy.

 

That was the most over. You know, coming up in my life, there was lots of crap. I remember also after then a partner, a fabrication house that we partnered with, I had hired, a man from another company, and I brought him with me. We went to go talk to this fabrication partner. Suddenly, I didn’t exist. And, you know, they had a complete conversation, and I didn’t matter. And I was like, wow, this is very interesting. And also having the name Trent, quite often people will say, oh, Trent, he and I go way back, and I would just grab a guy and say, here, you talk to him and I’m out of here.

 

I keep thinking it changes and it kind of does, but it kind of really doesn’t.

 

Brenda: Yeah.

 

Abby: I totally agree. How do you, how do you see leadership? What are you aiming to be? Or at least, let’s say your colleagues think about you as a leader, what sort of things do you want them to say?

 

Trent: That I have their back. We’re selling a service, yes. Our service is out people, and our people need to feel that they matter. If you don’t feel like you’re important in your job, you slack off, you stop coming in. It’s not that important. And the people who feel that way shouldn’t work for us. But its helping people go to the next level. It’s picking the right people and putting them together to create. And I tell everybody, being a stage manager, taught me to enable creative people to do what they need to do.

 

Abby: How do you teach this, Brenda? So, when you’ve got a room full of all these amazing students, how do you teach leadership?

 

Brenda: I teach leadership by teaching how to listen, how to speak even when you don’t want to speak or you’re not sure what you’re about to say. I think that a lot of the leadership skills that I really break down with my students have to do with being able to have really challenging conversations and to listen and to be engaged and to be mindful.

 

As I’m listening to the two of you, Abby and Trent and we were talking about mentorships and important people in our lives, and I have to share a story of when I was 30 years old, and I just had my daughter and I had a friend, and she was 88, and Kathryn had been a fashion model in the 1930s. This woman had moxie. I think the word was invented for her. And spending time with her always involved smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and talking about men and talking about being a woman. And I’m getting a crazy flashback to that right now. And outside of, you know, her, endless words of wisdom, one quip of which involved her saying, “Brenda, let me tell you something. The legs, they’re the last thing to go.”

 

But more seriously, she would tell me, get out there and talk, and she would say, no one’s going to listen if you don’t talk, and so in a way, to your point, you know, when you asked a question about how I teach leadership, it really is about those conversational skills. And it might sound feeble but if you really look around you and if you really watch people and if you really watch the dynamics, it’s the people who, yes, can talk, but the people who have the skill of listening, they’re the people who go far.

 

I want to sort of extend this conversation about womanhood by bringing up the next absolutely obvious talking point, which is going to be about family, because this just seems inevitable in a way. You know, before I was a professor, I was in practice, for many years and raising a family and traveling constantly, working far too many hours. How’s this sounding, my friends?

 

Trent: Yeah.

 

Brenda: Yeah, sounding about right. So, I also ran a company which meant that I was always on the front line when things needed to get decided upon, when things needed to get done, and when I was interviewed for my current position, this professorship, one of the questions that I was asked was how I would feel about not traveling so much, about how would I feel about not being in the action and everything else. And they were really genuinely concerned about this. And I swear to God, I practically choked back tears. And like the idea was such a relief. And so, Trent, you’ve got a family of your own and your very busy, active position at Blue Telescope. How have you managed to balance your work and your life?

 

Trent: I don’t know that I do.

 

Brenda: Tell us more.

 

Trent: Becoming a parent was a lesson in futility. You can’t do anything completely, Just can’t. I can’t be there to be the perfect mother. There is no such thing. I can’t be at work and, you know, be a workaholic because I need to go home. You know, there’s so many things that when I was freelance and I was single, it was like, oh, I dove in, I did it completely, I walked away, I was done.

 

We’re 24 years old, the company is, and I haven’t finished anything completely in 24 years. But I read this amazing article from a woman who said, don’t give up. At the time, there’s so many women who would have kids and they’d leave the workforce and they felt that, you want to be there for your family, you want to participate. You had kids because you wanted them, not because you wanted to leave them behind, but that continuing down the work path and becoming really successful, she was like, I have been allowed to take my family on amazing trips. I have been able to do all these things for my kids. I’ve also been able to go to their recitals, and I think that that’s really important. I have not made everything my kids have done. I’ve made a lot of them. But my daughter will tell you I wasn’t there.

 

Abby: They’ll remember that one time.

 

Brenda: That one time, forever.

 

Trent: Yeah. But, at a certain point, it was either I was home, or my husband was home. And travel comes and you do it. And then you come home, and my kids have gone with me and set up a booth, you know, I took my daughter to Munich because I had to go there, and it was like, you’re coming with me. Now, that’s amazing.

 

Brenda: That really is.

 

Trent: That’s amazing.

 

Brenda: It’s important. Let’s take a little pivot. Let’s talk about Praxis. So, dear listeners, Praxis is a consultation group of industry practitioners, and they provide this comprehensive list of services in exhibition development and design, media, software, hardware, interpretive and master planning, and so much more. And as a part of your work, Trent, you’ve recently put together a survey of best practices on how new technologies can help us navigate the new challenges our profession is facing. What are some of the challenges that technology is addressing and how is it that technology addresses them best?

 

Trent: Everybody, you know, they’re like, oh, tell me your offering, what’s your latest technology? And it’s like, throw that out. That has nothing to do with anything. We have to figure out why. Why are you doing this? What is it, what is the kernel of what you want people to do, feel, think, you know, how do you get to them emotionally? What is that? And then once we know why, there are a million ways to figure out the how. And technology is a tool. It’s a hammer. It’s a nail. It’s you know, okay, a touch screen, not that anybody needs more screens in their lives, but how can we find ways to spark joy, to educate, to surprise, to have fun? You know, fun is a perfectly good why. Looking cool is not a good why, because that will fade very quickly.

 

And the technology, it’s just going to keep rolling. I don’t think we’re surprised where it’s going. Okay, Apple Vision Pro, all right. It hurts my head. Yeah. the HoloLens was quite good also, but the idea of AR, augmented reality, virtual reality. AI is remarkable. I think that it’s going to be the most fascinating thing in our lives. I think it’s going to be good and bad. And I think it’s really interesting and I’m happy to watch it.

 

All of these things will happen, but they aren’t the important part. How can we use technology to help all of us go forward? And how can we create things that are useful?

 

Brenda: Do you happen to have a personal favorite that you’ve done over the years that, Blue Telescope has produced?

 

Trent: We created an injection simulator for Ipsen Pharmaceuticals. I got to say, it’s really cool. That is really cool.

 

Brenda: Oh, wait, what is an injection simulator?

 

Trent: It’s actually, it’s a physical device. Here’s a bust of a human. And around the neck and shoulders is a silicone shawl, that you would use, you know, that’s like a medical dummy. And you pick up a real syringe that’s of course, attached, and you pull it back as if you’re filling it with medicine. But on the screen in front of you, it shows the medicine going in. And as you go to inject, it will tell you here’s the muscles you’re trying to hit. Did you hit them? Yes. How much medicine did you put in and how much went wild. And it’s very specific and it’s very accurate. And I think that’s really cool. That’s a nice invention.

 

Brenda: Yeah. And frankly, strangely compelling. Abby, would you want to give someone an injection?

 

Abby: I would love to do that. You used the word specific. I want to pick up on that, because a lot of the things that I’ve seen of your work have to be specific to be successful. I think it’s a challenge to try to bring that to a visitor who maybe doesn’t have the background. And, our job, in a way, is to try and frame the interactive or the exhibit moment, and I find that really sometimes a challenge, right? To put the context around this moment that you’re doing in this case, you know, injecting like, why am I doing it? How does it help? Why is this cool and all the other reasons.

whil

And so how do you go about your process? You’re obviously not focusing on the technology first, which I completely agree with. I think that’s wonderful. You’re listening to what the client needs are, but how are you planning out, can you just try to paint a picture of how you come up with an exhibit idea.

 

Trent: I don’t know. A long time ago, we used to do a lot of pharmaceutical trade shows, and we used to say, you need to be able to see it from far away and know there’s something interesting. So, a big, then a medium when you’re there, something that most people will do that engages and is interesting but allows those people who are really the nerds to dive in and really go to it. And I think the same is true for museums.

