How to reach new audiences – using design thinking

Dette blogindlæg er på engelsk, fordi det indeholder et interview med storyteller Zena Barakat fra det internationale designfirma IDEO, som jeg mødte til en scenekunstmesse i Montréal (Cinars). Og jeg vil også gerne dele det med de mennesker, jeg mødte der. [This blogpost is in english as it contains an interview with storyteller Zena Barakat from the international design firm IDEO, whom I met at a performing arts event in Montréal (Cinars). And I would like to share it with the people I met there too.]

Zena Barakat and Karen Toftegaard in Montréal
Storyteller Zena Barakat from the design company IDEO and Karen Toftegaard, when we met in Montréal at the Performing Arts platform CINARS 2016.


Creativity lies in the way we think

A couple of years ago I had a book about creativity published (in Danish) – interviewing people with different kind of creative mindsets and giving tools to activate and nourish your creativity. Back then I sensed there was a difference in the way we were acting and thinking creatively even though my task was to find the essences of creative behaviour. I also noticed that I felt most inspired by people that were doing things very differently than I. Having worked in the performing arts field around 15 years I find it particularly interesting to see how this milieu can learn from other creative mindsets.


Creative thinking

When I met storyteller Zena Barakat from the international design company IDEO in San Francisco at the performing arts platform CINARS in Montréal, Canada, we talked about the creative design thinking and the creative thinking in performing arts. There is a difference and I see a potential for growing when adapting some of the approaches and ways of doing in the creative design thinking.


How to reach new audiences – using design thinking

Zena Barakat works in the Design for Change studio, helping organisations evolve their cultures and businesses to become more adaptive. In 2015 she worked with the San Francisco Opera to explore ways it could reach new audiences – using design thinking. Prior to joining IDEO, she worked in journalism and on documentaries for 12 years for The New York Times, ABC News, National Public Radio, Bloomberg News, National Geographic and the Independent Film Channel (IFC). Yes, she is pretty awesome.


Here are parts of our conversation – feel free to join:

Karen: How do you experience the difference between creative design mindset and the mindset of a performing arts organization?
Zena: “Design thinking is very collaborative. You bring people together and you are supposed to leave your ego at the door, and if you are doing it right, you don’t really know where the idea came from exactly, who thought of it in the room, because everyone is building on each other so much. It is that collaborative and cooperative. And the people in the room are people with different backgrounds and perspectives and it takes relying on each other to come up with solutions and literally credit does not matter. In art it’s the opposite. It really matters who came up with the idea and it’s a certain vision, and it comes from one person or certain people at the very top, and credit is almost everything, right. (Even though there are several independent artists working collectively – as we experienced and reflected on at a.o. the international performance festival WORKS AT WORK: group works, ed.).”

Storyteller Zena Barakat from the international design company Ideo. She is based in San Francisco.
Storyteller Zena Barakat from the international design company IDEO. She is based in San Francisco.


Working in silos

“However art and design also have different purposes. Design is supposed to be thinking about your audience and their experience and art can be inspirational because it is so singularly focused. The reason that it is important is because when you have a culture in arts organisations that is so used to working in departments by themselves or people working on their own, they have their own little systems that they have created. They work in silos. Then you come in and you say, we have this methodology, you have to collaborate on everything, the entire process from the beginning to end. That makes people extremely uncomfortable. They feel unsafe. Is my job safe? Am I going to be needed? Am I going to get the validation? Are my contributions going to be recognised? So it’s a completely different way of talking, thinking and doing. For people that can be very threatening. But if you can completely embrace it you can bring the ideas of five people to make the audience experience better.


Is there a way to leave the ego at the door?
Five people who come from very different backgrounds. It can be the security guard who works at the front of the house, it could be the musician and it could be a performer and then it could be the person who is head of audience relations, and you talk with them. The security guard at the front of the house could notice something that you never have noticed before that could make the audience experience vastly different. So if there is a way to leave your ego at the door, the opinions of five people can be way more powerful to make something great. It could mean the entire picture of the audience experience. So design thinking is powerful in that way, that it challenges the way that people naturally work in arts organisations which is very individually.”


