Letter to a Friend on World AIDS Day…

wad-banner…written after the National AIDS Memorial Quilt display on the Washington Mall in the fall of 1996…

Dear Craig;

It was so great to see you.  Life is moving too fast for us to let it take several more years before we do it, again. 

I was far too cryptic in telling you of my Washington experience.  I know you wanted to hear more.  Perhaps, had we another dinner the next night, I would have slowed-down enough to truly articulate my experience.  So, here, I give you more . . .

It was one of those days that distinguish Autumn from Fall . . .  In the morning, it was cold enough for sweaters and overcoats.  The sky was the clearest of blues without a cloud or any haze; crystal clear with the white granite and marble architectural outlines of Federal Buildings and monuments  — and the Brick of the Smithsonian — providing it’s frame. 

It was crisp and cold, and the wind was so gentle that it just breathed on one’s cheek, a caress of a loved spirit. . .

When we arrived at The Mall at 8:00am, the volunteers had just begun to gather in preparation for the 9:00 Opening Ceremony.  Small groups of the white-clad army dotted the latticework of walkways that stretched from the edge of the capitol grounds to the Washington Monument.  Everyone’s breath came out in streams of steam as they nursed cups of coffee and donuts (donated for the entire three days by Dunkin’ Donuts) and spoke in tones of hushed conviviality.  Old friends welcoming old friends, hundreds of these people had volunteered at each of the Washington and other regional displays over the 12-year history of the quilt.  Serving in this capacity is an honor.

From the Easternmost end of the display, one could look toward the Washington monument and see the 12′ wide pathways that criss-crossed the mall from end-to-end, creating 24′ x 48′ rectangles that rose — in-line, three-across — from there to the spire of the monument at the other end.  Inside each of these rectangles were placed two bundles — the two 24′ x 24′ sections of the Quilt that were to be opened and displayed there within the hour.

It was serene and peaceful, and full of a calm anticipation.

By 9:00am, the perimeter of the display was 2-3 people deep with spectators.  Some of these people had come to see the ceremony for the first time, some to see the Quilt for the first time; most of us were there awaiting the opportunity to visit loved ones’ panels.  At about 9:05, the loudspeakers began to voice the litany of names of people on the quilt, and the teams of volunteers moved quietly, soberly onto the field and began to open the fabric.

There must have been two-hundred of these teams; one for each row of rectangles.  While one team would be opening the first square on the North Side of the display, the team for the next row would be in position on the South side.  It takes a full minute to open each square — first, it is unfolded like a lotus, then the team of eight lifts the fabric high into the air so the breeze can catch it as they rotate 1/4 turn to the right and set the monument down into it’s position.  Then the team moves to the next position across the field as the alternating team replicates the rite.

All the while, all one hears is the litany of names in the morning sunshine.

It takes forever, and it takes twelve minutes to open The Quilt.  In that brief eternity, poignant memories flow through the mind, one after the other, of lovers, friends, famous people you never knew, people you’ve read about, people who are in danger of losing the battle even now. . .

Then, it’s open.  Where, moments before, there was a predominance of green throughout this mile of mall, it is now a million colors and textures.  Flannel, satin, silk, plastic, leather, curtains, bed sheets . . . shiny, dull, warm, cool; every color and texture imaginable spreads out across the ground and welcomes the eyes and feet of the guest.

The litany is interrupted for the words, “The Quilt is now open.”  Then, the names resume.

The crowd that had encircled the display moves silently onto the pathways, and in no time it is truly a sea of humanity.  Thousands of people walking silently, reading panel after panel.  Tears — some silent, some not — begin to fall and will continue.  People stop and stare, some kneel beside the panel of a loved one or someone unknown, compelled by the story on the panel to stop and absorb it.  Some remove their shoes and walk onto the quilt, feeling the fabric, feeling the love of the one who is represented there.

Some of the panels have photographs, some entire albums (Terry’s has a stack of pictures in a plastic case), some have favorite pairs of pants sewn-in, dresses, shoes, teddy bears, favorite shirts, sea shells, hats, icons of lives that some will never forget.

This scenario continues all day long, from 9:00am until 6:00pm.  People silently wandering, politely passing one another, holding one another with love and support.  Strangers will stop and comfort others who are suddenly overcome by the experience.  This is unlike anything else you will ever experience.  This brings the human toll of what is happening into starkest relief.

…….

At noon, on schedule, I was at the stage-side tent below the Capitol to prepare for my reading of names.  As I signed-in, I was handed my sheet of names; 36 of them, representing a specific 24’x24′ display piece.  As it happened, all of mine were first-names only.  (Tragic evidence of the all-too-pervasive stigma and phobia associated with this pandemic and it’s victims. . .)  I was seated on the rear of the stage, in a row of six or eight folding chairs, next to those who would read before me. 

As each reader left the podium, we would each move one seat to the left — toward center stage.  Some people went alone, some went with their friends or lovers or husbands or wives; their names being announced as they walked toward the microphone.  When it was my turn to read, I stepped to the podium and began. . .

“Don R. . . . Tom . . . Sarah . . . Tim. . . .Steve . . . . Gene D. . . . .Javier . ..  David. . . . . Alex . . .. Dominic . . . ” and, in my head, I wondered how old these people were, who they left behind, what had they left unfinished . . . .?  As I read each name, I paused ever so briefly and looked at the Quilt and the sun shining on it and the faces of those standing before the stage who were listening.  They were listening to me, and to the lives of the people I was sharing.

As I reached the end of my proscribed list, I added (as many, indeed most, do by tradition) a few close to me who had died since the last Washington Display.  “Mark Bloomfield . . . ” I repeated the name of one of the funniest men I’ve known, who moved to San Francisco at about the same time I did and with whom I created some of my most idiotic memories; “John Witherow . .. .” one of the most handsome men to ever have walked this planet — with a laugh and a smile that could charm the hardest of hearts and a lack of guile matched only by the most innocent; “Tim Okey . . . ” truly one of the hardest party-ers I’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing, who could drink and drug ’til dawn, then successfully run one of the US’s largest swimming and athletic wear  manufacturer’s Sales Departments; and, finally, “my lover, Terry McCormick, who died on this day, six years ago. . . ” a man who loved me with absolutely no conditions, who saw in me everything he wanted in another, and whom I continue to miss — profoundly and in the deepest core of my being.

I left the stage, tears in my eyes as they are now . . . down five steps to the arms of a volunteer.  Two or three deep sobs into the shoulder of this anonymous soldier, a deep breath and across the tent into the sunshine . . . .

I miss him, so much.  I miss them all. ..

Ethics: Responsibility, Culpability, Portent

Ethics

If you see something, say something.

Women are stepping up and speaking out; men are beginning to hear with enlightenment, anxiously examining their own actions or re-examining situations wherein they have been witness to transgressive acts without actually seeing what has been taking place, often right before their eyes. Bystanders are beginning to appreciate the complicity inherent in having remained silent and without action in the face of impropriety, aggression or assault.

These are tough and difficult lessons as people’s perceptions of how the world has been operating around them turn out to be very different from what had been assumed was the reality…or what so many may have obliquely chosen to assume by not seeing beneath a very thin surface.

Social lubricant can be a dangerous, myopia-perpetuating thing.

From what I am reading, this Moment may be or may be becoming a watershed of personal consciousness and responsibility in our culture. As people – men and women – look back over their lives to specific and certain times and instances where they might have spoken-up or acted to stop something bad or wrong from happening – but did not; when, in the name of avoiding personal discomfort or an “awkward situation,” nothing was said or done – leaving nothing changed, the spectre of personal responsibility, of complicity, begins to take shape before each of us.

In reality, when one witnesses evil or badness and does nothing, that inaction has the very real affect of strengthening the transgressor.

Silence = tacit approval.

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If no one says, “no” or “stop” or even, “bro, that’s not cool…,” that silence is taken by the aggressor as acceptance, as approval, at the very least as contributing to the perpetrator’s perception that what s/he is doing is Okay, as long as it’s gotten away-with, successfully.

Silence and inaction are, in and of themselves, support for what is taking place.

As this maelstrom of revelation has built through the past months, I’ve seen increasing numbers of men and women now realizing and writing of these moments of silence in their lives and the guilt they now realize they carry for having done nothing in the face of wrongfulness.

