Derived from the Latin “historia,” meaning “a history, an account, or tale,” the word “story” has architectural roots indicating that a building has been decorated with scenes from history. Though the common architectural usage didn’t come into play until the 1400s, looking at the carved friezes that run across the tops of Greek temples recounting myths, battles, or laws; the foundation of the phrase “one story” is clear: the architects were literally telling stories through their buildings.
Even as our methods for conveying these stories has changed over time, the architecture we create continues to tell us about ourselves, our communities, and our place in the world.
When we started our work with BrandLab, a team within Google that helps the company’s top advertisers develop their video strategies, we were tasked with redesigning a single wall in their San Bruno workshop space.
As an idea, BrandLab is about the power of great storytelling. Though technology has changed the way we share and amplify these stories, it remains that one of the most powerful ways to convey any idea is through a well-told story.
As an experience, BrandLab represents an entirely new way of working for many of the participants — a team-oriented, hands-on workshop designed to have guests actively develop creative strategies based on a data-driven understanding of their audience. Though months of planning go into each BrandLab workshop, the ask of guests is simple: for one day put aside all the distractions of the outside world and commit to the curriculum, to this new way of thinking, and to working side-by-side with the rest of your team.
Connecting the Scene to the Story
The connection between architecture, story and culture is foundational to BrandLab.
From its headquarters in Northern California, to the offices in New York, Paris, Singapore or São Paulo, each location is designed to reflect the unique history and culture of that city. In San Bruno, CA, where the flagship BrandLab resides, the space evokes both the location as well as the history of the brands that have visited it.
Within this eclectic mixture of raw wood and local artifacts there was a single, conspicuously unadorned wall positioned to be the first thing a guest would see coming into the BrandLab space.
The question to us: How could this wall be reconsidered and redesigned to not just fit within the space visually, but to be an integral part of the workshop experience?
Changing the Guest’s Frame of Mind
Starting with a very literal blank canvas: the sheetrock wall that currently occupied the space, we began thinking about the location of the wall both physically and also temporally. Yes, the wall was the first thing a guest would see when they entered the space, but it was also the first thing they’d experience after a long plane ride to San Francisco, after a tour of Google’s Mountain View campus, or after breakfast at one of the many restaurants within the YouTube headquarters. It was the first thing they’d see within BrandLab, but it was also the last thing they’d see before they started their journey into the BrandLab curriculum — something that would hopefully provide a turning point in the way they thought about their own brand in the YouTube era.
This was a moment we wanted to celebrate.
If the BrandLab journey was the story being told, then the wall we were building wasn’t the cover, it was the prologue: a tiny, self-contained story that would help set the stage for the rest of the experience.
Our focus was not set on any single element; but rather on how, why and when a guest would interact with the wall: what is their frame of mind when they arrive and how does it change throughout their day at BrandLab. This meant considering the context of the wall, not just in its relationship to the space, but to the guest.
This change became a key element in our overall strategy. Both the physical and digital design of the wall were built to be as flexible as possible, enabling the creation of different “modes” for the wall, each one designed to engage with guests in different ways as the workshop progresses.
Creating an Experience
Because the wall is positioned to be the first thing a guest sees when they enter the BrandLab space, it takes on an especially important role in helping establish the mood for the day.
The bright and bold “welcome mode,” which includes high contrast colors and large fonts for legibility, is focused on celebrating the physical and emotional shift guests take as they pass through the entry. Each guest is greeted by name on an individual cubby screen with a customized color just for them. Beyond the customized colors, cubbies are set up in a way that keeps in mind things like each guest’s stature — where each cubby’s position can be changed on the fly to facilitate everyone’s needs.
As the guests interact with their cubbies, the wall updates to show them a sequence of data visualizations contrasting them and their team with the audience their workshop will focus on that day. The goal here is to help the guests understand that every piece of data they’ll be seeing in the workshop is the story of a person.
As guests complete this part of the story, they’re greeted by a final surprise: the screen they’ve been interacting with slides to reveal a secret cubby.
Inside, each guest finds all the materials they’ll need for the day, such as a customized notebook and pen. And, because BrandLab is a screens down workshop, guests are encouraged to leave their phones and laptops in the cubby where they can be charged during the day.
A “quiet mode” takes over while the workshop is session. It features more subtle animations that are designed to prevent guests from being distracted, while still making it easy for them to find their cubby when needed.
In the afternoon, as guests leave the space for lunch, the wall adapts again. This time the focus is on comparing the top trending YouTube videos for the guest demographic with that of the target audience they’re learning about more in the workshop.
Finally, at the end of the day, as guests are preparing to leave, the wall shifts into its final mode. In this mode, the wall serves as more of a retrospective for the day, showing photos captured throughout the workshop and asking the guests how they felt about their time at BrandLab. This time, when they open their cubby, they not only find their fully-charged phones and laptops, but also a special gift from the BrandLab team.
Expressing the Experience
While creating the right experience for the cubby wall was crucial, it was only part of the design challenge. We also needed a visual language with which to express the experience.
Here we were able to leverage Google’s Material Design thinking in a number of areas. While Material Design was created specifically for the screen, its ultimate goal is to create a unified experience across digital platforms. We wondered if we could use unifying principles to connect the digital experience to the physical design of the wall.
To do this, we looked at the core of material design principles — with its emphasis on layering, stacking and spatial interactions — and brought these elements into the physical design of the wall while also keeping in mind features like lighting design, material choice and the sound mechanics. This extended to the cubby interface, where we utilized material design to help with the animations and data visualizations — marrying it with the existing graphic standards of BrandLab.
However, all the consideration given to each element of the experience would be moot if it wasn’t available to every guest who visited BrandLab. Because of this, special care was given to ergonomics and accessibility throughout the conception and construction of the cubby wall.
With this in mind, and using everything at our disposal, from masking tape on office walls to foamcore and plywood prototypes, we explored different form factors from the shape and size of the wall down to the position of power outlets inside each cubby. Through this cycle of design and testing we found a way to accommodate 22 guests interacting with the wall all at once — no matter their shape or ability.
All that being said, taking a project of this scope and bringing it to life was a complex and multifaceted endeavor in and of itself.
At the core of this was integrating with the proprietary software that provides the functional foundation to all of Google’s digital exhibits and installations — then integrating custom animations as a foundational element for creating a meaningful experience at this scale. At more than 22 feet long and over 15 feet tall, we would not be able to see the entire final wall until it was actually finished on-site. To manage this, we constructed a fully functional 1/10th scale prototype in Uncorked’s office.
Using a system of actual cubby screens, a single prototype cubby, and a matrix of monitors, we were able to closely replicate the environment we’d see in San Bruno, providing our design and development teams the scenario they needed to make the real one successful.
Seeing the First Class
Ultimately, the cubby wall represents the very best of Uncorked. Bringing together the physical and digital world, the wall creates an experience that reflects BrandLab’s purpose: to transform the way brands build videos to tell stories in the digital space.
This project, like many at Uncorked, had us exploring uncharted territory — addressing a new problem in a novel way. But the time, consideration and work that went into it was validated entirely when we were present to see the first group of BrandLab guests use the wall. Watching the group’s eyes light up, with smiles growing across their faces, as the screens slid open for the first time — asking their friends to take pictures of them in front of it. This all served to tell us that while we couldn’t have done any of this without all the technology we had available, the real core of the success lay in understanding that there’s nothing quite like telling a great story.