Oh look. Russell Simmons!” Local Projects founder, Jake Barton and I are gazing from the window of the 20th floor of 1 Liberty Plaza in downtown Manhattan. In theory, we are noting the hustle of activity down below, as ant people and Lego dumper trucks swarm around the former site of the World Trade Center. In reality, we have been distracted by the sight of a reality television crew running around on the roof of a nearby building to capture the latest exploits of the Def Jam hip hop mogul.
It’s an odd juxtaposition, but one that somehow encapsulates the surreal nature of work on the 9/11 Memorial project, whose organisers are based here at Liberty Plaza, and whose employees are working flat out to ensure their plans are realised on time. It’s difficult to think of a project more fraught with raw emotion, shrill opinion, and conflicting interests for the citizens of New York. For the past ten years, the swirling development of a memorial fit to live in the footprint of the Twin Towers has provided the city, and the world, with an old-fashioned soap opera all its own.
Barton and his team have been in the mix since 2007, when, together with New York agency Thinc Design, they won the commission to design the exhibits within the site’s museum. Creating a space that will educate and enlighten – but not overwhelm – visitors is a huge challenge. Even now, mere months before the museum opens in early 2012, many of the specifics are still not fully buttoned down. Installations include an electronic message board that visitors can tag with their responses to the events of that fateful day, while a photographic installation comprises historical news images taken by and collected from the public. For Timescapes, Local Projects has developed a software algorithm that presents current news events through the lens of September 11, thereby ensuring that the museum has a way to respond to its own ever-evolving story.
The pieces are emblematic of Barton’s approach to museum design, which eschews the old-school approach of expert curator bequeathing nuggets of knowledge to wide-eyed, grateful visitor. Curators are still necessary, but here they are enablers rather than dictators of experience. “I have always been interested in collages and the ways groups of people can tell stories,” he says when we meet once more a few weeks later, this time at his own company HQ in the equally bustling but arguably less celebrity-filled neighbourhood of New York’s Port Authority bus station.
This curiosity, he says, is why he ended up working on exhibit design in the first place. Having majored in performance studies at Northwestern University in Chicago (he later took a masters in interaction design), the Brooklyn native returned to New York resolved to bring his ideas of openness and improvisation to a traditionally more static realm. “In a museum you have all these people who care passionately about history, art or whatever the subject is, gathered together in this physical space,” he recalls. “It didn’t seem smart that you wouldn’t have the curators talk directly to them.”
In an age of ‘user-generated’ this and ‘crowdsourced’ that, it can be difficult to remember that it wasn’t so long ago that these words were not a part of our everyday vocabulary. Even a decade ago, ‘multimedia’ was a novelty, while ‘engagement’ was still essentially based on the broadcast model of one-way, top-down communication; consumer was almost entirely beholden to corporation. Barton recounts an experience from his time at museum design specialists Ralph Applebaum Associates in New York, where he ended up working as an exhibition designer for seven years after graduating. They’d won a commission from UNICEF, and Barton designed a video booth in which young visitors could record their own thoughts on children’s rights. A common response to the concept, even internally, queried: “Why on earth would we care what kids have to say?”
Barton’s hunch was that a new dynamic was emerging that would, in fact, care what kids have to say. In 2001, he quit Applebaum, started at grad school (studying on the prestigious Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU) and simultaneously launched Local Projects. The success of early work such as StoryCorps, for which regular people record their personal stories and for which Local Projects designed both a physical space and recording experience, has seen the company’s star rise as they steadily make a name for demonstrating a thoughtful approach to tricky design problems.
And as it happens, his timing was impeccable, as massive shifts in society have neatly inverted long-held principles and disrupted multiple industries, vindicating Barton’s ideas and approach.
“Their real focus is on creating some type of emotional narrative,” says Willy Wong, chief creative officer of NYC & Company, the organisation that officially promotes New York to the world at large. Wong first worked with Local Projects in 2007 when they collaborated on the design of the Official New York City Information Center, located just north of Times Square and the two organisations have continued to work together since. “With them, it’s really not so much about the visual design or the technology,” he says. “They’re trying to get at the core of how people talk to each other and communicate with each other. For them, that’s critical and it allows them to move across media and across topics.”
It’s an important point. While some designers remain committed to making their name and reputation through some kind of instantly recognizable aesthetic, Barton and co are looking to become known instead for a certain brand of strategic thinking. Meanwhile, Barton, 38, shows a shrewd approach to the business of building a design practice. “I want to be able to tell people here that they should aim to do work that exceeds me personally and our studio in general. Exceed all our capabilities. If and when you see something and you have another idea that’s better, let’s do that.” So far so gung-ho CEO speak, but he has actually tried to implement ways to ensure that this spirit is codified into their business practice. For instance, the entire team gathers for lunch and discussion at the outset of any project. It’s not perhaps unique, but it is an overt attempt to bypass siloed thinking and to avoid potentially missing out on smart ideas from any one of 40 employees.
Of course, managing a freeform flow of creativity and expression is easier said than done, and Barton admits that the business of running a business provides an ongoing learning process. Earlier this year, he hired a senior project manager who declared herself baffled at the company’s lack of process and structure. It was, says Barton, a watershed moment. “I had never defined our studio as not having structure; we just worked that way because it was faster,” he says. “But once you have more than 20 people, having no structure actually makes things worse and makes things slower.” Now they’re taking the time to look back at previous projects and try to figure out how they do, in fact, do things. “We have to write this stuff down,” acknowledges Barton. “Even though it’s really hard to make a process that tries to externalise things that to an extent are intuitive and synthesised within an individual mind.”
Barton attributes the firm’s success to building meaningful relationships with clients. Now, every design agency claims to do this, but Local Projects have defined certain practices that seem to help. For instance, they religiously build prototype models of every proposed project. This helps to make the work tangible from an early stage – and draws out comments and criticism from clients. For the 9/11 project, all key stakeholders were invited to tour rudimentary versions of the installations and then provide feedback. It was an invaluable experiment. Many changes were made as a result – but much time was saved by avoiding barrelling down the wrong path.
He also likes to keep in mind a thought experiment he has employed since his days at Applebaum. “I’d basically ask myself, ‘if I were in charge, what would I do?’,” he explains, adding that even though he now is actually in charge, he still uses the technique to make sure he’s developing truly good work. Then there’s the practice of ‘peripheral listening’ – Barton’s way to tune into a client’s latent needs in order to diagnose the real issue at hand. “It’s not a matter of waiting for the perfect job,” he says. “It’s about taking a commission and turning it into the perfect job.”
It seems strange to apply the idea of perfection to the tragic events of 9/11. Nonetheless, Barton knows that the opening of the memorial museum will be a career-defining moment. Simultaneously, it’s just one more step on a path he’s been treading for some years now. “In some ways, the project already has really defined and changed us dramatically,” he says. “On the other hand I’ve been amazed and heartened that the original ideas around storytelling and collective memory that we developed have also found application and utility in so many other places.”
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