Might this mean more…?

…More than the bringing to light of sexual harassment?

Could this possibly be the beginning of a New Awakening in our society? Could it perhaps become more than a trend of the Moment; rather, a movement toward personal responsibility for the quality of life in our society? Might there be a resulting, evolving consciousness and commitment to truth, integrity, honor and respect for others?

Power and Profit

It would mean a society that takes a hard look at our priorities; as these cover-ups are motivated almost completely by two things: Power and Profit.

Sexual harassment does not stand alone in this field. Wall Street, shady business dealings, government and corporate graft and corruption, racism, sexism, ageism…all find strong roots in the high priority given profit and power in our culture and the egregiously low priority (if any awareness at all) given to integrity and honor.

Perhaps what is taking place, here and now, might inspire a broader self-examination of what we accept in ourselves and in others; in the respect we demand of, from and for ourselves.

Government to Serve; rather than to Serve Themselves.

Healthy, thriving businesses that reap appreciable profit while contributing positively to society, to a healthy economy, to a healthy planet.

Am I describing a Fairy Tale? Possibly: I hope not. Am I being idealistic? Absolutely.

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a Heaven for…?”

-Robert Browning

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Bullying and Business

When one sees something wrong…dishonorable, dishonest…in any context, is it not a responsibility of the individual to do or say something to stop it, to alert the transgressor to the unacceptability of the action? Whether it’s a bully on the playground, a cheater in the classroom, a thief in boardroom or boulevard,

On the Spectrum of Egregiousness, is there a place where one can draw a line beyond which it’s okay to let things go?

  • Where between a rape and a grope and a pat on the ass does any of that become okay: or does it, ever?
  • Where between copying the answers from another on a university exam to plagiarizing a novel or newspaper article to appropriating intellectual property and selling it does it become okay to take credit for the work of another: or does it?

In our business professional and personal communities, these questions arise and are ignored almost as a matter of course. Can we change that by taking responsibility at some level?

Are we the keepers of our brothers and sisters?

In the sense that we have the responsibility to take care of or protect those around us who become victim to an aggressor: are we? In the sense that we might call out a friend or colleague whose conduct is without honor or integrity, are we bound to address this in the name of said honor, of integrity, of social acceptability or business practice?

The DGA has expelled Harvey Weinstein. Awards have been rescinded and projects cancelled as one after another of the current transgressors have been brought to light. Is this an ad hoc witch hunt that will crest and dissolve, or could it be a new beginning, an evolution of the taking of responsibility for the way the world can work?

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Ethics and a code thereof

Is there Code of Ethics inherent in simply being human?

Is this to what people refer when they speak of “doing the right thing”? Were we, as simple and complex human beings, to espouse and adhere to a code of ethics; would the world be a better place?

Are we capable of accepting the vast panoply of differences between beliefs and cultures on this planet while at the same time supporting one another in respectful and honorable ways of treating and interacting with each other?

What a wonderful world that would be.

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Whistleblowers Always Pay the Highest Price

The first to step out of any closet take the greatest risks, and virtually always pay the highest price. That willingness to bear the brunt of speaking out against an amoral, immoral or even illegal status quo and face retribution from those who wield the power is the only key to changing the way things are.

The only key.

What is taking place right now, as more and more women and men stand up, step out, speak out is as inspirational and encouraging as it is shocking in its vastness. As disheartened as I am to begin to grasp what I almost cannot understand as I appreciate the iceberg-ian depth; I am encouraged to think that this movement might grow and spread throughout our social consciousness.

Our morale as a country and community are at the lowest point in my experience; we cannot go, I believe, much lower (…though, with each successive tweet I find that we quite possibly can…). Can we inspire and motivate ourselves back from this dark brink and bring ourselves closer to an ideal America that hasn’t actually existed, yet?

It is only after acts of brave integrity and courage that other voices join in to add credibility and support for the righting of wrong.

As long as Profit Trumps Honor, Integrity has a Price.

IMHO

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Something I just came across, today…

“Out of the blue, I asked, ‘Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?’

Obama’s tone changed. ‘I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.’

So I asked, ‘What do you take away from him?’

‘I take away,’ Obama answered in a rush of words, ‘the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense that we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.’”

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IMHO : Creating Compelling Experience” is still a free download from the Apple bookstore and iTunes. Free. Read it. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/imho/id555219645?mt=11 ]

Easing Back In…

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“Life is Hard, Not Fair, and No One Is To Blame”

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The six months since the previous original post (noting the shared reprint in June, “Design Ethics Across Cultures…” ), have been a wealth of unique experience. The Muses are aching to reenter the fray and return from absorption to creation; freshly regenerated and revivified…

There have been some exceptional Moments through this period. One of the most impactful being my invitation by the Principal to speak to the Secaucus High School student body. My name had somehow come up in a conversation about speakers who would have a positive affect on the students; delivering a message of inspiration and encouragement from an experienced perspective. He found my “It Gets Better”  video on YouTube, then googled further and for some reason thought I’d have a positive message for his students.

Thus, I went to Secaucus as part of their annual “Respect, Responsibility and Remembrance” Day.

When I arrived, I learned that I was on an agenda with one of the First Responders who’d been buried in the rubble of 9/11, Jane Clemente – mother of Tyler Clemente, the young student who killed himself as a result of cyber-bullying and being outed online, and a small group of other amazingly accomplished people.

It was an honor to be a part of it.

My talk, “Life is Hard, Not Fair, and No One Is To Blame” was about embracing one’s aspirations and ideals and living with integrity, not taking personally the things that happen to us and striving simply to embrace What Is; knowing that there is so much of one another – of all whom we encounter in life – that we simply do not – cannot – know…and that these are the things that make each of us unique.

AND, about not fearing the making of mistakes, not being ashamed to learn from them, not pressuring oneself to have or know all the answers and just stepping up. Going out on that limb is pretty much the best way to learn.

Leadership is about knowing how and where to get the best answers, not knowing (or pretending to know) them.

The visual metaphor I used is the cypress tree. From tall, elegant, columnar and straight along the roadsides of Italy to whipped by the offshore gales into unique lacework, all genetically identical, each tree is a reflection of experience.

Just like us.

We spoke of life pathways, of our own aspirations and those of others, responsibility, integrity, our own personal darknesses and troubling experiences. And Regret.

In exploring Regret; I made the point that rather than “mistakes,” I look at many of the Life Decisions I’ve made that simply didn’t turn out the way I’d envisioned; sometimes with disastrous effect, but giving me the benefit of learning from each of them…sometimes learning a LOT…but never regretting the act, move or choice.

While I see in retrospect that perhaps a different choice in a given circumstance might have been wiser, I would not give back that knowledge gained. Thus, here we are.

My only true Regrets are when I have hurt another person; done damage to a relationship that I cannot repair. So, we talked about that.

What blew me away is the quality of these High School kids. This is not my experience of High School. These kids are acute listeners, enlightened to so much more of the world than we were (due, obviously, to the internet, YouTube and social media for starters). They are, as a body, very clear on and embrace the difference between Tolerance and Acceptance…and are remarkably Accepting.

The respect I was given, the respect for one another that was evident simply passing through the corridors and in the cafeteria, remarkable.

This is a public school in a working class neighborhood. This country just may have a future, after all.

Talk about knowing our audience; this is the audience for whom we are now creating.

I have presented to colleagues and peers, taught Master Classes in inspiring and managing creativity to graduate students. I was a tad trepidatious at the prospect of this young audience, and I came away having had my own epiphany. The questions these kids asked, the things they said, individually, as they passed by me on the way out…powerful and beyond heartening.

So, I share the presentation with y’all in this Quicktime Movie  of the Keynote. In this 5 minutes, I believe the essence of the thing is communicated. What’s missing is, of course, my brilliant storytelling narrative (there is no sound on the video); the dark and sad interstitials that now inform my experience, fuel my creative work and remind me that I know less about more, every day.

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I hope this has resonance.

“IMHO : Creating Compelling Experience” is still a free download from the Apple bookstore and iTunes. Free. Read it. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/imho/id555219645?mt=11 ]

Design Ethics Across Cultures – Academic & Practical Collaboration


On March 20, we published an updated conversation on ethics of and obstacles to creation of experience across cultures and geography. This was picked up, examined and further explored by Margaret King Ph.D and Jamie O’Boyle Ph.D. of The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis in Pennsylvania. The two of them delved far deeper into the dynamics observed and questions asked and have carried the conversation well onward.

