Digital Design Days 2020: building stories you can step inside of with Second Story
With studios in Portland, Atlanta, and New York, Second Story is a network of experiential design studios creating thoughtful and immersive experiences that put audiences at the center while adding beauty and meaning to the world
Designing experiences is not an easy task. In a sensory overloaded world, successful experiences need to have a thoughtful design, an innovative factor, and most importantly a story one can be part of. While there are many studios successfully designing these, there is one that focuses on creating completely immersive worlds that elevate experiences and the art of storytelling, Second Story.
Founded in 1994 and with studios in Portland, Atlanta, and New York, Second Story is a network of experiential design studios working across the cultural and brand landscapes. With storytelling at heart, the studio creates incredibly powerful experiences that put audiences at the center while deepening engagement and amplifying its impact. Having worked with numerous renowned brands and institutions, Second Story continuously adds beauty and meaning to the world through experiences people can embody.
With a desire to step inside their stories, DesignWanted interviewed Chief Creative Officer Joel Krieger who participated in this year’s Digital Design Days, and found out more about Second Story, the role of diversity when designing experiences, and what is next for the interdisciplinary studio.
Who is Joel Krieger? How did your journey get you to become Chief Creative Officer at Second Story?
Joel Krieger: “I attended art school in the late 90s when the internet was just getting going. So I studied both traditional and new, interactive media. Landed a job at an interactive studio before the first internet bubble burst, and basically learned design on the job.
After quite some time designing interactive media for glowing rectangles, I became much more interested in our physical environment and its potential to bring people together. I joined Second Story in 2013 to co found our first expansion studio in Atlanta. Over time, my role grew to lead creative across all three studios as Executive Creative Director. And now as CCO, my role has a bit more balance between the creative and business end of things.
Over the years, I’ve worked across a variety of creative disciplines – visual and experience design, illustration, animation, and writing. This variety of first-hand experience has proved really helpful in orchestrating the highly interdisciplinary work we do. I’ve always been fascinated by the art of collaboration. Bringing together different ideas and people is one of my favourite parts of the job!”
About Second Story, could you tell us about the studio’s ultimate aim and what it means for you to work leading the design practice across studios in Portland, Atlanta, and New York?
Joel Krieger: “While I’m not sure it was founded with this specific intent, Second Story became one of the early pioneers in blending digital and physical spaces. Doing work in the cultural world gave the studio access to opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to. Because museums and universities are very unique environments, we were able to experiment in ways that I don’t think brands were quite ready for. Our founders were very prescient, and they embraced this territory early, eventually hiring our first full-time physical architect in 2010.
I was curious to see if I could find our first physical/digital project, so I dug through our archives. The first I could find was all the way back in 2000. Granted, it was just a simple kiosk, but this was fairly early to be thinking about merging physical and digital design. Now you see lots of convergence happening – architecture studios standing up digital practices (Gensler), or acquiring interactive studios (NBBJ and ESI). Even digital agencies have jumped into the acquisition game (AKQA have added both architecture and industrial design firms).”
Joel Krieger: “It’s also important to acknowledge that museums have a very different mandate than brands (whose primary goal is to sell a product or service). Cultural institutions exist to enrich people’s lives by helping them understand new ideas and concepts. We have always strived to infuse this same ethos into our work for brands – helping them consider how they might also enrich, not interrupt.
Because of our legacy in this space, I believe our team has a unique way of looking at this emerging niche of design. Our goal is to use our experience and perspective to help shape a very important conversation. How can technology be seamlessly woven into our shared spaces in a way that is beautiful, functional, AND ethical? We try to do this by example – via the work we put out into the world. And by nurturing this dialogue within the design and business communities.”
Joel Krieger was part of this year’s Digital Design Days, find out more about the event and don’t miss Digital Design Days “Re-Start” edition: 3 days with the gurus of digital design.
The studio’s credo is that it ‘builds stories you can step inside of’. What does this mean when developing a project?
Joel Krieger: “Our original tag was “Elevating the Art of Storytelling.” As we shifted our focus to interactive physical spaces, it became helpful to hone our mantra to reflect this. What’s so exciting about physical places is that you can design for all the senses. If we do our job right, people become fully present and lost in exploration. If you think about books and movies – these kinds of stories also have an immersive quality to them, but they are linear and fixed.
With narrative spaces, it’s the opposite. It’s entirely non-linear. You have complete agency – the ability to go anywhere and do anything. These spatial stories are not ones you passively receive. You can actively participate in them. Because of this, our credo implies a sort of a world building approach.
The people we’re designing for are the central characters in their own story. And the interventions we design in the built environment are settings, events, and other characters they may encounter along the way. It’s a story waiting to happen, but you truly have to step inside it to begin.”
Designing experiences and telling stories across cultural and brand landscapes requires different ideas and points of view. Can you tell us about the role and importance that diversity has at Second Story?
Joel Krieger: “As designers, our aspiration is always to create something new and different. But if you’re cooking with the same ingredients as everyone else, how can you expect to end up with an original dish? Even if you have a different recipe, you’re still working with the same basic elements. So, your output can only be incrementally different from everyone else’s.
Now let’s say you were to gather a diverse array of very unusual ingredients. This opens up an exponential possibility for new combinations. This cooking analogy has always been helpful for me as I think about building a healthy multidisciplinary design practice. Diversity in the team has a direct impact on the originality of the work. There is plurality to the concept of diversity as well. It’s not only skills, but also race, gender, culture, ethnicity, language, and life experiences.
We need to work with people different from ourselves to see the world in new ways. And this interplay between radically different people and ideas is the liminal space where the real magic happens. Being inclusive and diverse is not just the right thing to do – it’s what takes the work from good to great.”
