Architectural Storytelling vs. Public Relations

Since we’re on the topic of design technology, we may as well start talking about the holidays. In the last 5 years or so online videos have become de rigeur for company holiday cards. Like the switch from paper towels to air blowers in the washroom, it’s a move that undoubtedly makes a lot of sense from a sustainability standpoint, but still leaves residual droplets of concern, as we attempt to make small talk over the roar of technological innovation, as to whether we are actually living in a better world.

Creating a holiday card for a design firm has always been a deeply non-trivial task. However warm in intent, holiday messaging is trite, almost by definition, and we as designers are not in the business of trucking in clichés. At the same time, the holidays more or less represent everything we hold dear – community spirit, activated streetscapes, smiling, chocolate, consumer electronics. Hence a great chewing of pen caps, inspection of ceiling details, and elaborate plumbing of the soul as every year we face the holidays and the prospect of distilling the identity of the firm into some fun little folly of a card, some genuine version of holiday spirit that doesn’t make us gag on our egg nog lattes.

Let’s review a few of the obvious ideas: buildings wrapped as presents, skiiers on roofs, drunken elves cavorting in architectural spaces, buildings as tree ornaments. Those things have been done well by other firms, exhibiting great originality in execution and delighting millions. Our firm, however, in its munificent social idealism, maintains that a holiday card should be non-promotional­. Meaning, no catalog of projects in festive garb like some qualifications package to Santa (whose image is also off limits).

Design is storytelling. But telling an original story about design in general, and in particular holiday-themed design, proves to be a less than straightforward brief. The jolly challenge here is to come up with some emblematic motif of the firm’s collective spirit and personality – in other words, to express its “brand.”

The holidays are already a World War III of brand narratives nuking the earth—but we love stories. Stories are the medium of shared experience, and what are the holidays if not about sharing? (There are entire conferences and business school seminars devoted to this – I slogged through this one.) In the context of PR, stories are the social lubricant that makes for enduring professional relationships and goodwill, the lingering twinkle of “ahh, that company, what a great bunch, let’s invite their people golfing.”

Complicating things is the video aspect. Where once we understood the packaging-and-punchline formula of holiday greetings and could start out laser cutting snowflakes into a piece of folded cardstock with an un-sanctimonious “Happy Holidays” in some variant of Helvetica, now we’re asking our associates to open an unsolicited email, click a link, watch a video, neatly stripping away all the charms of the physical opening process and demanding that the content itself had better be pretty worthwhile. Sure it’s the thought that counts, but as designers we’re paid to do. Video, as a medium, demands sequential narrative, drama, action –we’ve got an expectation of filling up airtime.

LMN is a firm about collaborative process and interacting with community life through architecture. One year, we hit on the idea of filming a team in the office designing a 3-dimensional object—a familiar project we could deal with. Snowflakes are a good metaphor for design – always unique, non-religious, apolitical, nodding in a friendly way towards sustainability, the water cycle, geometry, mathematics. As long as you’re willing to accept a certain cultural centrism of the frosty north in the wintertime (and mind you, we have a major project on the boards now in San Antonio – plug and, more to the point, plug), it’s an image for all.

To make things interesting, we engaged the LMN Tech Studio, our in-house experimental technology group, to add a layer of parametric modeling and digital fabrication to the snowflake design. We then roundly congratulated ourselves for this progressive approach, capturing an emerging part of the firm’s identity, and exploring the subtle relationship between storytelling and technology.

Rapid prototyping ensued. Our snowflake became more of a snow globe really, or maybe more of a socialistic urban street ornament with a dose of performance art (not that we have a political persuasion, but, you know). What was important was that it had a story to it, starting from the process – a Grasshopper definition (available here) for a 3-D structure easily assembled from 2-D paper components – to the end user experience, in which a group of us went out decorating the cityscape with these objects that were festooned with magnets and colored LEDs.

Here is the video, for your off-season enjoyment:

Note, in particular, the moment at 00:32. In attempting to show a collaborative group discussing a parametrically modeled design idea, we came up with the idea to project an image of the Grasshopper interface from underneath a glass tabletop, giving the impression of a large touch-screen work surface. At 00:36 one team member touches his index fingers to the surface and spreads them, causing the display to zoom in like some kind of fantastically sophisticated table-sized smart phone.

Now, we certainly have no such device. Researchers in large well-funded R&D labs have strived for years to create such tabletops, which are currently available on the market at absurdly high prices to people like casinos and CNN election commentators, and if someone were to hire us (or invite us to golf) over another firm based on the premise of having such expensive toys, well, arguably, we are a deceitful, immoral bunch.

Here’s the thing — I could argue in our defense that the scene was metaphorically true, I could look up something on Google about poetic license and insist that it was necessary to illustrate certain ideas, so on and on. Luckily, it turns out that there is but a fine line between special effects and technological innovation. At the time of shooting, LMN Tech Studio impresario Dan Belcher indeed had a pile of research notes sitting in a drawer about how to hack together a low-cost touch-screen using motion-based video game controllers, and those notes weren’t going to invent one of these gizmos themselves. Not one to let appearances prevail over substance, Dan proceeded to recruit an intern from the University of Washington computer science department to investigate the matter further. With the right programming skills, the Xbox Kinect can be modified, and the LMN Tech Studio team set to work programming the device to track hand gestures within a narrow threshold over a table surface. Source code and documentation for their working prototype of a tabletop touch-screen Grasshopper canvas with Kinect interaction are available here. As the Tech Studio says, “It’s our hope that those of you reading this will adapt and improve on what we’ve started.”