Shared, here, in it’s entirety; an evolved conversation possibly opening enlightening doors on pathways toward a more powerful diversity and compelling solutions for our industries…

Some areas of concern for designers working in other cultures are proposed as “Consciousness Conversations.”  These topics come from Kile Ozier’s IMHO online posting of March 20, 2017, at http://imho.kileozier.com/?p=777  (“Sharing what I’ve learned…of creating experiences with deep emotional connections”), on his blogsite. Coming off his most recent pre-Expo 2020 experience in Dubai, Kile declaimed on several aspects of concern for professional ethics for Experience designers working overseas.

Exploring topics of expectations, mentoring, problem-framing, attitude, open communication, and installation maintenance should become standard for discussions about best practices and the ethics of cross-cultural project management, with designers as “Ambassadors of Best Practices.”  We responded from our cultural analyst perspective below.

Kile asks:

Might we find ways to communicate these things, cross-culturally, to the benefit of future projects?

Is it too late to impress these lessons on EXPO 2020

Do we not have an obligation to support the ultimate success of all projects in order to continue to build and evolve the industry? Is it possible; would such advice be or have been heeded were it to have been given, supportively and early on, without coming across as paternal?

What are the realistic possibilities?

….It has to do with self-awareness, responsibility for the business, the future of the business, the sharing and spreading by example of best practices…and the obligations inherent in leadership.

Cultural Studies & Analysis offered responses to clarify cultural differences.  Often this is a matter of pointing to the contrasts between American values and developing world cultures, roughly dividing culture into East and West.

  1. Maintenance and upkeep post-design:  “It’s natural to evaluate the likelihood of good or poor maintenance at the pre-design stage, under ‘How will this installation be used and abused?’  Our job is to do the absolute best work possible to prepare the receiving client to manage and maintain…in the best way.”

CS&A:  The maintenance concept can often be an outcome of culture, which is the outcome of environment. Many tropical and subtropical countries have evolved a fatalistic – and quite environmentally sensible – culture that says “You can’t fight nature or God’s will.  Things will fall apart.  The cost of keeping up outward appearances is steep in labor and materials.  So it would be futile – if not outright blasphemous – to try to maintain when the environment always wins out eventually.”

Maintenance is a cultural issue, based on the environment, not a personal character quality (which also works for health care, for the same reason). It actually makes sense from a cost/benefit analysis, so deterioration is viewed as natural and just another aesthetic stage. That’s mostly confined to Africa and Asia.  However, Louisiana began as a French colonial possession, and culture evolves very, very, slowly. You can see evidence of this in the tourist zones of New Orleans. If you were trying to theme New Orleans, you would have to build in a sort of genteel deterioration to make it look right. That’s what they do with new construction in New Orleans. If you are building a Cajun restaurant, it can’t be sharp and polished.  No foul here.  It’s the way groups think based on long experience within their own environments of extreme heat, humidity, and the sheer cost of upkeep.

  1. Condescension:  Across race, age, gender, ethnicity, education, and language:

CS&A:  Concepts of respect and honor vary widely across the globe. In the US, we promote the concept of “constructive criticism.” That value doesn’t exist in many countries, where any criticism, even “constructive,” equates to a personal affront. Americans are not culturally conditioned to the extensive social negotiation of the Middle East and Asia–particularly whenever they have one eye fixed on the deadline.

Condescension in working teams between client and consultant: this is a tough one. As professionals, we are always selling our ideas, but people accept or reject them on the basis of their own reasons—of which a newcomer may be totally unaware.  So as a professional, you have to recognize that their local colleagues are not unintelligent or willful. They have reasons – and these may be reasons they are unwilling to share with an outsider out of mutual consideration.   Some of the dominance and hierarchical behaviors that go on in projects are outcomes of stress; others are culturally driven.  We are engaged on a project for a major music school to identify some of the cultural awareness points that need attention — and finding that intense competition and professional stress at a young age are the core issues, not cultural insensitivity or ignorance of other ways of life.

The short form: when working outside the US: never criticize, condemn, or complain. Not even “constructive criticism.”

  1. Speaking Up with negative communications: “Is there an approach where projects known to be at risk can be rescued before it’s too late?”

CS&A:  This one has strong cultural underpinnings. In many strict hierarchies, including China and the Middle East, you don’t ever, ever, give a superior bad news. Army Special Forces are specifically taught the “no criticism, overt or implied” rule when dealing with foreign nationals.  One polite fiction was to ask their advice, then say “Very good…and may I also suggest we … (do what actually needed to be done).” This would generally be OK’d, not because they were unaware of our ruse, but because they themselves probably invented that particular tactic of face-saving dialogue.

Now nobody seeks criticism, but in many cultures “critical thinking” can/will be interpreted as setting up an adversarial relationship. Arab business relationships, for example, are built on a history of personal exchange – they are trust relationships, but they are also fragile. The only true trust relationships in these settings are family (extended). No matter how good your relationship, as a colleague, you are not family. And criticism or trying to set realistic deadlines when someone higher up the ladder has already made their wishes known places you in the role of adversary – and trust-breaker.

  1. Raised expectations at openings:  “Today’s opening-day expectations are far more sophisticated, aware, and critical of failure than in the past.”

The world is now full of lifelong theme park experts: they are the sophisticated guest list.  They’ve seen the best and rest, led by top-shelf design.  This is one reason museums hold “soft openings,” to learn from their own mistakes as part of the process of fixing what doesn’t work in real time.  Perhaps that’s a way to frame the opening as experimental – making the audience part of it as evaluators. Raised expectations are part of the equation for competing in the experience economy.  Beginning with Disneyland, the designers made it better than it had to be – setting the A-plus standard for the industry ever since.  Unless you can exceed expectations in novel ways (as innovation across park-design parameters), there’s almost no sense in trying to be creative.

  1. Role of mentors / rescuers:  “Can we effectively offer advice, mentorship, responsibly sharing cautionary tales to contemporaries in other parts of the world or industry?”

CS&A:  This would be far more routine if the profession were more self-aware and didn’t view one another as rivals bound by trade-secret silence.  We’d love to see this happen as what we should all be pursuing.

If you are working in another culture and you have a good working relationship with your local counterpart, think of that person as a guide, interpreter. Don’t offer your opinion, ask him what he thinks of this or that idea. Placing yourself in the eager student position is flattering and you may start hearing things that would never occur to you otherwise.

  1. Problem solving for best design answers:  “And how do we create these answers? By applying our bodies of knowledge and experience to what we learn before we act in a new context; using our judgement with that experience to craft original approaches to the cross-cultural work.”

CS&A:  Problem-solving – and problem FRAMING, especially – rather than just coming in with off-the-shelf answers, is the heart of the creative enterprise.  This is what expert opinion is all about: the “lay of the land,” understanding the context of any project and its opportunities and limits — as we do for the cultural and human factors side in cultural analysis. The Japanese might spend years preparing, thinking, and learning before they initiate action. Then they go straight for their goal.  Americans tend to jump right in and correct as they go rather than spend their time making certain that the problem they are solving is, in fact, the problem they should be solving. We think we have a planning stage–but compared to other cultures, our background research and percolation is ridiculously brief.

  1. And finally, Social Media:  “…will cut the [subpar] project down before the day is out,” if it’s found wanting.

CS&A:  Think about Black Sunday, July 17, 1955, at Disneyland in California–as a social media event.  Half a century later, such a disastrous opening would have set the proto-park off course for the next two years or killed it.  Social media leaves almost no margin for parks and events to develop and grow within the audience experience feedback loop.  Instant feedback presents yet another aspect of design to be considered and weighed in the pre-opening equation.

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“IMHO : Creating Compelling Experience” remains a free download from the Apple bookstore and iTunes. Yep; Free. Read it. Here’s the Link.

About that Pepsi Ad – What Can We Learn…and Do?

A few years before the turn of the century, just weeks after having left my position as Creative Director at Universal Studios Florida and moved to Manhattan; I attended a Silicon Alley dotcom launch party.

