Read Time: 8.5 minutes
By Mustafa Yigit Ecer, SEGD Student Scholarship winner
I arrive at the venue and check my phone: it's 9:50 AM on the seventh of November. I go to a nearby Starbucks to get a coffee and as I wait, I try to warm up my hands by clapping, which results in some confused looks. Today, I will be at Gallagher and Associates for a couple of hours. I am intimidated by this—I wish I could do it without having to talk to industry professionals face-to-face. What about a Skype call?
At G&A, I go upstairs and am greeted by Joshua, Juan and Dan. They firmly shake my hand and start their presentation right away as we try to put away our big scarves. The big opener is about the Sazerac House in New Orleans. It is such an incredibly intricate project, with so many different layers that it boggles my mind a bit. Their goal here was to tell the story of New Orleans through the lens of the cocktail scene. The result is amazing—there are touchscreen menus, motion-activated tables, an interactive bar, virtual bartenders and much more.
A rather sensible question comes up from the audience: "Everything you are telling us right now sounds excessively expensive. How will the client profit?" I ask the same question to myself; how indeed? Josh answers: "Their main goal is not to make a huge profit here. Therefore, there is not even an entrance fee. It is about experiencing the brand hands-on; it is about meeting, socializing, creating memories, touching the drinks, shaking some hands." As he mentions the importance of the hands-on experience for the client, I put my coffee back into my hands, since I am still trying to warm up.
Surprisingly, they have a room in which they test their prototypes. I rapidly go in and see the virtual bartender prototype from the Sazerac House and click the screen to mimic a conversation, which feels much more intimate than I anticipated. Meanwhile, I see my friend playing with a device that lets you virtually sculpt a vase.
Her hands are up in the air, shaping something that does not exist, yet her face is full of joy as if the piece was right in the room. I go next. I raise my hands in the air, and the machine picks up my gestures and reflects my art piece on a screen. It creates such a connection that I can almost feel the cold mud touching my dehydrated hands as I am molding the air.
"This piece is an early prototype for the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience," Dan says. I tell him how the sculpting experience turns out to be much engaging that I had guessed. "You are doing a hands-on activity, literally and figuratively, even though it is a virtual experience. That is why it is so engaging," he answers back. "How do I get my hands dirty?" I think to myself, as I shake everyone's hands firmly before heading to Soho. I stop to buy hand lotion because my hands feel dry.
The next morning comes faster than I thought, the eighth of November, almost 9 AM I arrive at Bric. I used to live in Downtown Brooklyn, and before that, I lived in Bed-Stuy and Clinton Hill, so I am quite familiar—and entirely in love with—the neighborhood. I get inside the building after spending about 20 minutes to capture a good photo of me in formal attire so that I can renew my LinkedIn profile picture and chase some likes on Instagram.
I see Dan from the day before; his hands carefully move on his keyboard. I wave at him and smiles back at me. We shake hands and talk for a brief second until we get inside the auditorium. The stage has an abstract structure, probably hand-made out of some museum board. After a brief yet cheerful introduction (and some sponsor videos that feel like they take an eternity) the lights dim and the marathon begins.
The keynote speaker is Jim Gilmore and the topic is, "Why Experience Counts?" I already love him because he gave all the attendees a free copy of his book, which is much more effective and memorable than a pin or some brochures. I love the part where he talks about Airbnb experiences, as well as rage and escape rooms. "Time is limited. Attention is scarce. Money is consumable," he says. "Therefore, people prefer spending their time and money on an experience that they can actively be a part of."
This brings back what I was trying to understand when I was at Gallagher and Associates: Getting your hands dirty can mean literally mean getting your hands dirty, or it could also mean finding a connection with your addressee. Coming back to the speech, I feel some connection. I imagine a virtual handshake with Jim as he exits the stage. We're late for the break.
People keep telling me to network, but no one tells me what networking means or how to do it. I hold on to my newly designed (and overpriced) business cards. Their time will come.
