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Moments of Clarity

An Inter­view with Daniel Mey­ers, AIA, Cre­ative Director


I met Daniel Mey­ers, AIA at the One Show’s Cre­ative Week. He was the mod­er­a­tor of “Smart Place: Mak­ing for Good Respon­sive Place and Respon­sive Infra­struc­tures” panel dis­cus­sion. I found the points he brought up both enlight­en­ing and provoca­tive. A Cre­ative Direc­tor and licensed Archi­tect hail­ing from Sec­ond Story, part of Sapi­ent­Ni­tro, in Port­land, Ore­gon. I had a hunch he’d make an inter­est­ing per­son to con­tinue the con­ver­sa­tion with, I think you’ll agree…

Q: It’s inter­est­ing to find an archi­tect in a dig­i­tal shop. How did that come about?


Daniel: I had worked with Sec­ond Story pre­vi­ously, when an archi­tec­ture firm I was work­ing for at the time hired them to build a web­site for a new office tower we were design­ing. They wanted me to help facil­i­tate a shift into the physical/digital space, and I wanted them to be able to move my work in a more mean­ing­ful direc­tion. Since we’ve got­ten together, it has been very much a process of mutual edu­ca­tion, of col­lab­o­ra­tive learn­ing towards this new capa­bil­ity. My con­tri­bu­tion is just one part of the whole.

Pete: That’s a very mod­est out­look for a cre­ative direc­tor. Is that some­thing you picked up in the military?

Daniel: Well I would hope that’s the out­look of every cre­ative direc­tor! But there is mil­i­tary think­ing in that sen­ti­ment. The mil­i­tary teaches you to put your­self in per­spec­tive. It teaches you to value self sac­ri­fice in ser­vice of the col­lec­tive. It teaches you to be dis­ci­plined and orga­nized in every­thing you do because your fail­ure is the group’s fail­ure. These are basic col­lab­o­ra­tion and lead­er­ship skills, and there are pre­cious few insti­tu­tions left that teach them, so I con­sider myself fortunate.

Pete: With such a col­lab­o­ra­tive struc­ture, how do you deter­mine chain of com­mand among the var­i­ous cre­ative directors?

Daniel: The small num­ber of CD’s are dis­trib­uted hor­i­zon­tally across our group, but as far as work inside Sapi­ent­Ni­tro and specif­i­cally Sec­ond Story is con­cerned, we use a project lead­er­ship model based on col­lab­o­ra­tion. Sec­ond Story projects are lead by a three-part team rep­re­sent­ing cre­ative, project man­age­ment, and tech­nol­ogy. We see these dis­ci­plines as related to one another, and we see the bound­aries between them as blurry. So all of our resources are avail­able to us at the begin­ning of a project, we can chore­o­graph the par­tic­i­pa­tion of leads from var­i­ous depart­ments in advance. Because we work glob­ally and in a wide vari­ety of mar­ket sec­tors, our out­side col­lab­o­ra­tion mod­els are highly elastic.

Q: At the One Show’s Cre­ative Week you said ‚“the indus­try is in a moment where things are clunky” — Do you forsee an indus­try wide epiphany moment coming?


Daniel: Cul­ture oper­ates in cycles. I don’t believe in epipha­nies, and when we tell our­selves sto­ries about lone geniuses who change every­thing all at once we’re kid­ding our­selves. Our indus­try, and the broader cul­ture, is in an awk­ward moment because our tech­ni­cal prowess has out­stripped our abil­ity to use tech­nol­ogy thought­fully. We just don’t know what to do with all this con­nect­ed­ness, all this dis­trib­uted intelligence–it is chang­ing us, not vice versa. This hap­pens from time to time–though never in the same way twice–and we’ll baby step our way out of it. Until it hap­pens the next time, of course!

Q: Given the unique nature of your projects do you build pro-types then pitch them or the reverse? In other words, how do you approach new business?


Daniel: Another great ques­tion, and the answer is: yes. Because we are often pitch­ing a new class of offer­ing to a new kind of client for an emerg­ing audi­ence, there is no estab­lished path to sell­ing the work. We use con­ven­tional chan­nels and uncon­ven­tional ones.