Approached by the prime VC, I was asked what I did before coming to New York. I told him what the job was about as Creative Director for a theme park; of story, experience, immersion, engagement… He was, “Wow, I should have you come work for me!”

I laughed and said, “…No, thanks!”

“Why not?” was his surprised response.

I told him, “Well… If I consult for you; you’ll pay me well and listen to what I say, when you question me you will treat me with respect and value everything I tell you. You will likely follow my advice and I’ll deliver a project for you that will probably exceed your expectations. On the other hand, if I come to work for you; you’ll pay me less, dismiss what I say if you aren’t comfortable with it, challenge me on everything, veto my recommendations, act like you own me and all your other VP’s will suspect me of wanting their jobs.”

He looked at me for a moment and said, “You’re Right.”

You want the truth and to challenge yourself; you want to evolve? Bring in outsiders.

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So, this Ad: Link to the Pepsi Ad

The video has already been universally reviled; described as being “tone-deaf” in a digital avalanche of negative response.

Rightfully so; as it is a prime example of the expensive and expansive dangers of the in-house agency model. The supposed savings sought in the name of Time and Money puts at far greater risk the money actually spent and the time taken to produce something that ends up at best ineffective if not – as in this case – actually damaging to the brand.

Many Agency Voices are jumping on this example as evidence of the faults inherent to the in-house agency; citing this as the case for outside agencies as the choice of greater potential.

I don’t know that this hypothesis is entirely accurate. It ain’t necessarily so black-and-white; though it certainly does point out the vast pitfalls of the in-house model; those being myopia, subservience, sycophancy, fear of losing a job.

Agencies, however, are not the only alternative.

There are some who would posit that the age of the agency is over; certainly the mammoth agency is barreling toward irrelevance. Large, legacy agencies are most often burdened with bureaucracy, overhead, sluggishness and an inventory of resources they must employ and sell in order to profit.

For instance: a client may get the agency’s best writer; but is that client getting the best writer for them, for the project, for the audience?

To that, the best agencies are generally small, nimble, flexible…able to ride trends and embrace cultural evolutions; offering clients and their brands options that may even make the client a tad uncomfortable … which might be a good thing, serving to evolve the culture and communicate the message with resonance and relevance.

Or, maybe build specific teams to specific projects or campaigns.

A note on Relevance:

“To me, Pepsi is more than just a beverage. It registers as a pop culture icon and a lifestyle that shares a voice with the generation of today”

– Kendall Jenner

Speaking only from my own experience from teaming with Millennials / Generation Z / and those minds of prior generations who have remained active and current; the thinking behind the “I’m a Pepper” & “Pepsi Generation”-type ad campaigns (1977 and 1963, respectively) is just plain out of date. People aren’t interested in being identified as part of a legion loyal to a high-fructose soft drink; that doesn’t symbolize anything for which these individuals might stand. They certainly aren’t defined by it.

As was explored and articulated in August’s “An Emerging Market for StoryCrafters and Opportunity for Business Leaders”, people – especially those below 40 – are not interested in being a part of a “sponsored” generation.

Rather, today’s Millennials, Millennial-adjacent and Millennial-friendly thinkers want to be a part of and support something that makes a positive difference in the world. Health, fitness, sustainability, peace, equality, fairness; they will align with brands and products of integrity, conscience, authenticity.

A Protest Party Rave Parade full of Smiling Faces, Pretty Girls and Hot Cops ain’t gonna engage this audience.

No.

So, How did this ad happen? 

One accomplished principal in this industry, Jim McDonald of SuperString Theory, offered this opinion:

“…bunch of us have been commenting as to whether a big issue with the tone deaf nature of this spot was the result of it being created by their internal agency, Creators League Studio. I argue that part of the rising problem with creativity in US is a lack of courage. 

They want epic, but not willing to be authentic. Outside agencies, in an effort to keep the account from flipping, bend to the will of the client who want “big” but not “real”. The Agency has a harder and harder time telling the client, “No, that will suck.” 

Then the rise of the internal agency, spawned from cost-cutting, has no backbone to push back to their bosses and say, “Wow! that will really suck!” So you get this sh*t. We are at a crossroad in the creative fields…”

Perhaps go Bespoke. Look further afield.

There is a vast, worldwide cornucopia of storytelling artists, designers, experience architects and messaging professionals from which a specifically-qualified and talented team can be cherry-picked to specific corporate cultures, brands, products, budgets and audiences.

Look to theatre, theme parks, talented individuals who create entertainment experience in other contexts. Bring them in and add them to your team(s) on a project basis. They bring real-world experience to your table, are able to refresh the talent on your team, offer perspectives unforeseen, challenge what may be conventional with approaches that can re-define and evolve what is being created to reach further and last longer to greatly extended value-life.

Well worth exploring is the global network of creative professionals that is the Themed Entertainment Association. Hundreds of writers, designers, composers and producers with experience from all over the world in myriad contexts – most all with experiences of having parachuted into one culture after another and have developed superb sensitivities to the cultures for which they create – are a part of this group.

And then, there’re the New Kids

Beyond the Broadways and Hollywoods and not to be overlooked are such institutions as the Savannah College of Art & Design, Carnegie Mellon, CalArts, virtually any university or college art or theatre or dance department. There is something solid to be said for bringing-in the unrestrained imagination that is coupled with a responsibility and commitment to the planet. This is a consciousness that seems to manifest more universally in the current wave of 20-somethings; offering experience in the realities of the work we do while embracing the untempered points of view and perspective.

Pair young people like that with experienced producers and let the collaboration begin. Learning flowing both ways in the context or creating the message and experience will likely yield the brilliant and new.

In My Humble Opinion, a recipe for the most effective success is the augmenting of what may exist in-house with those of disparate, successful experience from outside along with a fresh-out-of-the-box mind or two to explore and create the messaging.

—————————————————-

IMHO: Creating Compelling Experience is a free download from iTunes or the iBook store.

Elephants in the TEAroom 2017

Extensively updated from Original Publishing – March 2015

[NOTE: Have we in our industry let down our Dubai and Emirati colleagues? Are we letting down our peers in other parts of the world…at home? Might the disasters of IMG Worlds of Adventure and Motiongate (and prior to that, the lessons offered by the Ferrari World experience) have been avoidable were we to have spoken more strongly at, and to, the highest levels of the importance of seamless experience, of unbroken and immersive storytelling pathways; would a difference have been made and the now-passed precipice of eliminating key elements over which these projects have fallen perhaps have been avoided? 

Might there have been some way for the problems we all saw coming that have now materialized been more emphatically and effectively communicated to those whose hands we shook in the years leading up to these projects’ opening? 

Might we have communicated more compellingly the importance of the intangible, unquantifiable, unspreadsheetable value of the more ephemeral components of storytelling experience? Might we find ways to communicate these things, cross-culturally, to the benefit of future projects?

Is it too late to impress these lessons on EXPO2020

Do we not have an obligation to support the ultimate success of all projects in order to continue to build and evolve the industry? Is it possible; would such advice be or have been heeded were it to have been given, supportively and early on, without coming across as paternal?

What are the realistic possibilities?]

It is again the virtual eve of the annual TEA Summit Conference  and Thea Awards Weekend; arguably, the most Important annual event in the Themed Entertainment Industry, just a few weeks away. Soon, hundreds of members of this community-slash-industry, The Themed Entertainment Association — Production and Creative Executives, Writers and Technical Experts, Inventors, Project Directors, Artists — will board flights and head to Disneyland for two days of seminars, iconic speakers and intensive networking: all to wrap up on Saturday night with an Awards Night of Glamour that almost rival’s Cinderella’s Ball.

The Best of the Year’s Work is acknowledged, awarded and celebrated over this three-day show-and-tell at the highest of levels. And while the stages are filled with What Has Been Built This Year, the conversation on the floor is about Who is Building What, Next Year.

As hands are shaken and awards are given, amidst the congratulations and the laughter and as “would you believe it…” anecdotes are shared; there exists, on the periphery, a vibrant and growing conversation on responsibility, honor and integrity.

It has to do with self-awareness, responsibility for the business, the future of the business, the sharing and spreading by example of best practices…

…and the obligations inherent in leadership.

