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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.

Recent episodes

Museums of the Future with Sundar Raman

Museums of the Future with Sundar Raman

February 21, 2024
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
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.
Museums of the Future with Sundar Raman

Museums of the Future with Sundar Raman

February 21, 2024
Evoking Emotional Responses with Ed Purver

Evoking Emotional Responses with Ed Purver

February 7, 2024
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
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
Hope and Healing with Jan Seidler Ramirez

Hope and Healing with Jan Seidler Ramirez

January 24, 2024
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
In this episode of Matters of Experience, explore the intricacies of curating stories that breathe life into artifacts, revealing raw emotions and untold narratives. Join Abby and Brenda in conversation with Jan Seidler Ramirez, the founding Chief Curator of the National September 11th Memorial and Museum in New York City. Jan shares insights into the delicate balance between remembrance and hope, illustrating how the museum becomes a sanctuary for healing by fostering connections, transcending boundaries, and offering solace to those who visit.
Jan Seidler Ramirez , Ph.D., is the founding Chief Curator and Executive Vice President of Collections at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. Under her guidance, the Memorial Museum’s collection has grown to include many thousands of objects, artworks, photographs, films, oral histories and audio artifacts, architectural relics, and other primary evidence materials relevant to 9/11 and its legacy. In creating this resource, which continues to grow, she and her staff have worked directly with stakeholders from the multiple communities and agencies directly affected by 9/11, and with artists, photographers and filmmakers who responded to these transformative events. Previously, she served as Vice President and Museum Director at the New-York Historical Society, where she played a major role in developing that institution's 20 th century collecting program and its History Responds initiative, a series of exhibitions, public programs, and collection acquisition efforts focused on the 9/11 attacks in their broad historical context. In her career Ramirez has held curatorial, interpretation, collections development and senior administrative posts at museums in Boston and New York, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Hudson River Museum and the Museum of the City of New York. She has taught and lectured extensively on American history, arts, material culture and the phenomenon of “crisis collecting” and authored numerous publications and essays relating to American arts and cultural history. A graduate of Dartmouth College, where she majored in English, Dr. Ramirez earned her Ph.D. in American Studies at Boston University.

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 to you and to our regular listeners, thank you for tuning in and supporting our conversation. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

Brenda: And this is Brenda Cowan.

 

Abby: Well, I’m very excited because today we’re talking with Jan Seidler Ramirez, who is the founding chief curator and executive vice president of collections at the National September 11th Memorial and Museum in New York City, which is one of the most impressive and moving places in the world, at least I think, and at the end of 2018, had drawn over 43 million visitors.

 

Jan works directly with stakeholders from multiple communities and agencies directly affected by 9/11 and with artists, photographers and filmmakers who responded to these transformative events. Previously, she served as vice president and museum director at the New York Historical Society and held senior administrative positions at Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Hudson River Museum, and the Museum of the City of New York.

 

She’s also taught and lectured, I don’t know where she’s found time to do this, but extensively on American history and the phenomenon of crisis collecting and authored numerous publications and essays relating to American arts and cultural history. Jan earned her Ph.D. in American Studies at Boston University, which is my alma mater, and where my mom also earned her Ph.D. That’s just a shout out to my mom, who listens to every podcast.

 

Brenda: Shout out, Mom.

 

Abby: Jan, welcome to the show. 

 

Jan: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

 

Abby: So, the creation of the Memorial Museum was at times fraught, so trying to please all these constituencies and political issues and working across the disciplines involved in a new building and what is to some a very sacred site. So, it sounds like an impossible task. What was involved in making this all happen?

 

Jan: Oh, a lot of chardonnay.

 

Well, you know, certainly I was one of the cogs in the wheel, I was certainly not, you know, the main player, but by the time—as you probably know, the choice to do a museum about the event itself was a second choice, because the first choice was to do museum, you know, broadly speaking to international freedom, societies that have it, societies that don’t have it. A very smart, effective team of people had been at work on this project for about two years. And when it was, their plans were rolled out for the first time publicly to a group that can, you know, included first responders and family members of the victims, I think it was then that the recognition really registered with these stakeholders, sensitive stakeholders, that their loved ones would be somewhat reduced to a footnote in this inevitable march towards freedom that took place. And they protested that the site itself was being used for that purpose. It wasn’t the idea of the museum, which they felt was perfectly valid, but not on that sacred ground. 

 

And, you know, I’m not a religious person, but I became a much more religiously aware person, given the fraught nature of this unplanned cemetery, you know, a battleground, whatever you want to call it. And by 2006, which is when the green light went on for the repurposed 9/11 Memorial Museum, just for starters, the medical examiner of New York City had made a promise to the families that at such time the memorial precinct was built out, he would take the temporary repository of unidentified unclaimed remains from First Avenue near Bellevue Hospital and move it to the site itself. That has always been a confusion for visitors and for family members. You know, it is not part of the official 9/11 Memorial Museum. We have nothing to do with. It’s still operated by the office of chief medical examiner, but it does repose behind a main wall of the museum.

 

And so, you know, with that, we also inherited the tragic statistics at the time, which haven’t gotten that much better, but then about, you know, 50%, 55% of all the New York victims had never been physically identified, not a scrap of a remnant of them had been identified, and therefore, for their family members, you know, the restlessness of this event was just chronic. This was far from a neutral ground. It’s still not a neutral ground. And I will say that those statistics have shrunk a bit, but it’s still 40, now, it’s 40% of the victims who have never been identified.

 

So that’s the beginning of, you know, welcome to the, to this project. And then it was always the second guessing, the third guessing, the media frenzy around what we were doing, what we weren’t going to do, you know, what we were going to do poorly. Surely, we were helping a lot of New York City papers, sell a lot of papers, you know, just because we were a topic of speculation. I think all of that could only ever stop or at least be tamped down when we opened, and people could come judge for themselves.

 

Abby: It seems like a very dramatic example of a museum built for the community, because Brenda and I are often talking about museums and are they really, truly serving the community? And in this case, it sounds like the community demanded the memorial museum.

 

Brenda: And the museum is the community, quite literally—

 

Abby: Yeah.

 

Brenda: —you know, in terms of the objects that are collected. And what I also appreciate is that community is certainly about New York City, but it’s also very much so the international story, because so many people who were lost at the towers that day were from all around the world. And they too are now a permanent part of our New York City community. And the institution sees to it that that is the case.

 

Jan: You’re absolutely right. I mean, it’s the DNA in the World Trade Center, because, you know, there were people from 90 nations who were reflected in the victim population. There are people that, you know, had never been to New York. They were flying over New York on business. They had no intention of being in New York, who tragically died in New York and are going to be forever here.

 

What I think is really interesting about your comment is we were extremely mindful that there were sort of circles of bereavement and circles of connection, stakeholder connections to this story, and if we didn’t listen to them carefully and we didn’t produce something that didn’t ring true to them, it would be a terrible failure. However, we were never actually doing it for the community. We were doing it for the future. And so, everything we were trying to do was for the cause of public edification, whoever the public may be down the line.

 

And so really, the most, one of the most complicated and fascinating, rewarding parts of the process were the three or so years we were bringing in a stakeholder community, sort of advisory group of about 90 people representing many different slices of the pie of people that were directly affected, of course, the victims families members having a very special place in that, but lower Manhattan residents and first responders and companies, businesses that were dislocated from downtown, investigators and so forth. We would lay out our thinking on, you know, as we were going forward to invite their response. So, they felt, you know, they were part of it.

 

First and foremost, they knew that on our project we were mostly professional museum makers, you know, curators or exhibit developers, educators, architects, designers. In a way that was a huge blessing, if I could say, because we were not government appointees. So, we didn’t have that agenda, sort of, you know, scarred on our backs. But what we didn’t realize was how cocooned many of these stakeholder communities were from one another. You know, they were so caught up in their own, the intense grief and the intense dislocation and pain you know, and trying to get some form of balance again, that they had no idea any other group might have felt pain of, perhaps not of exactly the same kind of pain they had felt. And so, it was like listening to them listen to each other and fight with each other, but also come to common ground that was so important. We had to sit back and watch them do it themselves.

 

We put it through this test and we still, to this day, there’s a group that’s very unhappy with the design of the 9/11 memorial. They’re very unhappy that the repository is underground. They’re very unhappy that the public at large, not family members, have to pay to go in, pay to pray is sort of the critique. On the other hand, I would say some of our friends from particular type of press, when they want to rile things up, they’ll go to those, you know, 12 people for comment. They never go to the thousands of other people who seem to be pleased and resolved, who have been participants in the process who are so proud of what has happened there, you know, who bring their young family members there, because that doesn’t generate headlines, you know. But that’s, that’s the world.

 

Abby: That’s for a different podcast, we could totally talk about that, yeah.

 

So, I’ll steal a bit of Brenda’s thread of a love for objects and their meanings. So how do you see the role of the vast types and amounts of objects you’re working with at the Memorial Museum? And I’ll sort of also add, I haven’t been back for a few years, so I’m not aware how often you actually move things. Some of the huge pieces I know probably never move, but if you could sort of talk, imagine someone’s not been there, talk about some of the artifacts that are there and then what does move and change?

 

Jan: Well, part of the project from the beginning, because there was a window of opportunity to bring back some of the big gigantic relics of the site itself and the damaged rescue apparatus—we had to select those materials before we even knew the stories associated with them, you know, to bring and drop down into the site because the memorial was years ahead of the museum in terms of its planning. And that was our roof. And if we didn’t move quickly and live with imperfection, but, you know, also let emotions kind of speak a little more loudly than they might otherwise speak in a deliberative process, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity, for example, to bring back the last column, which was the 39 foot tall relic from the South Tower that had been there from the very beginning of the towers being built and it was the last vestige sort of standing the day the site closed, actually the day before when it was cut down and it was brought out as a proxy for all the people that were not found and functioned on site as the first memorial where the different rescue recovery groups and disaster volunteers and occasional family members had been able to come in and put their mark on it in different forms.

 

So, we had the big eyewitness objects and then we had the exquisitely intimate, you know, human scaled items that we do not yet have a lead on. And we knew that we were going to have to have a strategy before we went out to collect them. You know, it’s one thing to say we’d like to collect recovered personal effects from people that lost their lives or whose lives were ever changed, but we owed those potential donors the explanation, how are you going to use them? And that became another kind of complicated part of the journey, because first and foremost, we had to write a collection policy. Can’t build a collection without a collection policy. It’s kind of a, you know, kind of dull and dry part of the process, but you do have to do it, and I sat down to do it, but we had to have the talk with our prospective donors, which is not everything will be on view all the time. What you’re doing is you’re in part doing a symbolic act by giving something physical associated with your loved one’s life, possibly with the end of his or her life, and possibly with the prime of their life or their beginning of their life, and you are putting it symbolically at a place where their life ended. So, their memory will always live on here.

 

And that’s a hard, that’s a hard conversation for people who are not necessarily museum savvy audiences. Also that because in our case, with victims alone, we were dealing with a population of about 3000 people, that the space we had couldn’t possibly tell the stories of 3000 people through, you know, 3000 people’s stuff, we would have the faces of the victims and have the short biographies about them, and we would find ways to cycle through examples of personal effects and personal materials and mementos that the families had chosen. And so, in a way, they were given a chance to co-curate that collection with us. They set the terms of why it was a valued thing. We didn’t.

 

Abby: The stories though must be pretty key, right? Because like this bottle of water I’ve got could be all scrunched down, the story that goes with it could be moving and incredible or it could be just absolutely not interesting because it’s the connection with the person and the story that this object represents. Because, yeah, there must have been a selection process, right? People brought in tons and tons of stuff and then you would have to listen to the stories but then curate what you thought would resonate with people, right?

 

Jan: Yes, to a degree. And you are absolutely right. This is a museum where provenance or context is all, in most cases. And speaking of, you know, water bottles, for example, there was a young man who had lost his brother. His brother had been killed in the North Tower, and he came in and indeed presented a bottle of, you know, Perrier water or an empty bottle that was not actually empty. There was a little bit of dust in the bottom of it, completely humdrum looking object. And then he explained that on the first anniversary of the attacks, the first time he’d ever been allowed to go down the ramp to Ground Zero, he had scooped up some of the dust because his brother was one of the unfortunate people who had never been found and to him the dust was sacred.

 

So, we try to be very attentive and anything that comes into our collection comes in through a process. We have an acquisitions and loans committee and, you know, we have to not only think about can we care for it, can we conserve it, where are we going to store it, how we’re going to house it, you know, will it have options for display, but it is how are we going to tell the story, what we know about this, for the record, when the person telling us isn’t necessarily a historian, we have no way of particularly vetting what they’re saying, but they’re sharing their story. And we had to live with a certain level of historical discomfort.

 

Our oral historian, for example, you know, who’s been with us from the beginning, often says, you know, somebody will get 10 minutes into their story, and she knows she knows more actually, about the day or the place or the what probably could have happened and probably didn’t happen. But, but it’s the story, it’s what, you know, trauma does to your memory. That’s really what we’re collecting. It’s not the accuracy per say.

 

Abby: A lot of the work we do is contextualizing these artifacts and trying to bring them back to life. But also, in terms of the spaces people are in, because seeing them in, on a nice, neat plinth in a beautiful white room or however it’s perfectly designed, doesn’t really evoke the time and the place, and so we end up oftentimes designing really immersive experiences and places, settings for these objects.

 

When you come into your museum, it’s already baked in, the emotions, when you enter the site from above are like, you can’t help but be flooded. And so then going down into the belly of the beast, so to speak, and being in that place, it has that loaded environment, at least for me it had that. I used to have a—I was right there when the Twin Towers got hit actually. I had just gone under on the E train. It had stopped, the lights had gone out and I was the last train to make it up into Tribeca where our offices were. And so, I was actually on the street when the, when it all sort of started to shatter. And so, when I went to the space, it was an incredibly moving experience.

 

And I think that having it in that specific space, rather than having the museum uptown, let’s say, for example, adds a lot of that emotional engagement and resonance that I feel is sometimes missing or could be missing if it had been built in a different environment, if that makes sense.

 

Jan: It makes complete sense. And, you know, the first artifact I curate or conserve, care for—and when I say I, it of course means that, all the team I represent—is the archeological cavity itself, combined with the memory of the day, people’s personal stories, the blue sky, it was an election day in New York, I mean, the many different ways people start their 9/11 story.

 

The site itself is so powerful that we have to respect its power. We know that many visitors to the 9/11 Memorial Museum today will have never seen the World Trade Center in its prime, and we need to give them time to adjust to the reality of what they’re looking at. It’s a confusing space. I mean, you know, it’s seven stories below ground and it’s only when you’re sort of halfway down the ramp that we begin to give you a different cue in your journey. And that’s the beginning of the projections of the missing person fliers that started to be seen in the streets of New York that afternoon, in that evening.

