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Above a bakery in Portland, Oregon, a unique group of storytellers are quietly changing museum and exhibit experiences all over the world. In this Creative Inspirations documentary, we meet Second Story, creators of award-winning interactive projects for clients that include the Getty Museum, National Geographic, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Smithsonian Institution, just to name but a few.
Founders Julie Beeler and Brad Johnson introduce us to their uniquely talented studio where their signature interactive design is conceived and produced. Second Story creates immersive adventures that educate and entertain through compelling visuals, touch and play, and inspiring participation through curiosity.
We follow the team as they reveal one of their latest triumphs, the Age of Mammals exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, designed to both please the doctorates and the first graders who participate in their finished project.
(Music playing.) Lynda Weinman: Hello! I am Lynda Weinman, and I am here in Portland, Oregon with Brad Johnson and Julie Beeler from the interactive agency Second Story. So you two obviously have been doing this for a long time and seem to love what you do. What is that that you love about your work? Julie Beeler: For me, I am really enamored with interactive storytelling, and I am really passionate about different subjects and content, and I love the idea that we can put something together and peak someone's imagination, spark their curiosity.
When you see audiences, of all ages, of all different types, playing with it, and they have that sense of emotion and excitement in experiencing it, that's what keeps me wanting to come back and do it every day, day in and day out. Brad Johnson: In the beginning, when I first got introduced to this medium in like 93-94, in the Bay Area, there was Voyager and all of these great interactive titles in bookstores. You were seeing these CD-ROMs that you could get. As the user, I was helping this kind of story unfold in a way that reflected my own unique interests and curiosities. And our capabilities have just gotten more and more enhanced over time.
So for me, what keeps it fresh and exciting is new ways to help make it even more memorable, to inspire wonder in people in new ways, but really, still the core, old-fashioned storytelling techniques. Lynda: So what are the challenges with telling an interactive story? Brad: There are a lot of different types of storytelling that we do. A lot of it has to do with collections of things, so there are stories to be told with lots of different objects in a museum, artifacts. There are stories to be told where you're bringing an event to life, or you're bringing a culture to life. And what I like to thing of is that interactive storytelling is almost like a glue that holds together different types of media, whether it's video, images, information, and what we try to do is find a way that the glue can kind of reconstitute all of this media, so it can be served to different people in different ways, depending on their own unique interests and curiosities.
So finding a way to sort of break a story apart is really the first part of telling a story, interactively, and then finding ways to serve it over different types of technologies in different contexts, for individuals versus groups, is part of the challenge. Lynda: So a lot of the beginning process for us is the information design of, how is the information going to be organized, so that ultimately when it's put back together interactively, a story can be told. It's a fun way, where we are actually deconstructing everything we are doing from the beginning to basically build a story back together.
Brad: We like to think of it as kind of from the inside out. We kind of start from, what is the heart of the experience going to be, what is the heart of the storytelling components going to be, and how are we going to serve those in a way that's going to elicit the best kind of experience intended for this audience? So it's really, what's the heart of the experience, and then ultimately, what does it look like? Lynda: So switching subjects just a little bit to the issue of how you go about hiring talent. What are the types of skills that you guys look for when you're hiring people? Julie: Well, I particularly am looking for skills where individuals are really focused on their talent, and they are really passionate.
And so I love seeing if someone has a specific interest, passion, whatever it is, that they really focus on that and do that really well. I think it's important that you, to a certain degree, you have to be a generalist, and have a big understanding of what's going on. We have said for years, it's like building a band, and it's finding that individual with that really great talent on that particular instrument, and they can excel and perform those amazing solos, but they can also come back to the greater team and collectively create great, beautiful music together.
So I think it's a balance between the two. Lynda: So are you looking for evidence of that in a portfolio, or is it more their interpersonal skills that are telling you about their passion. Julie: Well, I definitely look for it in their portfolios, because it's very easy to see when someone has it. It's transparent, and it just shows through, and I think that it has to happen before we will actually then go to the next step of talking with them, and then it is interpersonal skills, communication styles, collaboration, problem- solving, how they think, how they communicate - all those sorts of things are a big factor.
For us, they have got to be able to fit in with the culture and the other team members, and with a studio our size everyone has to be a self-starter and be proactive and have those skills and want to work with other people in the team, because we don't have lots of layers in management, and so forth, so... Lynda: That makes a lot of sense, and I realize that technology is constantly changing, and so is it less important what kind of technology they understand, or they have exhibited expertise in, and more important that they are adaptable, and you see evidence of that.
Julie: Yeah, definitely. I think everyone comes knowing a suite of software, and there's pretty much the standards in the industry, and everyone knows them. Some may have better proficiencies than others, but for me it's that adaptability and flexibility, because one day we may be thinking, oh, we are going to be go about it solving some of the interactive design solutions with this technology, and then we find out we are actually going to use this other technology, and being flexible to move into those environments. Because it's just constant and ever- changing, so it's really, really a good skill.
Brad: We have a lot of people with a liberal arts background, which really offers a lot of fresh kind of collaborative opportunities when we're coming up with different concepts for how an experience is going to come together. I really like that. One of the things I noticed that a lot of the larger firms do is break apart the interaction design from the visual design, and we really are trying hard to keep that together, so that the same designers are really responsible for the vision of how something is going to work, and what that experience is going to be like in the interface, and the way it's going to look.
When I found that those two roles get split apart, that oftentimes you don't have the same kind of cohesive experience in the end. So that's one of the things we look for is, can someone really do both sides of that? Lynda: Fantastic. And I think my last question will be, what it's like to work with your spouse? It's an unusual partnership, I suppose, to be married to your business partner, right? Julie: Yes, it is, but for us, we don't know any different. We met through working together, so we always joke that it just comes naturally.
I think it's a constant evolution. You definitely have to be open to understanding what your strengths and what your weaknesses are, so that you can work well together and divide and conquer. And so when Brad and I first started, we were both doing design, we were both doing development, and slowly but surely, we realized we each had different strengths in those areas, and we could work together to build on those strengths. And I think that's just a constant growing and learning process, and especially as the studio evolves and adapts and changes, we do the same thing.
Brad: I think we kind of evolved together to become better at what our own strengths are, so that it's less overlap than maybe it was in the beginning, and Julie is really excellent at sort of directing and leading the studio in terms of the new business and the relationships with the clients and the new clients that we have, and organizing the structure of the studio and how we get everything done the way that we do. And I am more into the creative direction and that concept development of the experience design.
So we've really sort of grown in different directions, and I think that helps as well. Julie: Yeah, Brad is excellent at starting with a blank canvas and making something beautiful out of it, and amazing and wonderful and all the creative, conceptual work, versus that's not necessarily my strength. Lynda: Well, in this day and age, creating a company like yours, which is so distinctive and growing in a down economy, just congratulations to you, and thank you for being an inspiration to all of us.
Julie: Thank you! Brad: Thank you! Appreciate it.
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