To be more direct:

  • We, as leaders, are responsible for how we and our peers represent when working in other countries.
  • We are responsible for delivering the best possible product irrespective of context or client.
  • There is no excuse for delivering substandard work; we can and are morally obligated to encourage our colleagues and peers — and competitors — to maintain the highest standards.
  • We can be Ambassadors of Best Practices.
  • This includes how to treat laborers well and the financial value of that philosophy.
  • This includes the concept of Green-ness and awareness of resource consumption.
  • This includes plenty of other stuff…
  • We pay the price for conduct unbecoming; whether such conduct is intentional or inadvertent.
  • That being said, we can be responsible for maintaining, within our industry, awareness of negative trends that can (and have) become virtually cliché and we should support methods of eradication and enlightenment to said trends and actions.

These are areas of paramount importance to any industry doing business, offshore or local; from across a state line to beyond national borders, across oceans and most especially across language barriers.

Many in our industry aspire to become positive influence. Conversations on these subjects are taking place everywhere; kitchens and patios at parties, over cocktails, over dessert at dinner, over lunch on job sites, at picnics. Consciousness Conversations such as these are becoming part of the casual agendas of multiple trade and professional organizations; in that light, we offer this…

An Open Agenda for Casual Business Conversation.

After having asked, “how’s the family…?”

Perhaps an informal chat about these…

Condescension Communicates

To paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy, You might be a racist if… you’ve ever said the words, “Those people…” and followed with some generalization applied to what a given population or demographic will or won’t do with regard to maintenance or upkeep to original design or production.

  1. That is a racist comment, full stop. It could be sexist, too, depending on who says it and when. Whether or not some of one’s best friends and colleagues are also members of that group, and whether or not one is at all comfortable with the fact that one may be just a little bit racist does not alter reality. Not even with a magic wand. Be aware of it, guard against it, nip it in the bud and freaking acknowledge it when one sees it in oneself. We’re only human; most of us aren’t perfect.
  2. What the client may or may not do with a project or property, after handoff, is irrelevant in the context of quality of work delivered. Nothing excuses “designing-down” to a population or client. Our job is to do the absolute best work possible, to prepare the receiving client to manage and maintain in the most efficient, best possible way, and hand it off. Period.
  3. Nothing mitigates that obligation.

“Those people” are just as smart as any of us and, while there may be an absence of knowledge in certain areas of experience and expertise, while there may be a virtually crippling lack of experience or failure to grasp certain concepts with which we Westerners may be almost inherently (or culturally) familiar; this does not mean the mind across the table or desk from us is not just as sharp as (if not sharper than) our own. Maybe even smarter, as we are likely speaking our native tongue which may be the other person’s third, fourth or fifth language.

Respect.

Publicity, Press Releases and Reality

Used to be, development companies could issue a press release and make promises and predictions about a project. Those releases would be picked up by industry or mainstream press and repeated. People would read them and consider them to be truthful, make assessments (and, in our case, plans to visit or participate) and do so. Showtime would come and people would travel from far and near to see this thing and, having been told nothing different, would embrace what they experienced as exactly what they’d read it would be…trusting that this is the best, possible experience without even thinking about it.

Now, It’s all google-able. If we say, today, that our park will be the utmost in immersive guest experience; those words will remain in audience consciousness to fuel expectation for Opening Day…and today’s Opening Day Expectations are far more sophisticated, more aware and certainly more critical of failure than those of generations past.

This raises the question of how to report on ongoing, developing and soon-to-open projects.

In the name of supporting the industry, our industry press is skittish about reporting negatively and candidly on projects coming down the pike. This makes sense in terms of the revenue stream that supports these publications, as well as in the context of not wanting to undermine potential successes.

That being said, is there an approach, avenue or forum where projects known to be at risk can be rescued before it’s too late? How can we help? In recent forums, industry audiences have been adamant that they want to know the truth about projects in development as these projects go from concept to reality. Might candid, clear-eyed reporting offer opportunity for the appropriate Rescuing Colleague to step up and offer White Knight services?

We, as an industry, could embrace a moral obligation to be policing ourselves, mentoring and encouraging one another. How to do that in a positive way? Can we effectively offer advice, mentorship, responsibly sharing cautionary tales to contemporaries in other parts of the world or industry?

Social Media Will Bust Us

Day One: “Opening Day:” 4- and 8- and 10-hour flights land, the doors open and thousands of Tweeters and Instagrammers and FaceBookers and YouTubers and Snapchatters eagerly flood through the gates or to the box offices.

And if, on said Day One, the experience delivered falls short of what was promised; Social Media will Cut <name of project> down before the day is out. The reality will be everywhere, the reviews will be legion, the worldwide message will be “don’t come!”

Business and Management Skills: ExPat Agony

“Well, back at Disney…” or “When I was at Universal…”

Seriously, Just don’t say it.

This talk even bugs the other alums in the room. Pretty much everyone has worked for one or the other or both the Big Boys by now. One makes no friends with name-dropping and, frankly, one is definitely making one’s own job significantly harder…probably more so as millennials fill the workspace. Such talk tends more to imbue the speaker with an aura of arrogant irrelevance.

Experience is respected most when it is presented in the context of the problem before us.

As an Expert Expat, one has been brought in because of one’s experience. There is no question that Disney and Universal generally do it best, have some of the best processes and procedures and offer great models for approaching a given project.

These Big Boys do not offer the only way to do anything, nor always the only best way. We must not lose sight of the fact that even these iconic creative fonts have learned massive amounts from mistakes made and as a result have evolved their own processes and philosophies from Paris to Hong Kong to a quantum evolution in the approach to Shanghai.

As Expatriate, Western “Experts”; we are brought in not because we already know the answers. Rather, we are best and most effectively brought in under the assumption that we have the ability to discover and create the best answers.

And how do we create these answers? By applying our bodies of knowledge and experience to what we learn before we act in a new context; using our judgement with that experience to craft original approaches to the cross-cultural work.

The methodologies and processes we apply, the way we build and create may look very similar to ways which we may have learned have worked well in other contexts. But, if we parachute in and begin to apply without first truly investigating and learning the lay of the land, where to avoid the cultural rifts and gullies; we are shortchanging ourselves, our clients and ultimately our audiences.

Finally:

The Ever-Present Burden of White Male Privilege

As a Middle-aged White Guy (or Gal, but not so much I think); perhaps keep in mind that we are often and actually burdened with exhaustive and sometimes exhausting Privilege. Such privilege does open doors, elicit deference and favors…

…and it can also get in the way.

That privilege, more often perceived by the viewer, can become a significant barrier to being told, presented with or hearing a valuable Truth when such a Truth needs to be spoken. There is often an inherent and ubiquitous fear or reticence to bear bad news upward, especially with staff and colleagues predominantly of other races and nationalities, when we are working in the often caste-like environments of other cultures.

The message may not even be articulated when we most need to hear it, for retribution can be feared (and in many cases, appreciably so), as many believe they risk their own jobs by offending or even delivering bad news to higher ups.

This can threaten the quality of an entire project. Important information can be missed or hidden.

Aggressive Listening.

Such Privilege obligates outreach and mitigation by those privileged. It is the responsibility of the privileged to alleviate the fear of candor and to invite initiative. It’s a big job; and many a powerful executive from the west has failed without comprehending why.

Talking to everyone. Learning names, asking after families and work backgrounds.

Listening.

Chances are, with aggressive listening, that valuable relationships, nuanced understanding and enlightened appreciation of the the possibilities inherent in the blending of cultural approaches will result in a team that produces results far greater than the sum of parts.

IMHO.

 “IMHO – Creating Compelling Experience”  , read and studied in both Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, is a free download from iTunes and the iBook Store. Free.

Link to the Themed Entertainment Association site.

What Will Sheikh Mohammed Do?

Expo2020Dubai is in trouble.

This is, arguably, Dubai’s last shot at credibility in the world of Destination and Themed Entertainment. Globally and historically, Dubai is known as much for the “biggest” and the “newest” and the “most”-est as it is for Grand Announcement followed by Failure to Deliver.

Massive projects have been announced and launched, grand models photographed, hands shaken and press released; then these projects often disappear. Grand Openings are announced, the original published Opening Dates arrive and pass without reference and, more often than not, if the projects do actually open, they often open weeks, months and even years late; often still unfinished and incomplete.

