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Crafting Aha! Moments: Lessons from Live Experience Creators

February 2021

Article

Spotify Design Team
Aarti D'Cruz
Eileen Murphy (she/her)
David Karlsson

As creatives, we tend to draw inspiration from the things and people around us. We love that moment where the penny drops, the stars align and clouds part. To get some fresh perspective, we reached out to four people who craft different kinds of experiences and asked them some of the questions we ask ourselves as designers on a daily basis, to find out how they make “aha! Moments” happen.

We collected pearls of wisdom from:

Jade Coles, Event curator 

Refik Anadol, Digital artist 

Oliver Lansley, Immersive Theatre Director  

Liz Alpern, Chef and Creator of Queer Soup Night

Jade Coles, Event Curator 

Jade Coles is a freelance Event Curator and Cultural Programmes Director who, over the past ten years, has built a client list which includes Soho House and The Wing. Through her work designing cultural programmes and events, she aims to promote emerging artists and foster creative communities across London.  

How did you get into event curation?

My background is in fine art. I started out studying art and my bachelors was in sound, video and performance, which is quite an odd, niche thing to take, but now I see them as the key elements of the event. 

Then, I went on to be in a band and that's how I got into events production. When we went to all these festivals that gave me a real insight into all the different roles and people that it takes to build amazing experiences like festivals. 

How do you design your experiences?

Because of my background, I'm always coming from a fine art framework. There's the general inspiration you get from absorbing culture. 

And then from a programming perspective — because so much of what I do is about interesting people — I love talking to people, listening to their stories, finding out what are they interested in? What’s the project they're trying to build or business they're trying to start? That filters in my head and I write that down.

I have a Google spreadsheet of just random thoughts but also Instagram is great for that. If someone's got an interesting Instagram post, I save it to a collection so I can whistle-stop through it later. It's a bit chaotic but it works for how my brain works. 

And then, if I'm developing the event proposition, I'll go back and look at the brief, I'll set out a number of event pillars or event hierarchies, depending on what the project is for, and then I ideate what the key topics are. So if a space comes to me and says we're all about wellness and business, I'll ideate within those categories. Then I'll think about who is going to fill in the content. You put those two things together you've got the bones of your events programme.

When you’re designing an event do you aim to inspire the people attending?

I think "inspire" is a very big word. It's used in lots of different contexts. When you think about inspiration, I probably think more about words like “excitement”. How do I bring a sense of excitement into the event that I'm creating? That might mean creating artificial risk, or you might aim to inspire by giving people the tools to learn or do something new. 

My personal KPI is to deepen the experience for whoever is on the other side of the event. If the experience is about getting young creative people to build business skills so they can build brilliantly successful businesses, then what I want to do is use a format that deepens that learning so they can go and do that thing. For me, it's about taking it one step deeper and about people being in their growth zone or outside their comfort zone. I think that’s the sweet spot where inspiration sits.

That might mean creating artificial risk, or you might aim to inspire by giving people the tools to learn or do something new.

Jade Coles

Refik Anadol, Media Artist

Refik Anadol is a media artist and director pioneering the aesthetics of data and machine intelligence. Based in Los Angeles, Refik’s award-winning studio produces enthralling and immersive media art — often using architecturally significant buildings as a canvas — intended for anyone, any age, any background.  

Can you explain what you do?

I'm a media artist and director working with my team in Los Angeles, California. I’ve been practising media arts since 2009, and for the last four years, I’ve been working with AI specifically and using machine intelligence in my work. I do mostly permanent installations, public art, audio-visual performances as well as temporary experiences on many scales. Data paintings and data sculptures are what we invented.

What kind of research do you do when creating artworks? 

As a studio, we’re a group of nerds in many fields. We’re not like a traditional art studio, we are mostly people who really enjoy researching and understanding tech systems. 

We’re 16 people who can speak 14 languages. That means people can bring their language to the table, and their culture to the table. We can sometimes become neuroscientists, and sometimes we’re architects, anthropologists, scholars, sometimes we are AI data scientists. We are, basically trying to become everyone, for anyone, for any reason without being bonded by boring titles. That helps a lot in understanding the tools, or the context of the data...

There are 16 brilliant minds in our team, why not spread out and find the most important things and bring them back? Collective learning, collective memories, and collective research… instead of one-person trying to go fast, we all go together, and go further.

When you’re creating an artwork, do you consider the data first or the canvas you’re working on? 

I first find the context and the “why?” of the data. But the reality, of course, is based on a canvas. There is the reality of the physical quality of the experience and that's defined by the canvas. 

So, if the canvas is Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA with Frank Ghery's compound curvature, or it’s Zaha Hadid's Dongdaemun Design Plaza, or the Fotografiska in Stockholm, or in a New York boiler room under Chelsea Market; each of these projects explores the canvas. The architecture is always at the centre, it can be a public space, a standalone free piece, or it can be these augmented surfaces. The canvas is fundamentally a starting point, the data is the narrative. 

How do you know when your work is resonating with people? I always stay in the installations, mostly in the first week. I do a lot of research. I sneak in and I hear what people are saying. That’s how you understand the quality of the work… when you see a human connection to it… that’s the most honest data you can collect from an artwork. 

We can sometimes become neuroscientists, and sometimes we’re architects, anthropologists, scholars, sometimes we are AI data scientists. We are, basically trying to become everyone, for anyone, for any reason without being bonded by boring titles.

