How Tate Modern is using digital technology to create new experiences for visitors

How Tate Modern is using digital technology to create new experiences for visitors

from Creative Review

Designed by Herzog and de Meuron, the Switch House is an impressive and imposing building, with raw concrete walls, sweeping staircases and large, bright galleries with exposed ceilings. An open terrace on the top floor offers a panoramic view of London.

On the building’s fourth floor is Living Cities – a collection of artworks which looks at artist responses to urban environments, from a model of an Algerian town made out of couscous by Kader Attia to Marwan Rechmaoui’s intricate rubber map of Beirut.

Living Cities houses one of two new installations created by Labs at Framestore as part of Bloomberg Connects, a partnership between Bloomberg and Tate Modern which funds digital visitor experiences in the gallery. Titled Explore Artists’ Cities, it looks at the relationship between artists and their home cities via a series of short films – in one, Ai Wei discusses life in Beijing in one, while in another, Sheela Gowda reflects on Bangalore. (Only two films have been created so far but more will be added throughout the year and films will also be made available online. Work by both Ai Wei Wei and Gowda is currently on display in Tate Modern and new films will coincide with exhibitions and events).

Films are played out in a small room on a dual-screen display and each one lasts around five minutes. A large map graphic fills the floor of the installation room, which spins around and hones in on the relevant location before each film is played. The graphic is made up of around five hundred thousand squares which Framestore says are rendered in real time.

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Explore Artists’ Cities (above and top). Image courtesy of Framestore
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Explore Artists’ Cities at Tate Modern

Susan Doyon, head of content (Bloomberg & Special Projects) at Tate Modern says the installation aims to connect visitors with artists in a new way. “Tate has a long running partnership through Bloomberg Connects called Tate Shots where we’re visiting artists and putting out films pretty much every week,” she explains. “There are a lot of artists on display for the first time in this new building that we’ve never got to meet or interview before so it was a chance to go see someone like Sheela Gowda in Bangalore in her space,” she says. “Some of the works [in the Tate] are challenging to a broad audience and we feel that we need to try to provide as much chance for them to understand them as much as possible.”

A second installation on the floor below, titled Explore Performance, looks at three different aspects of performance art – the body, choreography and moving image. Each aspect is explored through a mix of audio, video, text and images from Tate Modern’s archives, which are projected on to the walls of a small gallery space. Projections are triggered by standing under spotlights in the space and footage is generated at random in real time, meaning no two visitors are likely to have exactly the same experience. Directional audio is used to focus sound towards visitors standing in front of the display, while ultra short throw projectors stop passing visitors from casting a shadow over footage while walking around the room.

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Explore Performance at Tate Modern
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Explore Performance at Tate Modern

Framestore had to create custom hardware and software to produce the installation, which sits alongside a collection of pieces exploring the artist’s role as performer or choreographer, including Helio Oiticica’s Tropicialia 1966-7 and Suzanne Lacy’s The Crystal Quilt. Doyon says the aim was to create an experience triggered by visitors, mimicking the role of the audience in performance art – but there are seating spaces for those who prefer a more passive experience.

“We challenged ourselves to do something where the visitor has to be a bit more active, like the theme of this entire floor – and also it’s quite challenging material, so it’s good for people to have to try and interact and figure out how the room works a little bit,” she says. “We’re going to be tweaking that I think for a few weeks yet, trying to see how people react in user testing, what clues they need to trigger content and realise that if they move away it stops, because we want it to be quite a playful room.”

Creating an installation that can be adapted in response to audience feedback was a priority, says Doyon. A customer experience team will be watching how people use the space and as a result, Doyon says the installation might be adapted – for example, to place less emphasis on audio and more on visuals, or to include more text. New chapters exploring other aspects of performance art will also be added later in the year.

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Explore Performance at Tate Modern

“It was a really important part of the project that we didn’t just launch it and leave it – my team will work on this through the year and the following year to keep the content in this space going … we’ll keep working to get it right and then hopefully once we’ve got the technical aspect and the kind of content right,then we’ll introduce more topics,” she explains. “It’s definitely a challenge trying to understand what the user experience is going to be and making something rich for everybody.”

It’s a rare approach – often, digital installations are fairly fixed once they’re complete, leaving little room for change, yet it’s difficult to anticipate how an audience will react to a display until the gallery is filled with visitors.

“I think a lot of projects in galleries and big institutions are like … there’s the budget, there’s the brief, do it and make it and then it’s done, and then no matter how users are using it or not using it, you don’t have any flexibility or resource left to change it,” says Doyon. “It was really important seeing this as a long term project that we could change pretty quickly.”

As the installation was created using custom code, installation director Tom Schwarz says Framestore also has “full control” over the experience. “We can always come back to it and adapt it,” he adds. The installation allows the gallery to display a vast collection of archive material, highlighting its role in supporting contemporary performance art, and over time, Doyon says it can be used to document some of the many performance pieces taking place at the gallery this year.

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Labs at Framestore’s Timeline of Modern Art for Tate Modern (2015)

The pieces are the latest in a series of digital projects created as part of Bloomberg Connects – last year, Labs at Framestore created a Timeline of Modern Art for Tate Modern, which presents over 3,500 pieces of art in an interactive touch screen display. Explore Artists’ Cities promises a thought-provoking selection of films while Explore Performance makes clever use of lighting, sound and projection to display a vast collection of content in a small space. Doyon says digital innovation will be a key focus for Tate Modern now the Switch House has opened, with the gallery keen to offer new ways for visitors to experience the art on show and learn more about particular artists and their work.

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Switch House, Tate Modern © Iwan Baan
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Switch House, Tate Modern © Iwan Baan

“One of our jobs at Tate is to make sure that we’re at the cutting edge of art … when people come to Tate I think they expect a kind of innovative experience, and it feels particularly with the new building like we had to find new exciting ways to show [artwork],” says Doyon. “Now the new building’s open, part of my job will be looking at what should we do next and how can we find space to do it for it to live happily with the art? It was something [that was talked about] for quite a few years, that there would be dedicated interpretation spaces throughout the building and we are trying – as much as budget and time allows – for those to be digitally innovative. People expect that now,” she adds.

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Installation view of Between Object and Architecture, Switch House Galleries , Tate Modern. Image courtesy Tate Photography

see tate.org.uk for details of events and opening times.

Solve Problems and Test Ideas Faster with Google Ventures’ Design Sprint Framework

Solve Problems and Test Ideas Faster with Google Ventures’ Design Sprint Framework

From Zapier 

The best ideas always seem to come at the last minute. There’s a project with a crazy deadline, a blank spot in this week’s editorial calendar, or an impromptu speech an hour from now. Somehow, you rise to the occasion and pull something together—something that’s accidentally brilliant.

Constraints work. They force us to try something without overthinking it.

Brainstorming sessions, on the other hand, are purposely set up without restraints. You’ll feel creative and come away with tons of ideas—but how many actually turn into something real?

Not many. At least, not at Alphabet, Inc.’s investment arm, GV (formerly Google Ventures). Design partner Jake Knapp and the rest of the GV team noticed that brainstormed ideas were far less likely to stick than those generated by individuals during their normal work. Crazily enough, the best ideas seem to come from the tightest constraints.

That insight prompted them to recreate the rushed conditions, and make a new form of brainstorm called a Design Sprint—the focus of their new book, Sprint. These sprints helped Google improve Chrome, Gmail, and Google Search, enough that the idea has already spread to Medium, Blue Bottle Coffee and other companies in their portfolio.