Q: You talked a bit about immer­sion: Inter­face vs real world – that’s a very cere­bral thought. Can you put it in real terms for us?

Daniel: That came up in the Cre­ative Week panel because I wanted to make a point that dig­i­tal inter­faces are not lim­ited to screens.

Peter: So what in your view makes a suc­cess­ful inter­face vs. a suc­cess­ful experience?

Daniel: Inter­face for me is just the layer of the tech­nol­ogy that facil­i­tates an expe­ri­ence. But this raises a big­ger prob­lem: expe­ri­ence is a funny word. I’ll start off with, to use your word, the cere­bral stuff: there’s a whole branch of Phi­los­o­phy, Phi­los­o­phy of Mind, devoted essen­tially to explor­ing the nature of per­cep­tion and the rela­tion­ship between the con­scious mind and the body.

It would be easy to throw off some reduc­tive state­ment like, “Sim­plic­ity makes great inter­faces, which in turn make great expe­ri­ences,” and some­times I believe that. Some­times we just want a sat­is­fy­ing pri­mal experience–riding a roller-coaster or hav­ing a few too many drinks. But there are other times when we crave com­plex­ity. It feels good to know how tiny you are in the vast­ness of the uni­verse, and to find moments of clar­ity in all that crazy.

Q: In your view, what are the pri­mary com­po­nents that make an excep­tional experience?


Daniel: Great con­tent, great con­text, great peo­ple. You can’t get more spe­cific than that and be taken seri­ously. Some excep­tional expe­ri­ences in my life, in no par­tic­u­lar order: a barfight with a bunch of Marines (I was a sailor) in a bar in Hong Kong, the first time I read Susan Sontag’s Against Inter­pre­ta­tion, the births of my kids and mid­night bathing at Peter Zumthor’s baths at Vals, Switzer­land. There are many oth­ers of course, but they all include feel­ings and ideas (con­tent), places (con­text), and peo­ple. From there the vari­ety is endless!

Q: My expe­ri­ence with Port­land (when I free­lanced there) was the cof­fee was great but the pizza was ter­ri­ble, is that still the case?


Daniel: Yeah, we’ve got the cof­fee thing pretty much nailed down. I like to put New York­ers in their place when they brag about coffee–I was drink­ing Stump­town amer­i­canos in the ‘90s. But it’s all a cover because we’re still get­ting our ass handed to us on the pizza front. We have some pretty respectable Neapolitan-style pizza options but old-fashioned Amer­i­can pizza? Nothing.

Peter:  You should check out “Escape from NY” a pizza shop founded by two guys from Brook­lyn it’s as if they air lifted a gritty NYC pizza joint to Port­land com­plete with gritty floors and stand up coun­ters, I found the “expe­ri­ence” quite a con­trast to the rest of the Pearl district.

Daniel: I’ll check that out. It has to be said though, the Pearl is hardly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Port­land as a city, present or past! Watch Drug­store Cow­boy some­time to be reminded…

Q: Expe­ri­ence design: how is it dif­fer­ent than IA/UX/UI?


Daniel: Hard­core IA, UX, and UI peo­ple, trained in the last 15 years or so, have devel­oped a highly spe­cific tech­ni­cal capa­bil­ity that is rel­e­vant to com­put­ing infra­struc­ture as it exists today. That infra­struc­ture is evolv­ing rad­i­cally (the inter­net of things, fog & cloud com­put­ing, etc.) and those dis­ci­plines have to adapt to a new world in which they inter­face with humans in much more phys­i­cal, emo­tional, and intu­itive ways. The rise of the term “Expe­ri­ence Design” is a stop­gap mea­sure to address this issue.

Q: What’s the coolest thing you are work­ing on at the moment?


