Interview: David Small

Small Design Firm‘s recent Pledge Wall for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a beautiful interactive installation with a unique pen interaction.

David Small, the firm’s founder, is a friend back from when we were both students at the MIT Media Lab. I’m a little jealous, as his firm has gone on to create some remarkable projects, while my former firm, Triplecode, is in deep hybernation.

But despite that 😉 I’m super-glad he was able to take some time for an interview about the project…

Q: When you first started, what was the brief from the client?

The initial brief from the client asked for an interactive table where visitors cold join a virtual rally and meet up with other activists both in the space and over the internet. The subject of the exhibit was genocide since the holocaust, with sections on the evolution of the legal framework that defines and makes genocide illegal, three case studies (Rwanda, Bosnia and Sudan) and perspectives from victims, perpetrators, activists, journalists and the military. For us, the unusual requirement was the linking of activity in the space of the exhibit with people at home over the internet. The timeframe was about a year and a half, which is pretty normal for us.

We ended up building an exhibit where visitors are asked, after viewing the rest of the room, to write down the answer to this question: “What will you do to help meet the challenge of genocide today?” The pledge is written and simultaneously digitized. When the visitor finishes writing, they tear the pledge card in two and leave the pledge half in a glass box in the room, keeping the other half of the card which contains a code that allows them the retrieve their pledge at home later and join the internet community. As the card drops into the box, the digitized pledge appears on the projection wall facing the writing desk.

Q: How did you approach developing this solution?

We spent a lot of time trying to wrap our head around how to get people to feel the urgency of involvement and the power of joining with others to effect change. We spent a lot of time thinking about how to engage people in a real, tangible physical activity within the space, but also to imbue that activity with real meaning and an almost spiritual ritual. We did a lot of thinking about how we could show the cumulative effect of all the visitors over time. It was clear that the exhibit should look different after the first month, the first year and so forth. We thought about adding pebbles to a pile, making marks on a wall, water in a well, prayers on slips of paper. Directly above the exhibition space is one of the most moving parts of the Holocaust exhibit – a pile of shoes collected by the Nazis from their victims. We also, naturally, thought about prayers left at the wailing wall. One early idea that we took quite far before abandoning it was to let people write pledges on paper as they do now, but to have them use pencils which would be left behind to “seal the pledge.” In this scheme, the pledge is written with a little golf pencil and kept by the visitor, while the pencil is inserted into an enormous grid of holes making up the longest wall of the room. Over time, the holes would be filled (and the world healed). For a lot of practical reasons, we flipped this idea in the end, with the visitor leaving the paper behind in an enormous class case.

Q: The pen interface is very interesting. Were there many iterations to its design?

As I mentioned, the initial idea had to do will building a vast collection of pencils. We thought that it gave an extra power to the act of writing — we wanted there to be a spiritual or reverential component to writing down what you would do to prevent genocide. Judaism has a strong cultural link to the written word and the instruments of study, so this felt like a natural choice. One thing we couldn’t get around in the end, though, was the sheer wastefulness of using a million or more pencils just once each (although you would be surprised at how cheap it is to buy a million pencils). So, we then turned to the idea of digitizing the pledge as it was being written – the visitor would keep what they wrote and the electronic version would join the pledges in virtual space. Eventually, we changed it so that you would leave your written pledge in the room, so that we could have the tangible evidence of everyone’s pledges accumulating.

Q: For this project you collaborated with a couple other firms. How did you divide the work? What was the collaboration process like? What was the team at Small Design?

There were three firms involved – C&G Partners, who took on the exhibit architecture and graphics, our company and Potion Design, an interactive firm based in New York. There were two interactives – the pledge wall and the witness stations. Phillip Tiongson, of Potion, and I basically flipped to decide who would take on which interactive. Later, Upstatement joined to work on the web site. I thought it worked really well that each firm had a very distinct set of responsibilities. At Small Design, we had a small team consisting of myself, senior programmer Justin Manor and designer Avi Weinstein. This worked quite efficiently.

Q: Did you change or update the project very much after its launch?

We don’t usually do a lot of changes, but on this project we did a lot of little tweaks after we saw how people were using and misunderstanding the interactive. We went through a number of design changes to simplify the steps in the process and to clarify the instructions.

Q: Were there any specific inspirations for you on this project?

For this project, the inspiration really came from the subject matter. It was really amazing to hear about all the things that people had done and were doing to try and prevent another holocaust from ever occurring. There is nothing like working with a client who has a powerful message to convey.

Q: So, what’s next?

We are currently working on projects for the Metropolitan Museum, the New York Historical Society and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The museum in Raleigh as some of the same challenges that we faced working for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum – how to transform knowledge into action, how to let people know that they can make a difference and giving them the tools they need to succeed.

Thanks for your time!

Thank you – it’s been a pleasure.

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