So what’s it all mean? There’s probably a tidy moral here somewhere about design being storytelling, or the medium being the message, science fiction informing reality, something, I don’t know, whatever. For the longest time Dan (see blog post in this series) has been going around preaching the gospel of users taking back control of technology, modifying tools to our own ends, starting some kind of cyberpunk architecture revolution of user-generated media, open-source code, and self-replicating 3D printers. Maybe I’m starting to get his drift. I can picture him now living it up on his houseboat in a Seattle canal, with his hydroponic house plants, mapping the Vancouver Convention Centre into Halo 4 and projecting it on the side of a cruise ship.

What’s clear to me – and I realize this may be oxymoronic – is that everything is getting blurred. The multi-disciplinary, all-encompassing field of architecture, thanks to people like Dan and Scott (see blog post this series), is now more all-encompassing. The story is richer, more complex, harder to distill. Designers are becoming inventors and computer programmers, picking up the dual skills of drawing forms by hand and symbolically writing forms with mathematics and code. Meanwhile, data and algorithms are creeping into our life from all fronts. Video is nothing—look at the kind of mobile apps that are coming out now. I happen to like the one where you hold up your camera and it tags the image with any open bars in the vicinity. I’m looking forward to getting the one that you hold up to a wall and it lines up a BIM model so you can see through it to the wall systems underneath. We are designing a virtual information layer into everything we do, building a virtual world out of data and mapping it onto the real world so that you can access it through the magic lens of a smart phone.

Videos, apps, blogs – with every new interactive medium, the word on the tip of everyone’s tongue is always “story, story, story” – which is at least as much a marketing project as it is a design project. How do you engage people with your story? How do you fill all these media formats with meaningful content? How do you go viral so your stuff sells itself? Where once we “pushed” products in catalogs and brochures, Web 2.0 has us “pulling” audiences in with engaging media about what we do, which generally wants to be original, timely, useful, and people get it for free (like this article for example – I know it is changing your life). As we enter the third decade of the Internet age, the concept of interactive storytelling has grown from user-generated content sites like YouTube and WordPress to mobile apps that respond to local conditions – apps for museums like the Henry Art Gallery that give you a guided tour of the exhibits and let you leave comments, or the SHoP Construction app that lets you upload field data into a BIM model. As I write this, George (see blog post this series), who just returned from a performing arts conference in New York, is raving about a theater project where a smart phone-equipped audience participates in a fictional reality played out in the city streets. We’re moving from an interactive experience to an immersive one that occurs wherever you are and strives to fit into whatever you’re doing. To me it conjures a mildly romantic notion of all of us hanging out in the same virtual data hot tub.

Every new communication format brings with it a different set of rules as to what makes a story work. There are separate skills and narrative requirements for blogs, buildings, and interactive algorithms, just as there are for films, short stories, and pop songs. Technology, at its core, is just a tool for storytelling. The challenge is to do something with it that communicates in a way people can use, and recognize as true to life.

In parametric modeling, if you can write down the essence of your story in code, variations on the theme follow naturally. The hard part is trying to express the original formula, which constitutes a dynamic set of relationships full of values, functions, and feedback loops. It’s interesting to imagine writing a traditional story like a novel or a screenplay with parametric design tools—you could represent characters in terms of a quantitative set of behavioral tendencies and personality indicators and relationship patterns (or just upload their Facebook profiles), place them in a virtual environment, and run thousands of variations on their interactions until you get one worth watching.

Which doesn’t sound all that different from reality television, truth be told – to say nothing of the performance-based storytelling model of Nielsen ratings, or the potential of the video game The Sims for post-occupancy evaluation, or the field of Urban Informatics studying what happens when our smart phones make us omniscient data-aware beings. Something like parametric modeling, I’m sure, is going into the design of smart homes that anticipate your lifestyle, or virtual reality shopping experiences that let you try out fashions in all kinds of situations, with clothes that smart-adapt to the weather and the social climate around you. Bionic contact lenses, I am pleased to hear, are actually under development; they will allow you to read your email in your field of vision, freeing you from the anti-social tedium of electronic screens altogether – soon enough we’ll be swapping text and drawings and algorithms through our eyes, communicating with media and 3-dimensional forms as easily as we talk. Not only that, just to end on a note of sheer terror, we’ll be able to manifest prototype objects as we discuss them instantly into reality with our 3-D printers.

Actually I think I’m getting an idea for next year’s holiday video.

Adrian MacDonald is a marketing specialist at LMN Architects in Seattle and drinks beer occasionally with the LMN Tech Studio.

This post is the 4th in a series on a Seattle architecture firm’s response to the changing landscape of Design Computing. For the background story, see George Shaw’s Re-Upping on Design Technology, Dan Belcher’s Field Notes: Confessions of a Design Technology Evangelical, and Scott Crawford’s Cabinet of Curiosities.

Categories: Technology