Daniel: Well, of course I can’t tell you! That’s a pro­fes­sional haz­ard, but I can tell you the thing I’m most excited about right now is actu­ally an exhibit we’re open­ing this sum­mer in a West­ern US city around plants and their role in ecosys­tems. Zany stuff, I know! But it’s going to be ground­break­ing, look­ing at ways to use tech­nol­ogy to make edu­ca­tional expe­ri­ences at lots of dif­fer­ent scales, to reach peo­ple emo­tion­ally and intel­lec­tu­ally, to make an expe­ri­ence that is avant-garde, warm, organic, and friendly.

Q: Favorite light source?


Daniel: That’s a trick ques­tion, I know it! With apolo­gies to Jun’ichirō Tanizaki: any light that casts a shadow.

Q: Speak­ing of light could you tell us a lit­tle about the Lyt project?


Daniel: Lyt is an inter­ac­tive light sculp­ture which makes a respon­sive envi­ron­ment. You can plug lots of them together and it’s fun. But it’s a seri­ous kind of fun because it hints at a future where envi­ron­men­tal con­trols, light and dark, media con­tent con­trol, social net­works, etc. are more fully demo­c­ra­tic in the pub­lic space. One opti­mistic pos­si­ble future sees tech­nol­ogy empow­er­ing peo­ple rather than con­fin­ing them, and Lyt is a tiny lit­tle ten­ta­tive step in that direc­tion. Lyt is open source and DIY-able (peo­ple can find the specs online and make their own version).

Peter: Open source and DIY sounds a lit­tle like some­thing out of the “Maker Movement”?

Daniel:  Among the many things I got from my dad, he’s a gigan­tic ham radio nerd, so I was steeped in the his­tory of DIY elec­tron­ics from an early age. Basi­cally the “Maker Move­ment” is a new name for an old thing. It boils down to this: there are lots and lots of incred­i­bly smart peo­ple with access to incred­i­bly sophis­ti­cated new tech­nolo­gies, and they are mak­ing all kinds of amaz­ing and cool new things in their garages, things that will change the world. It’s what all these folks will do with this inher­ited power that I care about. It’s also the Steve Woz­niak story although I think Nikola Tesla was the orig­i­nal “Maker”–he even had the 19th– cen­tury mus­tache to prove it! Of course, he could jus­tify the ‘stache because he was actu­ally alive in the 1800s.

Q: Could you share a few of your favorite resources?


Daniel: When I’m look­ing for inspi­ra­tion I comb the dark cor­ners of the inter­net for obscure think­ing, visual inspi­ra­tion, etc. Any­thing I can do to ran­dom­ize, but really I’m a book guy: I’m in love with Rebecca Sol­nit at the moment, every­thing she’s ever writ­ten but espe­cially A Field Guide to Get­ting Lost. My favorite architecture/art mag Pin-Up just pub­lished a book of inter­views that is out of this world.

Peter: You sound well read. Do you have a favorite writer?

Daniel: I have the ubiq­ui­tous Eng­lish degree, so of course there’s a long list, but far and away my father Steven Mey­ers is my favorite writer. He was trained as a pho­tog­ra­pher at the Amer­i­can Bauhaus at IIT in the ‘70s, but became over time an artis­tic poly­glot, work­ing in the visual arts and lit­er­a­ture. He’s also a pro­fes­sor and has been a moun­tain guide for more than 30 years.

So much of my world­view, my work, flows from him. As a designer and CD, his think­ing about what it means to be a guide has been pretty pow­er­ful for me.

Q: What’s the sin­gle most impor­tant take­away from our dis­cus­sion today?


Daniel: That I need to be more con­cise in interviews?

Peter: That’s funny but seriously…

Daniel: I hope that the take­away is a sense that we are enter­ing into a promis­ing and excit­ing phase of human his­tory, that we have the oppor­tu­nity col­lec­tively as an indus­try or fam­ily of indus­tries to shape a near future that is more humane, more beau­ti­ful, and more fun–and that we should get to it!

 *This inter­view has been edited for clar­ity & brevity

As a cre­ative with a wide pas­sion base I’m always on the look­out for peo­ple I can learn from and pass on those key insights to my fol­low­ers. If you are a thought leader, trend­set­ter or just have an inter­est­ing view­point please con­tact me to be part of this inter­view series.

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