Written by: Sasha Bailyn Friday, September 7th, 2012 .
Most entertainment design companies have at least three things in common: storytelling, design, and technology. While these pillars certainly exist at Second Story, there is little else that makes this innovative company similar to the average design group.
Second Story, aptly located on the second story of a renovated warehouse in Portland, is imbued with the right balance of sophistication and laid-back playfulness. This was quickly evident when Co-Founder Julie Beeler was explaining the philosophical origins of her company’s name and was interrupted by one of the office dogs, barging into the conference room in an attempt to participate in the meeting.
As it turns out, Second Story isn’t named for being on the second story of their building (in fact, for many years they were on the first floor); the name refers to a second dimension of storytelling that occurs when a person interacts with digital media. In other words, the audience’s experience becomes a story itself. As Julie’s partner Brad Johnson puts it, “The evolution of media means the story no longer flows in one direction, from the one to the many. Through a framework of possibility that visitors use to weave their own story, the narrative is only visible in hindsight—when their path is revealed—the path that was their history, their story—that is the second story.”
A cool example of Second Story’s work is “The Longest Street in the World” at the Sesame Workshop headquarters. This interactive table, which is made to look like a winding board game-like pathway, is much more than just an information kiosk; it is a platform for forging one’s own journey through the archives of the Sesame Workshop. Rather than portray a linear progression of information, this table allows multiple users to access videos, stories, and even hidden animations through their own tactile exploration of “content pockets.” The “second story” concept arises in this exploration: the story of the Sesame Workshop becomes a personal experience that is unique to each user’s exploration of the interface.
As digital technology evolves, the entertainment design industry faces a paradigm shift and remains in a state of flux: theme parks, museums, and entertainment venues must all reflect on how to deliver an appealing experience to keep up with the audience’s evolving expectations. Visitors want to be a part of the story that they’re experiencing rather than passive recipients. This is exactly what Second Story captures in their work.
At the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, dinosaur fossils become part of a larger story of evolution through interactive digital displays that get even the youngest kids absorbed and playing with phylogenetic trees. Atlanta’s World of Coca-Cola, Vault of the Secret Formula, engages the audience in an interactive exploration of Coke’s story with an overall theme of surveillance. In this instance, the main punch line (Coke’s secret formula) cannot be shared with the audience, but this becomes fodder for a creative exploration of Coke’s characteristics as visitors’ shadows reveal hidden messages or take on a “carbonated” appearance. Whether the project is a museum, University, app, or archive, Second Story treats each endeavor as an opportunity to create a unique narrative.
Equally important to the narrative is the second layer of the experience that results from audience interaction. The Lab is the room inside Second Story where the team explores innovative ways of facilitating this second layer. “It is a place for exploring how the spatial narrative can intersect with digital media,” as Daniel Meyers, Second Story’s Creative Director of Environments, puts it. Daniel and Thomas Wester, Innovation Director and leader of the Lab, believe strongly in prototyping early and often in order to confront spatial and digital limitations. As any laboratory should, the Second Story Lab leads to new discoveries and happy accidents.
One of the key focuses of the Lab is answering deeper questions about technology. For example: now that gesture recognition allows for giant reactive walls that change as people walk by, what can be done to make those walls meaningful? How should the audience’s presence and motion affect digital content? Lab experiments also explore the relationship between digital surfaces and physical objects, blurring the boundaries between the two. The practical applications of this are boundless, but one example is retail: when a consumer picks up a product from a store shelf, a digital environment gets activated that displays more information about what they’re holding. The Lab team is playing with these ideas for different types of products, in which picking up an object activates a digital interface that recognizes the product and changes as the consumer moves it. “We’re trying to engage more of the senses, breaking away from purely digital and branching out into the physical by embedding objects with digital properties. It’s a golden age for product design,” Thomas explains.
At Second Story there is a palpable love for creating narratives, but there is also a deeper respect for the story arc of the company itself and of its design processes. As Daniel puts it, “There’s a story arc for the company each time we break into new markets and take on new types of projects. A project’s progression is nonlinear; it has twists and turns. What motivates us is joining the larger conversation about the creative process and adding to the history of design.”
While the result of Second Story’s work is largely digital, the process of creating each experience involves the integration of many talents and disciplines. Creative Director David Waingarten elaborates, “There is this sense of holistic cohesiveness that makes the things we create feel greater than any one person’s specialty.” Today, the boundaries between interaction designers, architects, exhibit designers, and curators are constantly being challenged by the dawning age of interactive experiences. Second Story embodies this blending of roles, defining itself as a group of storytellers and innovators who want to create experiences that, in Julie’s words, “hit the audience in the heart, not in the head.”