It’s a tried-and-tested method that just might be what your next big thing needs.


The GV Design Sprint Week:

  • Day 1: Understand
  • Day 2: Sketch
  • Day 3: Storyboard
  • Day 4: Prototype
  • Day 5: Test

The GV Design Sprint

GV Design Sprint Workflow

Setting arduous due dates on every project will only lead to burnout. So how do you hit the sweet spot, where your team has enough time to come up with ideas and implement them, but not enough time to overthink those concepts?

Knapp and the GV team settled on a five-day, five-step process for design sprints. That structure gives them enough time to answer critical questions, with a dedicated day for each of the following: understandingsketchingstoryboardingprototyping, and testing. You’ll come up with an idea, make something, try it, and see if it works. If so, win; if not, it only took a week.

Maybe a week is more time than your team can afford for a design sprint. That’s fine: The underlying process from a full design sprint can still solve smaller challenges in shorter timeframes.

Let’s walk through what each step of GV’s five-day process, and adapt it to quickly solving problems with fewer resources. We’ll make our own “mini-design sprint” with adjustments to each day’s schedule, and see how it could help us with a common problem:

Our company wants to engage blog readers through a call to action (CTA) with additional products from our company. The CTA may come in the form of a survey, form, or an alternative solution. Success equals reader action beyond simply reading the blog post.

Let’s dive in.

Day 1: Understand

 

To build a solution, you need to understand the problem. That’s why day 1 of the GV design sprint focuses on understanding the issue, not brainstorming fixes. You’ll create a path to follow throughout the week with this five-step process:

  1. Start at the End
  2. Map
  3. Interview the Experts
  4. How Might We?
  5. Target

1. Start at the End

Starting at the end gives you “…a look ahead—to the end of the sprint week and beyond,” says Knapp in the Sprint book. “Staring at the end is like being handed the keys to a time machine. If you could jump ahead to the end of your sprint, what questions would be answered?”

To set your sights on the future, you’ll need to do two things: set a long-term goal, and list the questions that you want your sprint to answer.

Your long-term goal should be ambitious, and potentially overreaching—it’s your moonshot. For our problem, the long-term goal could be to engage every blog reader with an additional product from our company.

Then, write questions for your sprint that balance optimism with questions that uncover assumptions and roadblocks. Potential sprint questions for our problem include What actions could the company take that would turn a reader away? and What might cause someone to stop reading?

2. Map

Once the end goal and the sprint questions are identified, create a basic map for the project. List the actors—those affected by the sprint—on the left side, and the end goal on the right side of the map. In the middle, add boxes, text, and arrows that take the key parties to the desired end goal in around 5 to 15 steps.

For our problem, the blog reader and our company are the key actors, and the end goal is further engagement with the website. For a medical solution, a map like the one below might work:

 

3. Interview the Experts

Now it’s time to get context from experts. Introduce the sprint, share the map, and invite them to share everything they know about the challenge. Ask as many questions as possible, and write everything down.

Who should you interview? You could call professors and industry insiders—but I bet you already have experts on your team. For our sample project, experts include co-workers, stakeholders, and blog readers.

4. How Might We?

To make sure you gather actionable info during expert interviews—and to test the ideas in the map—GV uses the a How Might We method (or HMW for short). This method puts notes in the form of questions to spark creativity.

Write individual HMW questions on sticky notes, always starting with the words How might we. Sticky notes might seem awfully low-tech, but GV found that that they let you leverage spatial learning. You can quickly arrange sticky notes in groups, or simply throw away ideas that don’t seem to fit.

Our example problem, restated in the HMW format, reads: How might we increase blog reader engagement with additional products from our company? Additional HMW questions complement the challenge:

  1. How might we keep readers reading?
  2. How might we increase click through rates of supplemental content?
  3. How might we entice readers to further engage beyond consuming content?
  4. How might we prevent readers from leaving the blog?

Questions like this—listed on their own, individual sticky note—tend to spark creative solutions. As the GV team found:

“When we tried [HMW], we came to appreciate how the open-ended, optimistic phrasing forced us to look for opportunities and challenges, rather than getting bogged down by problems or, almost worse, jumping to solutions too soon. And because every question shares the same format, it’s possible to read, understand, and evaluate a whole wall full of these notes at once.”

5. Target

The final step of day one is to identify the target. GV states:

“Your final task on Monday is to choose a target for your sprint. Who is the most important customer, and what’s the critical moment of that customer’s experience? The rest of the sprint will flow from this decision.”

The most important customer in our problem is the blog reader. The critical moment is when that reader decides to further engage with additional options, or leave the blog.

Day 1 Adjustments

“If you could jump ahead to the end of your sprint, what questions would be answered?”

To achieve all five steps during day 1 of a mini-sprint—or even a full-length sprint—lean on your time constraints. Otherwise, you’ll spend all day on one point. That’s why GV encourages limitations during day 1. In a Fast Company article, Knapp says:

“One day I noticed something about my own design projects. The best work happened in short bursts, when I was under a deadline….But I also didn’t have too much time. I couldn’t afford to overthink things or get caught up in urgent but less important issues, the way I often did on normal workdays.”

Try dedicating 10 minutes of each work hour to the design sprint. Then, work on your normal tasks for the remainder of the hour. A kitchen timer might be your best co-sprinter.

Additionally, the full design sprint requires a sizable, dedicated space for the entire week (e.g. white boards to cover in maps, sticky notes, goals, sprint questions, etc.). You might not have that much space to spare. Instead, you could use a kanban board app such as Trello or LeanKit to mimic the sticky notes on a board.

The goal of a mini-design sprint is to get the benefits of a full sprint without its full requirements. So be creative—you’ll find a happy medium that fits your time and space limits.

Day 2: Sketch

 

Now it’s time to find a solution to address the target you found at the end of day 1. To find a solution, GV suggests a two-step process:

  1. Remix and Improve
  2. Sketch

1. Remix and Improve

Grab your research from day 1, and pair it with third-party content to drive towards a solution by the end of the day. GV encourages to:

“…search for existing ideas you can use in the afternoon to inform your solution. It’s like playing with Lego bricks: first gather useful components, then convert them into something original and new.”

In addition to gathering the helpful notes, maps, and ideas from day 1, look within your company for prior attempts to address the issue, and see what other companies have done with similar problems. Looking within the company is straightforward: Simply ask your team Has anyone addressed this before?. Often, great ideas have been pitched in the past—they just never were acted upon.

For our CTA project, consider other industries known for strong call to actions. For example, daily deal sites, car dealerships, and infomercials are all known for effective—and over-the-top—calls to action. While a neon HUGE SALE! sign isn’t the right solution, certain tactics from flashier companies might translate well. For example, car dealerships lean on action verbs, and give you the fear of missing out with a limited time to act.

Note the big ideas, things that could trigger action when sketching out a solution later in the day. GV suggests reviewing up to twenty solutions, then adjust your goal or map if it seems they’re worth exploring.

2. Sketch

Next, it’s time to sketch. Grab paper and pencils, and draw ideas that could turn into a solution. You don’t have to be an artist; GV assures you that:

“Everyone can write words, draw boxes, and express his or her ideas with the same clarity. If you can’t draw (or rather, if you think you can’t draw), don’t freak out. Plenty of people worry about putting pen to paper, but anybody-absolutely anybody-can sketch a great solution.”

