Inspired by a cross-connection made by Zach Goldberg from DIY Days
a notebook of thoughts from GMD Studios' Brian Clark on experience design, storytelling & phenomenology
“Attention is what creates value. Artworks are made as well by how people interact with them — and therefore by what quality of interaction they can inspire. So how do we assess an artist who we suspect is dreadful but who manages to inspire the right storm of attention, and whose audience seems to swoon in the appropriate way? We say, ‘Well done.’” - ”Happy Birthday, Brian Eno: The Father of Ambient Music on Art”
Just came back from a lovely time with the diaspora of transmedia creators at the StoryWorld conference in Los Angeles where I tried presenting this idea for the first time. I was humbled by such a warm reception for the idea (especially from my friends and colleagues.)
Thanks to my friends at Transmedia LA and a bit of PowerPoint conversion there’s actually a record of that moment. It might not be immediately clear to people outside of the transmedia community why there was so much laughter at the beginning of my presentation (I was making references to the landscape of definition debates that led me to here), but the rest is fairly straight-forward.
Now on to the work of making a movement out of this!
A New Translation of an Old Idea about Design & Audiences
I’m living at the end of the age of objects. As bits continue to replace atoms, the things I make have never been less material. And yet, I find that the experience of an e-book is like a paperback, an MP3 like a vinyl disc, and social media like being together in person. Many different phenomena emerge from the potential of what I make, as different as the experience of watching a movie in a theater, on a television, a phone or the seat back in front me. I want to create meaningful experiences for people. They are why I create. I choose to put the audience, instead of the object, at the center of my work.
I admit that none of this is new: if I pick up “Moby Dick” today I will have a different experience than I did in high school – not because the book has changed, but because I have. If I read it again in twenty years, it will be a new experience yet again. I choose to embrace that the audience creates the meaning of my work.
I will resist the urge to make fake objects out of phenomena. I know what it means to socialize with other people, and I know a whole field (sociology) exists to study that. I don’t need a new phrase like “social media” to describe the act of being social online. I pick being social over having a social media presence and being a person over having a personal brand. I need new ways to talk about my work, not new words to describe it. I choose to stop tying myself into knots.
I’m liberated by these choices. They lead me to recognize when other creators made similar choices and to realize the techniques they used are also useful to me (even if we work in such different disciplines as architecture, poetry and game design). I’m excited that because these techniques are based on how people experience anything and everything, they are the most universal principles of design. I’m part of a heritage of artists, philosophers, scientists and designers who have been inspired by this idea, called phenomenology, for more than a century. I choose to follow in their footsteps and re-awaken people’s sense of wonder.
I suspect you feel this way too. I see these ideas at play in your work as much as mine. We’ve talked around these concepts for years. Now, we only have to choose to do something about it. We don’t have to change what we call ourselves. We don’t have to start a new industry, claim this is a new art form, or invent a new buzz phrase like we’ve tried in the past. We only have to put the audience at the center of our work and embrace that we craft phenomena as much as we do objects. We only have to choose to be phenomenal.
…musicians and the listeners are in it together, and that one way to approach making art isn’t to ignore or pander to the audience completely, but to find the sweet spot on the venn diagram between what you love to play and what they love listen to.
No-one has a mind. There is nothing inside my head. There are no ideas inside my head. There are no images inside my head. There are no memories inside my head. These are generated by my interaction with the world. What’s important is not what happens within us but what happens between us, in the medium of language in which we communicate, in the social institutions that we inhabit, in the culture that we’ve been conditioned.
Despite my love of dead German philosophers and obscure art theories, I’m a pretty practical guy (for a mad scientist.) I don’t see a phenomenal work mindset as an abstraction; I see it as a framework that actually makes real work better. I look at the way these ideas revolutionized art and science and philosophy, I read the words our predecessors have written about how it changed the way they thought about life and art, and I wonder: isn’t it time for the Networked Age to absorb in those same concepts? All it takes is another translation of phenomenology in a way that makes sense to the now, so let me start with a provocation and then humbly offer up a translation of minds greater than mine that left these gifts for us we’ve failed to unwrap.
As a community, we spend far too much time talking about the form of work, as if it were the central innovation of Networked Age – look at all the “new” things we can make, all the “new” ways we can stick them together, all the new words we need to describe all these new things. This is natural, because as creators we spend a lot of time thinking about how to make things and what to make (and should.) Perhaps we can get further if, just for a moment, we focused on the real innovation of the Networked Age: audiences will never be the same again, but human nature hasn’t changed.
Somewhere in the world, a person encounters a designed thing – they see the architecture, they load the webpage, their eyes glance at the billboard, whatever. We’re witnessing a moment in time when what we’ve designed meets the people we designed it for: the phenomena of the work in context with both the world and the person.
As creators, we rightly spend a lot of time talking about that designed object and what we believe it means: brand strategies, story bibles, authorial intent, etc. But, we must acknowledge to each other that all of that stuff is invisible to audience – it lies beneath the surface of the world of experience. We can imagine the “serious artist” who’s work is unintentional (and tragically) ironic, the Internet is full of that kind of work, and use that as an example of just how irrelevant that hidden strategic structure can be to what the design actually means to people.
Thinking about the phenomena of our work means focusing on the context of how people experience it. Left to chance, some of that context might distract from the moment of meaning and some might enhance that moment of meaning. Phenomenal work asks you to think of the context of the experience as something that can be designed as part of the work. When people in the Networked Age talk about designing for relevancy or discovery or surprise or “shareability” they are describing aspects of the phenomena of work. When these factors work together well, the experience of the person with our work becomes richer and more meaningful … and that unlocks the most magical of all effects.
We only know about the world (or ourselves) because of our experiences, and we only understand those experiences when we craft a story to describe it to ourselves: this is the moment of meaning. Because we’re social, we’re also wired to share the stories of our meaningful experiences with each other and we’re wired to find the stories of other people’s meaningful experiences as valuable as actual experiences. Science has confirmed this: what happens in the brain during an experience, when we’re telling the story of an experience, and when we’re hearing the story of an experience are remarkably similar. I think it is one of the magical things about the human experience.
And that’s exactly the part of us amplified the most in the Networked Age, the part that surprised Internet creators so much they felt they needed a phrase like “social media” to describe it. Never in human history have our stories of meaningful experiences been as universally available to each other as they are right now. Tomorrow it will be even better. And all of that starts with the meaningful experiences that we could be designing for each other, because all storytelling emerges from the phenomena of experience.
I didn’t make this up and I didn’t invent this. I only re-discovered it and re-translated it. And in the coming months, I need to prove how practically useful it is for predicting almost every phenomenon of the Internet we’re grappling with as creators. And I have to do that by October, when I’ve committed to unveiling this idea in front of a large audience to try to provoke a meaningful new conversation.
Good design is a tangible frament of a world that makes sense. The real world doesn’t make any sense, but good design can help the narrative of an imaginary revolution prove that it could be.