 

You have to be a little puzzling. What is that? Why is that? And go there and have it be interesting that even if I don’t know, it’s kind of fun. Let me check this out. Maybe I’ll learn something. You know, you learn stuff just by watching, you know, and there are people who aren’t going to interact. Are they still going to get stuff? Hopefully they will, but allow there to be enough content for the nerds to dive in because, you know, everybody should get to. But it does have to be something that’s accessible to everyone.

 

Abby: So, some of your work with exhibit experiences, really focuses on the visitor. How important for you is the visitor when you think about your strategy for design?

 

Trent: I think that’s the key. I mean, it doesn’t make any sense otherwise. Whatever you’re designing, if you’ve got the why, you got to know who is coming through and make sure that they feel they’re represented.

 

I have a pet peeve that sometimes museums kind of live in rarefied air and I’ve been in discussions in a big round table where everybody is extremely educated and really smart and coming up with really good points, but they’re missing the undereducated. And if you’re going to speak to people who maybe don’t have a master’s and a PhD, you have to have people in the room that also don’t have a master’s and a PhD so that you can speak to them. You know, if you want to speak to people as a community, you have to bring the community in.

 

We did a project recently and it was on black feminism. We were lucky enough that Tessellate brought us in for Women’s History Museum, and we got to create the interactives that they designed. We brought black feminists to the table to do the work because I can’t speak to anybody else’s experience but my own and I believe everybody should feel that.

 

Abby: Good for you. That’s fantastic that you did that.

 

So, let’s chat a bit about AI because you touched earlier. How do you see museums of the future? Do you think that they will be heavily designed with the use of AI? Do you think a lot of our industry will become obsolete?

 

Trent: Have you seen the meme that as long as clients don’t know what they want, our jobs are secure? I don’t know for sure. Yes, some jobs will become a little obsolete, but, like, AI takes all our meeting notes. How fantastic is that? If you need to create—all right, I need a picture, kind of like this, kind of like that. I personally can still see when it’s AI, and I’m like, eh, but sometimes it can give you an idea of where you’re trying to go. And maybe it can cut down some of your discussions of like, do you mean this, do you mean that, you know, and then go to the people to create it. Authentic human experiences, I think are going to be very important. I think we’ll know the difference. I’m fascinated to see where it goes. I could see where terrible things could happen, and I could also see where amazing things could happen.

 

Abby: Well, that sounds like the fate of human nature.

 

Trent: Yeah.

 

Abby: The good and the bad.

 

Brenda: Well, I want to know, Trent, what is it that you’re currently passionate about in this big world of yours? What is it that you’re just really excited to be showing up for every day?

 

Trent: Blue Telescope is the Rubik’s cube I get up and I work on every day. Now, I know I should have solved it by now, but it’s interesting. What’s the right blend of jobs? You know, we need to have stuff we care deeply about because that’s why we get up in the morning. But we also need to have stuff that’s fun, fast and profitable because without profit, you can’t do the stuff you care about. It’s kind of like, I’ve heard flying a helicopter, you’re constantly moving, you can’t stop your hands because you’re constantly doing it. And I feel like that.

 

Brenda: Well, I know what you’ve got to do next, okay, being that you are willing to keep learning and interested in constantly learning new things, and you clearly have the ability to be in endless motion, right, all the time. It is time for you, Trent Oliver, to learn how to fly a helicopter.

 

Trent: Oh no, no.

 

Abby: Yes, I second that notion.

 

Brenda: You heard it here first.

 

Abby: Yeah, yeah. Trent, up in the air.

 

Trent: When I was young, I was never afraid of heights. I was never afraid of rollercoasters, any of it. Now I’m like, oh no, no, no, I couldn’t. If I got four feet off the ground, I’d be scared.

 

Abby: I think it’s something, yes, it’s something to do with aging, and the fear starts to kick in.

 

Trent: Yeah. Something in your head. You get dizzy.

 

Abby: Another biological thing that happens as we age.

 

Brenda: Oh, here we go. And, well, that’s another whole podcast.


Abby: Well, Trent, I cannot thank you enough for coming on today and sharing some of your experiences.

 

Trent: What a fun thing.

 

Abby:  It’s been really—I feel like I’ve met a kindred spirit.

 

Trent: Oh, me too. This is great.

 

Abby: Yeah. This has been amazing. Thank you so much.

 

Brenda: Thank you so much, Trent.

 

Trent: Thank you.

 

Abby: And thanks to everyone who tuned in today. If you like what you heard, subscribe for more episodes of Matters of Experience, wherever you listen to podcasts, and make sure to leave a rating and a review and share with a friend. We’ll see you next time.

 

Brenda: Thanks everyone!

 

Trent: Bye.

 

[Music]

 

Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp and recorded at Hangar Studios. Tune in next time for more fun discussions about experience design.

 

Show Notes

Blue Telescope

Harriet B’s Descendants

Praxis Museum Projects Group

Injection Simulator – Ipsen Biopharmaceuticals

National Women’s History Museum and Blue Telescope Named 2023 Gold Winner

 

Being Successful While Balancing it All with Trent Oliver

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Remember the excitement of exploring new worlds as a child? What if you could step back into that sense of wonder and curiosity? Join us as we journey into the captivating realm of children’s museums with this week’s guest, Anne Fullenkamp. From interactive exhibits to inclusive experiences, this episode embarks on a nostalgic adventure through the art and science of engaging young minds. Whether you’re a parent, educator, or design enthusiast, tune in now to rediscover the magic of playful learning.
With nearly 25 years of experience in the design and architectural field, Anne is responsible for design and execution of museum experiences at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. In her role as Senior Director of Creative Experiences, she oversees the Museum’s permanent exhibits and collections, design consulting and business development programs, leading complex design teams consisting of artists, scientists and researchers. In addition, she is leading the Museum’s inclusive design initiative, working with cultural organizations in Pittsburgh to make the city a hub for accessibility in the arts. In 2014, Anne was the lead designer for “XOXO: An Exhibit About Love and Forgiveness”, a traveling exhibition designed to further the principles of love and forgiveness. Since joining the Museum of Pittsburgh in 2006, Anne has contributed to the development Museum's Play with Real Stuff design philosophy for informal learning environments.
With nearly 25 years of experience in the design and architectural field, Anne is responsible for design and execution of museum experiences at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. In her role as Senior Director of Creative Experiences, she oversees the Museum’s permanent exhibits and collections, design consulting and business development programs, leading complex design teams consisting of artists, scientists and researchers. In addition, she is leading the Museum’s inclusive design initiative, working with cultural organizations in Pittsburgh to make the city a hub for accessibility in the arts. In 2014, Anne was the lead designer for “XOXO: An Exhibit About Love and Forgiveness”, a traveling exhibition designed to further the principles of love and forgiveness. Since joining the Museum of Pittsburgh in 2006, Anne has contributed to the development Museum's Play with Real Stuff design philosophy for informal learning environments.
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In this episode of "Matters of Experience," Abby and Brenda engage in a dynamic conversation with Dr. Kiersten F. Latham, co-author of "Flourishing in Museums: Towards a Positive Museology." Together, they delve into the transformative power of positivity within the museum field, exploring how fostering a culture of flourishing not only enhances visitor experiences but also empowers museum staff to thrive amidst societal challenges and institutional transformations. Through insightful anecdotes and practical strategies, listeners gain a deeper understanding of how museums can serve as catalysts for growth, resilience, and positive change.
Dr. Kiersten F. Latham is the president & CEO of Sauder Village, a living history museum complex in Ohio, USA. She has worked in, on, and about museums in various capacities for over 30 years. Prior to the Village, her professional journey has taken her through many kinds of museums and positions within them. She has led museum studies programs at Michigan State University and Kent State University, founded the experimental space MuseLAB, and taught all aspects of museum studies, from administration to collections management to user experience. Dr. Latham has conducted research on the meaning of museum objects, conceptual foundations of museums as document systems, numinous experiences in museums, user perceptions of “the real thing,” and positive museology.
Dr. Kiersten F. Latham is the president & CEO of Sauder Village, a living history museum complex in Ohio, USA. She has worked in, on, and about museums in various capacities for over 30 years. Prior to the Village, her professional journey has taken her through many kinds of museums and positions within them. She has led museum studies programs at Michigan State University and Kent State University, founded the experimental space MuseLAB, and taught all aspects of museum studies, from administration to collections management to user experience. Dr. Latham has conducted research on the meaning of museum objects, conceptual foundations of museums as document systems, numinous experiences in museums, user perceptions of “the real thing,” and positive museology.
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This week’s guest believes that the future is not for us to await, but rather to create, and that every idea exists for us to envision and then manifest. In this episode, hosts Abby and Brenda engage in a dynamic conversation with Creative Engineer, Sundar Raman about art, technology, and human experience. From embracing curiosity to fostering empathy, this episode offers a glimpse into the boundless possibilities of experience design. Tune in for insights, inspiration, and a vision of the museums of tomorrow.
Sundar Raman is a Creative Engineer. He is currently Director of Technology at the Museum of the Future in Dubai. Sundar's background spans alternative energy, community radio, permaculture, wired and mobile Internet telephony, open-source advocacy, social gaming, and interactive experience design. Sundar believes that technology is a facilitator for art and user experience, and that technology should be easy, fun, and approachable for everyone.
Sundar Raman is a Creative Engineer. He is currently Director of Technology at the Museum of the Future in Dubai. Sundar's background spans alternative energy, community radio, permaculture, wired and mobile Internet telephony, open-source advocacy, social gaming, and interactive experience design. Sundar believes that technology is a facilitator for art and user experience, and that technology should be easy, fun, and approachable for everyone.
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Why accept the rules of reality when you can explore the power of possibility? How can immersive experiences invite people to embrace the present moment and challenge the boundaries of what’s possible? The answers to these questions and more, on this insightful episode featuring Ed Purver, a creative director and thought leader whose work encourages people to engage with environments with a renewed eye for possibility and to relate to their surroundings with more aliveness and awareness.
Ed Purver is a creative director working in the fields of media architecture and immersive entertainment. His love of using the built environment as a canvas has brought him many wonderful opportunities, from projection mapping ancient Mayan pyramids in the jungles of Mexico to being creative director at Sphere, in Las Vegas. Although he has a habit of proposing custom uses of emerging technologies, he is happiest when working on a story, a sound or a color that will make someone, somewhere, feel something. Ed has worked as a creative lead for ESI Design, Gensler DXD, Hush, Cocolab and Obscura, and his mission is to make people more aware of their surroundings by showing them the possibility for wonder that is all around us. He lives in a crumbling adobe house on a hillside in rural Mexico with his family, a cat from Queens, and whichever wildlife happens to wander in each day.

