Interview: Julie Beeler

Julie Beeler is the co-founder of Second Story Interactive Studios and with a background in visual design, art history, and the liberal arts, Julie leads the studio in shaping unique, innovative, and interactive experiences that pique curiosity, spur discovery, and inspire audiences. Since its inception in 1994, Second Story has focused on contributing to the evolution of the craft of interactive storytelling through the creation of hundreds of memorable media experiences. Julie has defined and sustained an approach to interactive media design that focuses on reaching diverse audiences while pushing the limits of technological innovation.

In January, Julie will visit Los Angeles to present “Design for Wonder.” Patrick Fredrickson spoke with Julie to find out more about the Second Story team, storytelling, and what we can expect in this presentation.

PATRICK: How did you get started in design? What shaped your path?

JULIE: I was always interested in art and design and my background is in fine art and art history with a concentration in graphic design. So I moved out of school into a design position and worked for a company that was doing package design in the food and beverage industry. I was really excited about how to do all that and how to work in three dimensions. I lived in the Bay area, where multimedia in the early 90’s was really starting to take off, and I really got enamored with how to use time-based mediums to tell stories. So I had one foot balanced in design and packaging and another in multimedia and from that just really found my passion and my interests. Shortly thereafter I started the studio with my partner Brad Johnson.

We started early on, and taught ourselves all these things. We are self taught and all these years later have been incredibly lucky to have this amazing studio where we still get to learn new things everyday and innovate, push the boundaries. It’s content, it’s storytelling, it’s learning things and advancing those. And nothing is more exciting than actually seeing people engaging with something you’ve created and seeing that spark that they have or that peaks their imagination.

What kind of studio culture do you guys have? How do you maintain it?

We’ve had amazing people come through the studio over all these years and ultimately created what we have. The talent and teams and their passion for the medium and enthusiasm for storytelling; it just really spreads, and it’s infectious. So I think that’s just part of the desire to push the boundaries and come up with innovative approaches and concepts. That’s just been a theme in the studio over all these years.

It is shaped by everyone who’s in here working with us everyday, and working on all types of projects. And it’s really a multidisciplinary team rooted in collaboration. Content strategists working with programmers working with motion designers to come up with “How do we create this experience?” To really create that level of collaboration across all disciplines, that’s a huge part. And creating environments like the Lab where you can incubate and experiment, do R&D and push ideas… it’s fantastic.

When you’re looking for new talent how do you create a balance between innovation and ideas, vs. ability as a storyteller, vs. curiosity to do new things? Building a team around those concepts seems like it can be a challenge.

We always talk about it like building a band. All these amazing, talented people, they are specialists in the instrument they play and know it very well individually. But most importantly they can come into a larger team, and a diverse and eclectic team, and make great music together. The balance is between being your own specialist and fluency in other languages or other areas. Just finding individual people who are really talented in that way is what we’ve always found. They can have a real passion in storytelling, or a real passion for design, or user experience, or concepting or discovery, or whatever it is; they tend to have this thread of something they are really great at and can then apply that to a greater team from concept through completion.

A lot of what our studio does is work on things early on to conceive of and realize what the visitor experience is and then make it and deliver it and install it and get it out, living and breathing in the world.

Second Story has been around for 18 years now. You’ve kind of been around since interactive technologies really began hitting the public. What’s surprising in the world right now? How are you able to keep on top of all these new ideas and still create great stories and great experiences?

Well I think it’s this amazing time right now, this disruption that’s happening both experientially and creatively as well as technologically. And the work we do and have done over all these years is really an evolution of an interactive, participatory experience, and we happen to use digital technology as our medium. I mean there are lots of ways to have interactive, participatory experiences in other mediums but ours is rooted in technology and digital.

The convergence that’s happening and that blurring between the physical and the real world versus the digital and the virtual world, and how we’re all living in that; the demands that we now have as individuals, because it’s like you want to get what you want, when you want, how you want it, you know. You’re always on, anywhere, anytime. How do you continue to deliver experiences, stories, immersive things that are personalized, and customized, and really engaging in that kind of world? It’s tremendously challenging and really exciting to look at all the opportunities out there and still try to forge pathways and innovate and create new experiences.

So now that so many people have a computer in their pocket, how are you guys able to compete against that? What challenges is that bringing to what Second Story is offering to people.

