What I Learned About Experience Design From Buckminster Fuller
Edwin Schlossberg, president and principal designer of ESI Design, shares how his directorship of Fuller’s World Game continues to shape his work.
I had the good fortune to meet Buckminster Fuller, the architect who designed the geodesic dome and championed sustainable design before there was even a term for it, when I was in my early twenties. At the time, I was fascinated by the intersection of art, design, and technology but was not sure as to how to turn that into a professional career. Fuller was developing his World Game, an ahead-of-its-time simulation that allows a group of people to collaborate on addressing the world’s problems. At a time of increasing globalization, it was a revolutionary initiative to help world leaders work together to achieve universal goals like conservation, rather than each country hacking away at global issues piecemeal.
Fuller’s insight that the earth could be thought of as a single closed system whose inhabitants shared the same needs and objectives resonated with me. I was also impressed by his conviction that his ideas could improve the way humanity functioned and, in 1969, I leapt at the opportunity to serve as director of the World Game Workshop.
Over the course of about three months, I wrote the proposal that secured the project’s funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and IBM and I arranged for the World Game Workshop to be housed at the New York Studio School in Greenwich Village. I oversaw the search strategy to secure participants, interviewed and selected applicants, organized daily activities, and managed documentation of the project including filming and the creation of the final report. The experience advanced my own thinking, igniting a lifelong appreciation for games as a means to bring people together to solve problems.
However, metaphorically speaking, while Fuller was fantastic at writing menus, and sometimes cooking, he didn’t care much to see the diners’ response to the meal. That’s where I differ. I have always been as interested in the audience—are they delighted, surprised, awed?—as I am in the experience.
My first design project was, in 1977, to reimagine the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. Working with the museum staff, my team developed one of the first “hands-on” museums in the world. Kids learned about their connection with the natural world by interacting not just with the exhibits but, more importantly, with each other. They could, for example, collectively power a water pump by running a windmill, or create songs on musical pipes using a giant wind machine. That same year, I started ESI Design with a project for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Macomber Farm. The farm helped visitors develop empathy for animals through dozens of interactive activities, such as a pair of binocular-like head-sets that enabled them to see the world through the eyes of different animals like a cow (90-degree vision) or a sheep (in black and white).
Echoes of the World Game can be seen in a large-scale simulation we created for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute of the United States Senate (completed 2015) in Boston that enables people of all ages to solve problems together by immersing them in the lawmaking experience. In a replica of the U.S. Senate, up to 100 people become Senators for a day and try to pass legislation based on a real issue of that day. Using tablets, they read senatorial profiles, cast votes, and learn about past and current legislators and issues. Since it opened two years ago, tens of thousands of people (many of them high-schoolers) have played, sharpening their collaboration, negotiation, and debating skills on issues ranging from immigration to gun control.
And while many modern gaming interactions are between a single person and a screen, ESC Game Theater (opened 2013) provides users with an opportunity to have fun and collaborate as teammates—not only with friends, but also with strangers. In this mashup of an old-fashioned arcade, cinema, and pickup basketball game, dozens of players use their smartphones to compete with and against each other in lively games on a movie theater–sized screen, while an emcee offers tips, provides play-by-play commentary, and encourages teamwork. Using interactive technology and design to explore big ideas is also informing our exhibits at the upcoming Statue of Liberty Museum, opening in 2019 with architecture by FXCollaborative. One exhibit I am especially excited about, and which is especially timely and relevant, will allow visitors to explore, share, and display what liberty means to them—while also discovering how the concept of liberty is shaped based on where people are from and their unique life experiences. My hope is that visitors leave the museum with a deeper understanding of the values and dreams that bond us together no matter where we are born.
Fuller’s thinking continues to be important, especially as technological advances have made it possible to bring large-scale, interactive projects to life as never before. There are 200,000 new people on Earth every day. We need experiences where we learn to genuinely enjoy being with other people and gain the skills to collaboratively solve problems together.
In 1969, at the same time I helped launch the World Game Workshop with Fuller, the moon landing treated us to breathtaking images of astronauts posed with the earth behind them—not a collection of countries and borders, but a single whole planet. That moment was critical for me as it inspired me to create immersive environments that people experience together and where they learned to see our world as a large, interdependent system in which we all interact.
Edwin Schlossberg is the founder and principal designer of New York City–based ESI Design, a design firm that creates experiences, exhibits, and large-scale games for museums, brands, and retailers including the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate, eBay, Comcast, the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, and the Statue of Liberty Museum (opening in 2019).
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