Abby: Welcome to Matters of Experience, a podcast that explores the creativity, innovation and psychology driving designed experiences and encounters. If you’re new, a hearty welcome and to our regular listeners, thanks for tuning in and supporting our conversation. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

Brenda: And I’m Brenda Cowan.

 

Abby: Our guest today really can do it all. Balancing design and technology in his work to create captivating and moving experiences. He’s had an incredible journey which seems to only just be beginning as we hear about his latest project. And today, if he’s willing, we’ll hear about everything from his early acting career to coding to probably one of the most highly anticipated media moments of last year on the Sphere. It’s my pleasure to welcome Ed Purver to the show.

 

Ed: Hello. What a lovely intro that was.

 

Abby: Well, Ed, you’re a creative director and your work really does push the experiential field. You and I have been in contact for a number of years, and I have always been struck by the ephemeral beauty and fundamental concepts behind what you create. So, can you tell our listeners sort of where you first started in media? Because I know you were a young man, and I was a young lady and enjoyed your very early work on TV.

 

Ed: Oh my goodness. Yeah, way back in the early mid 1990s when I was at the beginning of my twenties and I really didn’t know what to do with my life, I fell into acting and yeah, I was your communal garden actor popping up on TV shows here and there and I popped up in lots of theaters, some really good theaters around England. I showed up in the West End and then decided to call it a day, really.

 

It was a really fun five years, but I was never that into it, I never really believed in it as a career. I always felt a bit embarrassed to tell people I was an actor. I felt a bit embarrassed by the whole process and I was much more comfortable hanging out around the kind of the music scene in London and the clubs in the 1990s, which I found much more engaging. And me and my good, good friend Neil Bennun, who had gone to the same acting classes as me and is now a brilliant author who lives on a small island off the coast of Denmark, we were so unconvinced by normal acting that we would find all these other ways to entertain ourselves and we would get onto the London Underground and we would perform acts of generosity.

 

And our whole thesis was that no one should ever know that it wasn’t real. As far as everyone else is concerned, in that carriage, you’re complete strangers. You just got on at different stops and you can’t possibly know each other. And so, then we would like, perform these little scenes. You know, I might be sitting there reading a newspaper and Neil would stand near me, and after a while, he just looked, he sort of sighed and he said, I’m really tired. And he would ask me, would you mind if I sat on your lap and I would like be reading my paper and I would, you know, not respond at first, and you can feel the Britishness, the British like uncomfortableness of everyone around, wait, these people are breaking the rule like strangers are speaking to each other.

 

And I’d look up at the, I’d look up and say, well, where are you getting off? And he’d say, he’d tell me the name of the station. I’d have a look at the map to see how far is that? It’s only a few stops over. Alright, go on then. And he sit on my, you know, he’d sit on my lap, and he’d read his book and I’d read my paper and we wouldn’t speak anymore until he got to his stop and he’d say, thank you very much, I’d say, you’re welcome. And he’d get off, you know, and I would continue on my way. And we did lots of different kind of scenes like that. It made us feel much more alive than going to rehearsals or showing up to do an episode of whatever TV show where the BBC was doing or something like that.

 

Abby: For me, my question is, what were the people doing around you and is it that you were, have always maybe been interested in affecting people’s emotions and the way they see the world, because it sounds like that’s as much for you, but I’m sure you were, you’re doing it for a ruse, you know, you’re doing it to change the way people act with each other or to just get somebody out of the humdrum-ness of their day, right? Like, what were some of the things you observed of the people around you when you were doing this?

 

Ed: People would burst into laughter. Sometimes people would do their utmost to pretend it wasn’t happening. You know what I mean? Just being incredibly English about it and just staring fixedly at the floor, six inches in front of their toes and waiting for their stop to come. We were very clear about why we were doing it. It was our whole desire was to just drop seeds of generosity into the city of London. And we thought, well, if somebody observes this and they believe it’s real, then there is a tiny bit more chance that they might be more generous to somebody else. And so, we thought, this is really exciting. There’s a possibility we’re actually changing reality, we’re actually changing the city.

 

Brenda: You’re making me think about my, probably my favorite author of all time, Annie Dillard, and she writes about when she was six or seven and she was living in Pittsburgh and she, as this young child, used to take pennies, which she saw as just incredible treasure. And she would do things like put a penny in a little sort of niche in a tree or in a crack in a sidewalk. And she would take a piece of chalk and draw a long arrow and she would write treasure this way, and she would just litter the city with these pennies and these messages. And basically, as I see it, she was creating exhibitions and very much so like what you’re talking about. And she would never even wait to see. You know, she believed very much so that life was so rich and fulfilling by giving treasures to other people.

 

So from this fabulous performative self that you were—and as an American, I can assure you, you would probably be met with the same kind of responses in New York, you would either get people in the New York City subway who are, right, totally ignoring you, or sort of nervously laughing or you would end up with several more people on your lap.

 

Abby: Yeah, exactly.

 

Brenda: So, you would definitely get the mix. But let’s talk about what brought you to the U.S. It’s a big shift for you, and what were you up to when you first arrived?

 

Ed: The catalyst was going to Burning Man in the late nineties. Back then, Burning Man was really, really unknown in England. It wasn’t the huge sort of globally visible event that it is now. And it was just because a friend of mine had like got caught up in some kind of dot com venture and she’d gone over to San Francisco and in between her meetings someone said, oh, this thing’s happening this weekend.

 

She drove out there with a friend. Her friend was so appalled by it, they immediately turned around and left. Her friend refused to stay at Burning Man, she said, I’m not staying here. We are not, not, not, not staying here. So, my friend Robin came back to London. She told us, oh, there’s this really interesting thing that happens in the desert. But I couldn’t stay because Jo wouldn’t let me. And we were having literally New Year’s dinner, and we made a pact. All right, this year we will go to this thing.