The point of the sketch has nothing to do with a pretty picture. Rather, sketching is “the fastest and easiest way to transform abstract ideas into concrete solutions.” GV suggests these four steps for creating your sketch:

  1. Notes
  2. Ideas
  3. Crazy 8’s
  4. Solution Sketch

The Notes of a sketch are the “greatest hits” of everything captured up to this point. The best content from the long term goal, target, questions, maps, third-party solutions, and everything else should be written down for a twenty minute period. Within the “greatest hits” list, circle ideas that stand out.

Then, start drawing in the Ideas section of the sketch. Take another twenty minutes to transform the notes into diagrams, doodles, headlines, or anything that gives structure to the notes. Don’t worry about it looking perfect; just draw whatever comes to mind.

 

With some structured ideas in place, start a game of Crazy 8’s. Here, you’ll sketch eight different solutions to the problem in eight minutes. With only one minute per solution, there’s no time to come up with completely different solutions. Rather, each one is generally the strongest solution, along with a small change that could improve it. For our project, one solution might be a CTA form to fill out at the end of blog posts, while another might be the same form in the middle of posts.

With a foundation of notes, ideas, and eight rough solutions, day 2 ends with a Solution Sketch—the “best idea, put down on paper in detail” as GV describes it. The solution sketch should be drawn in a three-panel storyboard, because:

“…products and services are more like movies than snapshots. Customers don’t just appear in one freeze frame and then disappear in the next. Instead, they move through your solution like actors in a scene. Your solution has to move right along with them.”

In our project, the first frame should introduce the reader to the idea that they will be invited to engage with another product from our company. The second frame should demonstrate the moment when the reader is presented with the option to further engage. The third frame should follow the reader through the desired engagement.

The solution sketch should be self-explanatory. “If no one can understand [the solution] in sketch form, it’s not likely to do any better when it’s polished,” says the GV team. It doesn’t need to be beautiful, per se, but words especially matter. Instead of using placeholders like “lorem ipsum” or “text will go here”, take a little extra time to draft the intended text. Clear, concise, strategic choice of words is key to any solution, and can make or break a user experience.

Day 2 Adjustments

“Anybody-absolutely anybody-can sketch a great solution.”

Similar to day 1, day 2 requires some adjustments for our mini-sprint. For instance, when reviewing third party solutions, GV utilizes lightning demos, three minute tours of attractive third party solutions. During a mini-design sprint, perhaps set a time limit of ten to twenty minutes to review third party solutions, then review the selected solutions for a maximum of three minutes each.

Additionally, day two of a GV design sprint requires some voting to narrow the field of sketches and solutions. In the mini-design sprint, there’s likely a single sketcher: you. To help yourself pick the best idea, leave the solution sketches alone for a bit, and eliminate the solution sketches that don’t measure up. It’s easier to see what’s best when you’ve stepped away.

Day 3: Storyboard

 

The goal of day 3 is to create a detailed storyboard: a step-by-step plan that guides the prototype. First, GV suggests narrowing the list of solution sketches from day 2, if you haven’t already. To do that, they have a five-step process:

  1. Art Museum: Line your sketches up in a single row and look at them all at once. Give each sketch equal weight from a visual perspective.
  2. Heat Map: Place dot stickers next to particularly interesting aspects—good ideas will start to stand out as clusters of stickers.
  3. Speed Critique: Spend three minutes with each solution and record promising ideas, with a focus on clusters of dots from the heat map.
  4. Straw Poll: For 10 minutes, vote for solutions with dot stickers. Make sure you can illustrate why you voted for a particular solution.
  5. Supervote: The “decider” gets three votes; they can use all three votes for a single solution, or distribute the votes to multiple solutions.

As the GV team says, this process for evaluating every solution at once is bizarre, but effective.

“Instead of meandering, your team’s conversations will follow a script. The structure is socially awkward, but logical….[If] you feel like Spock from Star Trek, you’re doing it right.”


 

Once you’ve narrowed the field to a select few solutions, create a storyboard as a plan for the prototype. It’s similar to the solution sketch, but with perhaps 10 to 15 scenes.

First, draw a simple grid with around 15 empty boxes on a whiteboard. Now, draw the opening scene, where the customer first encounters the solution. As GV describes:

“If you’re prototyping an app, start in the App Store. If you’re prototyping a new cereal box, start on a grocery shelf….The trick is to take one or two steps upstream from the beginning of the actual solution you want to test.”

In our sample problem, the reader most likely meets the solution somewhere within a blog post. Alternatively, you could start one or two steps upstream, where the reader learns of the blog perhaps from a search result or ad.

After drawing the opening scene, it’s time to fill in the details.

“You’ll build out your story, one frame at a time, just like a comic book….Whenever possible, use the sticky notes from your winning sketches and stick them onto the whiteboard.”

When storyboarding, the story should tell itself. If the user must ask “What happens next?”, a frame is missing. Add every step you can imagine, pulling from the ideas you’ve already voted on.

Eventually, you will come to a gap in the story—perhaps you don’t know where a button should lead the reader. That’s ok. When we test the solution later on, the goal is to see whether or not the user fills out the form, not to understand where the user is directed after form completion.

Remember, the prototype does not need to be a fully-functional product. Unless the gap is critical to testing the prototype, don’t stop. There are two ideas GV uses to keep drawing beyond the gaps:

  1. Don’t invent new ideas
  2. Each frame of the storyboard equals one minute during testing

At this point in the design sprint, you have developed, refined, and eliminated a number of ideas. So don’t give in to new ideas that might pop into the your head. Trust the process—only push forward with the ideas you’ve already refined.

And stay succinct. The one-frame-per-minute rule (and a max of 15 frames) will protect you from an endless test the next day. Testing the prototype should take no more than 15 minutes; the rest of the time should be dedicated to feedback, interview questions, and discussion.

When in doubt about where to go next in your storyboard, lean towards risky solutions. GV says:

“Remember that the sprint is great for testing risky solutions that might have a huge payoff. So you’ll have to reverse the way you would normally prioritize….Skip those easy wins in favor of big, bold bets.”

Day 3 Adjustments

“Skip those easy wins in favor of big, bold bets.”

Day 3 of a full design sprint is set up for a group, with voting and detailed sketches. But it can still work for a smaller teams or individuala in a mini-design sprint.

Consider giving yourself more leeway to create and vote on multiple solutions, perhaps coupled with day 2’s tip to step away from ideas and approach them with a fresh mind. Bring a key stakeholder in to narrow the solution sketches, hear your justifications, and give a supervote. An outside perspective can always be helpful.

Day 3 also requires a lot of space to present multiple solution sketches and storyboards in a visually neutral manner. If you don’t have enough space, perhaps use a storyboarding apps. Look at suggestions side-by-side on your computer, or even use your tablet and phone for extra screens to showcase all the ideas at once.

Day 4: Prototype

 

It’s finally time to build a prototype—a “fake” model of the final solution. As GV says:

“[Day 4] is about illusion. You’ve got an idea for a great solution. Instead of taking weeks, months, or, heck, even years building that solution, you’re going to fake it. In one day, you’ll make a prototype that appears real….And on [day 5], your customers—like a movie audience—will forget their surrounding and just react.”

“Fake” means more than pretty pictures. GV finds that you can usually build 90% of a solution in a single day. It’s mostly a facade—there’s “no plumbing, no wiring, no structural engineering. Just a facade.”