The stage has two chairs facing each other, so I guess there will be an interview; Edwin Schlossberg takes the stage with Debbie Millman and they start talking about my favorite and least favorite subject—screens. Edwin talks about interactive screens, heat-sensor screens, touchscreens, small screens, enormous screens, smart screens and then, some more screens.
My biggest fear in this field is to be the person who designs beautiful yet extremely flat screen content. Edwin, however, redirects the conversation midway. He talks about something much more crucial than screens: the purpose of them. "It makes you feel included and engaged," Edwin says, talking about Terrell Place and the beautiful cherry blossoms. He says, "Although they look fantastic, we did not build huge screens because we can. We built them because it fortifies one's connection to what they are doing."
I take everyone to the Turkish place nearby for lunch; we all order lunch specials. I use a few drops of my lavender-oil-infused hand sanitizer and rub my hands until they are alarmingly warm, because I know what is about to come. I know that Turkish food requires a lot of using your hands with the bread, lentil soup, the lemon and the tabouleh.
I am so full, that I don't know how to get through the rest. The second half begins. The main topic is design and education, and I cannot be more excited because three of my professors will talk and one of them will show one of my lighting projects as an exemplary student work. How can it get any better than that?
The conversation opens up with Andy Van Solkema. He declares that the three phases of education are "destroy, play without meaning and play with meaning." They symbolize understanding, exploration and critical thinking. He says we need to be able to destroy our thoughts like taking Lego bricks apart so that we can rebuild them. "Don't forget to get your hand in there and take it apart so that you can build it better," he says. I squeeze my business card in my hands and promise myself to meet at least five new people.
Carla Diana comes on stage next, and I immediately like her because of her quirky ponytails. She talks about a master's program that combines technology and science, which sounds great. "There is no lecture," she says, "The students are encouraged to model, draw, prototype and build." The program has such a unique approach on how to get hands-on experience in such a niche point-of-view, I cannot help myself not to start folding the piece of paper in my hands to make a little cube.
Eventually, the portion I have been waiting for comes, and I see Christina Lyons on stage, talking about what we do. I cannot help to smile through her entire speech, which she ends with a hand gesture that tells us, the FIT students to get up and show ourselves. She is followed by Michael Stiller's presentation on lighting design, which ends with my project on the screen as his closing image. Brenda Cowan takes the stage after Michael and tells a story that is so good that I cannot stop myself from clapping by the end of it. I applaud so hard that my hands turn red.
The very last networking break somehow culminates in a swarm around the bathrooms (since everyone has had their fifth cup of coffee by that time), and a rush back for the last bits of the presentation. The last portion is quite interesting because it is about the future of exhibitions. Mary Franck comes to the stage and talks about some projects and what the future holds. Dusty Duistermars comes right after her, and one part of his presentation is exceptionally intriguing: He talks about an office that is entirely virtual with a personalized floorplan where everyone gets their own corner office. He adds: "The virtual floorplan is important because it represents a connection." It is the idea that has been explored before, having a supportive hand on your shoulder.
The journey ends with Josh Goldblum's entertaining speech. I love his socks. He mentions that there are a couple of hours each week in their office for the employees to "play, sketch, conversate and iterate." He tells us how their office is hands-on, and they immediately build something once they have an idea. I love that, and I think it is such a brilliant way to end the long journey of speeches and networking on bathroom lines.
As I exit Bric to go to the mixer at Black Forrest, I understand one thing: This profession is neither about making the most realistic virtual reality experience nor about building the biggest screen on earth with the highest resolution human eye can detect. It is about making people feel included. It is about getting messy. It is about destructing, failing, reconstructing, re-failing and trying again. It is about engagement. It is about being a hand on someone's shoulder, while getting your hands dirty.
I hold tight to my business cards while walking to Black Forrest. It is freezing out, but my hands are strangely warm—and ready to get messy.
This blog has been edited for clarity.