 

And so, we went off to Burning Man that summer, and it was so eye opening for me to see groups of friends getting together and just making magic happen that I was like, oh, oh, this is possible. You can do this.  And it was really radical and exciting to see the installations that people were putting up there. And I was like, well, I’m going to leave boring London and I’m going to go to this place and hang out with those people and see what happens next.

 

Abby: So you went to NYU, because I sort of want to hear more about how you got started to work in software development. So just talk to us about how you transitioned.

 

Brenda: Yeah, big change. Wasn’t it a really big shift for you?

 

Ed: It was a huge, huge shift for me moving from England to California in really exciting ways. Like I could see more blue sky than I’d ever seen before. Having grown up in a very cloudy country, and I’m not kidding, that has a massive effect on you.

 

Abby: Huge effect. Yeah, huge effect. Huge.

 

Ed: Like an emotional, physical effect. On the flip side, I felt more frightened and lost than I’d ever felt before. And anyway, while I was there in San Francisco, performance was really all I knew to do. But I hooked up with some very creative people who were much more inspired by Pina Bausch and much more kind of expressive, dance-oriented ways of performing.

 

And we decided that it would be interesting to play with live media within the context of this performance. And so, I said I would do that. And so, I started to teach myself just the basic video editing platforms of the day. And actually, more useful were VJ software setups that allowed me to put little cameras around the stage and project on lots of surfaces and capture the performance in real time and do real time effects with them.

But I kind of reached my ceiling of what I could do with those platforms, and I decided I need to figure out how to make my own. And that was why I went to NYU, Abby. So, I went there and yeah, I sort of—I went through a really, really important process where I understood that I can learn technical skills, but I’m not a technical person. That is not my value to the team. I am much more of a creative person but becoming a creative person who understood how to build software, who understood how to speak to a creative coder, became extremely valuable for me in doing all of, like the whole next chapter of professional work that came out of that.

 

Abby: And that’s interesting thinking about how it’s informed your process. You know, when you work with developers now, can you sketch out what happens on your projects? Because I know it’s often daunting for a lot of people who don’t have the coding experience to collaborate with a programmer.

 

Ed: Well, first of all, though, I should say very honestly that I am a rubbish coder, but the brilliant thing that I found out was that there’s other platforms that exist that allow you to create your own custom software without actually coding. And that’s what really helped me understand how to speak in terms of logic and variables and have these really fruitful conversations with people who were coding geniuses.

 

And once I kind of had more success and became a full-time creative lead at ESI Design, we were creating a lot of very large custom permanent installations of digital media into the built environment. So, you know, massive lobby installations, beautiful custom screens that integrated into the architecture of the building. And because these were permanent installations that were there every day, that had a repeat audience, I really didn’t want to deliver a library of movies. It’s like, okay, here you go, here’s 30 video files because that will get quite boring quite quickly. I thought it was much more rich to conceptualize living systems that could populate these screens.

 

So how I would work is I would work very much as like an interaction designer, diagraming out logic flows, like here are my inputs. These will affect the media, and these are the different outputs I want. So creating quite technical documents for the coder, at the same time creating very creative documents for the client so that I can tell the story about what people will see and what they will feel and why this relates to their building, why this relates to this area, and why it’s rich and relevant for the people who will see it. And then back with creative coder, I deliver these quite technical but simple documents and what they are is they’re instructions on how to build a tool. That’s what I’m asking. I’m not saying creative coder, make my work, make the final piece. I’m saying make me a tool, then you will bring that tool to my workplace and leave it with us, and we will set up a chunk of whatever custom display technology we’ve dreamed up and we will connect them and we will begin to play.

 

And that’s how I got the best results, because I could sit down instead of having to sort of painfully have long phone calls or in-person meetings saying, can you make it a bit slower? Could you make it a bit more colorful? Could you make it more fluid? What do you mean by fluid? Oh, well, hang on a minute. Let me try and find a reference of what fluid looks like. Just make me a tool with the sufficient parameters for me to sit down and I’ll noodle away for hours until I get the looks that I really want.

 

Brenda: This sounds so logical and so simple and so successful, and yet I can’t help but think about all of the clients who really need to understand or need to think about how, if you will, they’re getting a puppy that’s going to constantly change and grow and evolve and that they need to care for this puppy, and that longevity is an enormous factor. And I’m curious, have you ever had any situations where you’ve had to really work with a client to understand that, you know, they are going to need to think about updating or evolving their new tool, if you will, over time?

 

Ed: Well, I clearly didn’t sell it well enough to you, Brenda, because this is kind of the beauty of it, is that they don’t have to update it.

 

Brenda: Fabulous.

 

Ed: It evolves by itself. So let me give you a couple of examples so it’s not quite so abstract. While I was at ESI, ESI delivered this epic installation in the Wells Fargo Center, which is, I think the tallest building in Denver, it’s known as the Cash Register Building, designed by Philip Johnson back in the eighties, I believe. And they have this monumental lobby with this massive, massively high atrium and a huge, huge, huge blank stone wall upon which we installed five, nearly 30 meter tall strips of LED, and they changed into different states during the day.

 

Now, one of those states was just birds flying. That’s all it was. It was just a flock of hundreds of birds flying against a sky. But the wonderful thing is, this was not a video. This was real time. And therefore, the birds are constantly changing who’s the leader. They’re deciding how much they want to flock, whether there’s wind, whether there’s turbulence that changes their flight patterns. The sky is changing its color automatically with the real time of day.

 

Another state that it had, the same media canvas, was a waterfall, but the waterfall would change its volume of water and intensity based on time of day as well. And we tried to map that with the energy levels of people, like more energy at the start of the day, less energy at the end of the day, and we would take wind data from what’s the wind doing out there in Denver and that waterfall would change—the direction of the spray would be changing based on what’s the wind doing. You know, the difference is, Brenda, is you’re making a place instead of presenting a movie.

 

Abby: But it’s interesting though, Ed, because it’s very different to maybe some of the video or media pieces that we need to make. These are pieces that don’t have a, let’s call it a direct narrative, right? It is about creating a mood and an emotion and an environment and bringing a space to life.

 

Ed: That’s exactly right. Like, for—and we’re talking about a very specific context here. You know, we’re talking about sort of public spaces really, or semipublic spaces. And I always try to avoid something that’s trying to tell a linear story because there’s no way to be sure that you’re going to put your audience in front of your story when it begins. You know, people are arriving all the time, and so a linear story has less value because fewer people understand it.

 

So, I describe the birds and the waterfall because they’re so simple and easy to understand. But we delivered this other piece and the whole, the thesis of the piece or the concept of the piece was the city of Chicago is going to paint pictures of itself. It was a bit of a play on the tendency of these big lobbies to hang an abstract painting behind the security desk because abstract paintings like, nobody knows what they are, so there’s less chance someone’s going to say, I don’t like that, that’s wrong, da-da-da-da-da. It’s just there, it’s just there, right? So, like, okay, we’re going to play with that.

 

And we made this massive, massive canvas. That’s what it was called. It’s an LCD screen, but it had vinyl stretched across a few inches in front of it. So, we sent out a local team to record hours and hours of just city movement, just of that neighborhood. So, it’s just a hours of really boring video. This literally, literally hours of trains coming, look, there’s a train going past, and like, traffic. It’s literally you are watching traffic, the clouds moving by, the people running the marathon going past the building, boats on the river. So, we have this amazing like, really I saw it as data. It’s huge, like datasets of movement and then this genius creative coder and a wonderful artist by the name of Vincent Houze, he did me the honor of making the tool for me that I could then play with and make all the presets.

 

And so, what is the experience, the experiences is you might walk through this lobby at any moment, right? You see this monumental canvas up there, and so you might see a boat slowly plowing its way down the river. Is it the Chicago River? I think so. And then slowly, every little bit of movement starts to become a brushstroke. So, ripples start sort of extend themselves and that boat starts to dissolve into painterly sort of swirls of color. And the whole thing slowly morphs into what looks like an abstract painting now. And so, there’s thousands and thousands of potential compositions. And so, what we deliver to them, we can say, client, listen, I’m giving you thousands of hours of content here, like for really cheap.