Try making a demo website—even in a word processor or presentation app, if you need—that showcases your ideas. For our problem, you’ll make a fake CTA design and show how it’d fit into the blog post. Once the reader has clicks the CTA, though, the prototype ends—it’s just a mockup of what the concept would look like.

The prototype day requires you to shift your thinking from the first three days. Don’t think about making everything perfect, just try to make something “good enough” to show off the concept.

The “prototype mindset” includes four principles:

  1. You can prototype anything: Most solutions can be prototyped. GV has run more than 100 sprints, and managed to prototype apps, websites, robots, and medical platforms using the same one-day process.
  2. Prototypes are disposable: While the prototype should be 90% finished, keep in mind that the prototype is disposable. GV says: “…don’t prototype anything you aren’t willing to throw away. Remember: this solution might not work.”
  3. Build just enough to learn, but not more: The purpose of the prototype is to answer questions, not provide a fully functional product.
  4. The prototype must appear real: While a fully functional product is not required, the prototype must appear real—something GV calls Goldilocks quality. The users should not need to use their imaginations during the test to understand the solution. Don’t use placeholder text; make everything look real.

The most important thing you’ll get from the prototype is each user’s reactions. As GV says:

“In [day 5’s] test, customer reactions are solid gold, but their feedback is worth pennies on the dollar.”

Getting the reader’s feedback on how the blog or solution can be improved is not nearly as helpful as seeing an actual reaction. That’s why the prototype must provide an actual experience—it needs to look real, so we can see how people react to it.

Building a prototype sounds daunting, so the GV team has four steps to simplify things:

  1. Pick the Right Tools
  2. Divide and Conquer
  3. Stitch it Together
  4. Do a Trial Run

1. Pick the right tools

For your prototype, don’t use the tools you’d pick for your final product. You want a hammer, not a bulldozer. GV explains:

“The trouble with your team’s regular tools is that they’re too perfect—and too slow. Remember: Your prototype isn’t a real product, it just needs to appearreal. You don’t need to worry about supply chains, brand guidelines, or sales training. You don’t need to make every pixel perfect.”

 

Through hundreds of design sprints, GV has found that Keynote (for Mac users) and PowerPoint (for Windows users) are most often the perfect tools to build prototypes. Both are flexible enough to make realistic demos with some functionality—but not too much. That helps you hit the “Goldilocks quality”, as GV describes:

“If the quality is too low, people won’t believe the prototype is a real product. If the quality is too high, you’ll be working all night and you won’t finish. You need Goldilocks quality. Not too high, not too low, but just right.”

Here are some other great presentation apps that might help you mock up your ideas. Or, if you want a high-fidelity prototype for your product, a form with some integrations can make a convincing proof-of-concept.

2. Divide and Conquer

Next, divide and conquer. In a full design sprint, this entails divvying up parts of the prototype to different team members. (For a mini-design sprint, this most likely means you’ll bite off one piece of the prototype build at a time.)

Figure out which tasks fit each person’s skills. There’s icons, writing, asset, scripts for interviews, and more that are needed—not to mention the actual design process in the app. Give everyone their own spot to work, but make sure you’re using the same tool so it’s easy to combine the parts into a finished prototype.

3. Stitch it Together

Now it’s time to pull the pieces together. Combine the assets from each team member, and add any finishing touches like your company’s logo. Check the details—make sure dates, times, and names are consistent throughout the prototype.

There’s one more thing to focus on: your interview script. Make sure every part of the prototype is document into a script, one that flows in a logical manner. You can then use it to learn from the users in the testing day tomorrow.

4. Do a Trial Run

Finally, day 4 ends with a trial run. You’ll test the product on real users tomorrow; today, find someone else to test drive the prototype for a trial run. A co-worker with some knowledge of the subject is a good option, because they will understand the existing environment and what the proposed solution will add or subtract from it.

This is your chance to make final tweaks to the interview script, along with any minor changes the prototype may need. Again, don’t add new ideas or rewrite anything. The main goal of the trial run is to build confidence in the plan, and make sure you’re still on track.

Day 4 Adjustments

“Don’t prototype anything you aren’t willing to throw away. ”

With a full team, you could split up responsibilities to build the prototype. But with a mini-design sprint, you’ll need to fill each of these roles individually (i.e. maker, stitcher, writer, asset collector, and interviewer).

Instead of splitting up roles, during a mini-design sprint you should prioritize each of these exercises. For instance, asset collection and making the prototype should be done first. Stitching, writing, and interviewing will serve as the final touches before moving into the trial run.

Day 5: Test

 

It’s time to see exactly how far you’ve come, how far you need to go, and identify next steps. On day 5 you’ll conduct a series of interviews with users as they try your prototype.

All you need to do is find five people to interview. That may seem too few, but GV has found the data learned after five interviews plateaus quickly, both from their experience and that of user research expert Jakob Nielsen‘s work:

“Nielsen analyzed eighty-three of his own product studies. He plotted how many problems were discovered after ten interviews, twenty interviews, and so on. The results were both consistent and surprising: 85% of the problems were observed after just five people.”

Each interview should be one-on-one, and last one hour. One-on-one interviews answer why certain things work or don’t work, as you can directly observe what a user does. And the hour time-limit gives you 15 minutes for the demo, and a generous 45 minutes to talk through your questions with the user.

Interviews don’t have to be difficult. There’s no magic or specialized background required; rather, all the interviewer needs is a “…friendly demeanor, a sense of curiosity, and a willingness to have your assumptions proven wrong.”

 

The GV team divides their test interviews into five acts:

Act one starts with a welcome and small talk, along with asking for permission to record the interview. The non-interviewing team members typically watch the interview in a different room—via a window or camera—and take notes. That way, the interviewer doesn’t need to take notes, and can just focus on the user.

Act two consists of open-ended context questions. Don’t show the prototype yet. Instead, build rapport with the interviewee and learn what they think about your ideas to help understand their reactions and responses. GV suggests:

“A great series of context questions starts with small talk and transitions into personal questions relevant to the sprint. If you do it right, customers won’t realize the interview has started. It will feel just like natural conversation.”

Act three introduces the prototype. You should ask the interviewee, “Would you be willing to look at some prototypes?” That helps the interviewee know they are doing you a favor.

Act four has the interviewer give the interviewee specific tasks designed to trigger a reaction as they engage with the prototype. You want the interviewee to figure out the prototype without your assistance—and want to capture their raw reaction to the prototype. Just give them a general instruction, and see what they do.

In our example project, for instance, the interviewer would simply guide a blog reader to an article. The reader should naturally read through the blog post, encounter the CTA, and make a decision whether or not to engage with the CTA.

You may need to “nudge” the interviewee to help uncover their reaction. Perhaps as the user looks at the blog post, you could ask What is this? and What is this for?What are you looking for next?What would you do next? and Why?. Dig into what they’re thinking, instead of asking for direct feedback.

Act five involves debriefing the interviewee to find their overarching thoughts and impressions. To maintain a neutral position, keep the interviewee talking with responses like “uh-huh” and “mmm”, instead of positive statements like “great!” and “good job”.


This five-act interview should uncover a wealth of raw material. Now, it is time to learn. As GV explains:

“You know this story, but you don’t know how it ends. That’s what [day 5] is all about—finding the end to your sprint story. It’s a chance to put your prototypes in front of real customers, see how they react, answer your sprint questions, and make a plan for what to do next.”

