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Let the Material Lead You: An Interview with Designer David Small

Let the Material Lead You: An Interview with Designer David Small

Marsha Dunn's picture
Marsha Dunn
December 1st, 2017

david small designer interactive boston collaboration facilitation immersion learning collaborative experience facilitator

We kicked off 2017 with the promise to deconstruct what we believe are the most effective ways to achieve meaningful change. To that end, we have presented series focused on Collective Creativity and The Power of Immersive Experience. Below is our second installment in our final series, “Learning in a Modern Age,” in which we shift our attention to learning and development.

David Small is a master at designing user-led experiences that communicate complex ideas. His company Small Design Firm develops self-guided installations that harness beauty, playfulness, and emotion to create lasting impressions of vital ideas. I had the opportunity to talk to David about his design work, and in particular, about the fine art of letting the material—rather than the designer—lead the way, a lesson he learned as a student at the MIT Media Lab

Marsha Dunn: Small Design Firm works at the intersection of information design, interactive art, and the physical environment. What is the value of weaving these elements together?

David Small: If you want to create an experience that is powerful and lasting for people, it helps to appeal to all of their senses. We are just human animals. We are not necessarily designed to sit in front of a computer or television or movie screen and experience the world. We are designed to move through it and use our own selves to mediate our experience. So for me that kind of designcreating embodied experiences for people by incorporating the environment, information, aesthetic experienceis very fertile ground for communicating ideas.

Marsha: It strikes me that your projects use technology and information to deliver experiences that are beautiful and also playful, as in the case of The Cloud at the Folger Shakespeare Museum or the interactive wheel in the Visionary Science Wall at Biogen IDEC’s headquarters. Can you speak to this?

david small designer interactive boston collaboration facilitation immersion learning collaborative experience facilitator
The Cloud, an animated projection on the ceiling of the Folger Shakespeare Museum’s historic Great Hall

David: Play is one way of describing interactivity. There are passive experiences that can be powerful (a play, a symphony). Then there are interactive experiences (cooking, painting) in which you are engaged in the experience itself. Not every design has to be interactive, but used judiciously it can draw the audience in and deepen their experience.

Marsha: Your pieces don’t just communicate data or sound bites. They convey complex and nuanced ideas, across texts, time periods, etc. and it is all self-guided. How does interactivity help you accomplish this?

David: It allows people a firsthand glimpse into something. I’ll give you two examples. In our piece for the New York Historical Society’s Tiffany Gallery, we wanted to give visitors an appreciation for the women in the Tiffany Studios who did this work. We wanted visitors to grasp that some of these women possessed amazing skills at color composition, which resulted in extraordinary lamps. By making the exhibit interactive—by inviting people to color their own Tiffany Lamp—they got a taste of the process for themselves, allowing them to develop an appreciation for the varied skills of the women making the lamps on display.

The second example of using interactivity to drive a message is the work we did for the Churchill Museum. Here the goal was two-fold: communicate the life story of Churchill and allow people to appreciate what it means to be an historian and write history. For historians, anything may end up providing interest and meaning. With that principle in mind, our display included five-thousand original documents from Churchill’s life arranged purely chronologically. There was zero curatorial emphasis on anything; every bit of paper from his life was treated with equal importance. As a result, visitors get to put themselves in the shoes of an historian, sift over the evidence of someone’s life and start to draw larger conclusions.

david small designer interactive boston collaboration facilitation immersion learning collaborative experience facilitator
Design-A-Lamp, at the New York Historical Society’s Tiffany Gallery

Marsha: So interactivity can deepen our understanding of an experience by allowing us to walk in someone else’s shoes. Does it help deepen our experience of the material in other ways?

David: Interactivity allows for choice. If you are given the chance to choose the things that most interest you, you remain engaged longer and go deeper into the material. We did a piece called Women’s Voices for the New York Historical Society that featured the stories of 100 plus historic female figures. Visitors were able to choose any woman’s story to dive into. Instead of saying, these three women are the only options and you have to learn about them in this order, people can approach the material on their own terms.


Women’s Voices, a multi-faceted interactive on the 4th floor of the New-York Historical Society

Marsha: Given that you work in diverse settings with varied audiences, are there common principles you can apply around initiating and sustaining engagement?

David: I often feel like I am starting from scratch every time. The best inspiration comes from the material. I work with the client to understand what content they have and what message they want to convey. The material, not the designer, should lead. I learned this as a student at the MIT Media Lab, working under Muriel Cooper, who always said we must let the material tell its story. As designers we should facilitate the process of allowing material to communicate to our audience, but we shouldn’t leave many of our own footprints.

Marsha: Can you give us an example of facilitating without leaving footprints?

David: Let’s return to Women’s Voices, a piece which ostensibly seeks to tell specific stories about specific women. In truth, the goal of the piece, and of the New York Historical Society’s Center for Women’s History generally, is to shed light on the fact that women’s contributions to history have been systematically erased from our narratives. In designing the piece, we chose women whose contributions connected to and built upon one another in order to gently suggest to the viewer that they could take these same threads and build upon them in their own lives.

Marsha: You work across a wide-range of settings from corporate headquarters and medical facilities to museums and libraries. How do you think about the myriad of ways information is consumed and ideas accessed in these divergent venues?

David: You have to meet people where they are. We did a piece for the Holocaust Museum that drew attention to places where genocide is at risk of happening today. We knew that visitors would see this piece after emerging from the main exhibit on the Holocaust and be longing for the ability to turn back the clock and intervene. We took that emotion and focused it on the opportunities to take action today. It was a unique situation in which we knew the emotional context in which our piece would be perceived.

In contrast, in the lobby of a corporate headquarters building, people pass through in varied states of mind. The challenge is to communicate something useful to the person speeding by as well as the individual seated in the waiting area. Whatever the job, it never works to fight the situation. You have to work within the reality you are handed.

Marsha: Your pieces are driven by the material and the message. However, given the technological knowhow in your organization, is it tempting to rely on high-tech gimmicks?

David: You have to keep the human experience at the center of the work. I try and focus on designing for people and not technology.

Marsha: What guidance would you offer organizational leaders looking to use the elements of environment, design, and interactivity to communicate information and ideas?

David: Start with a set of questions: Who is your audience? Why are they there and what message do you want to communicate to them? What will the length of the experience be? What is the emotional timbre you want to achieve? Does this timbre help or hinder the message you want to convey? It is about fine tuning your awareness and keeping all of these elements in mind.

[Photos: © 2017 Small Design Firm; Top of page: Pledge Wall, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum]

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Learning in a Modern Age