 

Brenda: You know, let’s talk about the emotional element. It’s come up a couple of times as you’ve been sharing examples and talking about your work, and it’s very clear that you create very emotion rich pieces for people. Tell us more about what this means to you. Like, what does emotion look like for you in your work and how do you go about nurturing this emotional experience for the intended audience?

 

Ed: I think I’ll start my answer by telling you about the moment in my life that sort of triggered me on this path of playing with the built environment so much. Because earlier on you asked me Brenda, you said it must have been hard to move from England over to San Francisco all of a sudden. And it was. It was, it got so hard at one point that I just I found it very hard to stay asleep for more than a few hours.

 

I was getting very anxious, like it had triggered some kind of deep, slightly sort of panic response in me. It’s like, ah, you’re destroying your life. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re a failure. That, you know, all of those silly stories that so many of us here in our heads at some point in our lives. And it reached a point that was quite intense.

 

And I had a very, very strong experience when I was in a movie theater by myself. I got halfway through the film, and I felt this almost like a physical feeling inside my stomach and into my chest, like something rising up. I didn’t know what it was, but it was absolutely terrifying. And like, in an instant, I said I have to get out here, I have to leave right now.

 

I got up as quickly as I could and I left the movie theater and going through the lobby towards the door, I knew, I had to prevent myself from seeing anything. And it was like, okay, If I could just get to my bicycle, If I can just get to my bicycle and get the key out and unlock the lock and get on my bicycle, I might be able to somehow get home and close the door and everything will be okay.

 

But in that moment of like unlocking my bike, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of some buildings. And that was it. And I turned and I looked, and I just observed all of the buildings in flux, like nothing was solid anymore. And it wasn’t a hallucination, like I’m on mushrooms and this is very visual. It was kind of very, very deep, like an understanding of the fluidity of everything. And I was, okay, I’m done. You know, this is my, basic, this is my life over, I’m going out, like, this, this is the end for me.

 

Brenda: You actually sound like a theoretical physicist. I was going to say. They’re going to put you in a genius laboratory.

 

Ed: Well, it’s very interesting you say that, because my partner, who I lived with at the time, when I got home and I was like, all right, so this happened and she was like, oh yeah. She’s like, well, I don’t know, I think a lot of people would feel pretty grateful to have the experience that you just had, you know, And, and that was a really, really great response to be around because it sort of didn’t allow me to relish my own drama and, and melancholy.

 

But more like, okay, so that was an experience, but it really was strong, and it really resonated and sort of echoed within me forever. And this started showing up in my work. So that’s why, like, then I talk about this project in Chicago was talking about what am I doing? I’m kind of like dissolving the city of Chicago into this fluid river of dreaminess. It’s like, it’s still there. Like, they hire me at Sphere, and one of the first things I do is turn it into like this whole rippling blob of fluid, you know?

 

And so, my mission, I feel like, is to try to make people more present in wherever they are, because I am someone who’s way too—I’m way too stuck in my head, I think far too much. And whenever I experience something that’s surprising enough to wake me up and stop my constant noise and just be in that moment, I’m so grateful. And so, when you talk to me about why do I want to create emotional experiences, I think why is because it’s the experiences I would like to have myself and it’s what I would like to offer to the world is, is to present, I think I like playing with the built environment so much because I want to suggest possibility. Like we tend to accept the rules of our reality as whatever we saw they were when we were children, maybe, and I like to say, but actually, maybe, maybe wonderful things are possible.

 

Brenda: Yeah, no, it’s absolutely brilliant. And I’m thinking about the sphere. I’m thinking about your large-scale work, and I’m thinking about what you were just talking about in terms of mindfulness and being present and enabling people to really experience that. And when people experience great scale like the Grand Canyon, right, when they—and, this Sphere, right, this modern monument, they experience awe. Awe actually stimulates presence and mindfulness and well-being. Like there’s these brilliant studies that directly link human well-being and scale. And awe. So, you’ve totally achieved that.

 

Abby: There’s so many things I want to ask you, but I think just thinking about our listeners, because the Sphere was just all over social and as Brenda mentioned, it’s such an already landmark building. When we talked, some of the things creatively, the challenges you were facing are the challenges I face on other projects and people here, listening will face. And so the way that you, you know, dealt with it shows a fearlessness and a dedication to what you believe in. that I think—

 

Brenda: And grit.

 

Abby: —that I want our listeners to understand, to be able to help them in similar situations. So yeah. Can you tell us sort of how you got embroiled with Sphere and how that all came to be and how you reflect back now?

 

Ed: Yeah, it happened kind of by accident and what had happened is I had been head of creative at Cocolab, which is a brilliant studio in Mexico City. But when the pandemic shut down schools, because we have little kids, we got out of cities. So, we left the city, as many, many families did, and moved to the countryside where we live now in central Mexico. And we like it in the countryside. I didn’t want to go back, so I said to Cocolab, listen, I think I’m going to try freelancing, which I’d never really done before. So, I just thought to myself, Well, who should I write to? And I just sent like two emails to people I thought, well I remember you, I’d like to work with you.

 

And so that was the first step in the process. And so, it’s just an accident. You know, I didn’t go hunting for the Sphere, but once I got the offer, it was hard to turn down because I knew it would be a momentous project. And what more amazing canvas could you dream for? A seamless sphere, enormous, like floating right there in the middle of a city. I mean, it’s kind of a dream, right? So that was how I began.

 

My experience there was a really good example of what happens when you establish your creative concept and your creative strategy clearly, but then you let it go and so it was a great experience of observing that when it’s let go and it’s let go without anyone saying so out loud, it’s just sort of quietly let go, right? It quietly dies and everyone just sort of gently figures out, oh, we’re not kind of doing that anymore. And so that’s what happened. That’s like, you know, it’s happened in countless megaprojects over the years. A lot of work was put into a strategy that was then discarded, a moment of kind of, woah, so what shall we—let’s do everything. Let’s do everything. And then a sudden kind of directive to pivot at the last minute.

 

But we pivoted quickly, and we delivered stuff that was spectacular, and that’s what we needed to do. What we did was hugely successful in the end, what the team did was hugely successful. So, of course I was there in Vegas the night we turned it on. Actually, I was there a few nights before to do like a supposedly secret test at like four in the morning. Well, we just had to put something on to make sure that things were pointing in the way that we thought they were. So that was kind of cool to be there on the top of a parking garage at four in the morning being like, oh my God, thank you. Thank you. It works. It works. It works. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And then—

 

Abby: Been there, I know that feeling.

 

Ed: And, and then, you know, less than a week later, maybe, being in, in Vegas on July the fourth and watching traffic stop and everyone just getting out of the cars to look at this thing which actually caused us like we were like, oh, no, we’re got to cause a traffic accident. Like we, our, our reaction was like one of like sort of hysterical worry.

 

And I went down because we were looking at it from up high and I went down onto the street and the moon was playing. And that is amazing. Like, there’s been lots of shows and I’ve directed some of them on the Sphere that were, you know, had all sorts of effects and illusions. And that’s really fun. But something as simple as that, is when this structure transforms itself to be something you recognize like that, like the moon is floating in the middle of Las Vegas. It is incredible.

 

Like even the basketball that I delivered, which was put on a few days after the fireworks show, was also brilliant. It’s just so simple. It just looks like it’s, it looks like the impossible is happening. There’s a massive basketball rotating in the middle of Las Vegas, and it looks real. It looks real. So that was incredibly satisfying and incredibly wonderful to see the built environment get completely transformed. It’s pretty incredible.

 

Abby: Well, as you mentioned, as we’ve been chatting, that idea of making possibility out of possibilities, again, it seems to me like the sphere is, it’s just created another amazing possibility. I just want to thank you Ed, for coming on today and sharing just a little glimpse into the way that you create. I’ve just really enjoyed; I feel very inspired and so I just want to say thank you so much for sharing all of this with us today. And I really would love to have you back.

 

Brenda: Yeah, if we can have you back, there’s so many things that you mentioned that you’ve talked about and that Abby and I are curious about that have to do with what it’s like to work with Ed Purver, and what is it like being in a creative team and how does collaboration work? And so, if you’re game to come back and chat more, we are game too.