During each interview, the rest of the team should take notes—but you’ll need a unique format to help you draw conclusions from the answers. Make a board with 5 columns— one for each interview—with a single row for each question you want answered. Then, write answers, comments, observations, and reactions on sticky notes, and place them in the corresponding spots in each column.

For our test project, those could be:

  • What made the call to action clear or unclear?
  • Why did you decide to engage, or not engage, with the call to action?
  • What could the blog post have included to better entice the reader to engage with the call to action?

Once the interviews are finished, you’ll start seeing patterns on your board. Compare the patterns to the sprint questions and determine whether or not the questions are answered.

Most often, the next steps you should take will make themselves clear. Each sprint will uncover its own results, and you’ll quickly know whether to turn this prototype into a product, or start over. Regardless, GV suggests:

“Maybe the best part about a sprint is that you can’t lose. If you test your prototype with customers, you’ll win the best prize of all—the chance to learn, in just five days, whether you’re on the right track with your ideas. The results don’t follow a neat template. You can have efficient failures that are good news, flawed successes that need more work, and many other outcomes.”

Day 5 Adjustments

“Put your prototypes in front of real customers, see how they react, answer your sprint questions, and make a plan for what to do next.”

With a full team, interviewing and writing notes separately is easy. You’ll have to adjust for your mini-design sprint. You still need to interview, and you can’t have your head buried in notes the whole time.

Instead, get permission and then record a video of each interview so you can watch the interviewee’s reactions. You can later go back, watch the video, and then make detailed notes.

This stage will take far more time as an individual or small team, but you’ll still get the same actionable feedback—and will know if the project is worth your time after all.

Sprint Your Next Projects

Design sprints help teams at big-name companies like Google, YouTube, Nest, Blue Bottle Coffee, and Foundation Medicine address massive problems in just a week. With a few tweaks, they can be equally useful for smaller teams and individuals, too.

The timeframe and problems can change. Your constant is the design sprint’s effect. As the GV team says:

“…when teams follow the process, it’s transformative. We hope you’ve got the itch to go run your own first sprint—at work, in a volunteer organization, at school, or even to try a change in your personal life.”

It just might be the process that sparks your next moonshot project.

Design Sprint Resources

Ready to start your own Design Sprint? Here are some resources from the GV team to help you get started:

  • Learn more about each day in the design sprint with Sprint Week, a set of articles on Medium from GV about each day in the sprint process.
  • Buy a copy of The Sprint Book for a more in-depth look at design sprints, and the ideas that inspired them.
  • Use the free Sprint Monday Morning Presentation to start your sprint off right.
  • Grab a presentation app to prototype and share ideas.
  • Download a free Sprint Checklist to keep your team on track throughout the process.

Curious about how the Zapier team works? Check out Zapier’s Guide to Remote Working for a detailed look at how our team works together from around the world, then dive into our Project Management 101 Guide to find solutions to keep your projects on track once the design sprint is finished.

Images via the GV Sprint Monday Morning Slide Deck.

The Vignelli Canon

The Vignelli Canon

The famous Italian designer Massimo Vignelli allows us a glimpse of his understanding of good design in this book, its rules and criteria. He uses numerous examples to convey applications in practice – from product design and graphic design to Corporate Design. By doing this he is making an important manual available to young designers that in its clarity both in terms of subject matter and visually is entirely committed to Vignelli’s modern design.

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Quenching Consumers’ Thirst for ‘Authentic’ Brands

Quenching Consumers’ Thirst for ‘Authentic’ Brands

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Richard Littlewood, the president of G.J. Littlewood & Son, a fiber dye house in Philadelphia, recently welcomed a client, Soraya Darabi, to his plant.
Littlewood colorizes wool and synthetic fibers for products ranging from pea coats for the Navy to N.B.A. mascots, from high-fashion pieces to home-crafting supplies. Mr. Littlewood develops colors and then dyes them onto fibers in the company’s brick-walled plant, which is dominated by giant dye kettles, dryers and bale pressers.
Mr. Littlewood’s great-great-grandfather opened for business in this same factory in 1869. “This is a piece of United States history,” Mr. Littlewood says, “and it’s still in motion, and it’s still supplying things, so we’re proud to be here.”
That kind of provenance matters to Ms. Darabi, a co-founder of the online retailer Zady with her friend Maxine Bédat. Zady, based in New York, sells clothing, household items, jewelry and office supplies from companies that the founders have researched for ethical practices and whose stories they share on the site.
The two women this year created their own clothing label, starting with a wool knit sweater, and they chose Littlewood to dye the fiber. Ms. Darabi was visiting Philadelphia to learn more about the manufacturer’s story.
“We are making it entirely in the U.S.,” Ms. Bédat says of the sweater. “And by make we mean source and make, from the sheep farm in Oregon to the wash house, dye house, processing and knitting. Along the way we’ve met some amazing characters. They really tell the story of the history of the country.”
Stories are important to Zady’s owners. Knowing where their products come from allows them to keep tabs on the way many of their products are made. The narratives also connect consumers to other people and places, adding a personal and experiential component to a tangible good and giving it an aura of authenticity.
For example, Zady sells leashes and collars from Found My Animal, started by a pair of friends who met while walking their rescue Chihuahuas. The products feature “New England marine-grade nautical rope and waxed thread, giving the collars and leashes an authentic look and sturdy design,” according to the Zady website.
Authenticity is a fuzzy concept, but Julie Napoli, a marketing professor at Curtin University, and colleagues recently reported in The Journal of Business Researchthat consumers see three dimensions to brand authenticity: heritage, sincerity and commitment to quality.

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A sampling of the products sold by Zady, including a backpack “from a century-old textile factory in Maryland” whose slanted zipper represents “ ‘summiting’ your goals and aspirations,” according to the website. CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Ms. Bédat says people love being a part of an authentic brand because they aren’t just buying into a logo — but also “buying into a set of values.”
Tito’s Handmade Vodka, of Austin, Tex., is another company that emphasizes authenticity in its marketing. Its website tells the life story of Tito Beveridge, the founder, highlighting his commitment to quality while also pushing the heritage angle: The vodka is “made in small batches in an old-fashioned pot still,” using a “time-honored method.” The approach seems to be working: Last year, the company sold 1.3 million cases of vodka, compared with 365,000 in 2010.
Continue reading the main story
Heritage comes through loud and clear when a company puts down roots and stays there. George E. Newman and Ravi Dhar, professors at the Yale School of Management, reported this year in the Journal of Marketing Research that consumers especially valued products that came from a company’s original factory.
In one study, subjects who read about a pair of jeans made in the Levi Strauss plant built in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake rated it as containing more of the “true essence” of the brand, compared with people who read about Levi jeans from a newer factory. The first group also rated the pants as more “authentic” and were more willing to pay a premium for them.
Another experiment found that original factories also increased the perceived authenticity and value of chocolates and handbags — and that the effect was stronger after subjects read about the spread of laughter or poison ivy, subtly enhancing thoughts of contagion, according to the authors. The Yale authors quote marketing language from several companies that play up a sense of tradition:
■ From Hershey’s: “Hershey, Pa. is where it all started more than 100 years ago, and it’s still where the famous Hershey’s Kisses are made.”
■ From Fuller’s Brewery: “Our brewery’s stood in London, beside the Thames, since 1845.”
■ From New Balance, referring to its factory in Norridgewock, Me.: “Built in 1945, the Depot Street building is the workplace of almost 400 associates. Each pair of shoes they produce is a proud work of craftsmanship that carries a little bit of the long history that is the town and its people.”
The French researchers Delphine Dion and Stéphane Borraz have reported in The Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services that luxury brand managers use myths and rituals to cast historical shops as sacred, which then lends authenticity to the merchandise and the brand. Talking to the researchers about Christian Dior’s first outlet, on the Avenue Montaigne in Paris, one manager said, “It’s a mythical place.” He added: “These stores keep the traces of something that has gone.”
Several studies have shown that authenticity — real or perceived — can affect the bottom line. Brian Wansink, a marketing professor at Cornell University, found that when menu items had geographical or nostalgic labels (“traditional Cajun” red beans with rice, “Grandma’s” zucchini cookies), diners bought them more often and said they tasted better.
A cynic might ask whether Zady itself really needs to tell the brand story of something as ordinary as paper clips. “But these are amazing paper clips!” Ms. Bédat protests. Her site explains that the maker of the paper clips, the Mondial Lus company, has been making office supplies in Saronno, Italy, since 1931, using “time-honored production methods.”