 

Brenda: There is something that I think is really important to make sure that we ask you, and it’s about following up with the idea of how soon is too soon. I know when I bring my students to meet with you every year, which you are so generous about, my students are coming from all over the world, and a number of them every year are coming from places that are dealing with tragic circumstances in lifetime and oftentimes will ask me afterwards or we’ll have a group discussion afterwards about, you know, was it too soon to start the institution just a few years after the tragedy, or is it still too soon to be having these conversations? And it becomes a very rich dialog. And I’d love to hear your perspective on the whole idea of when is too soon, too soon?

 

Jan: We’ve certainly heard the too soon, too sad, too sacred, too, you know, the, all the reasons, legitimate reasons why our active collecting, curating, producing a museum probably was a curious, if not a strange, if not a threatening idea to some people. I know as a, you know, person who has been in the world of historical material culture, I know that we have lost the context for so much of the physical materials that are in museum collections because we didn’t move soon enough. And I think there’s the difference I would make—it’s a very generalized difference—is I don’t think it’s ever too soon to collect. It may be too soon to exhibit. And so, collecting and getting the context right, the provenance right, getting the storyteller, the donor right, figuring out if the person, for starters, even had the legal right to donate it. I think that that is something you have to do fleet of foot, if you can.

 

One thing we’ve done at the 9/11 Museum is we have made a great investment in our conservation staff and they are incredibly ingenious people who are basically being challenged every day to think about two things. One is how do you preserve trauma and damage? But I think I’m of the school that sometimes you need to move much more quickly than you wish you could, and that if you are doing it with people you respect, they don’t have to be curators, they don’t have to be conservators, but they’re people that are knowledgeable about the community or the event or the where they can go to rest for a period of time, your gut instincts, your collective gut instincts are often going to prove themselves pretty good.

 

Abby: Turning to the media, because that’s my area of specialty. Overall, the museum doesn’t feel censored. Was there an awareness of that? Because I imagine it could be leveled as a criticism. It’s too much. People shouldn’t see this, yada, yada, yada. I think it’s fantastic and exactly where it needs to be. And I think that I see other institutions sometimes pulling back and not showing the truth of what happened.

 

Jan: One thing I had to learn was I was not working at a museum. I was working at a memorial museum. And that is a huge qualifier. We have, you know, part of the ethic of our institution is an abiding reverence for human life. Human life tragically ended in horrible ways on the day itself, and we had many, many, many, many different debates about, you know, for example, the images of the falling people. But we felt that if we omitted it, it was such an indelible part of the day’s chemistry that if we omitted it, we would be raising questions for all kinds of people about what else we had omitted. So, instead, we decided to put it in an alcove and give people some sort of advance warning if you wish to.

 

And then there was even a discussion, you know, tragically, so many pictures and video tapes and newsreel footage of that incredible, unbelievable, terrible act, but we felt that we couldn’t put them up as mounted photos. They needed to be projected and just come and go, come and go, because we did not want them to become some kind of strange icons. And the one thing, though, you will not find in the 9/11 Museum, and that does not mean we do not have it in our collection. You will not see publicly, images of body parts on the street because again, we felt that that violated the respect for human life.

 

Brenda: I know from the research work that I did with your museum, memorial museum and the wonderful people who I was so fortunate to be able to interview and for whom your institution is so important, hope and healing is a paramount part of their experience and also, I think, is a big part of the intention of the Memorial museum. And I’m really curious how you interpret the idea of the 9/11 Memorial Museum as a place of hope and healing. How do you interpret that personally?

 

Jan: Well, every day I watch people from many different parts of the country and parts of the world coming together. They come in as strangers. They may not go out as friends, but something is happening to them. There is an energy change where they’re seeing each other sort of stripped to the bone of what we love in the world, and we value in the world. And it transcends nationalities and religions and backgrounds. And it is a very moving thing to watch happen.

 

We just, we happened to meet with our docents yesterday, who are remarkable people, they’re the people that are on the front line every day, and they were talking about friends who would say to them, you’re volunteering to be a docent in the 9— how could you deal with it? And they talked about just the remarkable emotional and spiritual in some cases uplift they have from working with people and the hugs that get, you know, freely shared.

 

The other thing I would say is, apart from the fact I’ve always considered it a museum about humanity, it’s not about terrorism. It is about the decency of people to one another. What we can do when we are pushed to the wall and in a terrible predicament. As we worried, we really haven’t delivered the ending, the uplift, the never again if, you know, the naivete of, although the power of never again, we just haven’t delivered it. How can you give people an ending when every day in the press still, this event is still unspooling? I mean, to this very day, criminal evidence is still being held for people that have not yet come to trial. I mean, there’s you know, people are dying of the health effects. I mean, there’s just, there’s a lot going on still.

 

But all that said, the remarkable thing is how people, you know, who, they’ve made the descent down into the museum, they’ve experienced the museum, and they’re literally coming up. And when they walk out onto the Memorial plaza, they’re going to see it, through fresh eyes, probably, the miracle of a rebuilt downtown skyline, and, you know, the memorial plaza with the trees that have matured, so if you’re there in the summer or the fall, there’s the show of the trees and the sound of the water, and it kind of smells good because of the nature. So, in a funny way, the place and the city provided something uplifting. And that is, you know, just the incredible power and grit of human beings to get up, dust themselves off and take that next step forward, and it’s just renewal.

 

Brenda: Gosh, there’s just so much that’s so tempting to ask about and even, you know, not as a question, but something, you know, for folks to consider as well, is that the 9/11 Memorial Museum also has to deal with and consider current events as well. It’s so much beyond just the day. And so, for an institution, you are constantly growing and evolving and shaping yourselves. So, I just want to commend you for what is a tremendously complex, truly complex job that you do with a great deal of love.

 

Abby: And grace. I’d also just like to thank you, Jan, for joining us and sharing your experience in such an open, candid way. And I’m hoping that our audience, our listeners will go. Go to the September 11th Memorial Museum experience it. It is a spiritual place. It is a complete journey for the soul when you go there. But I think you’re right, at the end of the day, the feeling is a positive one about humanity and the way that we come together in a crisis. So I just wanted to thank you so much today, Jan, for sharing with us.

 

Jan: Thank you.

 

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

 

Brenda: Thank you, 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

911 Memorial

Jan Seidler Ramirez , Ph.D., is the founding Chief Curator and Executive Vice President of Collections at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. Under her guidance, the Memorial Museum’s collection has grown to include many thousands of objects, artworks, photographs, films, oral histories and audio artifacts, architectural relics, and other primary evidence materials relevant to 9/11 and its legacy. In creating this resource, which continues to grow, she and her staff have worked directly with stakeholders from the multiple communities and agencies directly affected by 9/11, and with artists, photographers and filmmakers who responded to these transformative events. Previously, she served as Vice President and Museum Director at the New-York Historical Society, where she played a major role in developing that institution's 20 th century collecting program and its History Responds initiative, a series of exhibitions, public programs, and collection acquisition efforts focused on the 9/11 attacks in their broad historical context. In her career Ramirez has held curatorial, interpretation, collections development and senior administrative posts at museums in Boston and New York, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Hudson River Museum and the Museum of the City of New York. She has taught and lectured extensively on American history, arts, material culture and the phenomenon of “crisis collecting” and authored numerous publications and essays relating to American arts and cultural history. A graduate of Dartmouth College, where she majored in English, Dr. Ramirez earned her Ph.D. in American Studies at Boston University.

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 to you and to our regular listeners, thank you for tuning in and supporting our conversation. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

Brenda: And this is Brenda Cowan.

 

Abby: Well, I’m very excited because today we’re talking with Jan Seidler Ramirez, who is the founding chief curator and executive vice president of collections at the National September 11th Memorial and Museum in New York City, which is one of the most impressive and moving places in the world, at least I think, and at the end of 2018, had drawn over 43 million visitors.

 

Jan works directly with stakeholders from multiple communities and agencies directly affected by 9/11 and with artists, photographers and filmmakers who responded to these transformative events. Previously, she served as vice president and museum director at the New York Historical Society and held senior administrative positions at Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Hudson River Museum, and the Museum of the City of New York.

 

She’s also taught and lectured, I don’t know where she’s found time to do this, but extensively on American history and the phenomenon of crisis collecting and authored numerous publications and essays relating to American arts and cultural history. Jan earned her Ph.D. in American Studies at Boston University, which is my alma mater, and where my mom also earned her Ph.D. That’s just a shout out to my mom, who listens to every podcast.

 

Brenda: Shout out, Mom.

 

Abby: Jan, welcome to the show. 

 

Jan: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

 

Abby: So, the creation of the Memorial Museum was at times fraught, so trying to please all these constituencies and political issues and working across the disciplines involved in a new building and what is to some a very sacred site. So, it sounds like an impossible task. What was involved in making this all happen?

 

Jan: Oh, a lot of chardonnay.

 

Well, you know, certainly I was one of the cogs in the wheel, I was certainly not, you know, the main player, but by the time—as you probably know, the choice to do a museum about the event itself was a second choice, because the first choice was to do museum, you know, broadly speaking to international freedom, societies that have it, societies that don’t have it. A very smart, effective team of people had been at work on this project for about two years. And when it was, their plans were rolled out for the first time publicly to a group that can, you know, included first responders and family members of the victims, I think it was then that the recognition really registered with these stakeholders, sensitive stakeholders, that their loved ones would be somewhat reduced to a footnote in this inevitable march towards freedom that took place. And they protested that the site itself was being used for that purpose. It wasn’t the idea of the museum, which they felt was perfectly valid, but not on that sacred ground. 

 

And, you know, I’m not a religious person, but I became a much more religiously aware person, given the fraught nature of this unplanned cemetery, you know, a battleground, whatever you want to call it. And by 2006, which is when the green light went on for the repurposed 9/11 Memorial Museum, just for starters, the medical examiner of New York City had made a promise to the families that at such time the memorial precinct was built out, he would take the temporary repository of unidentified unclaimed remains from First Avenue near Bellevue Hospital and move it to the site itself. That has always been a confusion for visitors and for family members. You know, it is not part of the official 9/11 Memorial Museum. We have nothing to do with. It’s still operated by the office of chief medical examiner, but it does repose behind a main wall of the museum.

 

And so, you know, with that, we also inherited the tragic statistics at the time, which haven’t gotten that much better, but then about, you know, 50%, 55% of all the New York victims had never been physically identified, not a scrap of a remnant of them had been identified, and therefore, for their family members, you know, the restlessness of this event was just chronic. This was far from a neutral ground. It’s still not a neutral ground. And I will say that those statistics have shrunk a bit, but it’s still 40, now, it’s 40% of the victims who have never been identified.

 

So that’s the beginning of, you know, welcome to the, to this project. And then it was always the second guessing, the third guessing, the media frenzy around what we were doing, what we weren’t going to do, you know, what we were going to do poorly. Surely, we were helping a lot of New York City papers, sell a lot of papers, you know, just because we were a topic of speculation. I think all of that could only ever stop or at least be tamped down when we opened, and people could come judge for themselves.

 

Abby: It seems like a very dramatic example of a museum built for the community, because Brenda and I are often talking about museums and are they really, truly serving the community? And in this case, it sounds like the community demanded the memorial museum.

 

Brenda: And the museum is the community, quite literally—

 

Abby: Yeah.

 

Brenda: —you know, in terms of the objects that are collected. And what I also appreciate is that community is certainly about New York City, but it’s also very much so the international story, because so many people who were lost at the towers that day were from all around the world. And they too are now a permanent part of our New York City community. And the institution sees to it that that is the case.

 

Jan: You’re absolutely right. I mean, it’s the DNA in the World Trade Center, because, you know, there were people from 90 nations who were reflected in the victim population. There are people that, you know, had never been to New York. They were flying over New York on business. They had no intention of being in New York, who tragically died in New York and are going to be forever here.

 

What I think is really interesting about your comment is we were extremely mindful that there were sort of circles of bereavement and circles of connection, stakeholder connections to this story, and if we didn’t listen to them carefully and we didn’t produce something that didn’t ring true to them, it would be a terrible failure. However, we were never actually doing it for the community. We were doing it for the future. And so, everything we were trying to do was for the cause of public edification, whoever the public may be down the line.

 

And so really, the most, one of the most complicated and fascinating, rewarding parts of the process were the three or so years we were bringing in a stakeholder community, sort of advisory group of about 90 people representing many different slices of the pie of people that were directly affected, of course, the victims families members having a very special place in that, but lower Manhattan residents and first responders and companies, businesses that were dislocated from downtown, investigators and so forth. We would lay out our thinking on, you know, as we were going forward to invite their response. So, they felt, you know, they were part of it.

 

First and foremost, they knew that on our project we were mostly professional museum makers, you know, curators or exhibit developers, educators, architects, designers. In a way that was a huge blessing, if I could say, because we were not government appointees. So, we didn’t have that agenda, sort of, you know, scarred on our backs. But what we didn’t realize was how cocooned many of these stakeholder communities were from one another. You know, they were so caught up in their own, the intense grief and the intense dislocation and pain you know, and trying to get some form of balance again, that they had no idea any other group might have felt pain of, perhaps not of exactly the same kind of pain they had felt. And so, it was like listening to them listen to each other and fight with each other, but also come to common ground that was so important. We had to sit back and watch them do it themselves.

 

We put it through this test and we still, to this day, there’s a group that’s very unhappy with the design of the 9/11 memorial. They’re very unhappy that the repository is underground. They’re very unhappy that the public at large, not family members, have to pay to go in, pay to pray is sort of the critique. On the other hand, I would say some of our friends from particular type of press, when they want to rile things up, they’ll go to those, you know, 12 people for comment. They never go to the thousands of other people who seem to be pleased and resolved, who have been participants in the process who are so proud of what has happened there, you know, who bring their young family members there, because that doesn’t generate headlines, you know. But that’s, that’s the world.

 

Abby: That’s for a different podcast, we could totally talk about that, yeah.

 

So, I’ll steal a bit of Brenda’s thread of a love for objects and their meanings. So how do you see the role of the vast types and amounts of objects you’re working with at the Memorial Museum? And I’ll sort of also add, I haven’t been back for a few years, so I’m not aware how often you actually move things. Some of the huge pieces I know probably never move, but if you could sort of talk, imagine someone’s not been there, talk about some of the artifacts that are there and then what does move and change?

 

Jan: Well, part of the project from the beginning, because there was a window of opportunity to bring back some of the big gigantic relics of the site itself and the damaged rescue apparatus—we had to select those materials before we even knew the stories associated with them, you know, to bring and drop down into the site because the memorial was years ahead of the museum in terms of its planning. And that was our roof. And if we didn’t move quickly and live with imperfection, but, you know, also let emotions kind of speak a little more loudly than they might otherwise speak in a deliberative process, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity, for example, to bring back the last column, which was the 39 foot tall relic from the South Tower that had been there from the very beginning of the towers being built and it was the last vestige sort of standing the day the site closed, actually the day before when it was cut down and it was brought out as a proxy for all the people that were not found and functioned on site as the first memorial where the different rescue recovery groups and disaster volunteers and occasional family members had been able to come in and put their mark on it in different forms.