Karen: “Yes it is extremely important to challenge the silo-behaviour. I worked in cultural institutions (supported by Danish Ministry of Culture) for seven years with Public Relations and I often got the best ideas when I was talking with the front house, the cleaning lady or the stage manager – people with another approach than I.”


Let´s all jump in

Zena: “It is not about everybody doing everything. It is more about when problems arise with ticketing. Do you put that entire problem on the ticket person or do all the people with different expertise, including the ticket expertise, come together and help each other to find that solution. It’s not like there is no collaboration going on, but it is sort of paper individualised specialised. Instead of ‘there’s something going on with ticketing, let us all jump in on that’. I think it is very uncomfortable for people, if they don’t get the credit or feel valued. They become nervous that their job may not exist tomorrow. And that’s a very real fear. Art organisations are struggling with finances and getting the audience what they need to continue. So it is not an irrational fear, but sometimes when you are dealing with set problems, it takes everybody taking it on. And people being able to help each other to think about solutions.”

Karen: “I think you’re spot on. The fear is driving people to do a lot of things especially in the art branch, because there is so much fear of losing. Specially now, where people are loosing privileges within the arts because the funding’s are cut back and people have to legitimise art by manifesting ‘why we should regard art as something valuable’ in all actions. I would like to recognise that you talk very empathic about these people and you’ve got a good understanding of what is going on. It is a pleasure to hear your way of talking respectfully and empathetic.


Sometimes the things we feel as extra could be the core of our change

Zena: “Well before I did my current carrier, I worked in journalism. Journalism is very similar in a lot of ways. In journalism there is a lot of fear, that we are not going to have the money to do the coverage that we need to do, to do a good job for the public. The public is not interesting in funding journalism the way it needs to be funded in order to exist. Because in journalism, investigating reporting has to happen, and that is not a very lean or effective process. It takes a lot of time and money to do investigated reporting. And so, in journalism there is a lot of the same fears that we are not going to be relevant or exist tomorrow. So everything is done just to survive. It’s a survival mechanism. Everything feels extra. The problem is that the things that feel extra could save you. For example, it used to be an extra for journalists to think about a Facebook strategy. It used to be an extra to promote. Well the biggest distributor of news now, is Facebook. So sometimes, these things that we feel as an extra could be at the core of what we could do to change. So for example, it could feel extra to reach out to new and different, not younger necessarily, but new and different audiences. It could feel like, ‘that is just one extra thing, that I can’t possible do’. Well it could be the thing that saves you and makes you more relevant, get more people through your doors. But because people are surviving, they are only thinking day to day, they are not thinking of five years from now.”


Karen: “Which three advices would you give to people in the art business about how to prioritise development?”


>>>Don’t spend a lot of money to do experiments<<<
Zena: “The thing that I have heard from people over and over again, is that we don’t have the time and money or resources to do that. But the whole idea in design thinking is that you don’t spend a lot of money to do experiments. Please don’t. You need to first realise, if an idea could take hold before you throw money at it. Arts organisations, the Opera in particular, is really good at being perfect. They don’t like to do experiments. Their experiments are going to be the most perfect experiments. They are going to spend a lot of money on it. So there has to be a shift in thinking, that we can take little chances that could have a big impact. For example, tonight all of our ushers are dressed differently and have a different role. There are going to be two people doing the tickets, but we are not going to show people where to sit and we are going to see if they are okay with that. Instead all the ushers are going to be serving people drinks, to make the bar experience much faster and they are going to be talking to people about what to look out for in the show tonight. That’s what we are going to do. We are not going to have this long line of people waiting to get a drink or whatever, or they are going to talk to people in the line at the bathroom. To make it more tolerable to people to wait in line for the bathroom. I’m just saying, that doesn’t cost you any money, it is just a different mind-set.

In a lot of these arts organisations, for a new audience member who walks through the doors, there are already rules of conduct that they don’t know about. They are expected to dress a certain way, they are supposed to know certain cues that it is time to go inside and sit down. There are all these norms. If you were to change any one point of that, you could drastically change the audience experience. And that doesn’t mean spending money. So that’s number one. Experimenting without spending money.