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Zady, based in New York, sells clothing, household items, jewelry and office supplies from companies that the founders have researched for ethical practices and whose stories they share on the site. CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

You could argue that these stories are a reaction against goods delivered by container from China, to be bought at Walmart. James H. Gilmore, a marketing consultant and a co-author of the book “Authenticity,” said in an interview that consumers felt a desire for the real “in an increasingly staged, contrived, mediated world.”
Continue reading the main story
But of course, companies have been known to slap the words “artisanal,” “traditional” and “authentic” on their products without an accompanying story to back up their words.
And then there’s J. Crew, which secured the name and logo of the American workwear company Madewell and began manufacturing much of the clothing overseas after Madewell became a subsidiary less than a decade ago. Dan Nosowitz, whose great-grandfather started Madewell in 1937, recently wrote in an essay for BuzzFeed, “How many corporations are out there rifling through the defunct brands of America’s past like a bin of used records, looking for something, anything, that will give them that soft Edison-bulb glow of authenticity?”
In defense of the new Madewell, its head of design did tell Mr. Nosowitz that the brand’s quality was a reflection of its heritage. “We know this name is a great name and we know this brand is a great brand,” Mr. Nosowitz quoted him as saying.
Another factor that could be affecting consumers’ authenticity-seeking is what Ms. Bédat calls Globalization 2.0, a new awareness of the ethical and environmental costs of consumerism, enabled by technology.
Ms. Bédat and Ms. Darabi look to Patagonia, the outdoor clothing store, for inspiration. Seven years ago, that company started the Footprint Chronicles on its website, documenting its supply chain with videos, articles and an interactive map showing the farms, factories and textile mills it works with.
Jill Dumain, Patagonia’s director of environmental strategy, says that the company’s transparency has led to some criticisms — that it should be using more recycled polyester, for example — but says that it has also forged loyalty among its customers. When Patagonia started the Chronicles, she says, “The reaction I feel like I heard the most was, ‘I trust what you tell me on the good, because you’re willing to tell me about the bad.’ ”
Ms. Dumain says people are now better informed about their purchases. “We get better questions from customers,” she says. “We get deeper questions.”
Or as Ms. Darabi of Zady said: “We’re at a precipice in what people are about to begin questioning, and our brand is there to give them some answers.”
Although Zady did not provide specific revenue figures, its staff has expanded from an initial team of six people in August 2013 to a total of 20 employees now. The first run of its sweater, a batch of 300, sold out in 24 hours, according to the company.
This holiday season, Zady is operating two pop-up shops in New York City, one in SoHo and one at Kennedy International Airport. Staff members at the stores are encouraged to engage customers in conversations about the brands.
“It’s storytelling,” Ms. Bédat says. “It’s people getting to feel that connection and wanting to be part of it.”

Tucson, an Unsung Architectural Oasis

Tucson, an Unsung Architectural Oasis

I originally understood Tucson as the place you land when you fly to when you visit Caterpillar’s Tinaja Hills Training Center or John Deere’s Sacaton Proving Grounds. 

We have produced multiple events at both locations. I know consider myself lucky to have spent enough time in the region to learn more about Tucson, what follows is a great description of the city written by Guy Trebay and originally published in the NY Times.

“People tend to come to Tucson to figure something out,” Demion Clinco remarked one cool desert evening, beneath a sky so boundless it made all things seem possible. We were seated on the terrace of the 85-year-old Arizona Inn, drinking anachronistic cocktails. The cocktails produced an optimism of their own. Pulling on his bourbon old-fashioned, Mr. Clinco, a native Tucsonan and former member of the state House of Representatives, added a fillip, “When they do, they tend to leave.” That I had come to Tucson to figure something out was evident. It remained to be seen precisely what. I arrived — as snowbirds have for much of the state’s recent history — fleeing a bitter and prolonged East Coast winter, a season during which the blackened mounds of ice blocking city streets and crosswalks, when they finally melted, left behind a tideline of crud. 

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 The geometric Haas Building of 1957 with other structures on Sunshine Mile.Credit…John Burcham for The New York Times

 

 

Somehow that trash felt metaphoric. The varied detritus of urban living also clusters in your psyche: small angers, embedded resentments, everyday slights, the guy looking cross-eyed at you on the E train. Like street trash, this stuff is hard to recycle; I needed, as we all occasionally do, to flee the bedeviling daily issues and light out. Escape is what led me to Tucson, a fact unlikely to bring joy to the hearts of its civic boosters, who would perhaps prefer visitors to focus on the positive aspects of this midsize Southwestern city. I am, assuredly, mindful of those — aware that Tucson is well situated in a valley basin geologically lofted to an altitude (2,600 feet) that in my mind qualifies it as high desert; that its signal feature is a series of jagged mountain ranges enclosing its flanks like a palisade; that its extravagant skies, particularly at twilight, have a way of vaulting the spirits in a manner I have seldom experienced anyplace else besides Rome.

 

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Tucson is no Rome, however. It is a dusty outpost on the fringes of the Sonoran Desert, a cyclical boomtown that suffered badly in the financial crash of 2008 and that, even beforehand, had in many ways seen better days. It is a grid city of long avenues and abundant strip malls; a place whose largest employers are a university, the military, the government and a maker of missile systems.  It is a mini-metropolis whose proximity to the Mexican border has resulted not only in a shadow economy but also some fairly stark racial and economic bifurcations. It is a blue dot in a red state, a college town whose seasonal population of students and retirees departs this month in a mass migration that leaves tumbleweed vacancies in its wake. Tucson is also a city whose loopy retail landscape skews heavily toward yoga studios, thrift shops and vape stores. And one of the city’s better-kept secrets is how often these places occupy structures that could easily be counted among the more significant examples of mid-20th century architecture in the country. That is, if anyone were bothering to look. I had first taken note of this curiosity some years back when attending the annual American Gem Trade Association fair in Tucson. In reality one central fair and an agglomeration of 40 or so satellites, where dealers trade in the countless minerals of which the earth is formed (and also a certain amount of random space flotsam), the fair is the place to be if you are ever in the market for an eight-carat Mozambique ruby, a Brazilian rock crystal carved like a phallus or a fragment of a meteorite.