 

So, we had the big eyewitness objects and then we had the exquisitely intimate, you know, human scaled items that we do not yet have a lead on. And we knew that we were going to have to have a strategy before we went out to collect them. You know, it’s one thing to say we’d like to collect recovered personal effects from people that lost their lives or whose lives were ever changed, but we owed those potential donors the explanation, how are you going to use them? And that became another kind of complicated part of the journey, because first and foremost, we had to write a collection policy. Can’t build a collection without a collection policy. It’s kind of a, you know, kind of dull and dry part of the process, but you do have to do it, and I sat down to do it, but we had to have the talk with our prospective donors, which is not everything will be on view all the time. What you’re doing is you’re in part doing a symbolic act by giving something physical associated with your loved one’s life, possibly with the end of his or her life, and possibly with the prime of their life or their beginning of their life, and you are putting it symbolically at a place where their life ended. So, their memory will always live on here.

 

And that’s a hard, that’s a hard conversation for people who are not necessarily museum savvy audiences. Also that because in our case, with victims alone, we were dealing with a population of about 3000 people, that the space we had couldn’t possibly tell the stories of 3000 people through, you know, 3000 people’s stuff, we would have the faces of the victims and have the short biographies about them, and we would find ways to cycle through examples of personal effects and personal materials and mementos that the families had chosen. And so, in a way, they were given a chance to co-curate that collection with us. They set the terms of why it was a valued thing. We didn’t.

 

Abby: The stories though must be pretty key, right? Because like this bottle of water I’ve got could be all scrunched down, the story that goes with it could be moving and incredible or it could be just absolutely not interesting because it’s the connection with the person and the story that this object represents. Because, yeah, there must have been a selection process, right? People brought in tons and tons of stuff and then you would have to listen to the stories but then curate what you thought would resonate with people, right?

 

Jan: Yes, to a degree. And you are absolutely right. This is a museum where provenance or context is all, in most cases. And speaking of, you know, water bottles, for example, there was a young man who had lost his brother. His brother had been killed in the North Tower, and he came in and indeed presented a bottle of, you know, Perrier water or an empty bottle that was not actually empty. There was a little bit of dust in the bottom of it, completely humdrum looking object. And then he explained that on the first anniversary of the attacks, the first time he’d ever been allowed to go down the ramp to Ground Zero, he had scooped up some of the dust because his brother was one of the unfortunate people who had never been found and to him the dust was sacred.

 

So, we try to be very attentive and anything that comes into our collection comes in through a process. We have an acquisitions and loans committee and, you know, we have to not only think about can we care for it, can we conserve it, where are we going to store it, how we’re going to house it, you know, will it have options for display, but it is how are we going to tell the story, what we know about this, for the record, when the person telling us isn’t necessarily a historian, we have no way of particularly vetting what they’re saying, but they’re sharing their story. And we had to live with a certain level of historical discomfort.

 

Our oral historian, for example, you know, who’s been with us from the beginning, often says, you know, somebody will get 10 minutes into their story, and she knows she knows more actually, about the day or the place or the what probably could have happened and probably didn’t happen. But, but it’s the story, it’s what, you know, trauma does to your memory. That’s really what we’re collecting. It’s not the accuracy per say.

 

Abby: A lot of the work we do is contextualizing these artifacts and trying to bring them back to life. But also, in terms of the spaces people are in, because seeing them in, on a nice, neat plinth in a beautiful white room or however it’s perfectly designed, doesn’t really evoke the time and the place, and so we end up oftentimes designing really immersive experiences and places, settings for these objects.

 

When you come into your museum, it’s already baked in, the emotions, when you enter the site from above are like, you can’t help but be flooded. And so then going down into the belly of the beast, so to speak, and being in that place, it has that loaded environment, at least for me it had that. I used to have a—I was right there when the Twin Towers got hit actually. I had just gone under on the E train. It had stopped, the lights had gone out and I was the last train to make it up into Tribeca where our offices were. And so, I was actually on the street when the, when it all sort of started to shatter. And so, when I went to the space, it was an incredibly moving experience.

 

And I think that having it in that specific space, rather than having the museum uptown, let’s say, for example, adds a lot of that emotional engagement and resonance that I feel is sometimes missing or could be missing if it had been built in a different environment, if that makes sense.

 

Jan: It makes complete sense. And, you know, the first artifact I curate or conserve, care for—and when I say I, it of course means that, all the team I represent—is the archeological cavity itself, combined with the memory of the day, people’s personal stories, the blue sky, it was an election day in New York, I mean, the many different ways people start their 9/11 story.

 

The site itself is so powerful that we have to respect its power. We know that many visitors to the 9/11 Memorial Museum today will have never seen the World Trade Center in its prime, and we need to give them time to adjust to the reality of what they’re looking at. It’s a confusing space. I mean, you know, it’s seven stories below ground and it’s only when you’re sort of halfway down the ramp that we begin to give you a different cue in your journey. And that’s the beginning of the projections of the missing person fliers that started to be seen in the streets of New York that afternoon, in that evening.

 

Brenda: There is something that I think is really important to make sure that we ask you, and it’s about following up with the idea of how soon is too soon. I know when I bring my students to meet with you every year, which you are so generous about, my students are coming from all over the world, and a number of them every year are coming from places that are dealing with tragic circumstances in lifetime and oftentimes will ask me afterwards or we’ll have a group discussion afterwards about, you know, was it too soon to start the institution just a few years after the tragedy, or is it still too soon to be having these conversations? And it becomes a very rich dialog. And I’d love to hear your perspective on the whole idea of when is too soon, too soon?

 

Jan: We’ve certainly heard the too soon, too sad, too sacred, too, you know, the, all the reasons, legitimate reasons why our active collecting, curating, producing a museum probably was a curious, if not a strange, if not a threatening idea to some people. I know as a, you know, person who has been in the world of historical material culture, I know that we have lost the context for so much of the physical materials that are in museum collections because we didn’t move soon enough. And I think there’s the difference I would make—it’s a very generalized difference—is I don’t think it’s ever too soon to collect. It may be too soon to exhibit. And so, collecting and getting the context right, the provenance right, getting the storyteller, the donor right, figuring out if the person, for starters, even had the legal right to donate it. I think that that is something you have to do fleet of foot, if you can.

 

One thing we’ve done at the 9/11 Museum is we have made a great investment in our conservation staff and they are incredibly ingenious people who are basically being challenged every day to think about two things. One is how do you preserve trauma and damage? But I think I’m of the school that sometimes you need to move much more quickly than you wish you could, and that if you are doing it with people you respect, they don’t have to be curators, they don’t have to be conservators, but they’re people that are knowledgeable about the community or the event or the where they can go to rest for a period of time, your gut instincts, your collective gut instincts are often going to prove themselves pretty good.

 

Abby: Turning to the media, because that’s my area of specialty. Overall, the museum doesn’t feel censored. Was there an awareness of that? Because I imagine it could be leveled as a criticism. It’s too much. People shouldn’t see this, yada, yada, yada. I think it’s fantastic and exactly where it needs to be. And I think that I see other institutions sometimes pulling back and not showing the truth of what happened.

 

Jan: One thing I had to learn was I was not working at a museum. I was working at a memorial museum. And that is a huge qualifier. We have, you know, part of the ethic of our institution is an abiding reverence for human life. Human life tragically ended in horrible ways on the day itself, and we had many, many, many, many different debates about, you know, for example, the images of the falling people. But we felt that if we omitted it, it was such an indelible part of the day’s chemistry that if we omitted it, we would be raising questions for all kinds of people about what else we had omitted. So, instead, we decided to put it in an alcove and give people some sort of advance warning if you wish to.

 

And then there was even a discussion, you know, tragically, so many pictures and video tapes and newsreel footage of that incredible, unbelievable, terrible act, but we felt that we couldn’t put them up as mounted photos. They needed to be projected and just come and go, come and go, because we did not want them to become some kind of strange icons. And the one thing, though, you will not find in the 9/11 Museum, and that does not mean we do not have it in our collection. You will not see publicly, images of body parts on the street because again, we felt that that violated the respect for human life.

 

Brenda: I know from the research work that I did with your museum, memorial museum and the wonderful people who I was so fortunate to be able to interview and for whom your institution is so important, hope and healing is a paramount part of their experience and also, I think, is a big part of the intention of the Memorial museum. And I’m really curious how you interpret the idea of the 9/11 Memorial Museum as a place of hope and healing. How do you interpret that personally?

 

Jan: Well, every day I watch people from many different parts of the country and parts of the world coming together. They come in as strangers. They may not go out as friends, but something is happening to them. There is an energy change where they’re seeing each other sort of stripped to the bone of what we love in the world, and we value in the world. And it transcends nationalities and religions and backgrounds. And it is a very moving thing to watch happen.

 

We just, we happened to meet with our docents yesterday, who are remarkable people, they’re the people that are on the front line every day, and they were talking about friends who would say to them, you’re volunteering to be a docent in the 9— how could you deal with it? And they talked about just the remarkable emotional and spiritual in some cases uplift they have from working with people and the hugs that get, you know, freely shared.

 

The other thing I would say is, apart from the fact I’ve always considered it a museum about humanity, it’s not about terrorism. It is about the decency of people to one another. What we can do when we are pushed to the wall and in a terrible predicament. As we worried, we really haven’t delivered the ending, the uplift, the never again if, you know, the naivete of, although the power of never again, we just haven’t delivered it. How can you give people an ending when every day in the press still, this event is still unspooling? I mean, to this very day, criminal evidence is still being held for people that have not yet come to trial. I mean, there’s you know, people are dying of the health effects. I mean, there’s just, there’s a lot going on still.

 

But all that said, the remarkable thing is how people, you know, who, they’ve made the descent down into the museum, they’ve experienced the museum, and they’re literally coming up. And when they walk out onto the Memorial plaza, they’re going to see it, through fresh eyes, probably, the miracle of a rebuilt downtown skyline, and, you know, the memorial plaza with the trees that have matured, so if you’re there in the summer or the fall, there’s the show of the trees and the sound of the water, and it kind of smells good because of the nature. So, in a funny way, the place and the city provided something uplifting. And that is, you know, just the incredible power and grit of human beings to get up, dust themselves off and take that next step forward, and it’s just renewal.

 

Brenda: Gosh, there’s just so much that’s so tempting to ask about and even, you know, not as a question, but something, you know, for folks to consider as well, is that the 9/11 Memorial Museum also has to deal with and consider current events as well. It’s so much beyond just the day. And so, for an institution, you are constantly growing and evolving and shaping yourselves. So, I just want to commend you for what is a tremendously complex, truly complex job that you do with a great deal of love.

 

Abby: And grace. I’d also just like to thank you, Jan, for joining us and sharing your experience in such an open, candid way. And I’m hoping that our audience, our listeners will go. Go to the September 11th Memorial Museum experience it. It is a spiritual place. It is a complete journey for the soul when you go there. But I think you’re right, at the end of the day, the feeling is a positive one about humanity and the way that we come together in a crisis. So I just wanted to thank you so much today, Jan, for sharing with us.

 

Jan: Thank you.

 

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

 

Brenda: Thank you, 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

911 Memorial

Hope and Healing with Jan Seidler Ramirez

Hope and Healing with Jan Seidler Ramirez

January 24, 2024
Demystifying AI with Chris Cooper

Demystifying AI with Chris Cooper

January 10, 2024
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
/imagine two podcast hosts, Abby and Brenda, speaking to a guest, Chris Cooper, at a recording studio in New York City about utilizing artificial intelligence to explore the synergy of human ingenuity and machine intelligence within experience design. --style raw
Born in Austin, Texas, he graduated from the Faculty of Political Science at Bates College, located in the state of Maine, and then received his MBA at the University of Berkeley in California. Between 1998-2005, he worked as a financial analyst at the largest Boston bank FleetBoston. At 32, he decided to completely change his line of business and devote himself to filmmaking. He produced several documentaries, including Life in an Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders, which was shortlisted for the Oscar. In 2008 he became a partner in the company Lorem Ipsum. He participated in the creation of numerous advertising, film and exhibition projects, including multimedia installations, installed in the international offices of Google, a large-scale exhibition at the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg.

Episode 38: Demystifying AI w/ Chris Cooper 

 

Transcript 

 

[Music]

 

AI Abby: Welcome to Matters of Experience. This podcast is produced by Lorem Ipsum, an experience design company headquartered in New York City. Our show explores the creativity, innovation and psychology driving designed experiences. If you’re new, welcome, and to our regular listeners, thanks for tuning in and supporting our conversation. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

AI Brenda And I’m Brenda Cowan.

 

AI Abby: Today’s show, we are going to take a deep dive into artificial intelligence and experience design, looking at how we collaborate with AI during the process of creating a museum, the limitations right now and general potential worries about the future impact on our industry.

 

AI Brenda: But we couldn’t start a show about AI without using AI.

 

AI Abby: Brenda, I want to reveal that I am Abby and you heard AI Brenda earlier. So, I am going to hand the show over to the real Abby and Brenda, but I will be back for the show sign-off.

 

Brenda: Oh, my God. Did you miss us, everybody? We were here all along. I was here all along terrified, listening to Abby sound like this and just wondering, how on earth did that happen?

 

Abby: I do think, Brenda, that you did sound better than me.

 

Brenda: I sound better than I really do in real life.

 

Abby: AI has something against people from the North West of England.

 

So, love it or hate it, AI is taking over, causing some to worry about job loss, bias, or security while others enjoy the convenience, productivity, innovation, and personalization it affords. Today, we welcome my business partner at Lorem Ipsum, Chris Cooper, to the show. He’s been obsessed with AI for a while at this point and is knee deep in our R&D in AI and also spearheads its application in our experience design team. Chris, a big hello.

 

Chris: Hello.

 

Brenda: Hello Chris, this is Brenda. It’s very nice to meet you.

 

Chris: You actually sound worse than your actual AI.

 

Brenda: I’m sure I do. No, in all seriousness, it’s such a pleasure to meet you, and I am genuinely curious about all things AI. And also, I know we’re going to talk a lot about AI in terms of our processes and our protocols and our work in design and so forth, and I thought I would just share with you a very few areas in my workplace where we are working with AI, and it includes all areas of business, technology, mathematics, sciences, gaming, design of all types and English studies, English as -second language studies, and it is absolutely everywhere in the world of higher education, and with all of the considerations and concerns and even conflicts that come along with that.

 

Chris: I think academia, it’s interesting because I typically think of—this is probably a prejudice—but I typically think of academia as kind of being stuck in not the most advanced technologically, but for whatever reason, this is like, it’s like the front lines for a lot of AI discussions and what have you. So, it’s kind of an interesting perspective that you have.

