Creating Constellation: Constraints and Collaboration

Donald Richardson is a Systems Developer at Second Story. Here he chronicles his experience working on the Constellations project we recently completed for SapientNitro.

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Second Story was approached by SapientNitro with an opportunity to create an installation for the Idea Engineer Exchange (iEX) conference, which they host. The theme of the conference was Connectology and the guests included two- to three-hundred industry leaders and thinkers. The general idea behind Connectology, as I came to understand it, is that in today’s digital world it is critical to make holistic connections between all facets of a marketing strategy, whether the facets are individuals such as marketers, consumers, and decision-makers, devices such as laptops, tablets, and mobile phones, or ideas such as identity, image, and strategy. The avenues for marketing to a consumer are multitudinous, and the companies that are able to piece together the big picture will succeed, or so the thinking goes.

The project kick-off was August 27th. That’s when I found out that the conference was being held on the 19th and 20th of September. We had three weeks. That time flew by in a blur. There were highs, lows, successes, failures, adjustments, readjustments, designs, redesigns, communications, reinvention, epiphanies, quandaries, back-and-forths, and, for me, it was punctuated by the constant click of my keyboard as I coded. 

When the project finished I finally came up for air, exhausted. I promptly went home, passed out, and allowed my brain the leisure of being completely useless for three days. Later, I had enough distance from the project that I wanted to write about it, but my memories of the project were a jumbled mess. I saw flashes of code, I heard snatches of conversation, I remember talking to the client, smiling confidently while inside I tallied the quickly overwhelming list of issues to resolve. I remember feeling the presence of a fellow coder behind me, his concentration palpable.

I knew that I wasn’t the only one who had been swept along by the whirlwind nature of the project, left, at the end of it, exhausted and accomplished. Was there an untold story that could be pieced together by coaxing these fragments of meaning from the minds of my colleagues and teasing them into a story? Was there a Connectology of Narrative, if you will, in the making of the Constellation experience?

* * *

We knew we wanted to connect individuals to the content of the conference and to each other in a meaningful and beautiful way. During the initial phase of the project, where we batted around ideas, there were three previous projects that we had done that kept being referenced. Co-founder Brad Johnson recalls, “The project was a beautiful illustration of what I love about most Second Story projects: the evolutionary process where an experience inherits qualities from preceding generations of projects—in this case TEDx 2011, TEDx 2012, and Real Fast Draw, among others. Different proven qualities of projects are intermixed to create something new, and in this way there is a constant momentum or trajectory that steers our work.”

The TEDxPortland After-Party 2012, TEDxPortland After-Party 2011, and Real Fast Draw projects all involved real-time group interaction. We wanted the instant reactivity of Real Fast Draw, the entrancing beauty of TEDxPortland After-Party 2012, and the engaging contextualizationprovided by TEDxPortland After-Party 2011.


After several sessions of brainstorms we came up with a great concept. Take a look at the project page for a brief description. What is amazing to me, in retrospect, is that we were able to come up with a concept that was exciting to both us and the client so quickly. In my experience, having worked on many creative projects, rapid concepting is typically a dangerous proposition. Asked why he thought we were able to be successful in such a short period of time, Creative Director David Waingarten said, “We asked the right questions up front, kept the abstract and conceptual thinking confined, and pushed ourselves to get real fast, doing motion studies and prototyping on the real hardware within hours of creating user experience wireframes.”

The design phase of the project was executed by Art Director and Lead Interaction Designer Chris Dewan with constant feedback from our thinkers and makers. He was able to make something that fit with the client’s aesthetic sensibilities while allowing us to be creative in our own right. Chris noted, “The greatest success of our process and working relationship with our client was that when something didn’t work, our internal team and client had the agility, determination and capability to find solutions that were often better than the original goal.”

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Chris continued, “We had the benefit of working with a well-considered style guide. It set a voice and visual language that provided a foundation for exploration beyond a set of rules. It was an enjoyable challenge to think of ways to extend the style guide beyond what the creators had in mind when they made it.” 

As I spoke with my fellow creators-in-arms, I began to make a heady realization. Whenever I asked about our successes and challenges, the answers were often defined in terms of understanding and working within a framework of constraints.

Interviewing software developers Matt Fargo and Phillipe Laulheret yielded similar thoughts regarding dealing with constraints, albeit with more technical lingo. These concerns were voiced with phrases such as “dealing with the characteristics of mobile devices” and “ensuring that the image processing algorithm was robust enough to recognize the fiducial markers.”

While the constraints that were brought up spanned a wide spectrum and included time, style, design, technology, resources, and audience, amongst others, I feel that the idea of success through the embracing of these constraints is described rather elegantly by Charles Eames: “Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem: the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible (and) his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints.”

It was not our ability to design, work, create, and code that allowed us to succeed but rather our ability to enthusiastically embrace the constraints within which to design, work, create, and code.

It might be a little simplistic to say that the story of the Constellation project was a story of connecting the dots to determine where not to draw, but they do say that the best stories are the simple ones.

—Donald Richardson, Systems Developer


Second Story creates enchanting, informative, and entertaining media experiences with innovative technologies that empower connections to ideas.

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