I think it’s finding ways to engage that. How do you make it more unique, more personal? A big thing I’m excited about is [this], that’s a way in for a lot of us who have our digital lives and our digital worlds, and I think it’s a wonderful way in, but I’m always trying to figure out how do we get back to basic human to human interaction around things that are meaningful and inspirational, and around physical, tactile things. So it’s not just all about being isolated on these small individual devices that have all our attention. How do you provide an entry point in an engaging way? Then how do you keep peoples’ curiosity and inspire them to think about their relation to everything else, whether that’s people, places, objects, products, environments, whatever that is. We’re saying, “hey! If that’s where people are and that’s what they’re doing, how do we use that in a different way?”

That seems to speak to the title of your presentation, Design for Wonder. Is that what we’re going to be hearing about, how we use design in order to get people to look at those questions, in order to get people to step outside of what they’re doing and engage in the world in a different manner?

I like to think that’s the case. I like being able to put experiences together that might get people to interact differently or think differently, or learn something for a moment about something they would have never self-initiated to go out and learn, or give them better access to information, or inform them to make them a better decision maker… whatever those things can be.

Are there new forms of storytelling that you’re running into or finding? What’s changing in the storytelling environment?

I think there are lots of things. People are always evolving and inventing new forms of storytelling and I think with the digital medium and interactivity, it just opens up amazing opportunities to present information and provide storytelling frameworks from which people can experience stories. And that’s what I get excited about, the medium itself.

Seeing what the journalism world is doing, or seeing how filmmakers are taking their craft and form and narrative in different ways; I see a lot of innovation to help people and really integrate all forms of storytelling into these more media rich experience. For us, Second Story is really about the participatory nature of interactivity and that two-way interaction. So you as the user, your experience, you’re creating Second Story. That’s your own personal story in how you interact. And we see ourselves as storytellers in the sense that we’re putting these frameworks and systems together that people can move through to ultimately create their own story.

That’s a great concept, really trying to put visitors or participants in charge of what they are doing. So you’re using technology in order to offer the tools for them to do so?

Yeah, and creating the whole experience so they can do that. How can we help facilitate that and move people through so they have an emotive connection to it and they’re engaged, so it’s not just all intellectual and hitting people in the head? Instead you’ve got to hit them in the heart, and once you hit them in the heart you’ll get them in the head.

There is always a delicate balance towards innovation in design, as anything you do could become trendy or innovative for the sake of doing it. How does Second Story balance those ideas, with how fast digital technology continues to progress? How do you measure what is a trend and what is truly the next thing to do? Or are you truly not afraid to make mistakes?

We are always learning new things and it’s a challenge to go out and take risks and then know that ultimately we’re in client services and have to deliver on it. So I think what we get excited about is just envisioning something that we don’t know. Like University of Oregon, this is incredible, we’re super excited about the vision of where it went, and then we’re like, “holy cow! we don’t even know how to do this, how are we going to figure it out?” And on this team are incredible self starters. So we’re going to get in there and we’re going to figure it out. I think that’s a great example of a great project.

Or the World of Coca-Cola, creating a 3-D, real-time game that puts the visitors three-dimensional body into space to play a game. I think really it’s just experimenting around, and saying “well that could be possible” and then dreaming it up and then, well, now we’ve got to figure it out and move it forward. And with experience design it’s a hard balance. You take risks but you have to find ways to take risks in small little proof-of-concept things.

We always talk about “get real fast, let’s get down and dirty and see if something is viable before we go.” Because if ultimately we take too big a risk and the whole thing is a failure, and we can’t deliver it, then we have issues. We have clients who are expecting and paying for services, so it’s a fine line to figure out how to do that. So we create environments to incubate, experiment, and play and apply, and sometimes you do fall back on more conservative solutions.

You recently partnered with SapientNitro. What can we expect to see out of Second Story with that partnership? What opportunities does that offer for you?

It provides incredible opportunities for Second Story. Sapient really values the studio, the mission. Our core mission of elevating the art of storytelling directly aligns with their mission as well. Leveraging that through interactivity and creative excellence is something they want to foster and grow and incubate so Second Story can start to create these types of collaborations and multidisciplinary teams in other geographic locations, extending the capabilities they offer clients while allowing Second Story to do what it has done well for all these years, what it knows how to do and have bigger impact and bigger reach.

We’re really excited about the partnership and all the opportunities it provides. This unbelievable company with a lot of amazing reach. We’re really excited about ways to grow content and storytelling in new forms and ways to incubate and experiment with technologies and bringing those togethers.

Well, I know you’re busy, so thank you for your time. We’re really looking forward to having you down here.

Thank you so much. I’m really looking for to it.


Patrick Fredrickson is Associate Design Director at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. He oversees design of changing exhibitions, permanent galleries, and public spaces at the museum.

By AIGA Los Angeles
Published January 7, 2013
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