 

Brenda: It’s really interesting when you’ve got students, and I’ll speak on behalf of my institution, you know, it is an incredibly global institution, both in terms of the student body, but also the faculty and staff—

 

Abby: I just want to plug that’s FIT for anybody who wasn’t aware.

 

Brenda: FIT in New York City. And it’s virtually impossible for us to be teaching a large number, especially in our schools of business and technology, our schools of art and design; we have to be teaching AI because our students are and we’re working directly with industry.

 

Chris: And they’re going to use it. So, you have to get out ahead of it so that you can participate in how they use it and make sure that you guide them in the right direction.

 

Brenda: Right, which to a person such as myself is, honestly, it’s not terrifying, but it’s definitely, you know, I’m feeling like I’ve got so much catchup work to do, which I’m determined to do, but I’m really looking forward to diving deeply into not just the kinds of AI that you’ve been using, but the reasons why, and how it’s really working, because I think I’m going to take a lot out of this conversation.

 

Chris: You know, one thing that I think we should establish right now is I am not an expert, right? Like, I’m just a guy who’s trying to figure out how this is going to work in what we actually do to make money, right. And the second thing is, everything’s happening so fast that even anything that we talk about right now, in a few weeks, months, is going to be completely dated, which is really frustrating when you’re in my position where you’re trying to figure out workflows, and they’re constantly changing.

 

But I think that everything’s developing so quickly that I’m not sure that we’re in a position right now where people are behind. In the sense that, like, everything that I’ve gained or expertise that I have right now may expire in three months, and if you start doing stuff right now, you may be caught up with where I am in three months because new tools will come out. And all the new tools that are coming out, they’re trying so hard to make them accessible for people right now. Right now, most of the stuff that we have is pretty janky, for lack of a better word, and you kind of have to hack things together to make them work. And I think that that’s, kind of feeds into a lot of people’s hesitance to adopt it and also a lot of people’s fear about what it might mean because it’s so foreign and it’s not accessible.

 

Abby: Well, I’ll start. We’re going to start at the very beginning because I know, Chris, we use a lot of language models. So, can you describe, so, at the beginning of a project, when we have a team, and we’re just even brainstorming, you know, how you collaborate with AI?

 

Chris: I mean, in general, language models are like the most prominent AI that we’re using, right? So ChatGPT obviously is kind of the leader in that area, but we also use Claude, which is another one. So, what we’ll do is we’ll use the language models to brainstorm the initial ideas. If we’re doing a concept and we usually get together and we kind of talk about the concept, what the client wants, what we’re starting to think about and just starting to wrap our heads around it. And what I do, and not everybody on our team does, but what I do is I feed all of that into the language model. I feed any documents that the client has given us. I feed any conversations that we’ve had, and I start having a conversation with the model about what we might be able to do for this concept.

 

And I think that’s like a key thing that I’ve seen internally, that it’s a stumbling block for a lot of people, is a lot of people are just like, go to the model and type in, give me ten ideas for this. And the model kind of just goes blah, and gives you like stereotypical, trite ideas, and then they leave it there, and they’re like, oh, see, AI’s stupid. And what you really need to do is have an iterative conversation with it, where you tell it all this stuff, you start telling it what you want and giving it some of your like nuanced ideas, see what it gives back to you. Then you correct it and say, no, I don’t like that. I want it more like this.

 

And you end up having a conversation. And the way I think about it is, you know, when you’re teaching somebody something you really like start to learn the material even better than the way you originally learned it, because it challenges you to fill in all the holes in your thinking. Well, these conversations that you have with a language model start to force you to think creatively about what you actually want to do with the concept because you’re having a conversation where you’re directing the model towards what you want it to end up with.

 

Then, once that has happened, I will have the AI play a different role with me where I have it critique the ideas. So I then say, okay, approach this like you’re an expert in the field of exhibit design or what have you, critique those ideas, and then I’ll take that critique, and I’ll feed it back into the brainstorming session I had and tell the AI that I’m brainstorming with, change the original ideas we came up with to address these critiques, and then it will generate whole new ideas based on this critique that it essentially has provided. And so, you enter this kind of iterative cycle where you begin to develop more and more interesting, unique ideas than you would if you just sat down by yourself.

 

Brenda: This is so much like cooking.

 

Chris: Yeah, I guess it is a little bit like cooking.

 

Brenda: I’m getting such a strong sensibility of how it is that things can just endlessly be reduced and refined. And my question for you is, when do you know that you’ve got the sweet spot? When is that sauce perfectly reduced?

 

Chris: Well, it’s just when you like it, when you’ve got ideas that you like and then you go back to your partners, and you talk to them and either they respond to them or they don’t. But it just, it’s a process that allows you to kind of get out of your head.

 

And then one thing that I left out that I’ll typically do is I’ll then also ask it to critique it not just from like how good an idea it is, but like what sort of red flags or issues might someone have with this. So those could be political concerns. Those could be like, I don’t know, blind spots that I may have culturally. And so at least that lets me think about that before I just blindly go in and present something and I haven’t thought about like, oh, these indigenous people from this sector may have an issue with this.

 

Brenda: Give me a story because we all know that part of the challenge with AI is bias, and we know that there are racial and cultural biases. That said, when you use your technology towards trying to better understand your own thinking and perhaps your own, like you said, blind spots, can you give us a story of that happening and, does anything come to mind?

 

Chris: I think a lot of what you’re talking about, and what a lot of people critique, is that it’s a very passive perspective when you bump into those prejudice. It’s like, give me this, and it gives you that, and you’re like, oh, well, that’s, that’s got a bias. Whereas what I’m talking about is it’s a conversation you’re having. And when you have a conversation with people, every single person you have a conversation with has a bias, and you just have a conversation, and you dismiss the bias, or you say, no, that’s a bad idea, that’s stupid, or no, we need to think about this or whatever, so you can get past those biases if you’re aware of them, right?

 

Another thing that I would say is AIs don’t just have, or we should talk about, language models; they don’t just have one perspective. Part of when you prompt them is you prompt them to have the perspective you want them to have. So, if I prompt it to brainstorm with me, I tell it it’s the greatest exhibit designer in the world, you’ve won all of the awards, and then that gets it to start thinking that I need to respond as this.

 

And if you think about how these models work is they’re predictive models, and they’re trying to predict the next word or token, right? Well, when you start just with the blank page, they’re doing that prediction based off of everything that it’s been trained on. It doesn’t care if it’s right or wrong. It is just going to say what is the most likely next thing to say. As soon as I say, you’re the greatest exhibit designer in the world, you’ve won, blah, blah, blah, all the sudden, it narrows that down so that what it’s predicting to say is only based on the data associated with the very best exhibit designer in the world.

 

Brenda: So, have you run into any kinds of challenges? I’ll just throw out one, you know, challenge that I encounter in my work, which is hallucinations. If I’m asking students to write a scholarly paper and the next thing you know, they’ve got all of these, you know, citations and these resources for, yes, actual authors, but with fake books.

 

Chris: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

Brenda: Right?

 

Chris: Absolutely.

 

Brenda: Do you run into this?

 

Chris: Yeah, so that’s why when you’re doing conceptual stuff, right, it’s really well-suited to that because when you’re doing conceptual stuff, you’re not asking it to give you like—

 

Brenda: Facts.

 

Chris: —facts. You’re just brainstorming, right?

 

Brenda: Yup.

 

Chris: The hallucination stuff is something you have to be careful of, but that’s going to become much more of a concern later in the process. As far as the brainstorming, obviously, you should be aware of that. But, you know, if you think about the tools we usually use for brainstorming, you’re going to be searching the Internet, you’re looking at Wikipedia. All of these sources are prone to mistakes—

 

Brenda: Yeah, it’s the wild west.

 

Chris: —that you’re always going to have to take into account. So, it’s the same type of thing as you’re probably having to teach your students all the time; don’t just accept what you find as fact. You always have to like—

 

Brenda: Of course.

 

Chris: —think about it and, review it and go back and critique it.

 

Abby: So, when you have an idea, and you move into the concepting, we use Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, and DALL-E, can you tell us about that process and some of the benefits of AI at that stage?

 

Chris: Right. So, so far, we’ve talked pretty much about the language models, right? What Abby is talking about are like the text-to-image models. And so, what we’ll do is we will take the ideas that we came up with, even if they weren’t developed with AI, say someone just has an idea. We’ll still go to the text-to-image—

 

Abby: Which we still do, just to note to all the listeners, we’re not only using AI, we do have our ideas.

 

Chris: Of course. What we’ll do is will take whatever idea that it is, and we’ll put it into the text-to-image model. And it’s a great tool because when people have an idea, we can all say the same idea, but as soon as you see a picture of it, you all realize that none of y’all were thinking the same thing. You’re like, oh, that’s blue. And Abby will be like, no, it’s white. And you know, you’ll have the whole conversation like that.

 

Brenda: You know, I’m curious, as you know, the conversation unfolds, I’m really curious about your process at your company for generating exhibit ideas, exhibit concepts, exhibit images. You, I presume, before you were actively using these models, you had a process for brainstorming, generating, producing, and so forth. Has your process changed as a result of this, and in what way?

 

Chris: Well, so traditionally, we’d have sketches sometimes, sometimes we would be photoshopping things together, and then we would move past that. And we still do this. We still model, but the hurdle for modeling and creating renders is much higher than going into a text-to-image generator where you can just spit out stuff, right?

 

Traditionally, what we would do is we would sell in a concept, maybe have a few directional renders that we did. And then, once the concept has been approved, we would go through the design process, and the design process would be much more rigorous because we would be using actual 3D modeling software, we would be using the architectural models that came over from like the shell and core from whatever architect is working on the space, so everything’s accurate.

 

And then that can be intensive because then you’re like properly modeling things out, you’re properly texturing everything, you’re properly lighting everything, and you’re generating those renders and then presenting imagery based off of that, maybe even bringing it into a game engine so that people can walk around in the space and have real-time experiences with it and that is not going to go away because clients are going to still want at some point an accurate model of the space.

 

I think it will all change with these technologies, but you will move from like a conceptual text-to-image idea presentation up to a more and more accurate model that may incorporate AI into it, but it will still have like accurate measurements.

 

Brenda: So, in your brainstorming process, do you find yourself using words and language a little bit less and going right into visual, visual images and that sort of thing? Or are you still…

 

Chris: We’re still using language. You still have to tell the story behind it. But what’s happening is because the imagery is so easy to create now, we can even internally, when we’re brainstorming, we can be generating imagery to show each other even as we’re talking. So, the images are informing the brainstorm at a much earlier stage.

 

Abby: And it’s interesting, as Chris mentioned, it’s easy to make these images. What’s hard is to make the images that are right for the project, and that will never change. And there are some drawbacks as well. Like Chris and I feel that DALL-E’s visuals are a little plastic, right? And the texture isn’t really nice. They’re not lush. They look a bit plasticky.

 

Chris: Yeah. 

 

Abby: It’s still not there yet.

 

Chris: So, all of the models have positives and negatives to them. So, like Midjourney is like a beautiful, cinematic imagery, but it’s harder to prompt right now. You have all of these disparate things that, to your analogy, it’s a little bit like cooking. You’re like, oh, let’s, let’s bring all this together, and then you can mix them in different ways to come up with really interesting outputs.

 

Abby: Do you think, Chris, that collaborating with AI on concepts has resulted in sort of the end result being less valued than it were if a human was creating it?

 

Chris: I think that that’s a danger that we’re going to run into, and we’ve seen this in other areas. We saw a lot of this in video work where, you know, there was a time where in order to like cut a video, you had to have all this equipment that people didn’t have access to. Once people had access to iMovie, their value for what we would do when we were making a video went down because they’re like, my nephew can make a video, and you’re like, yeah, but your nephew can’t make this video. But somewhere in their head, they’re like, my nephew—

 

Same thing is going to happen here where, used to be in order to make beautiful renders it required like a level of investment between having the right people on your staff, the right equipment, the right amount of time, the expertise, all that sort of stuff. Now, you’re going to have a lot of people who can just crank out a lot of imagery, and not everyone’s going to be able to tell the difference between, or they may be able to tell the difference between a good image and a not-so-good image. But they’re not going to value the expertise that created that difference.

 

Brenda: So, this is like, you know, Sunday evening dinner conversation in my household because my husband’s a digital retoucher and, as of right now, and he does very high-end retouching for print, photoshop is not, the AI is not there yet to be able to do pristine, pristine level image creation for what he does. But, you know, I think these kinds of things, it’s really only a matter of time before Photoshop truly can just create magnificent, truly magnificent images that a trained artist can create. And/or is the standard going to be so low? I mean it. Is the standard going to be lowered, chipped away at bit by bit?

 

Chris: I wouldn’t have immediately thought what you’re thinking. But if you look at what happened with video when the Internet happened, the quality of video just went to pot, and everyone just got accustomed to bad video. And you’re right, something like that may start to happen, but there’s still going to be a difference.

 

And I think the best way I can describe it is our other partner, Yan, is a DP, so he’s great with lighting and setting up shots, right? And even when we create a render where we push it through our entire workflow with really talented 3D artists and they do a great job, right? And then they send over a render, and we’re like, no, because they framed it wrong, and they haven’t lit it the way it should be lit. And then Yan can sit down and be like, well, no, just lower the camera, change the lens, tilt this, like you need a backlight over here, and all of a sudden, it completely changes the image. The difference between those two images might not be readily apparent to a lot of people, but when you’re selling something, someone is going to have an emotional reaction to the one that Yan lit and framed, and they won’t to the other one.

 

Abby: I would like to say with Chris’s example of video as well, although there’s a proliferation of low quality, low budget media everywhere, there are still remained the feature films, the ultra-high budget, the way they’re shooting it, the technology—

 

Brenda: Oh yeah, the 70mm.

 

Abby: Yeah, exactly. So, I think the best always remains. So, I think your husband is fine, and he’ll always have a job, you can let him know. It’s going to be fine; we’ll still need his skill set.

 

Brenda: It’s not about him.

 

Abby: But I think that, you, society always values the best of the best. I just think there’s a proliferation of crap, maybe.

  

Brenda: From what I understand, it’s hard to really capture in words at this point; AI is not quite capturing a level of emotion that you know can be found right in the human hand, if you will.

 

Chris: Yeah, I think in general, and I think there’s a fair amount of debate in this about how far can AI advance if it is not experiencing the world, right? I mean, we all experience the world, and a part of the connection that we establish with one another when we make art or whatever it is is through that shared experience where, somehow, we’re tapping into what it is to have been alive and experience things. And if AI just is completely foreign to all of that, it may never be able to do that.

 

Brenda: Well, ultimately, right, AI is understanding the world through people’s interpretations of the world.

 

Chris: Well, except for now, that’s changing.

 

Brenda: Tell me.

 

Chris: Well, like a language model is trained by just feeding it like the Internet, right? As the models are becoming multimodal, which means they can see and they can hear, they’re going to start experiencing the world more like we do. And if—now, this is where I’m getting out of my depth, right, but this is how it seems to me—if they start experiencing the world more like we do, then what we’re talking about may start to go away.