The world knows this.

In private, non-public conversations between professionals, worldwide, about the prospects for Expo2020Dubai, conversations are as much along the lines of, “…let’s see what Dubai does with Expo…” as they are voicing the question, “…do you think that Dubai will be actually be able to pull this off?”

And this is a legitimate question. The world is skeptical, and rightfully so.

As of this writing, much of the same dysfunctional dynamics are in place at Expo2020Dubai that prevailed at Meraas / Dubai Parks as far back as 2012 and 2013. These dynamics have very publicly resulted in extremely late openings of projects that are still incomplete when they open. Despite repeated recommendation on the part of consulting experts in these fields, warnings were ignored and advice dismissed, systems were not streamlined, input was not embraced at the appropriate times and result is that the parks have opened late, incomplete and over-budget.

Motiongate in particular has opened…late and incomplete…to reviews that range from lackluster to downright scathing, and appropriately so. This writer visited the park as it opened to discover only a fraction of the rides and shows operating at all, and those in operation fall far short of anything approaching World Class.

The two rides experienced, “Ghostbusters” and “Hotel Transylvania,” are straight-out embarrassing. Vast open and empty spaces between disconnected vignettes drain the energy from one scene to the next; creating an energy- and intrigue-free experience of what amounts to a showcase of some pretty cool scenery…but the absence of continuity renders the entire experience lackluster and boring.

What is sad about this is that some exceptionally talented and skilled professionals designed and built these attractions. Hampered by inexperienced Corporate officers who lack an understanding or failed to give priority to the importance of Story and the critical quality of seamless immersion in creating Experience and seem, instead, to be focused on shaving budgets to the detriment of actual Experience; these creative and technical professionals found themselves handcuffed to unrealistic expectations, uninformed timelines and deadlines and a critical absence of understanding of the craft of Creating Experience.

And, to be completely frank, many of the “experts” – mostly white guys of a certain age with “pedigrees” from the School of Disney and Universal who are on the verge of retirement – seem to come to the UAE more interested in a well-paid “last hurrah” than the integrity or ultimate success of the project for which they are responsible. Caving to the unrealistic expectations and unmeetable deadlines levied by clients who have no understanding of the business does not support a finished product of which one might be proud…nor one that will be profitable.

IMHO, it is the responsibility of these individuals to hold the line on unrealistic expectation and educate the client rather than kowtow. This responsibility seems not to have been fully embraced.

That being said; another critical facet that impedes success in large-scale projects in the UAE is a deeply-ingrained fear in the Emirati culture of Losing Face. These are in many cases exceptionally intelligent people who are handicapped by a fear of not being seen as knowing everything about the project(s) for which they are responsible.  Somehow, the value and honor of taking advice and being willing to hear facts that may not fit with original expectation is absent in many an executive suite.

Note: It’s okay to not know; it’s okay to change one’s mind when presented with facts and experienced advice that contradicts original decisions. It is even honorable to acknowledge having learned something.

Insistence on things such as unrealistically short deadlines, an ignorance of the importance of the soft-edged creative in the hard-edged design and architecture, across-the-board budget cutting without a sense of how such action affects the substance of the project – all things that came into play in the shortfall and negative experience offered by the Motiongate project – is what undermines the best of project intentions.

Thus, the money that has been spent on such projects has been effectively wasted, as the unfinished spaces, the gaps in individual Experiences, Rides and Shows seriously undermine and diminish the quality of the product.

IMG World is it’s own example. In April of 2014, IMG announced in the local and worldwide press that IMG World was going to open in November of that year, and was going to “rival Disney” (a preposterous projected rivalry, in and of itself). The boastful announcement was met with worldwide cynicism; as one photograph of the unfinished structure was all anyone needed in order to know that the park would not open in 2014, at all.

This continued; with successive announcements of opening dates that came and went without comment followed with several announcements for an Opening that never took place…and the doors finally, quietly opened in mid-2016 to a vastly underpopulated cavern. The destination hasn’t yet been host to a crowd anywhere near capacity; yet they’ve just announced a second gate.

Ferrari World, too, is a prime example. Opening late, incomplete, over budget; it has taken six years for that park to begin to show fiscal health…and they’re not out of the woods, yet.

The world sees and remembers these things.

The world is watching Expo2020Dubai.

Expo2020Dubai must open on time and complete.

The world will arrive on 20 October 2020 and expect the promised perfection. The Expo cannot open a month, a week, not even a day or an hour late.

Sheikh Mohammed has decreed that the Expo site must be audience-ready six month’s out; by 20 April 2020. As of this writing, there is virtually no chance of this happening; not if the vision of a cutting-edge, lush, never before seen, exciting new paradigm and evolution of the Expo Experience is to be realized.

The absence of experienced and knowledgeable leadership at senior level is impeding the work of the Department responsible for all the live components of Expo2020 and affects the reputation of that department throughout the UAE and in the industry, worldwide.

This knowledge and experience gap is such that it affects not only the ability to accomplish key tasks and run the department efficiently and effectively; but it adversely affects the national and global reputation with respect to credibility and, more critically with respect to valuable human resources, appeal as a place to work.

World class designers, producers, entertainment professionals will not want to work in an unsupportive environment.

The agency and vendor community in the UAE, while anxious to partner, collaborate with or work for Expo2020, is as a community vocally trepidatious about engaging with EXPO as the process is cumbersome, confused and amateur.

Communication

Information is of greatest value when it is shared.

Seeing to it that the Architects and Builders, Operators, Designers and Experience Designers share the same meeting table, creating and engaging in a dynamic, ongoing conversation, discussing and exploring thoughts, concepts and options as spaces and venues are developed and prior to projected “finalization” of a Master Plan will inevitably save massive amounts of time and money.

It is key to remember, too, that such a Master Plan is only “successively final;” as many things can, must and will evolve and change as new creative ideas come to light and new technologies become available or are developed specifically for the Experiences envisioned at Expo.

The fact is, as well, that the architects and designers, builders and planners generally want to know what’s being envisioned as the actual experience in the places being designed as they are being designed. These professionals want to design and build toward vision…thus, they need to know what is being envisioned.

The architects and the Creatives should be Friends!

Collaboration is Key

Design being undertaken in a vacuum of actual creative concepts envisioned for given spaces and places will result in either;

  1. decisions made as to power, space, utilization and flexibility that will limit the possible experiences and productions that can be effectively mounted in those spaces, or
  2. when and as cutting-edge and groundbreaking creative ideas for Experience and Show are presented, accepted and embraced; expensive and time-consuming post-construction retrofitting of spaces and infrastructure may be incurred in order to accommodate the Better Idea.

Possible Resolution:

  • Casual, conversational information sharing should be encouraged at all levels between departments; sowing seeds of inspiration and inspiring collaboration throughout.
  • Inter-departmental lines of communication should be open and supported such that when any of these principals has an idea or question, s/he can contact any of the others, directly.
  • Regular, inter-departmental “touch-base” meetings on design and what is envisioned to take place in that design, with the site map on the table and all parties standing around it, are critical. In-depth, ad hoc follow-up conversations can be scheduled from this meeting between the immediately-involved principals that will likely result in evolution of design and the breaking of new ground in Experience.

Free, inter-departmental communications at all levels will enhance and speed the momentum of the entire project and empower all teams to embrace responsibility for achievement and meeting the goals of Expo.

Most Important

My admiration and respect for Sheikh Mohammed is no secret to the readers of this site. I embrace his vision for Dubai and want to see it materialize and prevail. It is my fervent hope that Expo2020Dubai is a spectacular success; that it opens on time, breaks new ground in the context of World Expos, shows the world that Dubai can, in fact, deliver on this most grand of plans and realize His Majesty’s vision.

It’s going to take a brutally realistic realization of the inherent cultural dynamics of the UAE that directly impede the path to envisioned success. Simple things such as relentless commitment to deadlines, clear and open communication throughout organizations, the taking of sometimes bitter-truth advice and the seeking of solutions that work will be the core of a successful initiative.

With that, there must be resistance on all fronts to the inclination to placate Power and acquiesce to the un-doable.

Embrace the lesson so publicly offered by the failure of projects such as Motiongate to deliver on promises of Guest Experience and Opening Dates. Bring close those who tell the truth in the face of potential wrath, those who stand for quality, those who can teach while collaborating with the brilliant-yet-inexperienced.