There is an ongoing ethical design conversation about what happens when digital is incorporated into the built environment and what it means for people. What are your thoughts on this?
Joel Krieger: “At one point, the internet was full of promise. It was friendlier. Less noisy. So, what happened? It was hijacked by commerce. Our attention was monetized. Now you can hardly do anything without swatting ads away like pesky flies. The internet has become saturated with interruption and manipulation for profit.
A couple of weeks ago I watched the Netflix movie, The Social Dilemma, which exposes the sad state of the internet and social media writ large. It explains, in very clear terms, the motivations of those that use persuasive design (i.e. manipulation) to build these platforms. Their aim is to monopolize and then sell your attention. They do this by making people feel isolated, polarized and outraged. Eliciting these negative emotions increases engagement which makes them heaps of money.
When you reflect on the early days and where we are now, it’s pretty evident that what ruined the internet was the advertising model behind it. Imagine how different the internet would be if we had different economic incentives motivating the most influential players? We basically ported the same tired, broken model of advertising from old media (TV and print) to this new interactive medium on our screens. It has not turned out well. As digital spills out of our screens and into the built environment, we’re making this same mistake yet again.”
Joel Krieger: “You may have noticed screens playing adverts in your taxi ride. Embedded in the back of the airplane seat in front of you. Ads playing on the screen at the gas station pump as you fill your car. Many new commercial buildings have architectural-scale screens. Sometimes they commission digital art for them. More often than not, they just play ads. Enormous digital banner ads on buildings. It seems the aspiration of many developers is to recreate Times Square. But just think about how hard we must work to ignore ads on websites. Do we really want to deal with this in our public spaces?
Remember, that scene from the movie, Minority Report, where Tom Cruise walks through a public mall and is bombarded by advertisements that know who he is and what he likes? This is totally where we are headed. With spatial commuting, facial recognition, and our current trend towards surveillance capitalism, spaces will eventually know who you are. We have to ask ourselves, is this really the best future we can imagine for our shared spaces? The advertising model broke the internet. If left unchecked it will break the real world too. You can close your laptop and delete the social apps off your phone. But you can’t opt out of the physical world.”
The Unify installation artwork was done using a generative method with an algorithm that never repeats the same visual and also feeds the immersive soundscape in the lobby that is also fed by the same algorithm. Could you tell us more about the meaning and metaphor this installation wants to convey, and how was the creative process to achieve it?
Joel Krieger: “Because this artwork is displayed in the lobby, a major design consideration was creating something that people wouldn’t get tired of. So, we used a generative method that could unfold in real-time. We needed infinite variety within defined aesthetic boundaries. This means the type of control you have as a designer over how things look is quite different from traditional approaches. Instead of designing visual compositions, we had to design the right conditions for the desired aesthetic, movements and sounds to emerge. This required massive amounts of trial and error.
Our conceptual approach was to embed a metaphor for the vibrancy of the local community within the algorithm itself. Each pixel influences neighboring pixels, resulting in a dance of color, movement, and sound that never duplicates itself. The piece is a metaphor for the complex relational patterns of community. Where we are is part of who we are. We affect, and are affected by, the actions of everyone around us. Writing the rules of the algorithm’s self-contained universe was a lot like designing the conditions for a real community to thrive – just swap people for pixels.
With sound, a lack of variation can become quite annoying over time. So, we built generative sound instead of looping, prerecorded audio to avoid undesirable repetition. We used a technique called “granular synthesis” to sculpt the sound in real time. Here we have endless organic variation, with results that are akin to our natural sonic environment. Like the rustle of leaves or the pitter-patter of rain. This generative sonic system is subtle: it does not demand attention but rewards it when given.”
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Second Story is offering a path to help businesses and organizations rapidly adapt their physical experiences for post-quarantine life through Adaptive Spaces. What are the key aspects of the physical experience that Second Story is focusing on and how?
Joel Krieger: “Our spaces clearly weren’t designed for life under the curve. New concerns and health guidelines have informed how we adapted our spaces. And these adaptations all have emotional implications for the people that visit. Before the pandemic, brand or value perceptions may have been primary visitation drivers.
Now, people are returning to the places they feel most safe, empowered, and at ease. We’ve mostly been looking at the emotional aspect of the employee and visitor experience – to ensure design adaptations consider the way people feel. We’ve also been working on technology and experience design for zero-touch. We’re all familiar with the basics of this concept- doors and trash cans that magically open, automatic faucets or hand dryers in the bathroom, even contactless payments.
This trend definitely picked up steam because of the pandemic. And I think this shift away from touchscreen kiosks will be a permanent detour in many cases. Mostly because zero-touch is often a more seamless experience. Future environments will be integrated with an array of sensors that automatically detect and respond to human behavior. So, this was already a natural progression that was just accelerated by the pandemic.”
With more than 20 years exploring the convergence of physical and digital, what is the next step for Second Story in this new era of environmental design?
Joel Krieger: “We’re eagerly awaiting the opening of our most ambitious work to date, The Australian Center for the Moving Image. Located in Melbourne, it’s the most visited moving image museum in the world. When you think about it, moving images are quite ubiquitous: film, video games, animation, digital culture, art. Our efforts will help people understand how we use the moving image to construct our reality and make meaning. It’s a space that’s curated by real people but enabled with technology. This will be our most epic example of an immersive story you can step into.
I’m also working on a new side project that advances some of the concepts we discussed earlier. For those who are interested in interactive spaces, they can subscribe here to stay in the loop. We’ll be sharing future insights, tools, and techniques around design for emotion, spaces and stories.”
Collaborating and creating experiences for a brand is a difficult task, but what about rebranding an event? Check out the behind-the-scenes of The distinctive rebranding of Digital Design Days for the 2020 edition of the event.