Friday, April 25, 2008

We Tell Stories: Thinking Inside New Boxes


On Tuesday, I'll be chairing a session at the AAM (American Association of Museums) conference called Eye on Design: Inspiration from Outside the Museum, in which we will feature creative and intriguing design elements from worlds away from museums--guitar stores, baseball stadiums, and more. Today, a teaser--an recent design project that didn't make the cut for the session but offers unique insights into innovative practice.

It's easy for people in any industry to get siloed in our own knowledge prejudices, even though research has shown that innovation happens when we strike out and try something outside of our comfort or knowledge zone. As Janet Rae-Dupree, author of this NY Times article puts it:
IT’S a pickle of a paradox: As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off. Why? Because the walls of the proverbial box in which we think are thickening along with our experience.
We often talk about overcoming these barriers by thinking outside the box. But today, we look at a project that innovates not by thinking outside the box, but by defining a very strange set of small boxes in which to operate.

We Tell Stories is a digital fiction project sponsored by Penguin Books that explores the idea that "there are at least six different ways to tell a story." Penguin commissioned authors to create stories in unique, often interactive forms. One is a garden of forking paths. One winds along a google map. One unfolds word by word in real-time. One is distributed across blogs and twitter feeds. One lets you put yourself into the tale. And one is composed entirely of infographics.

Reading the stories, I flashed back to the writing exercises I used to give students in poetry classes. Few contemporary poets publish sonnets, sestinas, and other form poetry, but these devices are still used to stretch creative abilities. Can I express this concept in verse? Can I shift the mood while using the same words?

When you put yourself under strict and novel constraints, you struggle against them, and that struggle often creates something new. We've seen that happen with The Tech Virtual Museum Workshop. Being forced to design inside the bizarre physics of the Second Life design environment has taken us places we wouldn't have gone with traditional exhibit design tools.

Because this is the REAL paradox of "out of the box" thinking: it's overwhelmingly, stultifyingly open. When we want to do "something new," we cast our eyes everywhere, looking for the most compelling design, the wildest technology, the most intriguing label copy. But creativity isn't about hitting the global buffet. It's about training our minds to go down unfamiliar paths--to put ourselves in new, weird, snug boxes and see what comes out. It's not always pleasant. It should be hard. And that's one of the reasons we avoid it.

But the other reason we avoid these little boxes is suspicion about the quality of the result. Are the products of We Tell Stories great art? Would the stories have been "better" if written in a standard narrative form? That's a question of personal taste. But testing out different forms is useful as an early design exercise even if the products never make it to primetime. If any part of our process needs diversification, it's the beginning. The ways we initiate and prototype projects are the processes that are most likely to cement our thinking into well-worn paths.

Getting into new boxes also can bring teams together. By setting up stringent, strange rules for expression, people who come to the table with very different expectations and predilections are forced onto "the same page." I often have problems in meetings understanding what people really mean. I rarely have that problem when playing a game with set rules.

I think this can be a particularly powerful tool if several forms are tested in parallel for the same project. What are some novel "exhibit forms" that we can use to rethink the way we tell stories in museums? Let's go to the very beginning--the definition of an exhibition and its goals. Some starter ideas for new ways to attack that...
  • Write the exhibition goals and big idea as a story. Does it have a surprise ending? Is there a main character to root for? Too many exhibitions lack a strong narrative, and some of the ones that do it most convincingly tell stories we'd rather not hear.
  • Write them as a conversation between two visitors as they leave. If visitors make their own experience, what experience do you want that to be?
  • Write them as positive and negative reviews on a community website. What will people love and hate? Who will love and hate what?
  • Show them as photographs taken by imaginary visitors. What will they remember? What will they ooh and ahh over?
  • Write them as a series of "I wish" statements. We all have desires about what the exhibit will do, and when we personalize and voice them they become less generic (and highlight differences in the group).
None of these ideas require tools more complex then pen and paper. They do require some bravery and honesty--to confront the fact that some visitors may walk out saying, "Eh. What's for lunch?" But the benefit is an opening up of conversation, of what ifs, and, hopefully, new smart directions for the final result.

What sneaky boxes do you put yourself in to move your brain in new directions?

1 comments, add yours!:

Alyssa said...

You make a great point about trying to think within new boxes. I've tried this technique many times without knowing exactly what I'm doing - usually I create some sort of diagram to see the flow of my ideas (very much like your first narrative suggestion).

With pressure to "think outside the box" on every project, it's great to find out a few different methods.