DubaiEXPO2020, as described in the vision statements, has the potential to be a spectacular showcase for Dubai and the UAE and to change the way Expo’s are created and presented; challenging, changing and evolving the form and format of the Expo phenomenon.

To accomplish this; eschew those who acquiesce to Power when Power asks what is not possible…find and gather those who love what they do, who know how to accomplish what is envisioned, share what they learn and know, are committed to quality and nimble collaborators.

Listen to them. Take good advice and put distance between the project and the Yes Men.

And with that, I’ll probably never be allowed in the UAE again.

[As it happens, “IMHO : Creating Compelling Experience” is still a free download from the Apple bookstore and iTunes. Free. Read it. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/imho/id555219645?mt=11 ]

The Splinter of Our DisContent

First to Work: Dubai

You remember…

Walking down the street in Paris, early morning, passing a bakery and being enveloped by the light, buttery aroma of warm croissants wafting through the doorway. Turning, entering, eyeing the slightly steaming trays of fresh baked delicacies as they are being placed into the display cases; one caught your eye.

Pain au Chocolat!

Must…have…

Standing in the brisk morning, leaning against the stone façade of the bakery, lifting this fluffy, flaky, melted chocolate-filled treasure to the lips, inhaling the sweet, lush, steamy aroma and then biting off that first morsel… Powdered sugar coated your lips as warm, viscous liquid chocolate flows onto your tongue; the entire experience was heavenly, and you said to your companion, “mmmm, this content is delicious!”

“Content”?

———————————————————————————————————

Content.

This morning I received this email:

Hi, my name is <redacted> and I am a content-manager. If you are interested I would love to write a post for your website that I think your audience would really love.

I have a list of content titles I can send you and if you like any of them I will write a blog-post of about 500-1000 words including images and video.

 The more high quality and relevant links we get the more Google loves us right?

 Please let me know if you like this post idea or if you would like me to write about something else and I can get started right away.

Best Regards 

<also redacted> | Content Manager

———————————————————————————————————

A “Content Manager”?

What does that even mean?

As though one can simply put a dollar into the slot marked “Cats & Dogs,” “Summer’s Over,” “Underage Drinking” or “Managing Creativity” and out will come Content That One’s Audience Will Really Love.

———————————————————————————————————

Let’s roll this one back and stop calling Art “Content.” It’s demeaning; it lacks dignity.

This one’s been on my mind for awhile.

Do we say, “wow, that video content was excellent!”?

Does a writer of story say s/he “creates content”? (And if s/he does, how does that affect self-image and billing rates?)

Calling creative work “content” flattens it, implies that it’s interchangeable, existing simply to fill a box and that it’s the box that has value when fundamentally it is what’s in that “box” that offers value.

Throwing writers, storytellers, architects, filmmakers, lighting designers, set designers, producers, actors and all the other professionals who collaborate to create something meaningful together into this ambiguous catchall basket of “content creators” seems to me to be dismissive. Commodifying. Thoughtless.

There’s a lot goes into that to which Some Business Sorts refer as “content” – similar to sales people referring to “units” whether they’re speaking of automobiles, tickets, desk sets or fur coats…”units.”

Especially in our own industry; let’s refer to one another as the hard-working, sleep-deprived, creative artists, artisans, craftspeople and technicians we are.

You are a filmmaker, an editor, an experience designer, a creative director, a producer, a costume designer, a set designer, a choreographer, a storyteller of myriad possibilities. Neither accept nor be guilty of tossing off and applying labels such as “content” or “content creator” unless you’re talking about corn flakes…

…and I’ll bet the people who make the corn flakes don’t refer to themselves as “content creators” either.

Words are important. Let us use them wisely and well to communicate, enlighten, honor, respect.

IMHO.


“IMHO: Creating Compelling Experience” is a free downloadable eBook on the tenets and methodologies we use to…create compelling experience. Read, shared and quoted throughout the Milky Way Galaxy, it can be found in the iBooks app on any Apple device or in iTunes at this link.

A Moment of Silos

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-10-57-07-amCorn, wheat, missiles, architects, experience designers…none have much affect on the world around them when kept in silos.

It’s not until taken from the silos and mixed with other things that they become effective and able to fully realize potential.

Hence Collaboration.

The Destination Entertainment and Experience Design communities began to experience a learning curve long ago, beginning with a now-anecdotally legendary design for retail success but entertainment disaster with Horton Plaza  in San Diego in 1985.

The was the first example of Jon Jerde’s “Experience Architecture” experiment-that-became-an-industry; the five-level shopping mall that changed one industry and launched another. [Interestingly for we connoisseurs of SciFi, er, geeks, his concept was based an essay of Ray Bradbury, “The Aesthetics of Lostness.”]

Comprised of twists and turns, cul-de-sacs, ramps and walkways, colonnades, archways, sudden drop-offs and multicolored façades at odd angles with one another; it became a “must-see” magnet for creators and designers from all facets of the themed entertainment, retail and architectural design industries. It changed the world of retail in many ways and opened many-shaped doors to what have become vastly new practices and approaches to customer experience across many industries.

Horton Plaza was, financially, wildly successful and is credited with revitalizing downtown San Diego.

It was through the failings of this place, however, that the beginnings of a decades-long detente between architects-builders and Clients-Operators were born.

There were built-in “stages,” performance areas, entertainment-friendly plazas (not many, but some).

There were also no backstage areas or physical access to said stages; no power sources, dressing rooms nor places for them… There were walls that would make good projection surfaces but no camouflaged or otherwise designed-in audience gathering areas of any size or configuration…and, again, no power sources.

Any “entertainment” support had to be brought in and temporarily retrofitted into the space – expensive, ugly, and often hard on the space and façades.

How’d this happen?

Easy; the architects were working in a vacuum (or “silo”), assuming they knew what was needed to support all these “fun” things the more or less imagined would “activate” the spaces and attract audience-shopper-diners. These assumptions were made innocently enough; from the perspective of professionals who were in this context more audience than creator of anything experience other than static.

This is not meant to denigrate the architects. As a profession, they are amazing, visionary creators of building, façade, space. Without the knowledge of what is envisioned for within and around those building, though, the most beautiful structures can become unusable, inefficient, ineffective…falling short of vision only out of absence of information.

Remember Exploration of Assumption? We’ve talked of this, before, many times.

We all assume, all the time; what others think or need, what their motivations might be, what they might plan for a given space…all without actually engaging with them, because….we think we already know!

But. We don’t.

…and neither did the architects of Horton Plaza.

What this experience did, though, was get some people thinking; spurring the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA)  to initiate conversation with and bring further into the the active theming community these brilliant architects and structure designers: to lobby for ongoing conversation between and among all facets and factors involved in the end-use of these structures being designed, as they are being designed, so that what actually becomes designed evolves through the process to something even greater than was envisioned at the outset.

Collaboratively Designed Experience

It wasn’t easy: there was resistance. The architects tended to be protective of their work – and appreciably so, as we all so often experience the egregiously detrimental effects of input-by-ignorant-client. (You know who you are; no names being named, here…but we all remember you.)

Most all creative people tend toward protection of their work; as it is so often threatened by ignorance (oh, and budget). The exciting thing is that, with courageous, sensitive, inspirational leadership and teamwork, all are likely to come out the other end with an appreciation of an enlightened, collaborative process that has yielded an evolution in the way theme parks, shopping malls, retail experience is resonantly, compellingly designed.

There has been a lot going on during these decades of evolution. Not only the TEA and this one, cited group of insightful architects are responsible for how Experience Design can now work; but scores of organizations and hundreds if not thousands of creative and technical professionals have awakened to the immense value realized in quality of experience and actual dollars-and-cents yield of a well-organized, collaboratively-designed experience.

Joe Pine III & James H. Gilmore articulated what was up and launched worldwide conversations and conferences with their first book, “The Experience Economy;” Gregory Beck, founder of The Experience Architecture Forum at Harvard University (<ahem> where we have twice presented), has passionately and continues to contribute his vision and energy to this evolutionary collaboration.