 

Ed: I would love to. Listen, I mean, thank you for inviting me. It’s, it’s really nice to, you know, to meet you both, and it’s always nice to be asked about what you do and to be asked about your life. So, thank you for listening to my long answers and thank you for being interested.

 

Abby: Yeah, thank you so much, Ed, and thanks to everyone who tuned in today. Please subscribe for more episodes of Matters of Experience and make sure to leave a rating and a review and share with a friend. We’ll see you next time.

 

Brenda: Bye, everyone.

 

[Music]

 

Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. and recorded at Hangar Studios. Tune in next time for more fun discussions about experience design.

 

Show Notes

Ed Purver

Wells Fargo Center – Ed Purver

Canvas – Ed Purver

Sphere – Ed Purver

 

Ed Purver is a creative director working in the fields of media architecture and immersive entertainment. His love of using the built environment as a canvas has brought him many wonderful opportunities, from projection mapping ancient Mayan pyramids in the jungles of Mexico to being creative director at Sphere, in Las Vegas. Although he has a habit of proposing custom uses of emerging technologies, he is happiest when working on a story, a sound or a color that will make someone, somewhere, feel something. Ed has worked as a creative lead for ESI Design, Gensler DXD, Hush, Cocolab and Obscura, and his mission is to make people more aware of their surroundings by showing them the possibility for wonder that is all around us. He lives in a crumbling adobe house on a hillside in rural Mexico with his family, a cat from Queens, and whichever wildlife happens to wander in each day.

Abby: Welcome to Matters of Experience, a podcast that explores the creativity, innovation and psychology driving designed experiences and encounters. If you’re new, a hearty welcome and to our regular listeners, thanks for tuning in and supporting our conversation. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

Brenda: And I’m Brenda Cowan.

 

Abby: Our guest today really can do it all. Balancing design and technology in his work to create captivating and moving experiences. He’s had an incredible journey which seems to only just be beginning as we hear about his latest project. And today, if he’s willing, we’ll hear about everything from his early acting career to coding to probably one of the most highly anticipated media moments of last year on the Sphere. It’s my pleasure to welcome Ed Purver to the show.

 

Ed: Hello. What a lovely intro that was.

 

Abby: Well, Ed, you’re a creative director and your work really does push the experiential field. You and I have been in contact for a number of years, and I have always been struck by the ephemeral beauty and fundamental concepts behind what you create. So, can you tell our listeners sort of where you first started in media? Because I know you were a young man, and I was a young lady and enjoyed your very early work on TV.

 

Ed: Oh my goodness. Yeah, way back in the early mid 1990s when I was at the beginning of my twenties and I really didn’t know what to do with my life, I fell into acting and yeah, I was your communal garden actor popping up on TV shows here and there and I popped up in lots of theaters, some really good theaters around England. I showed up in the West End and then decided to call it a day, really.

 

It was a really fun five years, but I was never that into it, I never really believed in it as a career. I always felt a bit embarrassed to tell people I was an actor. I felt a bit embarrassed by the whole process and I was much more comfortable hanging out around the kind of the music scene in London and the clubs in the 1990s, which I found much more engaging. And me and my good, good friend Neil Bennun, who had gone to the same acting classes as me and is now a brilliant author who lives on a small island off the coast of Denmark, we were so unconvinced by normal acting that we would find all these other ways to entertain ourselves and we would get onto the London Underground and we would perform acts of generosity.

 

And our whole thesis was that no one should ever know that it wasn’t real. As far as everyone else is concerned, in that carriage, you’re complete strangers. You just got on at different stops and you can’t possibly know each other. And so, then we would like, perform these little scenes. You know, I might be sitting there reading a newspaper and Neil would stand near me, and after a while, he just looked, he sort of sighed and he said, I’m really tired. And he would ask me, would you mind if I sat on your lap and I would like be reading my paper and I would, you know, not respond at first, and you can feel the Britishness, the British like uncomfortableness of everyone around, wait, these people are breaking the rule like strangers are speaking to each other.

 

And I’d look up at the, I’d look up and say, well, where are you getting off? And he’d say, he’d tell me the name of the station. I’d have a look at the map to see how far is that? It’s only a few stops over. Alright, go on then. And he sit on my, you know, he’d sit on my lap, and he’d read his book and I’d read my paper and we wouldn’t speak anymore until he got to his stop and he’d say, thank you very much, I’d say, you’re welcome. And he’d get off, you know, and I would continue on my way. And we did lots of different kind of scenes like that. It made us feel much more alive than going to rehearsals or showing up to do an episode of whatever TV show where the BBC was doing or something like that.

 

Abby: For me, my question is, what were the people doing around you and is it that you were, have always maybe been interested in affecting people’s emotions and the way they see the world, because it sounds like that’s as much for you, but I’m sure you were, you’re doing it for a ruse, you know, you’re doing it to change the way people act with each other or to just get somebody out of the humdrum-ness of their day, right? Like, what were some of the things you observed of the people around you when you were doing this?

 

Ed: People would burst into laughter. Sometimes people would do their utmost to pretend it wasn’t happening. You know what I mean? Just being incredibly English about it and just staring fixedly at the floor, six inches in front of their toes and waiting for their stop to come. We were very clear about why we were doing it. It was our whole desire was to just drop seeds of generosity into the city of London. And we thought, well, if somebody observes this and they believe it’s real, then there is a tiny bit more chance that they might be more generous to somebody else. And so, we thought, this is really exciting. There’s a possibility we’re actually changing reality, we’re actually changing the city.

 

Brenda: You’re making me think about my, probably my favorite author of all time, Annie Dillard, and she writes about when she was six or seven and she was living in Pittsburgh and she, as this young child, used to take pennies, which she saw as just incredible treasure. And she would do things like put a penny in a little sort of niche in a tree or in a crack in a sidewalk. And she would take a piece of chalk and draw a long arrow and she would write treasure this way, and she would just litter the city with these pennies and these messages. And basically, as I see it, she was creating exhibitions and very much so like what you’re talking about. And she would never even wait to see. You know, she believed very much so that life was so rich and fulfilling by giving treasures to other people.

 

So from this fabulous performative self that you were—and as an American, I can assure you, you would probably be met with the same kind of responses in New York, you would either get people in the New York City subway who are, right, totally ignoring you, or sort of nervously laughing or you would end up with several more people on your lap.

 

Abby: Yeah, exactly.

 

Brenda: So, you would definitely get the mix. But let’s talk about what brought you to the U.S. It’s a big shift for you, and what were you up to when you first arrived?

 

Ed: The catalyst was going to Burning Man in the late nineties. Back then, Burning Man was really, really unknown in England. It wasn’t the huge sort of globally visible event that it is now. And it was just because a friend of mine had like got caught up in some kind of dot com venture and she’d gone over to San Francisco and in between her meetings someone said, oh, this thing’s happening this weekend.

 

She drove out there with a friend. Her friend was so appalled by it, they immediately turned around and left. Her friend refused to stay at Burning Man, she said, I’m not staying here. We are not, not, not, not staying here. So, my friend Robin came back to London. She told us, oh, there’s this really interesting thing that happens in the desert. But I couldn’t stay because Jo wouldn’t let me. And we were having literally New Year’s dinner, and we made a pact. All right, this year we will go to this thing.

 

And so, we went off to Burning Man that summer, and it was so eye opening for me to see groups of friends getting together and just making magic happen that I was like, oh, oh, this is possible. You can do this.  And it was really radical and exciting to see the installations that people were putting up there. And I was like, well, I’m going to leave boring London and I’m going to go to this place and hang out with those people and see what happens next.

 

Abby: So you went to NYU, because I sort of want to hear more about how you got started to work in software development. So just talk to us about how you transitioned.

 

Brenda: Yeah, big change. Wasn’t it a really big shift for you?

 

Ed: It was a huge, huge shift for me moving from England to California in really exciting ways. Like I could see more blue sky than I’d ever seen before. Having grown up in a very cloudy country, and I’m not kidding, that has a massive effect on you.

 

Abby: Huge effect. Yeah, huge effect. Huge.