 

Brenda: Yeah, it’s fascinating to still push for my part anyway, the idea that ultimately it is still perceiving other people’s generated data. So, the question will be at what point, right, is this truly autonomous and what that autonomy is going to mean in a, you know, and we could talk about agency as well, AI having its own agency.

 

Abby: Yeah, I mean, for me, it’s all about evolution is inevitable and it seems like AI is part of our evolution and may take us over as we evolve. We’re constantly moving, and we feel like we’ve always been here as we are today and have never changed. But we have. And you look back a million or so or even nearer, and we weren’t the way we are today.

 

So, I think the future is hopeful, and we’ll see what technology does and how it augments us as it is already doing. So, okay, I’m going to hand the outro over to AI. We’re going to feed this edited podcast into it and give it some of our previous outros, and see how it decides to wrap up our show today. So, take it away AI Abby and Brenda.

 

AI Abby: Well, that wraps up another intriguing conversation. We’ve delved deep into the world of AI, its applications, and its potential impacts.

 

AI Brenda: Absolutely. It’s been a pleasure exploring these nuanced perspectives. And as always, we appreciate you joining us on this journey.

 

AI Abby: Indeed. Thank you for tuning in today. If you enjoyed the show, subscribe to Matters of Experience wherever you get your podcasts. Don’t forget to leave a rating and review and share it with your friends.

 

AI Brenda: Until next time, stay curious and stay engaged. Thank you for being part of this exploration with us.

 

AI Abby: Thank you, everyone. See you on the next episode.

 

[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

ChatGPT

Claude AI

Midjourney

Stability AI

DALL·E 3

 

Born in Austin, Texas, he graduated from the Faculty of Political Science at Bates College, located in the state of Maine, and then received his MBA at the University of Berkeley in California. Between 1998-2005, he worked as a financial analyst at the largest Boston bank FleetBoston. At 32, he decided to completely change his line of business and devote himself to filmmaking. He produced several documentaries, including Life in an Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders, which was shortlisted for the Oscar. In 2008 he became a partner in the company Lorem Ipsum. He participated in the creation of numerous advertising, film and exhibition projects, including multimedia installations, installed in the international offices of Google, a large-scale exhibition at the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg.

Episode 38: Demystifying AI w/ Chris Cooper 

 

Transcript 

 

[Music]

 

AI Abby: Welcome to Matters of Experience. This podcast is produced by Lorem Ipsum, an experience design company headquartered in New York City. Our show explores the creativity, innovation and psychology driving designed experiences. If you’re new, welcome, and to our regular listeners, thanks for tuning in and supporting our conversation. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

AI Brenda And I’m Brenda Cowan.

 

AI Abby: Today’s show, we are going to take a deep dive into artificial intelligence and experience design, looking at how we collaborate with AI during the process of creating a museum, the limitations right now and general potential worries about the future impact on our industry.

 

AI Brenda: But we couldn’t start a show about AI without using AI.

 

AI Abby: Brenda, I want to reveal that I am Abby and you heard AI Brenda earlier. So, I am going to hand the show over to the real Abby and Brenda, but I will be back for the show sign-off.

 

Brenda: Oh, my God. Did you miss us, everybody? We were here all along. I was here all along terrified, listening to Abby sound like this and just wondering, how on earth did that happen?

 

Abby: I do think, Brenda, that you did sound better than me.

 

Brenda: I sound better than I really do in real life.

 

Abby: AI has something against people from the North West of England.

 

So, love it or hate it, AI is taking over, causing some to worry about job loss, bias, or security while others enjoy the convenience, productivity, innovation, and personalization it affords. Today, we welcome my business partner at Lorem Ipsum, Chris Cooper, to the show. He’s been obsessed with AI for a while at this point and is knee deep in our R&D in AI and also spearheads its application in our experience design team. Chris, a big hello.

 

Chris: Hello.

 

Brenda: Hello Chris, this is Brenda. It’s very nice to meet you.

 

Chris: You actually sound worse than your actual AI.

 

Brenda: I’m sure I do. No, in all seriousness, it’s such a pleasure to meet you, and I am genuinely curious about all things AI. And also, I know we’re going to talk a lot about AI in terms of our processes and our protocols and our work in design and so forth, and I thought I would just share with you a very few areas in my workplace where we are working with AI, and it includes all areas of business, technology, mathematics, sciences, gaming, design of all types and English studies, English as -second language studies, and it is absolutely everywhere in the world of higher education, and with all of the considerations and concerns and even conflicts that come along with that.

 

Chris: I think academia, it’s interesting because I typically think of—this is probably a prejudice—but I typically think of academia as kind of being stuck in not the most advanced technologically, but for whatever reason, this is like, it’s like the front lines for a lot of AI discussions and what have you. So, it’s kind of an interesting perspective that you have.

 

Brenda: It’s really interesting when you’ve got students, and I’ll speak on behalf of my institution, you know, it is an incredibly global institution, both in terms of the student body, but also the faculty and staff—

 

Abby: I just want to plug that’s FIT for anybody who wasn’t aware.

 

Brenda: FIT in New York City. And it’s virtually impossible for us to be teaching a large number, especially in our schools of business and technology, our schools of art and design; we have to be teaching AI because our students are and we’re working directly with industry.

 

Chris: And they’re going to use it. So, you have to get out ahead of it so that you can participate in how they use it and make sure that you guide them in the right direction.

 

Brenda: Right, which to a person such as myself is, honestly, it’s not terrifying, but it’s definitely, you know, I’m feeling like I’ve got so much catchup work to do, which I’m determined to do, but I’m really looking forward to diving deeply into not just the kinds of AI that you’ve been using, but the reasons why, and how it’s really working, because I think I’m going to take a lot out of this conversation.

 

Chris: You know, one thing that I think we should establish right now is I am not an expert, right? Like, I’m just a guy who’s trying to figure out how this is going to work in what we actually do to make money, right. And the second thing is, everything’s happening so fast that even anything that we talk about right now, in a few weeks, months, is going to be completely dated, which is really frustrating when you’re in my position where you’re trying to figure out workflows, and they’re constantly changing.

 

But I think that everything’s developing so quickly that I’m not sure that we’re in a position right now where people are behind. In the sense that, like, everything that I’ve gained or expertise that I have right now may expire in three months, and if you start doing stuff right now, you may be caught up with where I am in three months because new tools will come out. And all the new tools that are coming out, they’re trying so hard to make them accessible for people right now. Right now, most of the stuff that we have is pretty janky, for lack of a better word, and you kind of have to hack things together to make them work. And I think that that’s, kind of feeds into a lot of people’s hesitance to adopt it and also a lot of people’s fear about what it might mean because it’s so foreign and it’s not accessible.

 

Abby: Well, I’ll start. We’re going to start at the very beginning because I know, Chris, we use a lot of language models. So, can you describe, so, at the beginning of a project, when we have a team, and we’re just even brainstorming, you know, how you collaborate with AI?

 

Chris: I mean, in general, language models are like the most prominent AI that we’re using, right? So ChatGPT obviously is kind of the leader in that area, but we also use Claude, which is another one. So, what we’ll do is we’ll use the language models to brainstorm the initial ideas. If we’re doing a concept and we usually get together and we kind of talk about the concept, what the client wants, what we’re starting to think about and just starting to wrap our heads around it. And what I do, and not everybody on our team does, but what I do is I feed all of that into the language model. I feed any documents that the client has given us. I feed any conversations that we’ve had, and I start having a conversation with the model about what we might be able to do for this concept.

 

And I think that’s like a key thing that I’ve seen internally, that it’s a stumbling block for a lot of people, is a lot of people are just like, go to the model and type in, give me ten ideas for this. And the model kind of just goes blah, and gives you like stereotypical, trite ideas, and then they leave it there, and they’re like, oh, see, AI’s stupid. And what you really need to do is have an iterative conversation with it, where you tell it all this stuff, you start telling it what you want and giving it some of your like nuanced ideas, see what it gives back to you. Then you correct it and say, no, I don’t like that. I want it more like this.

 

And you end up having a conversation. And the way I think about it is, you know, when you’re teaching somebody something you really like start to learn the material even better than the way you originally learned it, because it challenges you to fill in all the holes in your thinking. Well, these conversations that you have with a language model start to force you to think creatively about what you actually want to do with the concept because you’re having a conversation where you’re directing the model towards what you want it to end up with.

 

Then, once that has happened, I will have the AI play a different role with me where I have it critique the ideas. So I then say, okay, approach this like you’re an expert in the field of exhibit design or what have you, critique those ideas, and then I’ll take that critique, and I’ll feed it back into the brainstorming session I had and tell the AI that I’m brainstorming with, change the original ideas we came up with to address these critiques, and then it will generate whole new ideas based on this critique that it essentially has provided. And so, you enter this kind of iterative cycle where you begin to develop more and more interesting, unique ideas than you would if you just sat down by yourself.

 

Brenda: This is so much like cooking.

 

Chris: Yeah, I guess it is a little bit like cooking.

 

Brenda: I’m getting such a strong sensibility of how it is that things can just endlessly be reduced and refined. And my question for you is, when do you know that you’ve got the sweet spot? When is that sauce perfectly reduced?

 

Chris: Well, it’s just when you like it, when you’ve got ideas that you like and then you go back to your partners, and you talk to them and either they respond to them or they don’t. But it just, it’s a process that allows you to kind of get out of your head.

 

And then one thing that I left out that I’ll typically do is I’ll then also ask it to critique it not just from like how good an idea it is, but like what sort of red flags or issues might someone have with this. So those could be political concerns. Those could be like, I don’t know, blind spots that I may have culturally. And so at least that lets me think about that before I just blindly go in and present something and I haven’t thought about like, oh, these indigenous people from this sector may have an issue with this.

 

Brenda: Give me a story because we all know that part of the challenge with AI is bias, and we know that there are racial and cultural biases. That said, when you use your technology towards trying to better understand your own thinking and perhaps your own, like you said, blind spots, can you give us a story of that happening and, does anything come to mind?

 

Chris: I think a lot of what you’re talking about, and what a lot of people critique, is that it’s a very passive perspective when you bump into those prejudice. It’s like, give me this, and it gives you that, and you’re like, oh, well, that’s, that’s got a bias. Whereas what I’m talking about is it’s a conversation you’re having. And when you have a conversation with people, every single person you have a conversation with has a bias, and you just have a conversation, and you dismiss the bias, or you say, no, that’s a bad idea, that’s stupid, or no, we need to think about this or whatever, so you can get past those biases if you’re aware of them, right?

 

Another thing that I would say is AIs don’t just have, or we should talk about, language models; they don’t just have one perspective. Part of when you prompt them is you prompt them to have the perspective you want them to have. So, if I prompt it to brainstorm with me, I tell it it’s the greatest exhibit designer in the world, you’ve won all of the awards, and then that gets it to start thinking that I need to respond as this.

 

And if you think about how these models work is they’re predictive models, and they’re trying to predict the next word or token, right? Well, when you start just with the blank page, they’re doing that prediction based off of everything that it’s been trained on. It doesn’t care if it’s right or wrong. It is just going to say what is the most likely next thing to say. As soon as I say, you’re the greatest exhibit designer in the world, you’ve won, blah, blah, blah, all the sudden, it narrows that down so that what it’s predicting to say is only based on the data associated with the very best exhibit designer in the world.

 

Brenda: So, have you run into any kinds of challenges? I’ll just throw out one, you know, challenge that I encounter in my work, which is hallucinations. If I’m asking students to write a scholarly paper and the next thing you know, they’ve got all of these, you know, citations and these resources for, yes, actual authors, but with fake books.

 

Chris: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

Brenda: Right?

 

Chris: Absolutely.

 

Brenda: Do you run into this?

 

Chris: Yeah, so that’s why when you’re doing conceptual stuff, right, it’s really well-suited to that because when you’re doing conceptual stuff, you’re not asking it to give you like—

 

Brenda: Facts.

 

Chris: —facts. You’re just brainstorming, right?

 

Brenda: Yup.

 

Chris: The hallucination stuff is something you have to be careful of, but that’s going to become much more of a concern later in the process. As far as the brainstorming, obviously, you should be aware of that. But, you know, if you think about the tools we usually use for brainstorming, you’re going to be searching the Internet, you’re looking at Wikipedia. All of these sources are prone to mistakes—

 

Brenda: Yeah, it’s the wild west.

 

Chris: —that you’re always going to have to take into account. So, it’s the same type of thing as you’re probably having to teach your students all the time; don’t just accept what you find as fact. You always have to like—

 

Brenda: Of course.

 

Chris: —think about it and, review it and go back and critique it.

 

Abby: So, when you have an idea, and you move into the concepting, we use Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, and DALL-E, can you tell us about that process and some of the benefits of AI at that stage?

 

Chris: Right. So, so far, we’ve talked pretty much about the language models, right? What Abby is talking about are like the text-to-image models. And so, what we’ll do is we will take the ideas that we came up with, even if they weren’t developed with AI, say someone just has an idea. We’ll still go to the text-to-image—

 

Abby: Which we still do, just to note to all the listeners, we’re not only using AI, we do have our ideas.

 

Chris: Of course. What we’ll do is will take whatever idea that it is, and we’ll put it into the text-to-image model. And it’s a great tool because when people have an idea, we can all say the same idea, but as soon as you see a picture of it, you all realize that none of y’all were thinking the same thing. You’re like, oh, that’s blue. And Abby will be like, no, it’s white. And you know, you’ll have the whole conversation like that.

 

Brenda: You know, I’m curious, as you know, the conversation unfolds, I’m really curious about your process at your company for generating exhibit ideas, exhibit concepts, exhibit images. You, I presume, before you were actively using these models, you had a process for brainstorming, generating, producing, and so forth. Has your process changed as a result of this, and in what way?

 

Chris: Well, so traditionally, we’d have sketches sometimes, sometimes we would be photoshopping things together, and then we would move past that. And we still do this. We still model, but the hurdle for modeling and creating renders is much higher than going into a text-to-image generator where you can just spit out stuff, right?

 

Traditionally, what we would do is we would sell in a concept, maybe have a few directional renders that we did. And then, once the concept has been approved, we would go through the design process, and the design process would be much more rigorous because we would be using actual 3D modeling software, we would be using the architectural models that came over from like the shell and core from whatever architect is working on the space, so everything’s accurate.

 

And then that can be intensive because then you’re like properly modeling things out, you’re properly texturing everything, you’re properly lighting everything, and you’re generating those renders and then presenting imagery based off of that, maybe even bringing it into a game engine so that people can walk around in the space and have real-time experiences with it and that is not going to go away because clients are going to still want at some point an accurate model of the space.

 

I think it will all change with these technologies, but you will move from like a conceptual text-to-image idea presentation up to a more and more accurate model that may incorporate AI into it, but it will still have like accurate measurements.

