Storymaking: Part I

Part I of our conversation with Creative Director Eric Mika.

Eric is Creative Director and Director of Creative Technology at Local Projects. Eric’s expertise is in blending digital and physical forms to abstract complex subjects into playful, intuitive, and engaging interfaces and experiences.

Eric has led a number of award-winning projects for Local Projects, including AR activations for the Norton Museum of Art and Pace Gallery, interactive galleries exploring synthetic biology and the quantified self for the Tech Interactive, and hybrid customer-engagement experiences for EY, IBM, and ABB. Eric also contributed to the conception and development of Planet Word in Washington D.C., Gallery One at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Noticing Tools suite of learning apps for the New York City Hall of Science, and many other projects during his tenure at the studio.


You’ve shared this idea of storymaking. Can you tell us a little more about the difference and how storymaking can empower visitors?

A lot of the work we do at Local Projects is, fundamentally, about telling stories. History is a story, an artwork is a story, a natural phenomenon is a kind of story. But a story represents one path taken through a complex system — the context, culture, and constraints that shaped that path.

The distinction I’m trying to make between storytelling and storymaking is the difference between presenting visitors with a linear narrative and giving them the tools to build that narrative themselves through an exploration of the context and rules that drove it into being. I think some of our strongest projects take the latter approach. Bottom-up instead of top-down.


From a design perspective, that means creating experiences that allow the story to take shape in the hands of the visitor, instead of simply serving up a linear narrative. 

There’s a risk here of under-constraining an experience and leaving the narrative open to revision, but the parameters can be tuned to guide the story. The fact that the story is discovered rather than received makes it both more compelling and more credible to a visitor.

There’s a great quote from Poincaré that goes, “It is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover.” Storymaking is about giving people the tools and space to cultivate intuition.

How have you explored Storymaking at Local Projects? 

Almost every project I’ve worked on at the studio reflects an emphasis on exploration over exposition, but two examples come to mind specifically — one is an early project that helped define the approach, and one is a more recent project that applies these principles more subtly.

The first project, called BioDesign Studio, launched in 2016 at the Tech Interactive in San Jose. We were tasked with creating a space for visitors to build an understanding of synthetic biology’s fundamentals, potential, and perils. Rather than attempt to teach this massively complex subject from first principles, we present visitors with a space to experiment with some of the big ideas through hands-on interfaces with quick feedback loops that invite discovery through trial and error. 


We designed a total of four exhibits for the gallery, but the most ambitious was named “Creature Creation”. 

This exhibit combines three key components: 

  • Custom designed and fabricated “DNA” building blocks, which snap together in different sequences to construct a genome. 
  • Electronics inside these blocks communicate with a digital lab bench that displays an annotated version of your genome as you’re building it, and dynamically generates an amoebic creature that swims around a petri dish, changing shape, color, and behavior whenever the chain of genetic blocks is changed. 
  • A 30-foot curved projection screen surrounding the digital lab bench called the Bio Pool, which shows many other creatures drifting in the currents. 

Once you’re happy with the design of your creature in the digital petri dish on the lab bench, you can “launch” it into the pool and see how it interacts with an ecosystem of other creatures, which were similarly designed and launched by other visitors.


The fact that all lifeforms in the pool were designed by other visitors introduces a social aspect to the experience. One visitor’s too-successful or too-aggressive creature design can divide out of control, displacing creatures your other visitors designed — creating a grim monoculture in the Bio Pool.

Together, these three elements let you quickly get a feel for what it might be like to design a genome from scratch — you begin to intuit which sequences work and which don’t, and apply your understanding of the system to be more precise in the design of your creatures. 

This empirical approach is what differentiates simply telling a story about how genes work vs. giving visitors the tools to create their own stories within the possibility space. We craft the constraints of the system to gradually reveal the underlying rules, guiding visitors towards a mental model that mirrors the concepts behind synthetic biology.

Another much more recent example of storymaking is a new augmented-reality iPad app called Norton Art+. We developed this app in partnership with the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, and launched it earlier this year.

The app is designed specifically for use at the museum, in direct dialog with the artworks and gallery spaces. Efforts to incorporate AR in museums are often compromised by a mandate to activate a massive quantity of work. In order to scale the experience up, the interaction model gets watered down to the point where the AR layer loses a specific relationship with each work and ends up being used to reveal little more than glorified wall text. 

The team at the Norton had the foresight to avoid this pitfall by focusing their efforts on a subset of the museum’s collection, granting an opportunity to design unique and context-specific interactions for just six key contemporary artworks.


The result is a collection of AR activations tailored to specific artworks, inviting the visitor to explore the works and even create artworks of their own for inclusion in a virtual exhibition adjacent to the original artwork. This approach opens up a creative dialog between the visitor and the artwork, and means that AR activation unlocks a new and unique activity specific to that work.


For example, an artwork by Rob Wynne incorporates forms resulting from a happy accident in his glass-blowing studio. While working on a piece, he accidentally dropped a molten blob of glass onto the floor, where it flattened into an interesting organic shape. Inspiration struck, and this mistake seeded a process that he used intentionally to create each of the thousands of tiny discs of glass that make up an artwork at the Norton. 

In Norton Art+, you discover the origins of this form. When you unlock the interaction, a virtual sphere of molten glass appears on the iPad screen. You flatten it by tilting the iPad to “drop” it onto the floor in AR. Once again, this exploratory approach is key to the storytelling vs. storymaking distinction — instead of just explaining the origins of the work, we wanted to craft an interaction that leads visitors to find out on their own.


Launching Norton Art+ mid-pandemic must have involved some complexities and challenges. Can you walk us through that process?

The project kicked off in the pre-pandemic era, so we had a chance to work together in person early on. A short strategy phase built an understanding of the opportunities and challenges of applying AR in the museum, and was followed by a concept phase to identify a list of contemporary works to consider for inclusion in the app and start developing ideas for the AR activations. The Norton’s curatorial and education teams selected a dozen key works in the collection that held the most educational value and provided the broadest potential for interactivity. From there, we went to work coming up with unique AR interactions for each artwork. With a portfolio of possibilities in hand, we wanted to involve the community in whittling this list down to the six strongest concepts. 

For this, we turned to the Norton’s Teen Advisory Squad (TASQ), a team of 15 high school students from all over Palm Beach County who collaborate with the Norton to discuss and design art programming for teens. 


We pitched the dozen artworks and 30+ interaction ideas over Zoom to the teens and listened to their feedback. Some concepts emerged as clear winners in this process, and the teens’ insightful feedback was incorporated into the final curation of artworks and interactions for the app.

Normally, a prototyping process would include designers overseeing first-hand how the app is being used, without providing instructions or otherwise interfering with the discovery process. But as the app neared the end of its development process in the pandemic accelerated, we needed a way to collect this valuable feedback remotely. To accomplish this we assembled a “usability testing kit” to use at home, consisting of an iPad preloaded with a work-in-progress version of the Norton Art+ app, plus a printed guide. 

We didn’t want to bias the testers by providing too much background on the interactions, so the guide tried to provide just enough contextual information to make up for the fact that testers weren’t going to be in the museum, standing in front of the artwork. For each artwork, the guide included a snapshot of the artwork in-situ at the museum and a short collection of questions specific to that interaction. 

The kits were distributed to a number of Norton staff families and community members, who provided invaluable feedback about the app — particularly identifying instructional text that was unclear, and interactions that were too complex or too simple.

Click here to read Part II of our conversation with Eric!