 Increasingly, on what have become annual pilgrimages to the gem fair (including one in February) I’ve found myself straying from the parking lots crammed with geodes, beads and boulders, and venturing out to explore the local architectural treasures. Back home, whenever New York threatens to ruin my day, I follow my thoughts back to my random excursions around Tucson and to memories of its illimitable skies, dry, clear air and its abundant supply of wizened drifters right out of Richard Avedon’s “In the American West.”

 I reflect on how deeply I enjoy the ramshackle dispersion of the city and on the fact that I now know which Mexican handicrafts store to visit if I am ever in need of a six-foot ceramic pineapple from Michoacán. I think about a photo gallery I like as much for its location near a funky tattoo parlor as for its adventurous exhibitions, a diner in a movie-ready structure unaltered since the 1960s, and the thrift shops of which Tucson boasts more than it has hipster brunch spots.

 I recall, too, the pleasures of ordering a heaping platter of huevos rancheros at my favorite hipster brunch spot, the Five Points Market, situated on an intersection whose other notable landmarks include a florist selling $1 roses and a used-car dealership with the motto “Ugly but Honest.”

 By the time Clyde Wanslee came up with that memorable slogan in the 1930s, the old pioneer town of Tucson had already entered a period of unprecedented expansion. Figures compiled by the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation peg Tucson’s 1940 population at 35,000, a figure that by 1960 had soared to 212,000. While it’s not surprising that housing starts flourished along with a rapidly growing city, what strikes a visitor now is how little the accompanying boom owed to structural archetypes then dominating postwar development back East. 

While builders on the Eastern Seaboard assembled cookie-cutter colonials by the thousands, Tucson developers instead adapted the austerities of International Style Modernism to their city’s magnificent though challenging terrain. Some preservationists claim Tucson possesses some of the densest concentrations of midcentury Modernist architecture in the Southwest, reluctantly conceding that the finest examples are not nearly as easy to find as similar ones clustered throughout entire midcentury neighborhoods in Phoenix, just two hours away.

 Even Mr. Clinco — who was instrumental in resuscitating the drowsy Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation in 2008 — grants that about the only way to eyeball prime Modernist gems by architects like Tom Gist, Anne Rysdale, Robert Swaim or Arthur T. Brown that lie scattered in the foothills or secluded in stands of saguaro is on one of the guided tours his group conducts every autumn during its Tucson Modernism Week. Yet they’re quick to note that plenty of astonishingly individualistic architecture lies scattered throughout the city. All that is needed to find them are wheels and a map.

 To guide me I used a slick, informative foldout called “Broadway: Born Modern,” which is one in a series of fine guides the preservationist group has produced to find Tucson’s varied wonders, from its bars and drive-ins to its houses of worship, and also the city’s abundant neon signage (Dirk J. Arnold’s “Gateway Saguaro” on the Miracle Mile being perhaps the most emblematic example).

 The specific focus of “Broadway: Born Modern” is a checkerboard assortment of midcentury holdouts still standing lonely but proud amid the big-box stores and stucco strip malls on a stretch of Broadway from Euclid Avenue to Country Club Road. Here, on the two-mile Sunshine Mile — linking what was once the city’s suburban eastern reaches to its historic downtown — desert Modernists evolved a quirky utilitarian vernacular all their own.

 Cantilevered roofs canopy glass curtain walls, shading them from the harsh summer sun. Blank fieldstone walls form the facades of cool interior caves. Soaring organic shapes vault sculpturally from the sere landscape like the ramparts of a cathedral consecrated to some wacko progressive religion.

 

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A stark white, cast-concrete structure built as a Valley National Bank is now a Chase.

 

 

A stark white, cast-concrete structure built as a Valley National Bank is now a Chase. Credit John Burcham for The New York Times
One such structure, created in 1971 by Bernard Friedman and John Whitmire of Friedman and Jobusch Architects, stands sentry at a corner of Broadway and Country Club Road. Directly opposite it on Broadway is the historic Broadway Village, a gentle ensemble of brick hacienda-style structures designed in the 1930s by the Swiss-born Josias Joesler, arguably Tucson’s most celebrated architect. In the contrast between the two can be traced a shift in a city’s ambitions and a radical progression away from Tucson’s pueblo past toward an undefined future in the space age.

The more recent of the two is a stark white, cast-concrete building set back from a broad plaza ornamented with a large sculptural amoeba; it has a high columned overhang, a soaring glazed expressionist frieze to bring in light and overall an air of unassailable exuberance.

Built as a Valley National Bank, it is now a Chase. There are Chase branches all over Tucson, of course, most with drive-through windows to facilitate the American dependence on the internal combustion engine. It pleases me, though, when I’m in Tucson to drive up Broadway and park the rental just to conduct my insignificant banking in a building that seems to frame and elevate the puniest of transactions.

I feel expansive making an A.T.M. withdrawal. And “expansiveness and optimism,” as Andie Zelnio, of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, once told me, are signal characteristics of 20th-century boomtowns of the American West.

“Partly what attracted many of us to the West in the first place is that sense of space and possibility,” said Ms. Zelnio, an Illinois native and architect who lived in New York and Los Angeles before relocating to Tucson permanently in 2004. Add to that an unfettered ability to think and design in novel ways, as many architects did when faced with a landscape both wondrous and seemingly inhospitable.

The results of their experiments stud Broadway for most of its length, delightful and largely unremarked. Among my favorites are Ms. Rysdale’s elegantly restrained geometric Haas Building of 1957; Juan Worner y Bas’s quirky 1961 Murphey Building, with its scalloped parapet and terra-cotta statues of philosophers and saints; the adobe brick Broadmoor Medical Center; and the classic open-front facade Mr. Friedman designed in 1954 to house Hirsh’s Shoes.

“In 1954 we stood alone,” read a tagline in an advertisement for Hirsh’s Shoes I came across in a program printed to accompany Tucson Modernism Week. “Sixty years later, we still stand alone.”

Happily for Hirsh’s Shoes and other imperiled local landmarks, that is not altogether the case. Since being restarted, the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation has committed passionately to identifying, recording and conserving unsung local treasures, from a historic courtyard motel to a refined and much degraded center city park by the landscape architect Garrett Eckbo.

“The first thing people want to know when they come here is, ‘Where is the historic area?’ That’s what they want to see,” said Hannah Glasston, a preservationist and director of the estimable Etherton Gallery, whose inventory includes both contemporary photography and vintage works by photographers as disparate as Weegee, Edward Sheriff Curtis and Ansel Adams.

When she first came to Tucson from upstate New York to attend college in the 1970s, “I was attracted to obvious historic buildings,” Ms. Glasston said, referring to guidebook destinations like the Cathedral of St. Augustine, a stupefying encrusted monument to the Mexican Baroque. “But then I started to see stuff that made me think, ‘What are these things?’ ” Once her eye adjusted to the determined quiddities of her adopted hometown, she said, “Even weird cinder-block strange things from the 1950s started to look fabulous.”

Though on recent trips I’ve made it a modest goal to seek out some of Tucson’s more oddball Modernist structures, I tend to lodge at one of its gentler traditional ones. Built in 1930 by Isabella Greenway, Arizona’s first congresswoman and a lifelong friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, the Arizona Inn was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 and is now run by Will Conroy, Ms. Greenway’s grandson.