 

Brenda: So, in your brainstorming process, do you find yourself using words and language a little bit less and going right into visual, visual images and that sort of thing? Or are you still…

 

Chris: We’re still using language. You still have to tell the story behind it. But what’s happening is because the imagery is so easy to create now, we can even internally, when we’re brainstorming, we can be generating imagery to show each other even as we’re talking. So, the images are informing the brainstorm at a much earlier stage.

 

Abby: And it’s interesting, as Chris mentioned, it’s easy to make these images. What’s hard is to make the images that are right for the project, and that will never change. And there are some drawbacks as well. Like Chris and I feel that DALL-E’s visuals are a little plastic, right? And the texture isn’t really nice. They’re not lush. They look a bit plasticky.

 

Chris: Yeah. 

 

Abby: It’s still not there yet.

 

Chris: So, all of the models have positives and negatives to them. So, like Midjourney is like a beautiful, cinematic imagery, but it’s harder to prompt right now. You have all of these disparate things that, to your analogy, it’s a little bit like cooking. You’re like, oh, let’s, let’s bring all this together, and then you can mix them in different ways to come up with really interesting outputs.

 

Abby: Do you think, Chris, that collaborating with AI on concepts has resulted in sort of the end result being less valued than it were if a human was creating it?

 

Chris: I think that that’s a danger that we’re going to run into, and we’ve seen this in other areas. We saw a lot of this in video work where, you know, there was a time where in order to like cut a video, you had to have all this equipment that people didn’t have access to. Once people had access to iMovie, their value for what we would do when we were making a video went down because they’re like, my nephew can make a video, and you’re like, yeah, but your nephew can’t make this video. But somewhere in their head, they’re like, my nephew—

 

Same thing is going to happen here where, used to be in order to make beautiful renders it required like a level of investment between having the right people on your staff, the right equipment, the right amount of time, the expertise, all that sort of stuff. Now, you’re going to have a lot of people who can just crank out a lot of imagery, and not everyone’s going to be able to tell the difference between, or they may be able to tell the difference between a good image and a not-so-good image. But they’re not going to value the expertise that created that difference.

 

Brenda: So, this is like, you know, Sunday evening dinner conversation in my household because my husband’s a digital retoucher and, as of right now, and he does very high-end retouching for print, photoshop is not, the AI is not there yet to be able to do pristine, pristine level image creation for what he does. But, you know, I think these kinds of things, it’s really only a matter of time before Photoshop truly can just create magnificent, truly magnificent images that a trained artist can create. And/or is the standard going to be so low? I mean it. Is the standard going to be lowered, chipped away at bit by bit?

 

Chris: I wouldn’t have immediately thought what you’re thinking. But if you look at what happened with video when the Internet happened, the quality of video just went to pot, and everyone just got accustomed to bad video. And you’re right, something like that may start to happen, but there’s still going to be a difference.

 

And I think the best way I can describe it is our other partner, Yan, is a DP, so he’s great with lighting and setting up shots, right? And even when we create a render where we push it through our entire workflow with really talented 3D artists and they do a great job, right? And then they send over a render, and we’re like, no, because they framed it wrong, and they haven’t lit it the way it should be lit. And then Yan can sit down and be like, well, no, just lower the camera, change the lens, tilt this, like you need a backlight over here, and all of a sudden, it completely changes the image. The difference between those two images might not be readily apparent to a lot of people, but when you’re selling something, someone is going to have an emotional reaction to the one that Yan lit and framed, and they won’t to the other one.

 

Abby: I would like to say with Chris’s example of video as well, although there’s a proliferation of low quality, low budget media everywhere, there are still remained the feature films, the ultra-high budget, the way they’re shooting it, the technology—

 

Brenda: Oh yeah, the 70mm.

 

Abby: Yeah, exactly. So, I think the best always remains. So, I think your husband is fine, and he’ll always have a job, you can let him know. It’s going to be fine; we’ll still need his skill set.

 

Brenda: It’s not about him.

 

Abby: But I think that, you, society always values the best of the best. I just think there’s a proliferation of crap, maybe.

  

Brenda: From what I understand, it’s hard to really capture in words at this point; AI is not quite capturing a level of emotion that you know can be found right in the human hand, if you will.

 

Chris: Yeah, I think in general, and I think there’s a fair amount of debate in this about how far can AI advance if it is not experiencing the world, right? I mean, we all experience the world, and a part of the connection that we establish with one another when we make art or whatever it is is through that shared experience where, somehow, we’re tapping into what it is to have been alive and experience things. And if AI just is completely foreign to all of that, it may never be able to do that.

 

Brenda: Well, ultimately, right, AI is understanding the world through people’s interpretations of the world.

 

Chris: Well, except for now, that’s changing.

 

Brenda: Tell me.

 

Chris: Well, like a language model is trained by just feeding it like the Internet, right? As the models are becoming multimodal, which means they can see and they can hear, they’re going to start experiencing the world more like we do. And if—now, this is where I’m getting out of my depth, right, but this is how it seems to me—if they start experiencing the world more like we do, then what we’re talking about may start to go away.

 

Brenda: Yeah, it’s fascinating to still push for my part anyway, the idea that ultimately it is still perceiving other people’s generated data. So, the question will be at what point, right, is this truly autonomous and what that autonomy is going to mean in a, you know, and we could talk about agency as well, AI having its own agency.

 

Abby: Yeah, I mean, for me, it’s all about evolution is inevitable and it seems like AI is part of our evolution and may take us over as we evolve. We’re constantly moving, and we feel like we’ve always been here as we are today and have never changed. But we have. And you look back a million or so or even nearer, and we weren’t the way we are today.

 

So, I think the future is hopeful, and we’ll see what technology does and how it augments us as it is already doing. So, okay, I’m going to hand the outro over to AI. We’re going to feed this edited podcast into it and give it some of our previous outros, and see how it decides to wrap up our show today. So, take it away AI Abby and Brenda.

 

AI Abby: Well, that wraps up another intriguing conversation. We’ve delved deep into the world of AI, its applications, and its potential impacts.

 

AI Brenda: Absolutely. It’s been a pleasure exploring these nuanced perspectives. And as always, we appreciate you joining us on this journey.

 

AI Abby: Indeed. Thank you for tuning in today. If you enjoyed the show, subscribe to Matters of Experience wherever you get your podcasts. Don’t forget to leave a rating and review and share it with your friends.

 

AI Brenda: Until next time, stay curious and stay engaged. Thank you for being part of this exploration with us.

 

AI Abby: Thank you, everyone. See you on the next episode.

 

[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

ChatGPT

Claude AI

Midjourney

Stability AI

DALL·E 3

 

Demystifying AI with Chris Cooper

Demystifying AI with Chris Cooper

January 10, 2024
How Might We Do It Better? with Bosco Hernandez

How Might We Do It Better? with Bosco Hernandez

December 27, 2023
Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts and Spotify
Are you curious to discover what an abundance mindset, JEDI meeting, or radical hospitality is? In this episode, we’ll talk about these topics and more with special guest Bosco Hernandez, the design director at the SFMOMA. Bosco delves into his approach to making museums more inclusive, enhancing visitor experiences, and the importance of framing questions with possibilities. This episode is a must-listen if you’re passionate about the intersection of art, storytelling, and technology in the ever-evolving landscape of experience design.
Bosco Hernández is currently the Design Director at SFMOMA, where he leads a team of graphic designers and architects stewarding the brand, the collection and the visitor experience. His work has garnered recognition through various design awards, including AIGA, SEGD, Graphis, and the American Alliance of Museums. He has been involved in programs and exhibitions at institutions such as PS1 MoMA, Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil, and The International Poster and Graphic Design Festival at Chaumont. He serves on the board of SEGD where he chairs the Racial Justice Committee. Hernández was born and raised in Mexico City and has an MFA from the Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem, Netherlands and a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design.

Transcript 

 

[Music]

 

Abby: Welcome to Matters of Experience. This podcast is produced by Lorem Ipsum, an experience design company headquartered in New York City. Our show explores the creativity, innovation and psychology driving designed experiences. If you’re new, a big welcome and to our regular listeners, thank you for tuning in and supporting our conversation. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

Brenda: Hello everyone. This is Brenda Cowan.

 

Abby: So, today’s show, we’re going to look at designing and branding for art museums and specifically San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. We are very fortunate that our guest today is Bosco Hernández, the design director at SFMOMA, where he leads a team of designers and architects stewarding the brand, the collection, and the visitor experience, which sounds like no, no mean feat and I’m looking forward to hear more about it.

 

Bosco: So excited to be here.

 

Abby: We’re so happy to have you on the show. Now your work has garnered recognitions from many different design awards, including AIGA, our favorite – SEGD, Graphis, and the American Alliance of Museums, and you currently serve on the board of SEGD, where you chair the Racial Justice Committee.

 

Brenda: So, let’s get the ball rolling, Bosco. If you could describe for our listeners a little bit about the museum itself, how it’s laid out and if there are any challenges with the space that you’re working with at the moment.

 

Bosco: Yeah, if you’ve never been here, the museum went through an expansion in 2016, so it’s comprised of two buildings and one was designed by Mario Botta and then one that was, the expansion was designed by Snøhetta. There are seven floors of art, and there’s also two sets of elevators, which makes it super interesting and keeps us on our toes. Our permanent collection is sort of set out in a second floor of the building. There’s a street actually, that not a lot of people notice, but that goes underneath the building. And we have, the Fisher Collection is also presented here in the museum, which comprises of like three other sort of floors on the Snøhetta side. So, it’s quite interesting and very unique set up.

 

Abby: So, one of the – San Francisco, my sister used to live there, and I know the downtown has really seen a lot of industry leave. You know, the dynamics have completely changed and I’m sure people were coming in their droves. So, I guess has the visitor flow changed and sort of have your expectations changed from an institutional perspective?

 

Bosco: Yeah, it has changed. And I get this question so many times, what’s going on in San Francisco? What’s happening? I see the parks in certain areas of the city thriving, all the streets are filled with people. But downtown, where the museum is located has seen some major changes and vacancies, so that has definitely impacted the museum, and also our approach, you know.

We’re very close to the Moscone Center, which is our biggest convention center, and it used to be, you know, scheduled with many conferences happening all the time, very hard to walk on the sidewalks. And now it’s different. There’s not that many of those conferences happening, so definitely it has put more pressure on us in a way that we haven’t experienced. Just really have to be very thoughtful about the type of programing that we’re doing and how – just our approach to the audiences.

 

Brenda: Could you tell us just a little bit about what it is that’s different and how you’re approaching these changes?

 

Bosco: There are tourists that are coming, but not to the levels that we had seen before. Like I said, we have to think about the exhibitions that we’re programing, and we are doing a lot of tests in terms of like our galleries. can we have some of our galleries free to the public? Is that helping attract more audiences.

 

The permanent collection on our second floor, we extended and made that free, and I think we did see some visitors that were coming to see those shows, but not to the extent that we needed. And so, I think we’re still sort of experimenting and thinking about ways to attract new audiences.

 

Our focus has been thinking about the Bay Area. What are ways that we can sort of really highlight and serve as a platform to local artists? There’s so many exciting artists that are doing incredible work here. And are there ways that we can, you know, provide a platform for those artists?

 

Brenda: You know, we were talking a while ago and you talked about how it is that you’re moving towards a more approachable language for your design work. Can you share with us what it is that you mean?

 

Bosco: So, this, some of those questions, we were actively trying to solve. And one of the ways since the pandemic, what we’ve been doing, and it’s one of my favorite parts of my work is we host these JEDI meetings which are, stand for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. They’re held every week and they’re facilitated by different people in our team.

 

And these meetings are used to tap into this kind of more abstract and meaningful parts of our work that are not just, not specifically tied to kind of logistics and the product that we’re doing, but more about are we serving or our design meeting, is meeting the needs of the people that we want to see in the museum.

 

And also, I think some of the bigger questions that I think have been great is sort of how are we doing the work itself is just as important as the work we’re doing and so there’s been lots of sessions about, you know, psychological safety. What does it mean to kind of speak up and say, you know, I don’t think this this direction that we’re doing is exciting enough, or how do we do it in a way that, that doesn’t sort of turn off and end the conversation, but actually becomes a way of opening a door into other possibilities.

 

And I think that has been something that is obviously hard at a design studio is sort of, it’s a very vulnerable process to kind of share your work. But also, if we want to do something new and different, we have to kind of be able to dive deep and be very, very honest with our feedback and be very critical.

 

Brenda: This is such an important model and it’s really refreshing to hear an art institution taking this on. And can you give us an example of a specific challenge or specific experience that you all tackled during one of your JEDI meetings?

 

Bosco: The bigger challenges are like – sustainability has been another big component. And so, one of the JEDIs that we did was kind of analyzing sort of the, some of the waste that was created and through like the vinyl, the scape, the paint, and we did some material research and some investigation about what can we do to reduce some of that waste and some of the workload.

 

And it was like a small little thing, but we started noticing little threads that were repeating. And whenever we use screws and nails, there’s no damage and things can still look really great and they’re super easy for the crew and our installation team to, to remove and install. So that sort of that’s one tiny example, but a level of kind of an awareness.

 

We are on a grind doing so many projects, but just having one hour a week has allowed us to kind of tap into to slow down a little bit and notice what is it that we’re doing, and can we do it better? How might we is something that we say that a lot in those meetings, how might we do it differently? Which I find it so exciting and sort of non-confrontational.

 

Abby: Moving now to talk sort of about connecting people with art, we were asked to curate an exhibition of 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century Russian art a number of years ago. It was full of a bunch of beautiful masterpieces, but things that people were very familiar with looking at, and it was, needed to all be addressed through a new lens to revisit these paintings and put them into a different context.

 

So, we chose color. This was before this was all in vogue, by the way. I claim I started this, so we took the majority of the color or the most influential color in a painting, and so we would juxtapose a 17th century landscape with a 20th century cubist portrait, things like that in a room. And the rooms would be yellow and red and blue, but color became this amazing conduit for all these different stories and perspectives on the paintings themselves and painting and art in general.

 

I feel like the art world, or the art museums are still hanging things up, still having some text panels and not doing a lot to help us engage with those, let’s say, masterpieces or familiar pieces. I’m not really talking about contemporary paintings, so, you know, how do you at your museum look at ways of telling stories for people who are coming into the space?

 

Because I know a lot of people sometimes are like art, this is art, I can do it myself or I don’t understand it. Or they haven’t got art history background, so how are you bridging, how are you having those conversations with visitors who may be there for the first time and nervous and don’t understand? And what are some of the stories you’re able to tell? Or some of the challenges you have.

 

Bosco: I mean, it is a challenge. I think some of the key is this idea of, you know, this dialog that happens with the visitor, I think to me is a key component of processing information, like you’re saying, you can sort of feel it in a more emotional level like you were describing with the colors of the walls and how they interact with the paintings. Not everybody sort of can read a label and kind of enter into that artwork that way.

