The Information Architecture Institute
A conference on designing
complex information spaces of all kinds.
New York City, October 4 and 5, 2007

Conversation with Jake Barton, Local Projects (to be continued)

When I asked around about whom I should invite to IDEA who has done interesting work with complex information spaces in museums, I repeatedly was pointed in the direction of Jake Barton from Local Projects. Local Projects is perhaps best known for StoryCorps, an environment for collecting stories in public places. Jake was a finalist for the 2006 National Design Awards. In this conversation, Jake introduces the kind of work that Local Projects do, and we’ll get into the issues of designing for environments.


Peter Merholz: Jake, thanks for taking the time for this conversation. Looking over the website for your studio, Local Projects, I see you create “collaborative storytelling” and “environmental media”. What do you mean by those? How is your approach different from what I might already be familiar with?

Jake Barton: “Collaborative Storytelling” projects are bottom-up content systems. User-generated stories are collected, curated, and edited to create a select number of incredible stories. Because they occur in public spaces, our projects differ from similar web-based projects, creating a very rich and complicated interaction sequence that leverages the density of urban experience on top of storytelling.

“Environmental Media” projects are films and interactives made at an architectural scale. We are using storytelling to create narrative experiences that fill entire walls or buildings, fusing together large-scale Times Square electronic billboards and small-scale touch-screen interactives into a new experience. “More is different” is the phrase used by Steven Johnson in Emergence for how scale changes everything, and it fits here too: What happens to an interface when ten people can work on it simultaneously? How can you create a film experience that immerses you from every interior surface of a building?

PM: What do you plan on talking about at IDEA?

JB: IDEA is a special opportunity to talk about how interaction design, an ordinary issue for the web, explodes in unexpected directions when applied to physical space. What happens to accepted conventions when applied to the city streets, or museum atriums? Does it create opportunities for interaction between audience members in real time? Can we encourage multi-modal interactions between participants? Does it offer the chance for persistence within a single location? We’ve found that seeing similar problems solved for different spaces (physical vs. web) helps highlight what solutions are specific to the platform, versus the design challenge itself.

PM: I guess the logical follow up to that is, “Such as…?” What kinds of similar problems have highlighted platform-specific solutions?

JB: For example, bottom-up content systems, which I would apply to both bulletin boards and collaborative storytelling projects, work quite differently in Museums and public spaces, whose very peculiar attributes change the types of stories and content that people will engage in.

Museums don’t tend to lend themselves to persistence, like a community-based site or bulletin board relies on, because people generally visit a site once a year. There is a constant flow of strangers, much more a group of passersby, then a community of people beholden to each other and their reputations. I haven’t seen good examples of digital interfaces for commuters, but they would be an interesting hybrid of these two models.

So you get less easily into conversations, but can get a depth for the “collective collage”, some group archive that has a group of individual submissions whose collective adds up to a larger item, which websites have a hard time matching, specifically because the screen is small, and doesn’t show the large collective very well.

I’ll show some built and one proposed project that deal with variations on this theme, including one large-scale ambient interface for commuters and residents, that has bottom up reporting on traffic and news.

[to be continued…]

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