 

Ed: Like an emotional, physical effect. On the flip side, I felt more frightened and lost than I’d ever felt before. And anyway, while I was there in San Francisco, performance was really all I knew to do. But I hooked up with some very creative people who were much more inspired by Pina Bausch and much more kind of expressive, dance-oriented ways of performing.

 

And we decided that it would be interesting to play with live media within the context of this performance. And so, I said I would do that. And so, I started to teach myself just the basic video editing platforms of the day. And actually, more useful were VJ software setups that allowed me to put little cameras around the stage and project on lots of surfaces and capture the performance in real time and do real time effects with them.

But I kind of reached my ceiling of what I could do with those platforms, and I decided I need to figure out how to make my own. And that was why I went to NYU, Abby. So, I went there and yeah, I sort of—I went through a really, really important process where I understood that I can learn technical skills, but I’m not a technical person. That is not my value to the team. I am much more of a creative person but becoming a creative person who understood how to build software, who understood how to speak to a creative coder, became extremely valuable for me in doing all of, like the whole next chapter of professional work that came out of that.

 

Abby: And that’s interesting thinking about how it’s informed your process. You know, when you work with developers now, can you sketch out what happens on your projects? Because I know it’s often daunting for a lot of people who don’t have the coding experience to collaborate with a programmer.

 

Ed: Well, first of all, though, I should say very honestly that I am a rubbish coder, but the brilliant thing that I found out was that there’s other platforms that exist that allow you to create your own custom software without actually coding. And that’s what really helped me understand how to speak in terms of logic and variables and have these really fruitful conversations with people who were coding geniuses.

 

And once I kind of had more success and became a full-time creative lead at ESI Design, we were creating a lot of very large custom permanent installations of digital media into the built environment. So, you know, massive lobby installations, beautiful custom screens that integrated into the architecture of the building. And because these were permanent installations that were there every day, that had a repeat audience, I really didn’t want to deliver a library of movies. It’s like, okay, here you go, here’s 30 video files because that will get quite boring quite quickly. I thought it was much more rich to conceptualize living systems that could populate these screens.

 

So how I would work is I would work very much as like an interaction designer, diagraming out logic flows, like here are my inputs. These will affect the media, and these are the different outputs I want. So creating quite technical documents for the coder, at the same time creating very creative documents for the client so that I can tell the story about what people will see and what they will feel and why this relates to their building, why this relates to this area, and why it’s rich and relevant for the people who will see it. And then back with creative coder, I deliver these quite technical but simple documents and what they are is they’re instructions on how to build a tool. That’s what I’m asking. I’m not saying creative coder, make my work, make the final piece. I’m saying make me a tool, then you will bring that tool to my workplace and leave it with us, and we will set up a chunk of whatever custom display technology we’ve dreamed up and we will connect them and we will begin to play.

 

And that’s how I got the best results, because I could sit down instead of having to sort of painfully have long phone calls or in-person meetings saying, can you make it a bit slower? Could you make it a bit more colorful? Could you make it more fluid? What do you mean by fluid? Oh, well, hang on a minute. Let me try and find a reference of what fluid looks like. Just make me a tool with the sufficient parameters for me to sit down and I’ll noodle away for hours until I get the looks that I really want.

 

Brenda: This sounds so logical and so simple and so successful, and yet I can’t help but think about all of the clients who really need to understand or need to think about how, if you will, they’re getting a puppy that’s going to constantly change and grow and evolve and that they need to care for this puppy, and that longevity is an enormous factor. And I’m curious, have you ever had any situations where you’ve had to really work with a client to understand that, you know, they are going to need to think about updating or evolving their new tool, if you will, over time?

 

Ed: Well, I clearly didn’t sell it well enough to you, Brenda, because this is kind of the beauty of it, is that they don’t have to update it.

 

Brenda: Fabulous.

 

Ed: It evolves by itself. So let me give you a couple of examples so it’s not quite so abstract. While I was at ESI, ESI delivered this epic installation in the Wells Fargo Center, which is, I think the tallest building in Denver, it’s known as the Cash Register Building, designed by Philip Johnson back in the eighties, I believe. And they have this monumental lobby with this massive, massively high atrium and a huge, huge, huge blank stone wall upon which we installed five, nearly 30 meter tall strips of LED, and they changed into different states during the day.

 

Now, one of those states was just birds flying. That’s all it was. It was just a flock of hundreds of birds flying against a sky. But the wonderful thing is, this was not a video. This was real time. And therefore, the birds are constantly changing who’s the leader. They’re deciding how much they want to flock, whether there’s wind, whether there’s turbulence that changes their flight patterns. The sky is changing its color automatically with the real time of day.

 

Another state that it had, the same media canvas, was a waterfall, but the waterfall would change its volume of water and intensity based on time of day as well. And we tried to map that with the energy levels of people, like more energy at the start of the day, less energy at the end of the day, and we would take wind data from what’s the wind doing out there in Denver and that waterfall would change—the direction of the spray would be changing based on what’s the wind doing. You know, the difference is, Brenda, is you’re making a place instead of presenting a movie.

 

Abby: But it’s interesting though, Ed, because it’s very different to maybe some of the video or media pieces that we need to make. These are pieces that don’t have a, let’s call it a direct narrative, right? It is about creating a mood and an emotion and an environment and bringing a space to life.

 

Ed: That’s exactly right. Like, for—and we’re talking about a very specific context here. You know, we’re talking about sort of public spaces really, or semipublic spaces. And I always try to avoid something that’s trying to tell a linear story because there’s no way to be sure that you’re going to put your audience in front of your story when it begins. You know, people are arriving all the time, and so a linear story has less value because fewer people understand it.

 

So, I describe the birds and the waterfall because they’re so simple and easy to understand. But we delivered this other piece and the whole, the thesis of the piece or the concept of the piece was the city of Chicago is going to paint pictures of itself. It was a bit of a play on the tendency of these big lobbies to hang an abstract painting behind the security desk because abstract paintings like, nobody knows what they are, so there’s less chance someone’s going to say, I don’t like that, that’s wrong, da-da-da-da-da. It’s just there, it’s just there, right? So, like, okay, we’re going to play with that.

 

And we made this massive, massive canvas. That’s what it was called. It’s an LCD screen, but it had vinyl stretched across a few inches in front of it. So, we sent out a local team to record hours and hours of just city movement, just of that neighborhood. So, it’s just a hours of really boring video. This literally, literally hours of trains coming, look, there’s a train going past, and like, traffic. It’s literally you are watching traffic, the clouds moving by, the people running the marathon going past the building, boats on the river. So, we have this amazing like, really I saw it as data. It’s huge, like datasets of movement and then this genius creative coder and a wonderful artist by the name of Vincent Houze, he did me the honor of making the tool for me that I could then play with and make all the presets.

 

And so, what is the experience, the experiences is you might walk through this lobby at any moment, right? You see this monumental canvas up there, and so you might see a boat slowly plowing its way down the river. Is it the Chicago River? I think so. And then slowly, every little bit of movement starts to become a brushstroke. So, ripples start sort of extend themselves and that boat starts to dissolve into painterly sort of swirls of color. And the whole thing slowly morphs into what looks like an abstract painting now. And so, there’s thousands and thousands of potential compositions. And so, what we deliver to them, we can say, client, listen, I’m giving you thousands of hours of content here, like for really cheap.

 

Brenda: You know, let’s talk about the emotional element. It’s come up a couple of times as you’ve been sharing examples and talking about your work, and it’s very clear that you create very emotion rich pieces for people. Tell us more about what this means to you. Like, what does emotion look like for you in your work and how do you go about nurturing this emotional experience for the intended audience?

 

Ed: I think I’ll start my answer by telling you about the moment in my life that sort of triggered me on this path of playing with the built environment so much. Because earlier on you asked me Brenda, you said it must have been hard to move from England over to San Francisco all of a sudden. And it was. It was, it got so hard at one point that I just I found it very hard to stay asleep for more than a few hours.

 

I was getting very anxious, like it had triggered some kind of deep, slightly sort of panic response in me. It’s like, ah, you’re destroying your life. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re a failure. That, you know, all of those silly stories that so many of us here in our heads at some point in our lives. And it reached a point that was quite intense.

