by John JervisMay 11, 2020
Jake Barton, the Principal and Founder of Local Projects, a media and physical design firm, has been instrumental in creating ground-breaking experiences for various exhibits and museums across the world, especially in the United States. Some of his most notable works include landmark projects like the 9/11 Memorial Museum, the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Local Projects has won many awards including the National Design Awards and Cannes Lions. Barton’s works reflect upon the idea of storytelling and how technology can be used for better representation and interaction with the users. And that is how Local Projects has set new benchmarks for narrating stories through their works.
Here, STIR speaks with Jake Barton on what makes him design experiences, interactions and narrate stories using technology, art and emotion.
Meghna Mehta (MM): You received your masters in Interactive Technology – how do you think that shaped the way you think and what you wished to do in the future?
Jake Barton (JB): I have always been interested in emerging technology, and wanted to explore how that might relate to the work I had been doing as a senior exhibit designer. In particular, I became fascinated with the idea that technology could create closer connections between people, rather than drive them apart.
I entered the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, one of the oldest graduate programmes looking into creative uses of technology. Those were definitely formative years that shaped the direction of our work - investigating how aspects of theatre, interactive technology, physical design, and curation could work together to bring people together.
It was during those years that I launched some of Local Projects’ first projects, like Memory Maps at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival in 2001. The project comprised giant maps of each borough - visitors to the installation could write down their favourite spots or memories on pieces of vellum paper and pin them to a specific location. The project says a lot about how we think of creative technology as a firm - pieces of paper and novel interaction design can be every bit as valuable as the latest high-powered sensor or touch screen. Even though we employ the latest emerging technologies in our work, we do not apply digital technologies for their own sake. In fact, we are much more selective than some folks realise in applying digital technology, especially where it might overwhelm the point we are trying to make or the complex subject matter we have been asked to represent.
MM: Local Projects is an experience design studio. What exactly do you have in mind before you start a project? Could you tell us a bit about the conceptual processes?
JB: We go through a three-stage process with every single concept design. Our clients trust us with their highest aspirations and deeply important stories, so we feel a responsibility not to skimp on any part of the process.
We start every project by asking ‘why?’ Why does it matter to a client's stakeholders, why is the project important, why is it relevant to the present moment? We know they have invested a lot of energy by the time they have brought our studio to a project, and we want to understand their intention at a deep level. We feel it is our responsibility to listen and reflect before we put pen to paper; to understand what a successful outcome would mean for your team.
From there, we develop a few conceptual approaches. One of our projects reflects our client's mission and vision. We do not have a house style. Instead, we focus on the client's sensibilities and goals to determine a ‘local’ approach. We are visual, conversational, and most of all highly collaborative with their team in a co-creation design process.
Lastly, we select a final concept to pursue. Our uniquely multi-disciplinary team is internationally known for our experimental and boundary pushing ideas. But as our clients will attest, our studio has a small, local feel with a prototype-first mindset that ensures any boundary pushing ideas are grounded in real human engagement.
MM: As a storyteller, how do you try to weave a story into all your designs? What kind of methods have you used to directly or indirectly communicate these stories through human interaction?
JB: Our go-to tactic to imbue experiences with narrative is to ensure that every visitor becomes a participant in that story. For example, the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum came to us with the mission of advancing the public understanding of design. We tackled that challenge by turning every visitor into a designer, equipping them with an interactive pen that could save any object in the museum to a personal digital collection online. Visitors could also try their hand at design across a variety of media, from landscape to furniture to wallpaper design.
MM: You have designed multiple memorials; what has been your primary thoughts to the idea of memory and communicating this to the visitors?
JB: Every memorial project is different - the recency of events, public awareness of an event, and how it fits into the broader context of culture, all play important roles in how we tackle a memorial.
The 9/11 Memorial & Museum is located on the very site of the tragedy, and we knew those who lived through the events themselves would be among the visitors. At the same time, as we are seeing today, kids with no memory of 9/11 are visiting as well. We had to serve both audiences, so we developed a museum of collective memory, sharing quotes and audio clips and messages and photos from individuals. This is a big departure from most historical museums that assume a singular, authoritative narrative about a chain of events. Our work at The Legacy Museum is more in that latter vein, and shows how the idea of white supremacy in America has been linked with the oppression of black people throughout our history. We are now working on a museum about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, a chapter in that history of oppression that has been overlooked by most history books.
MM: Through the years, what would you say have been the core philosophies of the studio, and going forward how do you think the experience of our spaces are going to evolve and change?
JB: We think that spaces that engage emotion and allow visitors to learn by doing will continue to be the most impactful, even as we have to change the physical parameters and rules of engagement around exhibitions. At the end of the day, our clients want to impart important stories to their visitors, and our job is to make sure those stories leave lasting, powerful memories that shape the way visitors view the world.
MM: As a design studio, what do you think lies at the core of experience, museum and installation design in the future?
JB: It is clear that cultural institutions will reopen to a new reality over the next few months. But as we are hearing from our friends and co-workers in a common state of quarantine, one thing is clear: museums are still one of the primary venues for elevating spirits and souls across the world. That is at the core of every cultural institution, their reason for being.
We are asking ourselves, how can we as exhibition designers and museum professionals seize upon this chance to better serve our visitors’ needs for health and safety, as well as inspiration and emotional well-being? We are developing ideas and insights we will be sharing soon, but would love to be in dialogue with other institutions and designers, and would love to chat.