Once engaged emotionally we are, by nature, curious: Savage Beauty

On June 1st, 2011, posted in: different perspective, learning by 1 Comment

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to make it to the ‘Savage Beauty’ exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exhibition is a showcase of the work of fashion designer Alexander McQueen and those that collaborated with him throughout his career. The exhibition was put together with impressive speed by The Met and many of those who knew McQueen following his suicide in February 2010.

When I arrived, the queues were over an hour long and, not being a particular fan of McQueen’s work I nearly gave it a miss. But with some good luck I managed to dodge the line and my reward for persistence was an exhibition that will stay with me for a very long time. Why? The exhibition is designed to be uncompromisingly emotional.

There are no silent, painted white rooms full of frameless glass boxes and educational interactives. Rooms are theatrically staged based on the title of the collections that each displays with smashed wooden panelling (Highland Rape), dark shop type shelves (The Cabinet of Curiosities) and aged mirrors (Romantic Gothic). Each room is filled with music and at points you’re asked to bend down and peer through a small hole at a 3D hologram or gaze almost at the ceiling at an enormous video screen placed above your head.

Attraction rather than Distraction

You might have thought all this obscure positioning, abstract lighting and emotional music might distract but the interesting thing was that instead it inspired exclamations of ‘His work IS art!’ from people stood close to me. For me, it inspired different emotional reactions as I went into each room – uncomfortable and suffocating, at times inspired and elated.

None of this should be surprising when you consider this impactful experience was designed by fashion show designers adept at walking the fine line of creating drama and spectacle while showcasing the objects (or should we say costume) and using all the tools available to them to do this.

Engagement: Emotion first

The level of audience engagement and interpretation about the works were audible. The inclusion of music not only set the tone of the gallery but also encouraged the chatter. Some of the talk was about whether you could wear that to the shops but a good percentage of visitors were debating the craftsmanship, the materials and the message the dresses communicated.

Given the short time available to put the exhibition together, the show is not overly large – there was just enough to leave me feeling I wanted more. However I also felt satisfied because the experience was well designed, well edited and emotionally engaging. I had experienced the McQueen showcase and I feel I now have a better understanding of why so many people go bonkers over couture. It was probably this too that lead me, like over 10,000 others so far, to buy the exhibition catalogue. At $45 and 2kg of my luggage allowance you can see just how powerfully this show affected me.

The exhibition was a reminder to me about the impact great content can have on a visitor experience but also what makes great content:

  • The exhibition explained to me why I should give a damn about the work of McQueen by engaging me emotionally first, leaving me to want to learn more about the facts. I was pulled in, heart first.
  • There is a need for craftsmanship when creating emotionally engaging experiences that don’t detract from the works. Each element of the design and content was used because it added to the overall experience with nothing excessive or unnecessary. It was then seamlessly combined allowing me to focus on the objects but use my emotional intelligence to understand them further.
  • An experience can be choreographed for the visitors to be curious and discover without lots of interactivity and digital jiggery pokery. Once engaged emotionally we are, by nature, curious.

With this in mind, I started to think of some of Frankly, Green + Webb’s favourite content, the stops we share when people ask us for great examples. All of these clips are emotional. The majority of the clips use highly trained writers, sound designers or passionate communicators but all of them are well thoughtful and well crafted.

Quite often it’s difficult to describe why each clip works – but inevitably – after listening each makes sense. Perhaps this is part of the challenge with creating emotionally engaging content – the magic that happens is hard to describe and often needs a skilled hand to execute but as The Met is seeing from the queues at the door and the catalogue sales in the shop – the rewards is an engaged audience eager to learn and share.

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