 

And I had a very, very strong experience when I was in a movie theater by myself. I got halfway through the film, and I felt this almost like a physical feeling inside my stomach and into my chest, like something rising up. I didn’t know what it was, but it was absolutely terrifying. And like, in an instant, I said I have to get out here, I have to leave right now.

 

I got up as quickly as I could and I left the movie theater and going through the lobby towards the door, I knew, I had to prevent myself from seeing anything. And it was like, okay, If I could just get to my bicycle, If I can just get to my bicycle and get the key out and unlock the lock and get on my bicycle, I might be able to somehow get home and close the door and everything will be okay.

 

But in that moment of like unlocking my bike, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of some buildings. And that was it. And I turned and I looked, and I just observed all of the buildings in flux, like nothing was solid anymore. And it wasn’t a hallucination, like I’m on mushrooms and this is very visual. It was kind of very, very deep, like an understanding of the fluidity of everything. And I was, okay, I’m done. You know, this is my, basic, this is my life over, I’m going out, like, this, this is the end for me.

 

Brenda: You actually sound like a theoretical physicist. I was going to say. They’re going to put you in a genius laboratory.

 

Ed: Well, it’s very interesting you say that, because my partner, who I lived with at the time, when I got home and I was like, all right, so this happened and she was like, oh yeah. She’s like, well, I don’t know, I think a lot of people would feel pretty grateful to have the experience that you just had, you know, And, and that was a really, really great response to be around because it sort of didn’t allow me to relish my own drama and, and melancholy.

 

But more like, okay, so that was an experience, but it really was strong, and it really resonated and sort of echoed within me forever. And this started showing up in my work. So that’s why, like, then I talk about this project in Chicago was talking about what am I doing? I’m kind of like dissolving the city of Chicago into this fluid river of dreaminess. It’s like, it’s still there. Like, they hire me at Sphere, and one of the first things I do is turn it into like this whole rippling blob of fluid, you know?

 

And so, my mission, I feel like, is to try to make people more present in wherever they are, because I am someone who’s way too—I’m way too stuck in my head, I think far too much. And whenever I experience something that’s surprising enough to wake me up and stop my constant noise and just be in that moment, I’m so grateful. And so, when you talk to me about why do I want to create emotional experiences, I think why is because it’s the experiences I would like to have myself and it’s what I would like to offer to the world is, is to present, I think I like playing with the built environment so much because I want to suggest possibility. Like we tend to accept the rules of our reality as whatever we saw they were when we were children, maybe, and I like to say, but actually, maybe, maybe wonderful things are possible.

 

Brenda: Yeah, no, it’s absolutely brilliant. And I’m thinking about the sphere. I’m thinking about your large-scale work, and I’m thinking about what you were just talking about in terms of mindfulness and being present and enabling people to really experience that. And when people experience great scale like the Grand Canyon, right, when they—and, this Sphere, right, this modern monument, they experience awe. Awe actually stimulates presence and mindfulness and well-being. Like there’s these brilliant studies that directly link human well-being and scale. And awe. So, you’ve totally achieved that.

 

Abby: There’s so many things I want to ask you, but I think just thinking about our listeners, because the Sphere was just all over social and as Brenda mentioned, it’s such an already landmark building. When we talked, some of the things creatively, the challenges you were facing are the challenges I face on other projects and people here, listening will face. And so the way that you, you know, dealt with it shows a fearlessness and a dedication to what you believe in. that I think—

 

Brenda: And grit.

 

Abby: —that I want our listeners to understand, to be able to help them in similar situations. So yeah. Can you tell us sort of how you got embroiled with Sphere and how that all came to be and how you reflect back now?

 

Ed: Yeah, it happened kind of by accident and what had happened is I had been head of creative at Cocolab, which is a brilliant studio in Mexico City. But when the pandemic shut down schools, because we have little kids, we got out of cities. So, we left the city, as many, many families did, and moved to the countryside where we live now in central Mexico. And we like it in the countryside. I didn’t want to go back, so I said to Cocolab, listen, I think I’m going to try freelancing, which I’d never really done before. So, I just thought to myself, Well, who should I write to? And I just sent like two emails to people I thought, well I remember you, I’d like to work with you.

 

And so that was the first step in the process. And so, it’s just an accident. You know, I didn’t go hunting for the Sphere, but once I got the offer, it was hard to turn down because I knew it would be a momentous project. And what more amazing canvas could you dream for? A seamless sphere, enormous, like floating right there in the middle of a city. I mean, it’s kind of a dream, right? So that was how I began.

 

My experience there was a really good example of what happens when you establish your creative concept and your creative strategy clearly, but then you let it go and so it was a great experience of observing that when it’s let go and it’s let go without anyone saying so out loud, it’s just sort of quietly let go, right? It quietly dies and everyone just sort of gently figures out, oh, we’re not kind of doing that anymore. And so that’s what happened. That’s like, you know, it’s happened in countless megaprojects over the years. A lot of work was put into a strategy that was then discarded, a moment of kind of, woah, so what shall we—let’s do everything. Let’s do everything. And then a sudden kind of directive to pivot at the last minute.

 

But we pivoted quickly, and we delivered stuff that was spectacular, and that’s what we needed to do. What we did was hugely successful in the end, what the team did was hugely successful. So, of course I was there in Vegas the night we turned it on. Actually, I was there a few nights before to do like a supposedly secret test at like four in the morning. Well, we just had to put something on to make sure that things were pointing in the way that we thought they were. So that was kind of cool to be there on the top of a parking garage at four in the morning being like, oh my God, thank you. Thank you. It works. It works. It works. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And then—

 

Abby: Been there, I know that feeling.

 

Ed: And, and then, you know, less than a week later, maybe, being in, in Vegas on July the fourth and watching traffic stop and everyone just getting out of the cars to look at this thing which actually caused us like we were like, oh, no, we’re got to cause a traffic accident. Like we, our, our reaction was like one of like sort of hysterical worry.

 

And I went down because we were looking at it from up high and I went down onto the street and the moon was playing. And that is amazing. Like, there’s been lots of shows and I’ve directed some of them on the Sphere that were, you know, had all sorts of effects and illusions. And that’s really fun. But something as simple as that, is when this structure transforms itself to be something you recognize like that, like the moon is floating in the middle of Las Vegas. It is incredible.

 

Like even the basketball that I delivered, which was put on a few days after the fireworks show, was also brilliant. It’s just so simple. It just looks like it’s, it looks like the impossible is happening. There’s a massive basketball rotating in the middle of Las Vegas, and it looks real. It looks real. So that was incredibly satisfying and incredibly wonderful to see the built environment get completely transformed. It’s pretty incredible.

 

Abby: Well, as you mentioned, as we’ve been chatting, that idea of making possibility out of possibilities, again, it seems to me like the sphere is, it’s just created another amazing possibility. I just want to thank you Ed, for coming on today and sharing just a little glimpse into the way that you create. I’ve just really enjoyed; I feel very inspired and so I just want to say thank you so much for sharing all of this with us today. And I really would love to have you back.

 

Brenda: Yeah, if we can have you back, there’s so many things that you mentioned that you’ve talked about and that Abby and I are curious about that have to do with what it’s like to work with Ed Purver, and what is it like being in a creative team and how does collaboration work? And so, if you’re game to come back and chat more, we are game too.

 

Ed: I would love to. Listen, I mean, thank you for inviting me. It’s, it’s really nice to, you know, to meet you both, and it’s always nice to be asked about what you do and to be asked about your life. So, thank you for listening to my long answers and thank you for being interested.

 

Abby: Yeah, thank you so much, Ed, and thanks to everyone who tuned in today. Please subscribe for more episodes of Matters of Experience and make sure to leave a rating and a review and share with a friend. We’ll see you next time.

 

Brenda: Bye, everyone.

 

[Music]

 

Producer: Matters of Experience is produced by Lorem Ipsum Corp. and recorded at Hangar Studios. Tune in next time for more fun discussions about experience design.

 

Show Notes

Ed Purver

Wells Fargo Center – Ed Purver

Canvas – Ed Purver

Sphere – Ed Purver

 

Evoking Emotional Responses with Ed Purver

Evoking Emotional Responses with Ed Purver

February 7, 2024