Margaret J. King, Ph.D. and Jamie O’Boyle of The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis  have been instrumental in offering the cultural, psychological and sometimes physiological rationale contributing to refinement and focus of design process in the creation of destination experience.

The outdated, mid-century model of successive, departmental silos as steps to creation of a Destination Experience is Dead (or should be). Finally seen for the inefficient, excessively costly process that it is; one that yields experience that is less than envisioned and more expensive than projected…it is evolving out of existence.

In most parts of the Experience Design world, this outmoded method has been eschewed for something far better.

Hub-and-spoke design, wherein architects design spaces without ongoing dialogue with those charged with creating experience within it, is cumbersome (which is expensive), time consuming (which is expensive), confusing (which is expensive)…and expensive. Handing off a “completed” space design to creatives responsible for filling it will do one or more of the following (expensive) things:

  • limit the possibilities for what can be created within the space due to the absence of specific resource, space, flexibilities,
  • call for the space to be re-designed when a great idea that requires specific support is presented to the Powers that Be,
  • call for the space to be redesigned due to the existence of emerging technologies and techniques of which the architects had been unaware.

…and so on. All expensive options in the face of effective collaboration from the outset and throughout the process.

For examples of the stunningly vast amounts of money that can be wasted and the additional months and years of time expended as direct result of the absence of collaborative information sharing; one need look no further than right here in <redacted>.

Being Fair to the Architects

Further, the absence of collaborative communication from the very start shortchanges the architects, themselves.

Sharing creative vision for the space being designed can profoundly affect the design itself even and and sometimes only through mere nuance: the simple placement of a door, the angle of a wall, and extra meter of space moved before design is complete can vastly improve design, audience appeal, flexibility and potential.

This stuff excites the architects; inspired by the options shared, they want their designs to function as much as they want to maintain the integrity of their designs.

People gotta talk about what they are doing and what they see taking place in these spaces before design is “locked”…as it is rarely if ever actually “locked” until the doors finally open. However, every change taking place after that first “locked” costs money (often, a lot of it).

Even the best architect-designers aren’t always aware of what’s going on in parallel industries or in other locations of their industry or practice. The Experience Designers, being by nature immersed in connection with audience, might possess information that can profoundly affect – even if only in nuance (which can in and of itself be exceptionally powerful) – the resultant design.

Anecdotally: 

A few years ago, on behalf of the TEA, we partnered with Doug Barnes of The Season Pass podcast in a special presentation to Imagineers at Walt Disney Imagineering’s “ID8” conference. Entitled “Beyond the Berm,” we shared a collection of Destination Experiences currently (at the time) installed and running throughout the world beyond the Disney berms.

These men and women were blown away by some of the amazing theme park and expo experiences we shared with them that were bringing in audience of the tens of thousands each week. Most had not heard of Sentosa’s Crane Dance , The Big O Show in Yeotsu, Korea or any of the dozen or so Experiences we shared with them.

This benign ignorance makes sense, as they had had their noses close to their own drawing boards for great swaths of time, if not through entire careers. It’s easy to not know what’s happening outside one’s sphere when one is busy making one’s own magic (or Walt’s).

If you are responsible for creating a Destination, if enthralling an audience such that they are compelled to return again (and again?) to that Experience created under your purview is your goal; then getting everyone to the table at the outset and seeing that relationships are forged for collaborative magic, throughout your organization, is critical.

Rather than restricting pathways and hierarchies – barriers – between departments; encourage webs and networks, informal information sharing, exploration of vision… All your people will be more inspired and excited, and the end result will very likely exceed expectation, be designed (and delivered?) on time…and far less money will be wasted.

As the inarguably successful Tina Fey put it when asked how she achieved her success and has remained a Player for so long and so effectively, “In most cases, being a talented boss means hiring good people and getting out of their way.”

So. There it is.

IMHO.

“IMHO: Creating Compelling Experience” is a free downloadable eBook on the tenets and methodologies we use to…create compelling experience. Find it in the iBooks app on any Apple device or in iTunes at this link.

 

An Emerging Market for StoryCrafters & Opportunity for Business Leaders

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Right under our noses, I believe that a market has been growing and coming of age which may not yet have become aware of itself…

  • Amazon: July 5, 1994 22 years
  • eBay: September 3, 1995 21 years
  • Google: September 4, 1998 18 years
  • Paypal: December 1998 18 years
  • Salesforce: February 1999 17 years
  • LinkedIn: December 14, 2002 14 years
  • Facebook: February 4, 2004 12 years
  • Twitter: March 21, 2006 10 years

and the grandfathers:

  • Microsoft: April 4, 1975 41 years
  • Apple: April 1, 1976 40 years
  • Oracle: June 16, 1977 39 years

For those of us who expend our talents in creating experiences that yield emotional connection to mission, product, institutions of legacy and the revivifying of corporate culture in the context of convention, meeting and corporate theatre; I see an opportunity herein to craft new approaches to finding or creating in-house emotional connection between the employee body and the company.

These are different companies than the DuPonts and the Pfizers, the General Mills, the Procter & Gambles, the Coca-Colas and the Fords… These companies burst from a new gate; immediately setting themselves apart from companies and corporations of the past not only with the iProducts and platforms they represent but with an ethos and ethic based on an inherent iconoclasm and a new business world.

The Pride in and connection with these companies shared by employees and builders was based in the newness of the business oeuvre, itself. Whereas, historically, employee bodies found exhilaration and pride in joining a Legacy; now it became the newness of the culture of these corporations – the breaking away from how it was, before – at the core of the connection. These teams could, should, did and do take great pride in doing and building something not seen before in ways not done before for markets being created, daily.

Heady times of the New Gold Rush.

Though, here’s the Thing. These companies that have been being perceived as “new” are now more than a decade old…some more than two decades. Viewed through the lens of Moore’s Law, these eCorporate Cultures are well into their Legacy Phase.

How to tell that story and keep the connection between employee teams and company vivid, compelling, inspirationally alive?

Compounded with that is the way millennials, millennial-adjacents and millennial-friendly’s (that’s we silver-foxes who have managed to remain in touch with our inner nerd and able to mix freely within this New Order…) consider and hold their connection to the companies that pay them.

I say, “companies that pay them” as this New Order doesn’t look at “working for” a company in the same way as people did, generations ago. There is an ethos of partnership, of independence and choice, of personal value and, frankly, an expected level of individual and even self-respect that is new in the workplace. Not only would today’s under-35 workforce not succeed and likely be miserable in the corporate environments of a few decades ago; they would not be interested in participating in those environments in any way, at all.

So, good on ‘em.

Now that these corporate cultures and environments are not new, anymore, and are rather a set of constants in a universe of constant change; these corporate cultures and the language and experiences used to communicate said cultures must evolve into new forms and messages in order to remain relevant and compelling to these New Minds. These philosophical, introspective, semi-cynical aspirants.

We all must evolve.

Business leaders must embrace the fact that irrespective of corporate philosophy and the current histories of “rah-rah” annual inspiration meetings and conferences aren’t resonating with their employees as they may have, decades ago. (To be fair, some do get this…Oracle comes to mind.)

New Era Business leaders have the opportunity to embrace a Moment of Evolution for their own approaches to employee inspiration. The entire paradigm (omg: did I just use that word?!), the entire approach to employee connection and commitment stands to be reexamined and retooled for a new world of business.

The new Legacies are of ongoing invention, successive innovation, successful evolution. There is no room for complacency or status quo; it’s all about forward movement.

What is the Opportunity? 

I believe this is a Moment for the Business Leaders of today and tomorrow to partner with we Story and Experience Crafters from theatre, themed entertainment and gaming to collaborate on the form and format of the periodic, quarterly, annual meetings and completely deconstruct, examine, build and reinvigorate the formats to appeal to and inspire a new breed of thinkers and doers.

These two populations ought to reach out to one another to collaborate on revivifying the Sales Meeting, the Conference, the Annual Anything Your Company Does. Bring in the Creatives, the Writers, the Creators of Compelling Experience who can build you forums in formats that connect with your most valuable resource and increase their energy, inspiration and value.

Take it out of the executive suites and bring in the explorers. We can all kick some ass, together.

IMHO.


As luck would have it, “IMHO: Creating Compelling Experience” the eBook is still a free download from iTunes for Mac OS and iOS. So, some of the best things in life actually are free!