Creating Wonder – Communication Arts Interview

Creating Wonder  –  Communication Arts Interview

Creating Wonder – Communication Arts Interview

Communication Arts Magazine


How did you get to where you are today?

My career in the digital realm started by accident. I applied for a press position at the National Science Museum in Venezuela, but I ended up being interviewed for a job in design. The museum’s CEO saw a future in my online work, so he created a position for me as the director of what we called the “cybernetics department,” where I developed websites and CD-ROMs— the latest technologies at the time. I was 23 and had never managed a team.

Then I went to Europe to pursue three master’s degrees in design, science and education. I considered working in an orphanage for gorillas in the Congo, but after they said no, I ended up learning naturalistic design at the Bronx Zoo—bringing the illusion of nature to animals in captivity for their well-being, as well as creating an appropriate setting for visitors. I arrived in New York on a tourist visa, without knowing English. In two months I learned the language, and by the sixth month, I got a job as a writer and experience developer at the Liberty Science Center. That was quite the school; everything was an interactive experience.

Now, I head the department of interactives and media at the American Museum of Natural History. I manage a versatile team that tackles design challenges for an international, diverse, all-ages audience. We have created more than 100 interactive experiences in the last seven years, in every format from reactive surfaces to symphonies.


I love the complexity of your multimedia installations. What is the creative process typically like behind these projects?

We create experiences in all kinds of formats. We develop apps for games and augmented reality simulations. We make mechanical devices, interactive maps and projection mapping installations. We once produced a symphony that evoked fireflies and jellyfish. We are all curious people who have our specialties, but are also generalists that can imagine beyond the limitations of our disciplines.

Experts say that to be a manager is to be like a T, with a wide top of knowledge to understand other disciplines and one deep specialization. I feel more like a comb, with a wider top and many deep specializations. At the museum, I lead a department of incredibly talented individuals who, like myself, share a natural curiosity about everything. I hire designers, animators, writers, programmers, videographers, hardware experts, visual designers, musicians and all kinds of people. My department’s structure enables us to involve several aspects of our creative talents.

The process of designing interactive experiences is complex. First, with the help of researchers and scientists, we learn about the general principles of the content we are presenting. We immerse ourselves in these subjects, filling our mental sponges; then, we squeeze that sponge and let ideas emerge in all kinds of formats. We want to foster the magic moment that happens when you see something for the first time. Discussions, brainstorming sessions, budget analysis, space restrictions, and our diversity of skills affect our final design. At the end, we have a combination of experiences that form a coherent exhibition.

When I see our progress, I literally jump with excitement. I foster that reaction in our audiences by exploring what makes me feel this way.


What has been your favorite project so far, and why?
In 2007, I led the development and produced the Skyscraper! exhibition for the Liberty Science Center—the largest, most ambitious exhibition made on the subject. We wanted to tell the story about how skyscrapers are built, but there was no available documentation on skyscraper construction. So I took it upon myself to document the building of the headquarters of the New York Times, designed by the architect Renzo Piano, and visited the construction site from beginning to end. For three years, I photographed each phase and recorded interviews with all types of professionals. We took the materials and created an interactive wall, where visitors can explore all points of the construction process and watch videos, diagrams and time-lapses. The three-year documentation felt like an expedition, conquering a titan, dominating a beast out of pure understanding.

I got valuable lessons about the design process from some of the most creative minds in architecture. For one question on the future of skyscrapers, we interviewed renowned international architects including Adrian Smith, the architect of Burj Khalifa in Dubai; Jeanne Gang, the architect of the Aqua tower in Chicago; and Hélène de Garay, a designer and creator of many green-technology buildings in Latin America. They answered with sketches of their visions, reflecting the advances of society, the need to address environmental challenges and the development of new technologies. It was fascinating to see the architectural design process unveil itself in front of us. Their designs were sometimes oriented to solve practical problems, sometimes as a pure state of fantasy, or creating a building that offered an abstracted intellectual concept representing bigger issues in our societies. Looking at the different paths that these creative minds took to imagine and design skyscrapers was an unforgettable privilege.

My other favorite project is the Enchanted Book of Poison we created for the Poison exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in 2013. The idea had been in my head for years: I wanted to create an experience that would solve many weaknesses of interactive environments and seamlessly integrate the digital and physical in a way that was subtle. This was a natural fit: an exhibition on the many ways early conjurers would concoct poisons.

We made a large book with real pages full of calculated details, from the texture of the pages to the folds of the leather bindings. It sat on a wooden pedestal, like forest witches would use. Handwritten instructions, from three generations of proto-scientists, explained how to make terrible potions from natural plants like rhododendrons and hemlock. The pages included botanical information, historical references and descriptions on what happened to poisoned victims. We presented the content with old calligraphy, handwriting in the margins and Da Vinci–esque illustrations. When visitors passed each page, the blank canvas would magically reveal the secret potions, and special sensors in the pages would animate the illustrations, revealing gruesome deaths.

The book was physical; the content was projected; the interface was based on several technologies embedded in the pages and the pedestal. People were not only fascinated by the incredible arsenal of poisonous ingredients available in nature, but by the magic of the interface. We saw interaction designers trying to decipher the installation and getting it wrong. I can’t tell you how much we enjoyed that.


How do interactive installations help foster learning and create memorable experiences for children?
It’s important to understand that experience design and interactivity are not only for children, but also for curious minds, for the inner child in all of us. My job requires me to behave like a serious executive most of the day, but when I see our progress, I literally jump with excitement. I foster that reaction in our audiences by exploring what makes me feel this way. We help visitors replicate that sense of wonder through all aspects of an exhibit.

Exhibitions, and especially interactive experiences, do great things for learning. When done well, even a few minutes of interaction can bring people to a new level of understanding. This has to do with the learning styles of our brains. Interactivity not only combines visual and kinetic elements, but also enables certain degrees of freedom when mentally structuring new concepts. The playfulness of something beautiful and the freedom of guiding yourself through the experience foster learning.

Our installations explain complex subjects, but we design the visual and motor components to convey most of the message—this taps into the intuitive part of the brain where people absorb information faster. We reserve text for content that cannot be explained otherwise. Fun experiences help visitors associate the complexity of science with a good time. If we help people fall in love with the learning experience, they will continue learning on their own.

Hélène Alonso is the director of interactives and media at the American Museum of Natural History, where she directs a multidisciplinary team in the design and production of interactive experiences. She holds a BA in communications from the Universidad Católica Andres Bello in Venezuela, two summa cum laude degrees in design and education, and a cum laude degree in wildlife management from the Universidad Complutense and the Institute of Ecological Research in Spain. After a few years in advertising with DDBO, she changed her career towards experience design, working for the National Science Museum in Venezuela, the Bronx Zoo, the Liberty Science Center and the American Museum of Natural History. During her career, she has developed and directed more than 200 projects and has received numerous awards from the Webby Awards, Apple, Muse, Cine, Communicator and Thea. Her work has been featured in national media publications, such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Gizmodo and others.


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