>>>Please don’t water down your artistic vision<<<
Number two: Please don’t water down your artistic vision because you are thinking that it is going to please a lot of people. Sometimes I see that people want to please young people, so they do very ordinary things, to please young people and they are almost talking down to young people because they are saying ‘do you know what young people would like, young people would like a rave’ and so they do a dance party or whatever. Sometimes that works; but sometimes young people want the most elite thing. They just want to be able to wear jeans for it. They don’t want you to change your art, they just want to be able to feel comfortable. They want it at the time they want it at, they want the drinks at the bar to be beers that they like and they want… You know I’m just saying, that sometimes it is everything surrounding your performance. Well when you just start changing your art to please people that is when it doesn’t have a beautiful vision that is strong, anymore. And you are doing it to please people and that doesn’t work. So, I guess when you are thinking about your audience, really think about designing everything around the art, around the performance. What is it like to get tickets? Is it functional for people, are they getting in to problems, is it not worth their time? How are they finding out about it, in the first place? Are the only places you publish places that your existing audiences get newsletters. If you want to reach, new audiences go and reach newsletters and blogs that are outside of what you usually do. So I guess my point is, there is so much room for experimenting and experimentation and design around the whole audience experience that changing your programming to be blatantly trying to get a singular audience can sometimes talk down to them and feel in-authentic to them.


>>>Talk to people outside your bubble<<<
Number three is to talk with people outside your bubble. Outside of your world. Talk about how they are dealing with the same problem. The signature thing we did when I worked with the San Francisco Opera, was to get them to talk to people in other industries. Sometimes the opera people only talk to opera people and they say ‘We’re having this audience problem, Oh you are having an audience problem’, and they are just having the same conversations. Well, what we did was that we said one of the things the Opera was struggling with was ‘if we try to attract new audiences are we going to turn off our existing audience’? So we talked to someone in a completely different field, which was a wedding planner. We had an open conversation with the wedding planner. We said: Tell us about how you are able to please the mother of the bride and the flower girl in one event. What is important to people and what is not important. What makes people feel like they are taken care of and so on. Something that came out of that conversation, that was unrelated to that exact question, but really inspired the people at the Opera, was that she was talking about an event where there were people of different ages that, there is a certain energy level that you want to maintain. So you have to be very responsive. At a wedding, if you notice that things are getting quiet and slow and people are leaving the dancefloor, you put on an upbeat song. You might put a song on from the 1950’s, to get a certain crowd up and dancing, you are being very flexible. So you just think, we put on a performance in a certain space, maybe the venue is very flexible, is there a way that we can be responsive to the audience.We noticed once in an encore that the audience kept clapping. Well what if the performers came out once and the audience clapped once, and the next time the opera members decided we are going to get of the stage, move all the chairs to the side and we are going to talk to the audience members for 15 minutes. I’m just saying, that what they realised is that they are not very responsive, to the feeling or the mood of the audience, so sometimes you are not going to get the exact answer but you are going to be inspired by people in other fields, to solve your problem and look at it from a different angle.


Fantasy football – could there be Fantasy theatre?

Art organisations are not the only ones who are dealing with attendance issues when it comes to physical space. So how can you talk to people, for example, let’s say sports teams. They have to deal with filling stadiums, so what if an arts organisation talked to a sports team. And it is not about partnering with them, it is about saying ‘what are you doing to fill your seats’, because you have a physical space and they could be doing something really interesting that could inspire you. Something that you never even thought of. For example, something that has brought huge interest to a lot of people is Fantasy Football. Fantasy Football is basically an online game you play with your friends. Let’s say you play with ten other people, and you make your own team based on players you like, online. And so you pick a Quarterback from this team, and you pick another player from this team, and you make your own teams. And in the real world, the way that those people perform dictates how well your team is doing. So if that Quarterback threw eight touchdowns, then you are going to get those points. You get certain points for the players you choose, and you can switch people out and bring new ones in, and whatever.
People are therefore watching the games, because they want to know how their players are doing. So that’s really interesting, right? It’s another way that people are engaged, by inventing their own games that runs parallel to the physical.”

