Recently a graphic design student asked a few questions for a paper she is writing on Second Story. Here’s my response:
How much research is put into developing certain designs, such as the Age of Mammals Specimen Interactives?
Many of our clients are experts in their field—archivists, historians, archeologists, climatologists—so our design concepts rely on our ability to tease narrative threads out of a large collection of totally disparate material. We always start out by listening a lot to our clients—they are the experts, after all—and then we often go farther afield to find parallel stories, inspiration, precedents, or more in-depth details. The principals of the company, Julie and Brad, bring 16 years of work and travel to museums all over the world to give a greater perspective to presentation precedents and techniques. Many of us who work here are also well-traveled and have broad experiences and interests that we weave into the research, conceptual approaches, and visual motifs.
I volunteered for the Age of Mammals specifically because of my interest in taxonomy and zoology. So in developing the Specimen Interactives for NHMLAC, I was able to jump into visualizing the evolution of mammals with some general understanding of the concepts of divergence, radiation, macro-evolution, etc. We were then able to marry our expertise in infographics with a familiarity of the science when we developed the sketches, and then prototypes, of how to communicate the concept. One reason I enjoy working at Second Story is because of its parallels to where my career started out—in journalism and informational graphics. Like a journalist, we become amateur experts in a huge array of topics. In my three and a half years here I have had to become a resident expert on Gettysburg, FDR, the histories of New Mexico and Oregon, the Library of Congress and the National Archives, Walt Disney and Marion Davies, paleontology, cartography, and geology.
What project was the most fun/fulfilling to complete?
As a designer in Portland, I only rarely get to visit the site before our work goes into an exhibit. Many of our projects are for new museums or expansions that are construction sites right up until and even during the installation of the media. So it is incredibly fulfilling to see the final product that we’ve been laboring over in this virtual sphere of floor plans, SketchUp models, and fly-throughs. We usually have a mockup of the touchscreens, tables, or wall surfaces in our studio, but there’s nothing like the real experience of seeing the full 12-foot-long Paleoparadoxiid skeleton next to the interactive you designed to feel the connection between the real thing and the hundreds of images and content fragments you’ve been working with for all this time. I had been to the Library of Congress years before we began that project and then a year after we installed the myLOC wayfinding interactives and I could see what a leap forward the Library was taking by tactfully suffusing their space with multi-media installations.
What advise would you give to future web/art/graphic designers?
I think the best advice I have for designer students is to try to embrace the realistic parameters of a project. We definitely look for people who have an amazing aesthetic sense, but 90% of our work is research, ideation, and problem-solving. Process is incredibly important. Blue sky parameters allow for great imagination, but we slowly have to pull projects into a place where we can problem-solve for project manager and fabricator’s budgets. So take any opportunity for internships and in-school design studio experiences to get in touch with the process behind making great design work.
—Michael J Godfrey, User Experience Designer