 

So that’s one of the questions that we’re asking is, are written labels the best way to tap into different audiences that we’ve never sort of approached before, like with different cognitive disabilities and so on. So, I mean, in my mind, I want to experiment with, you know, could we do, let’s say, some kind of, you know, official sort of, a simple graphical way of talking about an artwork.

 

And of course, it’s always sort of this fine line of like what is more important, you know, we don’t want to take away from the art experience. And so, I think it’s something that we are constantly navigating. Are there spaces for this where we can kind of push those boundaries and experiment with how people either are touching or experiencing with their hands the artworks themselves, they have a place to build, create or do something as a ways to kind of understand that work.

 

Abby: I think you’re right. I think maybe for me, an issue as you’re talking is that it’s pristine, it’s finished, and the artwork is sitting there and if you’ve been to artists’ studios, they’re, for the most part, they’re messy. You can see they’re playing. There’s creativity and evidence everywhere.

 

Brenda: They’re not precious.

 

Abby: They’re not precious, it’s iterative. And so that’s all gone. And when you go to an art museums, it’s like dah-dah-dah-dah, we’re not showing the nine paintings that led up to this or the 20,000 failures or the inspiration that arrived at this. It’s just evaluate this. And so that, what I’m deducing from what you’re saying is that it’s more about inclusive design. It’s letting people play, enjoy, touch, feel and connect more with these paintings and the art.

 

Bosco: Yeah, I mean, I like to think we would succeed if people are coming here and they feel like this is an invitation, it shouldn’t be intimidating. And I think you’re totally right. You know, museums often are showcasing works that are finished. They’re done. They’re, somehow the assumption is that they’re perfect. They couldn’t be any more perfect. They pass through the selection process that confirmed their perfection.

 

And so, there’s this kind of paradox there that makes it feel like either I could have done that, but I’m not here. And why not? Why am I not here? Or I could never do this, and this is impossible for me to do. And so, it is interesting and I think it does, obviously, there’s a reason that live museums have been doing it for a long time because to some degree there’s that contrast that kind of helps sort of enhance the works often.

 

But, you know, it doesn’t have to be always that way. And I think we can have some rooms at least where we can kind of let our guard down and embrace that kind of messiness that artist studios have.

 

Brenda: So, you were talking about flexibility and adaptability and being able to negotiate and that leads us to a very critical conversation point, which is working with curators. So, these are very complex relationships when we’re talking about being a partner as a designer and working with curators throughout the design process. And you have a lot of experience working successfully with many different curators.

 

And let’s just start with asking what kind of advice would you give to designers who are struggling to make a really sort of profitable, beneficial connection with curators?

 

Bosco: Yeah, it’s work that you never finish doing and you’re always evolving and learning and sharing sort of the learnings that you have. And we’ve actually talked about it in one of our JEDIs, is sort of how, you know, how do we talk about our work and what has been the most successful because it’s such a key component of design is sort of that storytelling and bringing people along with you.

 

These are all human relationships. I know it’s very different. I had a background as a designer in a small design firm, and I remember the relationship that I have with a client was very different. You kind of come and present it and you show the work, they pick one and you kind of move on. But at a museum, like you said, it’s such a – we’re creating a much more complex sort of it’s almost like basically like building a building to some degree or some large project that involves multiple people. And I find that the story is kind of a key element when presenting the work.

 

I guess I find curators have been most successful when the story all makes sense, where the, the threads work to enhance sort of that story that the curator is going to have to tell, like when they do a curatorial walk through of their show.

 

Abby: But how often does a curator – let’s say you’re talking about they’ve got the story there and it’s all great. Not all of them are visual people, right? They’re telling you the story, but they’re not giving you any ideas visually, right?

 

Bosco: Yeah, I mean that, yeah, it certainly happens. Unfortunately, there’s been occasions where like, you know, we had agreed on everything on paper. The words were all matching and then the walls were painted, and we were like, oh my God, this is too bright, or then what happened? Oh, no, what are we going to do? We need to kind of rethink.

 

And so, I think that’s one of the things that we’ve done just recently is sort of embracing this more iterative approach where we have a conversation first and there’s words that are being kind of thrown at us, and then we do kind of a response we call, I think it’s like an alignment meeting and, and we interpret their words.

 

Doing physical mockups are the best things in my mind. I find that even when you have ideas that I know the curators might be very uncomfortable with, and I know that it could enhance the exhibition, I always try to, you know, at least present one direction that is pushing the envelope into the, the direction that we’re trying to move towards.

 

Brenda: Bosco, you make maquettes, right? You make like little models?

 

Bosco: Yeah.

 

Brenda: And are these devices that you use to be able to sort of persuade or seduce a curator over to some really interesting design possibilities?

 

Abby: You can say the dark side, if we’re talking about JEDI meetings.

 

Brenda: I’ll let you say the dark side.

 

Bosco: Yes, we have a miniature version of the entire museum, and it’s in our lower level in our basement. And its super fun and it takes sort of that edge off. And I find that, you know, my team usually especially for the architects or the exhibition designers, you know, they have to operate this software like AutoCAD or SketchUp or Rhino. And oftentimes the curators are not familiar with those programs, so you have one person kind of navigating the spaces and sharing sort of what the visualizations are going to be.

 

But I find that with the maquettes, there’s wonderful sort of surprises and things that can happen. And also, it’s a very democratic process. I’ve seen curators spend hours and hours over the weekend or whenever they want. They can just move back and forth the works and freely, and some really kind of fun and innovative idea has happened that way.

 

Abby: So, moving to your work on the brand side, you did taboos about 10 to 15 years ago with things like gift shops and restaurants and when I visit SFMOMA’s website, you have the Kusama Dining Experience, which is referring to Yayoi Kusama, the artist who does the polka dots, and she’s all the rage. She’s sponsored by Louis Vuitton right now. And you have your Kusama Dining Experience, which has a special menu inspired by her work. And there’s the cocktail hour with cocktails inspired by work.

 

Brenda: Drink the Kusama cocktail and you will see polka dots.

 

Abby: Sounds fantastic.

 

Bosco: Exactly.

 

Abby: And so, this sort of branding, this bringing an artist into your dining experience, having a themed dining experience, why does there need to be this diversity of offerings in an art museum and in a museum in general now?

 

Bosco: I mean, that’s something that our new director has really felt strongly and I think you might be familiar with Kusama’s work, and that might be the reason that you come here and you might be here on the first Thursday, so you’re coming in for free. And I think that what we’re trying to do is think about are there ways to kind of have kind of diversify, sort of that, not only the way that we’re earning revenue, but also sort of the options for visitors so that you have a more holistic experience?

 

And so, one of the things he’s been talking about is the notion of this radical hospitality. What does it mean to be pushing the limits? And I think this is something that, you know, a lot of restaurants and the hospitality industry have been thinking about, but what would that look like for a museum? And so, it’s something that we’re experimenting.

 

Brenda: You know, something that maybe more on a personal note, you have spoken before about working and thinking with an abundance mindset and not a scarcity mindset, and that this is how you approach thinking about how you can reach visitors in different ways. And I would love to hear where does this very positive philosophy come from?

 

Bosco: You know, it’s interesting because since we last talked, I thought, oh, this is kind of something that maybe we should do a JEDI on. And we did. And since then, my mind has been like a little bit more nuanced because I did receive some feedback from my team and especially obviously with some of the layoffs and so on.

 

There are some, some real pressures as to like what is this sort of possibility or abundance mindset. And to me, I think I mean, some of it has to do with the way even, even the way that I was saying before, like I love the question of like, “how might we?” When you frame a question that way, you know, you realize that there’s, really it could be limitless ways of answering that question.

 

So, I think it’s super valuable to kind of shift that perspective and to notice, like at least be aware of like what are the things or the elements that are forcing me to kind of not think beyond what is possible. One of the critiques also were like, is it, is abundance mindset something that can be sustained all the time.

 

Is it endless? I think some, especially because we’re in San Francisco and we’re in this tech world where, you know, you see those phrases coming up a lot of like, don’t worry, just break it and see how it works. It’s about trying and doing and so there was this pushback a little bit. And I think, you know, for me, the – and especially because you look at where the world is leading us in terms of like sustainability and so on, it’s like, can we, is, is this sustainable?

 

And I, I think it was interesting and very valid points, but I still, I think obviously things are not black and white. To me, what I find more interesting is its sort of noticing and stopping and really thinking what if or how might we and letting go of some of this or at least noticing where these constraints are coming from.

 

Abby: So, if we focus now on technology, I know one of the challenges for institutions and local government when they think about investing is how do we use technology in the most effective way in our museums and art museums and institutions, because it can be very expensive, you know, how interactive does it need to be, how flexible? And they have to serve a large population and think about that longevity, sustainability, robustness of the technology chosen. And I don’t think there’s a perfect answer. I agree with you. I think there’s the practical side, there’s the theoretical side, there’s the ideological side. Tell us about your experience with technology.

 

Bosco: Yeah, we’ve had some wonderful breakthrough, sort of really refreshing uses of technology at the museum with just a couple of them. I think one of them was the 2016 app, when we reopened the building that was partnered with Detour, this app that would kind of locate where you were and give you like turn-by-turn directions and guide you as if you were, you know, the reviews were like, it feels like I have a personal curator that was walking me through the museum.

 

So, it was very sort of delightful and unexpected and it was wonderful What we’ve discovered, and obviously nowadays, I think, you know, with the challenges that we’re facing, investing in technology is a real challenge. And also, I find that, you know, at least in San Francisco, we’re competing with a lot of these other spaces that are kind of like the center of the tech world and so how do we do things in a kind of unexpected way?

 

It’s also something that we’re thinking about. I do find that some of the most analog versions have been, of the reasons, again, that I love them is because they can be iterative, adaptable, it’s much easier to adapt and change. It’s so hard to do that when you’re investing in some of this larger equipment, and the longevity, like you said, is a real threat. So that’s something that we’re constantly trying is, are there ways to do this in an analog way that can kind of be more surprising and even unexpected and achieve the same results?

 

Abby: Thank you, Bosco, for sharing a glimpse into SFMOMA and your design process with us today and being open about the challenges you face. Your work and your team’s work is absolutely beautiful and I encourage anybody in the area to go and visit SFMOMA, and I hope everyone listening takes away as designers that we really should try to continue to experiment with our work.

 

There’s no right way and always aim, as Bosco said, to take visitors’ breath away. I think that’s amazing. So yeah, thank you, Bosco, for inspiring us today and creating exhibitions that people haven’t seen before.

 

Brenda: Thank you, Bosco.

 

Bosco: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

 

Abby: Thank you for listening today. If you enjoyed the show, subscribe for more episodes of Matters of Experience, wherever you listen to podcasts. 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

SFMOMA

MARIO BOTTA ARCHITETTI

Snøhetta

The Fisher Collection at SFMOMA

Kusama Dining Experience · SFMOMA

Introducing Detour Platform and our first partner, SFMOMA | by Andrew Mason

The SFMOMA’s New App Will Forever Change How You Enjoy Museums | WIRED

Bosco Hernández is currently the Design Director at SFMOMA, where he leads a team of graphic designers and architects stewarding the brand, the collection and the visitor experience. His work has garnered recognition through various design awards, including AIGA, SEGD, Graphis, and the American Alliance of Museums. He has been involved in programs and exhibitions at institutions such as PS1 MoMA, Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil, and The International Poster and Graphic Design Festival at Chaumont. He serves on the board of SEGD where he chairs the Racial Justice Committee. Hernández was born and raised in Mexico City and has an MFA from the Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem, Netherlands and a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design.

Transcript 

 

[Music]

 

Abby: Welcome to Matters of Experience. This podcast is produced by Lorem Ipsum, an experience design company headquartered in New York City. Our show explores the creativity, innovation and psychology driving designed experiences. If you’re new, a big welcome and to our regular listeners, thank you for tuning in and supporting our conversation. My name is Abigail Honor.

 

Brenda: Hello everyone. This is Brenda Cowan.

 

Abby: So, today’s show, we’re going to look at designing and branding for art museums and specifically San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. We are very fortunate that our guest today is Bosco Hernández, the design director at SFMOMA, where he leads a team of designers and architects stewarding the brand, the collection, and the visitor experience, which sounds like no, no mean feat and I’m looking forward to hear more about it.

 

Bosco: So excited to be here.

 

Abby: We’re so happy to have you on the show. Now your work has garnered recognitions from many different design awards, including AIGA, our favorite – SEGD, Graphis, and the American Alliance of Museums, and you currently serve on the board of SEGD, where you chair the Racial Justice Committee.

 

Brenda: So, let’s get the ball rolling, Bosco. If you could describe for our listeners a little bit about the museum itself, how it’s laid out and if there are any challenges with the space that you’re working with at the moment.

 

Bosco: Yeah, if you’ve never been here, the museum went through an expansion in 2016, so it’s comprised of two buildings and one was designed by Mario Botta and then one that was, the expansion was designed by Snøhetta. There are seven floors of art, and there’s also two sets of elevators, which makes it super interesting and keeps us on our toes. Our permanent collection is sort of set out in a second floor of the building. There’s a street actually, that not a lot of people notice, but that goes underneath the building. And we have, the Fisher Collection is also presented here in the museum, which comprises of like three other sort of floors on the Snøhetta side. So, it’s quite interesting and very unique set up.

 

Abby: So, one of the – San Francisco, my sister used to live there, and I know the downtown has really seen a lot of industry leave. You know, the dynamics have completely changed and I’m sure people were coming in their droves. So, I guess has the visitor flow changed and sort of have your expectations changed from an institutional perspective?

 

Bosco: Yeah, it has changed. And I get this question so many times, what’s going on in San Francisco? What’s happening? I see the parks in certain areas of the city thriving, all the streets are filled with people. But downtown, where the museum is located has seen some major changes and vacancies, so that has definitely impacted the museum, and also our approach, you know.

We’re very close to the Moscone Center, which is our biggest convention center, and it used to be, you know, scheduled with many conferences happening all the time, very hard to walk on the sidewalks. And now it’s different. There’s not that many of those conferences happening, so definitely it has put more pressure on us in a way that we haven’t experienced. Just really have to be very thoughtful about the type of programing that we’re doing and how – just our approach to the audiences.

 

Brenda: Could you tell us just a little bit about what it is that’s different and how you’re approaching these changes?

 

Bosco: There are tourists that are coming, but not to the levels that we had seen before. Like I said, we have to think about the exhibitions that we’re programing, and we are doing a lot of tests in terms of like our galleries. can we have some of our galleries free to the public? Is that helping attract more audiences.

 

The permanent collection on our second floor, we extended and made that free, and I think we did see some visitors that were coming to see those shows, but not to the extent that we needed. And so, I think we’re still sort of experimenting and thinking about ways to attract new audiences.

 

Our focus has been thinking about the Bay Area. What are ways that we can sort of really highlight and serve as a platform to local artists? There’s so many exciting artists that are doing incredible work here. And are there ways that we can, you know, provide a platform for those artists?