The Danish equivalent to Fantasy Football is "Manager", formerly known as "Drømmeholdet".
The Danish equivalent to Fantasy Football is “Manager”, formerly known as “Drømmeholdet”. The Danish newspaper BT began the concept in Denmark and inspired several others.

Karen: “It could be fun if you have fantasy theatre or fantasy performing arts.”

Zena: “Yeah, it could be fun. I don’t know what the analogy is, but maybe if the arts organisations get together and develop a videogame that turns you into the opera singer and you are performing the music that they perform. It could renew a whole new interest with a different audience in the art forum. One thing I can tell you with the Opera world. The Opera went and spoke to the manager in a movie theatre that serves food and drinks in the movie theatre. And they were talking to him about what it is like to have food and drinks in the space where something is going on, where entertainment is happening. Is it distracting for the audience. Because they were really thinking about this. The Opera was opening a 300 seat theatre, and they ended up choosing to have cup holders in the seats. So they ordered all these seats with cup holders, and now they allow people to bring in drinks in this new smaller theatre. So anyways they were talking to this guy, and he said one unexpected thing . They have curators to certain theme nights. So say some person is really into sci-fi movies, and this person is a sci-fi blogger, and so that person chooses what happens, what movies are coming up for every Thursday in the month of February, or whatever. And that person has a newsletter and a twitter account with a massive following. And that person says ‘I’m going to be at the Alamo Draft house, Thursday night showing my favourite science fiction films. The audience it is bringing is following that guy, so they are coming to this venue, a different audience entirely, and they are following him. So they thought to themselves, ‘how could we bring in a whole new audience, maybe by bringing in a different curator, or a different person that have influences. That puts on the show for the night, because people are following that person. So, if they talk to other people in the Opera they are not necessarily going to get the same answers. And it is not a direct answer all the time, but it is about getting your inspiration for ideas.



Hold on to the purposes of your organisation

Another thing is, that you really have to hold on to the purposes of your organisation, so with any experimentation it is not about trying everything and anything. ‘Is it in line with your purpose and your mission’? This is not something that is on your website, it has to be true about your organisation. And the more specific you could be about what your purpose it, the more you can actually experiment with a reason towards the goal. So, for example, if your mission is to reach new audiences or serve the community, what are you actually doing to be out there in the community, beyond just words. And are the experiments that you are doing and the change that you are making in line with that. So it’s not just about ‘let’s have a Snapchat channel and do virtual reality and do a videogame’. It’s not just about technology solving these things, but what experiments are you doing that are in line with your mission. So that there is a purpose and a reason for it, and it makes sense that you are the ones doing that. You in particular. Your organisation, singularly, not all of the Opera or all of the performing arts or the multimedia performance places/spaces. What makes you different from all the other ones, and your experiments and the change you are making, the goal of it has to be for you to fulfil that purpose and goal. In that way you can priorities what you are doing. I guess that was a long way of saying, you have to know your mission and purposes singular to your organisation, so that the change that you are proposing makes sense.


Going to the stadium to see opera on screen

For the San Francisco Opera, their goal is to reach the people of San Francisco with this art form, and they want to make it exceptional. If you want to reach the people of SF, one thing they do is that in the summertime they use a baseball stadium and do simulcasting (high production value broadcasting what’s happening on stage) and thousands of people come, so they reach a lot of people that way. And a different audience comes, than the more limited at their opera house. It makes sense, that they are doing that.”


"How the hell do they get people to come to a stadium to watch livestreamed opera?" I couldn't help asking, when Zena Barakat told about San Francisco Opera's annual sold out outdoor event.
Every year in the beginning of July the San Francisco Opera invites San Francisco citizens to a stadium to watch a simulcasting Opera on screen outdoor in the sun – for free.


Do we unintendedly build walls around the arts?

“How the hell do they get people to come?” I couldn’t help asking. I’m fascinated by the fact that 30.000 people partake in such an event when a lot of them wouldn’t even consider going to the Opera house but don’t mind going to a stadium watching opera on screens and eating garlic fries in the sun. Maybe that tells us something about how we sometimes unintendedly build walls around the arts when we insist on the art institutions.