Tuesday, March 18, 2008

826 Valencia: Education! Humor! Pirates!

In the museum world, we often talk about lowering barriers to entry, helping people get through the door. Those barriers are as psychological as they are physical--to enter the museum, visitors must overcome unclear directions, inflexible hours, uninviting design, inability or unwillingness to pay, and above all, fear or expectation that the museum will not offer them a great experience.

And so today we look at an educational facility (not a museum) that swabs the deck with these barriers. It makes them walk the plank. By doing so, it doesn't just widen the audience for a specific educational experience--it also offers a new model for how we might design and deliver interactive, varied content experiences.

826 Valencia is a tutoring center. Along with its six sister venues across the country, 826 provides students with one-on-one tutoring, workshops with professional authors and playwrights, field trips, outreach programs, and the opportunity to publish and perform their original work. Their website looks pretty standard with smiling kids, friendly tutors, and earnest mission statements, as reflected by this homepage banner:

But the visitor experience at 826 Valencia is anything but standard, and its clientele stretches way beyond those who will ever use or volunteer to offer tutoring services. Instead of classrooms or mission statements, first time visitors enter 826 Valencia through the storefront Pirate Supply Store. Part store, part theater, part interactive experience, the Pirate Supply Store sells nothing as powerfully as it sells a vibe, one that promotes zaniness, good humor, keen observation, and imaginative play. It's not a shlock gift shop. There are mysterious objects in drawers with evocative names like "illumination" (candles). There is a vat of lard you can put your hands into, alongside a sign with helpful suggestions for uses of lard. There is a trapdoor in the ceiling that staff can open to drop a mop head on unsuspecting browsers. There is a wonderful little "fish theater" in which about 5 people can crowd into a tiny dark space to watch fish swim in a tank. In about 300 square feet, the Pirate Supply Store offers both silly and sublime in spades. Their labels are so good that they have an online gallery of signs so people like me who took lousy cellphone photos in the store can peruse the signage in better resolution at home. Whoever heard of visitors loving labels enough to put them on the website? It was, in short, the best interactive exhibit I've experienced in a long time.

But that's not why I bring it up here. If it were just an amazing pirate store, 826 Valencia would be a nice design inspiration. But 826 Valencia is a writing center for kids (remember?). And that's where it gets really interesting. Why would a tutoring center have a pirate storefront?

Because it's in a commercially-zoned area.
This reason may sound like a technicality, but it has some interesting implications. If you want to offer an educational service in a high-traffic neighborhood, why not put it between the coffee shop and the bookstore? Why not theme the front to fit into the pattern of passers-by, so that they might see it as part of their shopping experience and pop in? No group of folks strolling down the street on a Sunday afternoon is going to casually walk into a tutoring center. But they might walk into a pirate store. This is a great example of locating the service "where the people are" and designing the entrance to fit in with their patterns of use in that neighborhood.

Because it brings in new audiences and funders. Put it in their neighborhood, pattern it after its neighbors, and people will come. But what good is it for people who are not actually taking part in tutoring to come to a tutoring center? Isn't that distracting from their real work? No! Think of the variety of people drawn to the pirate store:
  • kids of all kinds who might be future clients of the tutoring center
  • families with parents who might never have known or considered the available services of a tutoring center
  • hipster adults without kids who may be potential volunteers for the center
  • tourists who may then seek out 826 venues in their own cities
  • would-be pirates who buy pirate swag that helps fund the tutoring center
So often we talk protectively about our core audience--people who are already using our services. But 826 Valencia appreciates that if you call yourself a tutoring center you will only attract people who are already using the center. A tutoring center is even more stereotyped than a museum in terms of the public's expectation about who it is "for." But 826 Valencia is for all kinds of people--especially those who have never felt that a tutoring center was "for" them before! And since "pirate store" doesn't come with a preconceived notion of an audience, it's for everyone. The traffic through the store isn't a diversion; it's an opportunity to sell people on their services. Some of their most promising students and energized volunteers may be folks who first walked in for an eye patch.

It's also a way to generate a bit of revenue. I spontaneously donated $20 because I was impressed by the experience I had and the professionalism of their tutoring services. I don't generally spontaneously walk into tutoring centers to donate money. I rarely do it while visiting museums, either, partially because the educational services museums offer (class programs, outreach, etc.) are not as clearly exhibited to me the visitor as they were at 826.

Because it gives their core audience something to share.
Imagine you're a kid. Asking a fellow teenager, "Want to see my tutoring center?" is probably one of the better ways to get beaten up. But I can easily imagine kids bringing each other to the pirate store with pride to show off the books for sale that they have contributed to and to generally share the zany wonderfulness of this place of which they are a part. Yes, this happens in museums--kids who have great experiences on class field trips bring family members back to tour the exhibits. But there are also plenty of museums with image problems, where even ardent members have a hard time convincing their friends and family to attend. Being a positive place for new audiences doesn't just encourage walk-ins; it also helps your core audience become a better marketing street team.

Because it reflects their values. 826 Valencia is a really fun tutoring center. But no matter how many smiling kids they show on their brochures or how goofy their copy is, they can't evoke the energy with which they carry out their mission as well as they can when they invoke fantastical characters like pirates. Ironically, the pirate store allows 826 Valencia to be MORE sincere and direct about their tutoring offerings, because the spirit of fun is conveyed through the pirate stuff and doesn't have to be woven into the workshop announcements and materials. Kids (and adults) know when we are applying a fake veneer of fun on exhibit or program text. The pirate store allows 826 Valencia to avoid that trap by being authentically serious about their programs and authentically silly about pirates.

So what's the downside? Doing this successfully requires the ability to delicately balance the attractor/value-imparting experience (pirates) with the core mission (tutoring). It might be tempting to let the pirates take over, or to discard them as a diversion. Ultimately, it's bigger than the pirates (but don't tell them that). The 826 project is a creative way to answer a universal question: How do we marry our mission with our values and our audience goals? In 826's case, the answer didn't lie in fancying up the mission; instead, they created a partner institution that helped express the elements of their work that are commonly misrepresented in the public eye.

What parts of your mission are not easily represented by your institution's content, design, or public perception? What experiences could you add to the "storefront" of your institution to address those challenges?

I leave you with these questions. Be forewarned; failure to respond in a timely fashion could result in scurvy

2 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

826 Valencia is a great space. And a great place. Awesome in so many ways.

But what I never even thought about, it just seemed so logical and so very much part of the SF-style of urbanism is revolutionary that Pirate Store is. So thank you.

The pirate store projects the brand (curious, imaginative, silly), it engages the public outside of the core audience, it serves as a magnet for outreach.

Great analysis as always.

As a side note, there is a store front in SF's Castro district called Magnet, which uses that space as a unique (somewhere between a gallery and an performance venue) to engage with an audience of mostly men about safer sex. And men's health. It's essential a clinic. But a really hip clinic with an arts programming calendar.

These are unique public spaces that make use of their context to reach beyond their traditional audiences while enhancing the urban fabric.

Anonymous said...


Canan Eoy