 

Brenda: You know, we were talking a while ago and you talked about how it is that you’re moving towards a more approachable language for your design work. Can you share with us what it is that you mean?

 

Bosco: So, this, some of those questions, we were actively trying to solve. And one of the ways since the pandemic, what we’ve been doing, and it’s one of my favorite parts of my work is we host these JEDI meetings which are, stand for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. They’re held every week and they’re facilitated by different people in our team.

 

And these meetings are used to tap into this kind of more abstract and meaningful parts of our work that are not just, not specifically tied to kind of logistics and the product that we’re doing, but more about are we serving or our design meeting, is meeting the needs of the people that we want to see in the museum.

 

And also, I think some of the bigger questions that I think have been great is sort of how are we doing the work itself is just as important as the work we’re doing and so there’s been lots of sessions about, you know, psychological safety. What does it mean to kind of speak up and say, you know, I don’t think this this direction that we’re doing is exciting enough, or how do we do it in a way that, that doesn’t sort of turn off and end the conversation, but actually becomes a way of opening a door into other possibilities.

 

And I think that has been something that is obviously hard at a design studio is sort of, it’s a very vulnerable process to kind of share your work. But also, if we want to do something new and different, we have to kind of be able to dive deep and be very, very honest with our feedback and be very critical.

 

Brenda: This is such an important model and it’s really refreshing to hear an art institution taking this on. And can you give us an example of a specific challenge or specific experience that you all tackled during one of your JEDI meetings?

 

Bosco: The bigger challenges are like – sustainability has been another big component. And so, one of the JEDIs that we did was kind of analyzing sort of the, some of the waste that was created and through like the vinyl, the scape, the paint, and we did some material research and some investigation about what can we do to reduce some of that waste and some of the workload.

 

And it was like a small little thing, but we started noticing little threads that were repeating. And whenever we use screws and nails, there’s no damage and things can still look really great and they’re super easy for the crew and our installation team to, to remove and install. So that sort of that’s one tiny example, but a level of kind of an awareness.

 

We are on a grind doing so many projects, but just having one hour a week has allowed us to kind of tap into to slow down a little bit and notice what is it that we’re doing, and can we do it better? How might we is something that we say that a lot in those meetings, how might we do it differently? Which I find it so exciting and sort of non-confrontational.

 

Abby: Moving now to talk sort of about connecting people with art, we were asked to curate an exhibition of 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century Russian art a number of years ago. It was full of a bunch of beautiful masterpieces, but things that people were very familiar with looking at, and it was, needed to all be addressed through a new lens to revisit these paintings and put them into a different context.

 

So, we chose color. This was before this was all in vogue, by the way. I claim I started this, so we took the majority of the color or the most influential color in a painting, and so we would juxtapose a 17th century landscape with a 20th century cubist portrait, things like that in a room. And the rooms would be yellow and red and blue, but color became this amazing conduit for all these different stories and perspectives on the paintings themselves and painting and art in general.

 

I feel like the art world, or the art museums are still hanging things up, still having some text panels and not doing a lot to help us engage with those, let’s say, masterpieces or familiar pieces. I’m not really talking about contemporary paintings, so, you know, how do you at your museum look at ways of telling stories for people who are coming into the space?

 

Because I know a lot of people sometimes are like art, this is art, I can do it myself or I don’t understand it. Or they haven’t got art history background, so how are you bridging, how are you having those conversations with visitors who may be there for the first time and nervous and don’t understand? And what are some of the stories you’re able to tell? Or some of the challenges you have.

 

Bosco: I mean, it is a challenge. I think some of the key is this idea of, you know, this dialog that happens with the visitor, I think to me is a key component of processing information, like you’re saying, you can sort of feel it in a more emotional level like you were describing with the colors of the walls and how they interact with the paintings. Not everybody sort of can read a label and kind of enter into that artwork that way.

 

So that’s one of the questions that we’re asking is, are written labels the best way to tap into different audiences that we’ve never sort of approached before, like with different cognitive disabilities and so on. So, I mean, in my mind, I want to experiment with, you know, could we do, let’s say, some kind of, you know, official sort of, a simple graphical way of talking about an artwork.

 

And of course, it’s always sort of this fine line of like what is more important, you know, we don’t want to take away from the art experience. And so, I think it’s something that we are constantly navigating. Are there spaces for this where we can kind of push those boundaries and experiment with how people either are touching or experiencing with their hands the artworks themselves, they have a place to build, create or do something as a ways to kind of understand that work.

 

Abby: I think you’re right. I think maybe for me, an issue as you’re talking is that it’s pristine, it’s finished, and the artwork is sitting there and if you’ve been to artists’ studios, they’re, for the most part, they’re messy. You can see they’re playing. There’s creativity and evidence everywhere.

 

Brenda: They’re not precious.

 

Abby: They’re not precious, it’s iterative. And so that’s all gone. And when you go to an art museums, it’s like dah-dah-dah-dah, we’re not showing the nine paintings that led up to this or the 20,000 failures or the inspiration that arrived at this. It’s just evaluate this. And so that, what I’m deducing from what you’re saying is that it’s more about inclusive design. It’s letting people play, enjoy, touch, feel and connect more with these paintings and the art.

 

Bosco: Yeah, I mean, I like to think we would succeed if people are coming here and they feel like this is an invitation, it shouldn’t be intimidating. And I think you’re totally right. You know, museums often are showcasing works that are finished. They’re done. They’re, somehow the assumption is that they’re perfect. They couldn’t be any more perfect. They pass through the selection process that confirmed their perfection.

 

And so, there’s this kind of paradox there that makes it feel like either I could have done that, but I’m not here. And why not? Why am I not here? Or I could never do this, and this is impossible for me to do. And so, it is interesting and I think it does, obviously, there’s a reason that live museums have been doing it for a long time because to some degree there’s that contrast that kind of helps sort of enhance the works often.

 

But, you know, it doesn’t have to be always that way. And I think we can have some rooms at least where we can kind of let our guard down and embrace that kind of messiness that artist studios have.

 

Brenda: So, you were talking about flexibility and adaptability and being able to negotiate and that leads us to a very critical conversation point, which is working with curators. So, these are very complex relationships when we’re talking about being a partner as a designer and working with curators throughout the design process. And you have a lot of experience working successfully with many different curators.

 

And let’s just start with asking what kind of advice would you give to designers who are struggling to make a really sort of profitable, beneficial connection with curators?

 

Bosco: Yeah, it’s work that you never finish doing and you’re always evolving and learning and sharing sort of the learnings that you have. And we’ve actually talked about it in one of our JEDIs, is sort of how, you know, how do we talk about our work and what has been the most successful because it’s such a key component of design is sort of that storytelling and bringing people along with you.

 

These are all human relationships. I know it’s very different. I had a background as a designer in a small design firm, and I remember the relationship that I have with a client was very different. You kind of come and present it and you show the work, they pick one and you kind of move on. But at a museum, like you said, it’s such a – we’re creating a much more complex sort of it’s almost like basically like building a building to some degree or some large project that involves multiple people. And I find that the story is kind of a key element when presenting the work.

 

I guess I find curators have been most successful when the story all makes sense, where the, the threads work to enhance sort of that story that the curator is going to have to tell, like when they do a curatorial walk through of their show.

 

Abby: But how often does a curator – let’s say you’re talking about they’ve got the story there and it’s all great. Not all of them are visual people, right? They’re telling you the story, but they’re not giving you any ideas visually, right?

 

Bosco: Yeah, I mean that, yeah, it certainly happens. Unfortunately, there’s been occasions where like, you know, we had agreed on everything on paper. The words were all matching and then the walls were painted, and we were like, oh my God, this is too bright, or then what happened? Oh, no, what are we going to do? We need to kind of rethink.

 

And so, I think that’s one of the things that we’ve done just recently is sort of embracing this more iterative approach where we have a conversation first and there’s words that are being kind of thrown at us, and then we do kind of a response we call, I think it’s like an alignment meeting and, and we interpret their words.

 

Doing physical mockups are the best things in my mind. I find that even when you have ideas that I know the curators might be very uncomfortable with, and I know that it could enhance the exhibition, I always try to, you know, at least present one direction that is pushing the envelope into the, the direction that we’re trying to move towards.

 

Brenda: Bosco, you make maquettes, right? You make like little models?

 

Bosco: Yeah.

 

Brenda: And are these devices that you use to be able to sort of persuade or seduce a curator over to some really interesting design possibilities?

 

Abby: You can say the dark side, if we’re talking about JEDI meetings.

 

Brenda: I’ll let you say the dark side.

 

Bosco: Yes, we have a miniature version of the entire museum, and it’s in our lower level in our basement. And its super fun and it takes sort of that edge off. And I find that, you know, my team usually especially for the architects or the exhibition designers, you know, they have to operate this software like AutoCAD or SketchUp or Rhino. And oftentimes the curators are not familiar with those programs, so you have one person kind of navigating the spaces and sharing sort of what the visualizations are going to be.

 

But I find that with the maquettes, there’s wonderful sort of surprises and things that can happen. And also, it’s a very democratic process. I’ve seen curators spend hours and hours over the weekend or whenever they want. They can just move back and forth the works and freely, and some really kind of fun and innovative idea has happened that way.

 

Abby: So, moving to your work on the brand side, you did taboos about 10 to 15 years ago with things like gift shops and restaurants and when I visit SFMOMA’s website, you have the Kusama Dining Experience, which is referring to Yayoi Kusama, the artist who does the polka dots, and she’s all the rage. She’s sponsored by Louis Vuitton right now. And you have your Kusama Dining Experience, which has a special menu inspired by her work. And there’s the cocktail hour with cocktails inspired by work.

 

Brenda: Drink the Kusama cocktail and you will see polka dots.

 

Abby: Sounds fantastic.

 

Bosco: Exactly.

 

Abby: And so, this sort of branding, this bringing an artist into your dining experience, having a themed dining experience, why does there need to be this diversity of offerings in an art museum and in a museum in general now?

 

Bosco: I mean, that’s something that our new director has really felt strongly and I think you might be familiar with Kusama’s work, and that might be the reason that you come here and you might be here on the first Thursday, so you’re coming in for free. And I think that what we’re trying to do is think about are there ways to kind of have kind of diversify, sort of that, not only the way that we’re earning revenue, but also sort of the options for visitors so that you have a more holistic experience?

 

And so, one of the things he’s been talking about is the notion of this radical hospitality. What does it mean to be pushing the limits? And I think this is something that, you know, a lot of restaurants and the hospitality industry have been thinking about, but what would that look like for a museum? And so, it’s something that we’re experimenting.

 

Brenda: You know, something that maybe more on a personal note, you have spoken before about working and thinking with an abundance mindset and not a scarcity mindset, and that this is how you approach thinking about how you can reach visitors in different ways. And I would love to hear where does this very positive philosophy come from?

 

Bosco: You know, it’s interesting because since we last talked, I thought, oh, this is kind of something that maybe we should do a JEDI on. And we did. And since then, my mind has been like a little bit more nuanced because I did receive some feedback from my team and especially obviously with some of the layoffs and so on.

 

There are some, some real pressures as to like what is this sort of possibility or abundance mindset. And to me, I think I mean, some of it has to do with the way even, even the way that I was saying before, like I love the question of like, “how might we?” When you frame a question that way, you know, you realize that there’s, really it could be limitless ways of answering that question.

 

So, I think it’s super valuable to kind of shift that perspective and to notice, like at least be aware of like what are the things or the elements that are forcing me to kind of not think beyond what is possible. One of the critiques also were like, is it, is abundance mindset something that can be sustained all the time.

 

Is it endless? I think some, especially because we’re in San Francisco and we’re in this tech world where, you know, you see those phrases coming up a lot of like, don’t worry, just break it and see how it works. It’s about trying and doing and so there was this pushback a little bit. And I think, you know, for me, the – and especially because you look at where the world is leading us in terms of like sustainability and so on, it’s like, can we, is, is this sustainable?

 

And I, I think it was interesting and very valid points, but I still, I think obviously things are not black and white. To me, what I find more interesting is its sort of noticing and stopping and really thinking what if or how might we and letting go of some of this or at least noticing where these constraints are coming from.

 

Abby: So, if we focus now on technology, I know one of the challenges for institutions and local government when they think about investing is how do we use technology in the most effective way in our museums and art museums and institutions, because it can be very expensive, you know, how interactive does it need to be, how flexible? And they have to serve a large population and think about that longevity, sustainability, robustness of the technology chosen. And I don’t think there’s a perfect answer. I agree with you. I think there’s the practical side, there’s the theoretical side, there’s the ideological side. Tell us about your experience with technology.

 

Bosco: Yeah, we’ve had some wonderful breakthrough, sort of really refreshing uses of technology at the museum with just a couple of them. I think one of them was the 2016 app, when we reopened the building that was partnered with Detour, this app that would kind of locate where you were and give you like turn-by-turn directions and guide you as if you were, you know, the reviews were like, it feels like I have a personal curator that was walking me through the museum.

 

So, it was very sort of delightful and unexpected and it was wonderful What we’ve discovered, and obviously nowadays, I think, you know, with the challenges that we’re facing, investing in technology is a real challenge. And also, I find that, you know, at least in San Francisco, we’re competing with a lot of these other spaces that are kind of like the center of the tech world and so how do we do things in a kind of unexpected way?

 

It’s also something that we’re thinking about. I do find that some of the most analog versions have been, of the reasons, again, that I love them is because they can be iterative, adaptable, it’s much easier to adapt and change. It’s so hard to do that when you’re investing in some of this larger equipment, and the longevity, like you said, is a real threat. So that’s something that we’re constantly trying is, are there ways to do this in an analog way that can kind of be more surprising and even unexpected and achieve the same results?

 

Abby: Thank you, Bosco, for sharing a glimpse into SFMOMA and your design process with us today and being open about the challenges you face. Your work and your team’s work is absolutely beautiful and I encourage anybody in the area to go and visit SFMOMA, and I hope everyone listening takes away as designers that we really should try to continue to experiment with our work.

 

There’s no right way and always aim, as Bosco said, to take visitors’ breath away. I think that’s amazing. So yeah, thank you, Bosco, for inspiring us today and creating exhibitions that people haven’t seen before.

 

Brenda: Thank you, Bosco.

 

Bosco: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

 

Abby: Thank you for listening today. If you enjoyed the show, subscribe for more episodes of Matters of Experience, wherever you listen to podcasts. 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

SFMOMA

MARIO BOTTA ARCHITETTI

Snøhetta

The Fisher Collection at SFMOMA

Kusama Dining Experience · SFMOMA

Introducing Detour Platform and our first partner, SFMOMA | by Andrew Mason

The SFMOMA’s New App Will Forever Change How You Enjoy Museums | WIRED

How Might We Do It Better? with Bosco Hernandez

How Might We Do It Better? with Bosco Hernandez

December 27, 2023