Refik Anadol

Oliver Lansley, Theatre Director

Oliver is an actor, writer, director and Artistic Director of theatre company Les Enfants Terribles, which he founded in 2002. Les Enfants Terribles’ works include award-winning, international stage shows, as well as immersive theatre experiences, such as Alice’s Adventures Underground, which toured London and Shanghai. 

What does your design process look like?

There are different design processes, I suppose. There’s the aesthetic design process where we work with the set designers, which is very different to normal theatre design because you’re creating an environment. It’s 360 degrees, you’re also dealing with all the different senses. So touch, smell, you’ve got to try and account for. We rely on our different senses so much when we’re creating experiences. 

Beyond that, there’s also the design of the show itself. We have commercial limitations, in terms of needing to get a certain number of people through the doors every night. But at the same time, we want to create an experience, which is as intimate as possible. A lot of the process of designing the show is creating a model that allows you to do that. 

With “Alice”, you have a show where you have something like 700 people going through every night. One show is 52 people and every audience member is assigned a playing card. Those 52 are split up into suits, and then those suits get split up. 

So most of the time, you’re going through as groups of 15 and there are 12 shows a night. At any one time, you might have three or four audiences in there. You might have one audience that’s halfway through their show. One audience that’s at the end of their show, one audience that’s starting, and they’re all criss-crossing in this literal rabbit warren. There’s a lot of practical design of how you get the audience to navigate those pathways.

What research do you do for a show?

The thing about these experiences is that you can’t tell what it is or how it works until you put an audience in it. Because your audience is effectively a character in the show, it’s like rehearsing a play without one of the actors present. You prepare as much as possible, and you try and think of every eventuality, but the truth is, you never know what the show is until you put an audience in. We’ve done “Alice” twice in London now and we’ve done it in Shanghai, and every time you do it you will be surprised by something an audience member decides to do. 

Do you ever change a play once you’ve had feedback from the audience?

When we first did “Alice”, we literally rewrote the whole thing. One of the first plans we had, all of the audience got to see everything and then actually at the first preview we realised if you’re trying to create an immersive world, what you don’t see is as important as what you do see. A really fun dynamic was people coming out and saying “Did you see this bit?” and then someone else going “Oh no, I didn’t see that, but I did see this”. It made the world feel bigger or more real because there was stuff going on that you didn’t know about. A big shift for us was that it’s not about making sure everyone has the same experience, it’s about making sure that everyone has an equal but unique experience.

A big shift for us was that it’s not about making sure everyone has the same experience, it’s about making sure that everyone has an equal but unique experience.

Oliver Lansley

Liz Alpern, Chef

Liz is a chef and the creator of Queer Soup Night (QSN), which (before COVID-19) was a monthly event series hosted by a dozen chapters across the US. QSN’s mission is to strengthen local queer communities across the country by creating safe spaces, sharing food and contributing to community initiatives.

Can you explain what you do?

I have a company called The Gefilteria, started with the mission of revitalising and reimagining traditional Eastern European Jewish cooking. And then, in my less formal career, 4 years ago, I created Queer Soup Night, which is a party series focused on lifting and creating space for queer chefs while raising funds for local social justice organisations. The goal is to create queer community through food and a shared mission of supporting local initiatives.

Why soup?

The real reason is that I love soup, and I've always wanted to do something with soup. It's nourishing; a symbol of nourishment.

Also, every single culture has a healing soup. It doesn't matter what your background is. I feel like it's a platform for different folks to share their form of nourishment with others. We very frequently have chefs that want to make a soup that reflects their cultural background and is meaningful to them — what a beautiful way to exchange the most nourishing food. 

How is crafting a live community experience similar to a virtual experience? 

I think, in person and in the virtual world, people like to feel seen. So while some people come to virtual cooking events and keep their cameras off but even with their camera off they still want to be named and recognized in some way — it’s not like watching a chef on YouTube. 

When I'm cooking with people virtually, it’s about asking guests how it's going, asking questions, staying present and engaged. And I think the same is true in person. We have this principle of greeting at QSN, where when you walk in you are greeted. Someone smiles at you and they say "Hello, how are you doing?" "Welcome, is this your first time here?" “Good to see you again!”. It's really important to our model, because the whole point is that you're not walking into an anonymous club you're walking into a community space so you're going to have a warm interaction the second you arrive.

Every single culture has a healing soup.

Liz Alpern

Our own aha! moments

Speaking to these creators, it didn’t take much digging to find the parallels between what they do and our own work. 

For example, products and brands that take an authentic and personal approach to community-building tend to be successful in developing trust between them and their users — much like Liz’s approach to building a safe community space at Queer Soup Night. 

Almost everyone referenced the importance of research — before, during, and after — in creating a top-notch experience. Jade talked about how to make her events more sticky to the people who attended them, while the practical design of the immersive theatre show “Alice’s Adventures Underground” that Oliver referenced sounds like a real-life, large-scale user flow.  

Having these chats was helpful in allowing us to learn how the processes that drive these IRL experiences could be applied to digital product design.

Credits

Spotify Design Team

We're a cross-disciplinary team of people who love to create great experiences and make meaningful connections between listeners and creators.

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Aarti D'Cruz

Product Designer

Product designer in the Freemium mission by day, musician by night. Loves writing bad poetry and creative coding for fun.

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Eileen Murphy (she/her)

Senior Product Designer

Designer and artist based in Brooklyn, NY.

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David Karlsson

Associate Art Director

Associate Art director in Stockholm, working in the Editorial Design team.

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