Like much of the city, the Arizona Inn was hit hard by the 2008 crash, which obliged Mr. Conroy to lay off more than a third of his staff. Despite that, this unlikely hotelier (a Brooklyn-born screenwriter, he is the son of the novelist Frank Conroy) has somehow found the means and contrived a way to preserve the civilizing dimensions of this 14-acre oasis, with its manicured lawns, walled patios, book-filled guest rooms, beds of heirloom roses and an overall air of assiduously maintained gentility.

Whether most contemporary visitors find time to use the folding card tables tucked into each commodious guest room closet, their presence conjures up an era when people arrived at the inn by rail each winter, their trunks filled with the many costume changes required for daily rubbers of bridge, croquet matches or afternoon teas.

 

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Dirk J. Arnold’s “Gateway Saguaro,” on the Miracle Mile is among the neon signage in the city.Credit…John Burcham for The New York Times

 

 

 

With little to impinge on the fantasy of living like Gary and Rocky Cooper or the East Coast swells who routinely lodged at the Inn, I slow down there and fall into lazy routine. Yet while most guests tend to venture only rarely from the hotel’s seductive confines, I head out routinely on daily excursions to check out an eccentric city I’ve increasingly come to love.

I get my daily breakfast of poached eggs and bacon at Chaffin’s Family Restaurant — little changed except in name since it was erected in the Googie architecture style in 1964 as Sambo’s Pancake House — or else at another venerable greasy spoon called Bobo’s.

At Bobo’s, the clientele seems about evenly divided between solid middle-class locals, pajama-clad University of Arizona students soaking up last night’s toxins with cartwheel-size banana pancakes and heavily inked characters who look as if they had scraped up just enough change for a cup of Joe after posting bail.

I stop in at Bon, a boutique that the mother-and-daughter team of Bonnie and Crystal Flynt operate at the historic Five Points intersection to check out an always-evolving selection of design objects that meet their quirkily refined tastes. I troll the city’s many thrift stores, following the advice of my pal Laura Wills, a part-time Tucsonan whose Screaming Mimi’s vintage store in Manhattan is a way station in the life of 1960s satin sheaths or pearl-snap cowboy shirts unearthed at a Tucson Goodwill store and heading next to Burning Man. I stop into Tom’s Fine Furniture and Collectables, an antiques mall whispered about by midcentury furniture dealers all over the country, who threaten those who reveal their secret source with bodily harm.

Come lunchtime, I drive beneath Interstate 10 to the arid west side of the city, where hillsides are spiked with saguaros and where I once spotted a man at a roadside stand advertising his wares with a sign reading “Honey & Knives.”

My destination is Teresa’s Mosaic Cafe, a Mexican restaurant unpromisingly set behind a McDonald’s parking lot. Although, as Stephen Paul, the founder of Whiskey Del Bac, an award-winning mesquite-smoked single-malt distilled in Tucson, once authoritatively pointed out, “the best Mexican food in the country” is to be found on the city’s largely Latino south side, I remain a Teresa’s loyalist.

The reasons are simple. Despite its unpromising location this 31-year-old restaurant offers surprising vistas from the windows of the circular structure it occupies and serves huevos rancheros good enough that Bobby Flay once chose the place for a Food Network throw-down.

I prefer it at lunch, though, because by then Dora Robles has set up at a griddle near the center of the restaurant and begun patting and toasting the 500 or so tortillas she makes fresh daily: delicious wheat or corn wraps that provide packaging for Teresa’s brightly spiced enchiladas, the most efficient lunch-delivery system ever devised.

Heading out afterward, I often turn west onto Oracle Drive toward the Oro Valley and Tohono Chul Park, a small botanical garden on a patch of desert bought in the ’60s by Jean and Richard Wilson (a Yale-trained geologist) and later established as a nonprofit to save the land from mall developers. Not the least of the things I like about this ingeniously designed garden of arid zone flora are the rattlesnake warnings posted along its paths. Yet the real reason I visit is the center’s exhibition space, partly to check one of its fine and constantly changing art installations, but more candidly to pretend the Santa Fe-style adobe structure housing it is mine.

Given the limited number of fellow visitors I’ve encountered in a place built in 1937 for the memorably named John T. de Blois Wack, this delusion is not as hard to sustain as it may seem. From within its nobly proportioned parlor, where tall picture windows are set in walls of 18-inch-thick adobe, the view of saguaros framing wide skies is nothing shy of deluxe. “For about seven months a year,” Mr. Paul once told me, “Tucson is filled with the most spectacular, soulful light.”

I see no reason to dispute his estimation. Parking myself on a deep leather sofa at Tohono Chul not long ago, I gazed at the cloud armadas sailing above the largest desert in North America and suddenly recalled something Ms. Glasston, the Etherton Gallery director, had said.

“Why do people come to places like Tucson?” she asked, before offering a reply that struck me as central to any understanding of the American Southwest’s enduring allure. “When you come down to it, it’s pretty simple. We don’t like to be shoehorned into categories.” When you come down to it, neither do I. 

Where to Stay

Except during the annual American Gem Trade Association fair, hotels at all price levels are abundant and easy to book in Tucson. Come February everything is block-booked, tariffs skyrocket and you’d be lucky to find a vacant storm drain.

 

With its 91 rooms set amid 14 manicured and walled acres, theArizona Innhas proved irresistible to patrons of many decades and, increasingly, an international clientele that includes the jeweler Ted Muehling, the London art dealer Maureen Paley and Francesca Amfitheatrof, the design director of Tiffany & Company.

The town is quiet, drowsy and distinctly on sale in the off-season. A suite recently listed on the inn’s website offered garden views, a king bed, a sitting room and an array of customary amenities (Wi-Fi, newspapers, CDs from the inn’s library and ice cream sundaes every afternoon by the pool, all free) for $149.

 

Where to Eat

The menu at the landmark Hotel Congress (311 East Congress Street, 520-622-8848) is solidly if blandly confined to American standards whereas Maynards Market & Kitchen (400 North Toole Avenue, 520-545-0557), in the old train station, favors American cooking and locally sourced ingredients inflected with a French accent.

 Five Points Market & Restaurant (756 South Stone Avenue, 520-623-3888) is like a bit of Williamsburg dropped into a historic intersection in a funky but fast-developing part of town.

 When Bobby Flay decided to stage a huevos rancheros throwdown for the Food Network, he chose Teresa’s Mosaic Cafe(2455 North Silverbell Road — behind McDonald’s — 520-624-4512) on the city’s arid west side. Super fresh and brightly spiced, the fare here is consistently tasty if not destined to set the culinary world on fire. In addition, Dora Robles stands at an exposed griddle set in the middle of the place, patting out and toasting 500 fresh tortillas by hand every day.

The Arizona Inn also has a restaurant, bar and terrace where it serves uncontroversial if uninspiring country-club type fare.

 

What to Do

A prominent fixture on the international art scene and one of the pre-eminent art and photo galleries in the Southwest, the Etherton Gallery(135 South Sixth Avenue, 520-624-7370) shows works of fine art photographers, paintings, prints, sculpture and mixed media by local and regional artists, and offers a wide selection of works by masters of photography like Ansel Adams, Edward Sheriff Curtis and Weegee.

At Bon, (760 South Stone Avenue, 520-795-2272, adjacent to the Five Points Market & Restaurant) the mother-and-daughter team of Bonnie and Crystal Flynt offer what their website calls a “selection of our favorite things,” including a well-edited array of clothes and candles and vintage textiles and greeting cards that could easily enough become your favorite things, as well.