The Information Architecture Institute
A conference on designing
complex information spaces of all kinds.
New York City, October 4 and 5, 2007

Storytelling in the City: An Interview with Jake Barton


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JakeTelling stories to strangers is not something that most people seek to do. But finding these stories, encouraging them from people in unlikely scenarios, and making the experience enjoyable, is exactly what Jake Barton aims to do.

Barton, through his design studio Local Projects, seeks to encourage the telling of stories in public spaces. In projects that account for high-tech, low-tech, and everything in between, his studio is currently working on projects from the a cellphone tour of the Statue of Liberty to a memorial of the September 11th attacks. And many of the projects happen in Barton’s own backyard—New York City.

IDEA talked with Barton about his work in New York, and some of his plans for the upcoming conference.

IDEA Q: Is it important for you to be here, in New York, doing the work that you do? Does the city itself provide a backdrop or inspiration?

Personally, I think New York is a phenomenal place to make participatory media, as the urban experience is about collective participation—with its crowded streets, with dense clusters of activity from hot dog vendors to hip-hop groups. I especially like that “normalizing” of behavior (i.e., yelling at other New Yorkers) is typical—it makes the New York experience one that is contingent on sharing with others.

IDEA Q: As a resident of New York yourself, what’s it like to have to use the experiences you design (passing by the Story Corps Booth in Grand Central Terminal, for example)?

Its really gratifying. Local Projects’ name comes from the classic Tip O’Neill quote that all politics is local. For us, design is local, steeped in the specific conditions and challenges of a site, client, or audience.

By building things in our hometown, we get consistent feedback and response, and can gauge how the projects and their meanings evolve over time. I’ve gotten “shushed” more than once in my own movies, and its very heart-warming.

IDEA Q: Where do you look for inspiration or direction outside the field of design?

Well, it depends on what you consider design, but mostly I listen to the radio. “RadioLab” from WNYC is a brilliant communicator—The Simpsons meets NOVA. “This American Life” has a consistent knack for mixing the everyday experience with profound larger meanings. And even though our design work is done, I love “StoryCorps,” each story is a jewel.

IDEA Q: What should the audience remember about your talk when they go back to their desks on Monday morning?

That you need to have a point of view about what you want the audience to do, learn, be, achieve, and dream through your work. And that making design functional and beautiful can be done and done well.

IDEA Q: Can you describe what you’ll be talking about at IDEA in just one word?

Freedom.

~ Liz Danzico

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