Balancing Spectacle with the Everyday

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In a passage from John Thackara’s book, In The Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, he takes a critical stance against place marketing and describes his vision for an alternative, more sustainable approach to the design of cities:

“A sustainable city … has to be a working city, a city of encounter and interaction—not a city for passive participation in entertainment. Sustainable cities will be postspectacular.”

Even though Second Story isn’t necessarily in the business of designing cities (sustainable or otherwise), I feel that Thackara’s words have significance for any designer concerned with how we shape our environments and facilitate experience in spaces.

He uses the phrase “postspectacular” to caution against design that is nothing but spectacle. For him, spectacle is an undesirable outcome of design that casts people as passive consumers of an experience rather than empowering them as active participants in meaningful human interaction.

It’s interesting to consider this stance in the context of Second Story’s work because, in some ways, we consider spectacle a key piece of what we do. In a Creative Mornings talk, our Innovation Director, Thomas Wester, described how Second Story’s work could be seen as a contemporary link in a long line of historical experiments in spectacle, such as the cyclorama and the eidophusikon.

In many cases, we hope to inspire the same wonder and awe that these inventions did when they were first revealed. I feel like the pursuit of spectacle in design can often end up expanding the limits of what we consider to be possible. For this reason, I’m not as harsh on the idea as Thackara seems to be.

But I do think that Thackara’s point still stands. Wonder and awe are valuable, but they’re also more transient aspects of an experience. A sustainable design, one that sustains meaning over time, requires us to think about how it integrates with and enriches the everyday working lives of people.

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Thackara isn’t alone in voicing his concerns. During the Q&A of the above-mentioned Creative Mornings talk, one audience member asked Thomas whether he tires of our society’s obsession for new technology. Another raised his concern that so many examples of interactive art seem to exist only to serve interactivity as a goal unto itself.

What I sensed in these comments from the group was an underlying dissatisfaction with projects in the space of interactive digital experiences that celebrate technology and interactivity but pay little attention to the people who experience them. These were echoes of Thackara’s critique applied to our world of digital design, pointing out the lack of substance that occurs when a design only focuses on the spectacles of new technology or the latest paradigms of interactivity.

I think Thomas provided a couple of thoughtful answers to the audience’s questions (which you can listen to in full starting at about 39:25 and 41:02 in the video): “We often become couch potatoes and have this consuming attitude, and I think interactivity is anti-consumerism in that sense. It challenges you, and we try to make experiences that challenge you to make your own path through that experience.”

Which is easier said than done, of course. Just because there’s a touchscreen in the room, doesn’t mean you’ve created a meaningful interaction. But this drive to facilitate situations where people can feel empowered and engaged through interactivity, rather than simply awed, feels like a step closer to “postspectacular” design.

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I was recently reading a book about filmmaker Roberto Rossellini on a recommendation from David Waingarten, our Creative Director of Storytelling (and local source of film knowledge). In a 1952 interview, Rossellini was asked to give an interpretation of Italian Neorealism, the film movement he was most associated with: “Neorealism is … a response to the genuine need to see men for what they are, with humility and without recourse to fabricating the exceptional; it means an awareness that the exceptional is arrived at through the investigation of reality.”

This quote captures why I still get excited about design projects that, from the perspective of technology or interactivity, lack a sense of spectacle. These are projects that provide compelling tools for researchers and educators or create channels for collaboration within a community. Just as Rossellini’s films aspired to reveal the exceptional in the reality of things, each of these projects has the potential to illuminate the everyday reality of its users by enabling them to take action. That is, in its own way, spectacular.

In the end, I value our studio’s drive to push the limits of spectacle. I am often inspired by what my studio-mates dream up and build. But it’s good to remind ourselves that it’s a balance of the pioneering spirit of spectacle with a mindful concern for the everyday that allows design to create sustainable and meaningful change in the human condition.

— Norman Lau, Senior Experience Designer


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

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