What can art and design teach you about business? In this episode, Elizabeth Bachman is joined by Colleen Bonniol and Bob Bonniol of Mode Studios as they talk about designing the future of the event industry. Get a deeper look at Mode Studios as Colleen and Bob explain how they bring storytelling into business by creating spaces, contexts, and providing raw materials. Learn how the containers of story provide the canvass that can take you on a journey you’ve never taken before. Colleen and Bob share how they use technology to educate their clients and form a partnership with them to create an artistic expression of their brand. They discuss the importance of creating community in your industry and how these beautiful constraints can lead to new forms taking place.
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Designing The Future Of The Event Industry with Colleen and Bob Bonniol
Where the Event Industry is Going
This is the show where we talk about using presentation skills to move your readers to take action, but also what business can learn from the arts. My guests are Colleen Bonniol and Bob Bonniol of MODE Studios in Seattle. I wanted somebody for this series who comes from the design aspect to talk about how art and design can teach us about business. We talked about creating a community, vaudeville, what’s the future of the events industry, and where we’re going to go. Colleen and Bob and their team at MODE Studios are part of what’s going to be the future of the event industry.
Let me tell you a little bit about Colleen Bonniol, who since 1997 has been the owner, CEO, and Executive Producer for MODE Studios. It’s a Women’s Business Enterprise National Council certified business. She’s responsible for managing growth and consistently driving innovation to new heights. Colleen has been instrumental in this Seattle-based company’s rise as a preeminent force in media and interactive design. MODE has rendered top tier applications that spun the global architectural entertainment and marketing industries. The company’s client list includes many of the world’s leading corporations, architecture firms, entertainment networks, and recording artists to numerous to count.
Bob is an Emmy Award, Acclaim Award winner, and an Acclaim Director and Designer of live production broadcast and media-driven interactive installations. He’s widely known for his ability to transform live experiences into must-see spectacles. His imaginative implementation of media and interactivity has rendered top tier applications spanning the global architectural entertainment and marketing industries. His projects include the award-winning role as co-creative director and producer for the massive renovation of General Motors World at the General Motors Global Headquarters in Detroit. He’s also a co-production designer for Princess Cruises, Spectacle, Fantastic Journey, and designer of the interactive lobby installation of Salesforce’s Bellevue Washington headquarters.
On a personal note, Colleen wrote me this. She said, “Aside from the official interview, I’m a reader learner, leader, beach camper, and Founder CEO of MODE Studios. My business motto, my creed has been to work my way through the entertainment industry be it theater, rock and roll or film. MODE is an amalgam, a mixture of all these experiences over many years rolled into one fantastic experience. The last years have been epic. You’ll find all that on our website, MODEStudios.agency. My favorite part of being on team MODE, the people we work with, and the moments we get to create and share.” There’s nothing better than watching an audience react to the magic of the whole experience, onto my interview with Bob and Colleen Bonniol.
We are glad to be here. Thank you.
This is part of our special series, the relationship between business and art. I was looking for somebody who comes from the graphic arts background and you’re both out of the theater like me, so I’m happy to have that. How can we put together the storytelling that we learned from the theater? How could that apply to business? I know that you have a company and you do theater, but you also do architectural installations. You do trade shows. Could you talk a little bit about how we bring storytelling into business?
Any of those things that you referred to are containers for the story. The theater is overtly so. Brand activations, you might on the surface say that that’s about a product or a service. When it’s most effectively done, it is about the story of the outcome that product or service offers to a consumer. For instance, when we work with our corporate customers and our brand clients, we focus a lot on the story behind the product or service and the brand because it’s stories that inspire people, bind people, bring people together, and motivate or compel people. In our view, the fundamental basis for commerce to spaces have stories. They have context if nothing else is the collective story of the people transiting a space in architectural space.
Most of our architectural work has been focused on big public spaces. In particular, the first space you encounter, maybe when you enter a building like an atrium. Those atriums are the first visual introduction to the stories that are unfolding in that building. Astute architects understand this and they create spaces not only to tell their own story but to create a container to hold everybody else’s story and gives them elements maybe to add to their stories. For us, it’s all been the same vocation, which is creating spaces and contexts and providing raw materials for stories.
That’s an interesting thing because that’s the thing that most people don’t think about. Every time you walk into a building lobby, the impression you get, you’re playing with perception, which is one of the big themes in this show. I know you did a big atrium for an entry for Salesforce in Seattle or Bellevue Washington outside of Seattle. Can you talk a little bit about the thinking behind that?
I’m going to pass this off to Bob as well since he was the head designer on the project and his storytelling is phenomenal.
It should be important to know that when we began that project, Salesforce hadn’t bought that building. We did that in the service of the developer who was trying to fulfill a 1% for art obligation, also cognizant and the architects of a firm called the LMN. They were also cognizant that was space. It needed to tell a story. In that case, that story was one of welcome. The principal architect, her name was Deb Wolf. She saw atriums and lobbies faces as a crossroads. If we think about the more ancient implication of a crossroads, that’s always where you would find the town that would always be where you might meet a friend or engage in a piece of commerce. It was at a crossroads.
Initially, when they approached us, they showed us an idea. The idea came from the developer, but they had put a whole bunch of screens to make a long narrow strip of screens down this lobby, which was an idea that had merit. After I had spent time with Deb and we had spent time with Deb, and we were looking at that, we became fascinated by this idea of ley lines. If you’re familiar with the aeronautics navigation or navigation by sea, they rely on ley lines, whereas demarcations corridors for travel or demarcations of distance.
A ley line is like a line that an airline follows the route from New York to Paris, for instance.
That’s one piece of terminology for it. There are a lot of enthusiastic people that believe that there are lines of psycho-emotional power that wrap the globe, which is ley lines as well. We came up with this idea of how we could reflect these ley lines, these lines of travel that then come together in certain places like this lobby. The metaphor we used with the developer was like, “We took your televisions and we ran them through a shredder, and then we put them back up on the wall. Now, they looked like pickup sticks.” Imagine taken big, giant televisions and shredded them, and now we had strips of pixels.
We threw them at the wall and created all of this sculpture, which was all of these intersections of lines coming together. We called the piece ley lines and we’ve always had a part of our practice that has been focused on making things reactive to the environment or to people in the environment. We’ve always focused on making things in particular artistic installations that do what they do because people are near them or going by them or interacting with them. This piece used the same sensing systems that you find on autonomous vehicles to map people moving through space. The phenomenon would happen in the sculpture you were walking by. There’s a great piece of footage where Colleen is walking by the sculpture at one point. The energy follows her and trails, echoes away, and bounces back from where she is.
We also took that sculpture and we tied it to the local traffic in Bellevue and the weather so that from a color standpoint, if it were a hot day, the sculpture would trend cool. If it were a busy day for traffic, that’s the sculpture, the tempo of its phenomenon would slow down. It’s contrapuntal was how we programmed it. If it’s hot, we want you to be cool. If it’s a little frantic, we’d like you to slow down. The piece also demonstrates a cognizant. You’re near it and that you’re moving by it. It feels a personal expression.
That’s such a cool thing. I think that the Van Gogh or Michelangelo would have loved to have had this technology available that could respond. A question on the business side of this. I imagine this is something that costs a little more than $0.50 to create. How do you sell this thing to a client? This is going to cost a few dollars to do this.
Usually, yes. We often ask our clients to take a journey that they’ve never taken before because we are inventing things or we’re using technology in a way that has not been used before. We spend a lot of time educating our clients, taking them through the process, and communicating with them in terms of pen and paper drawings that then go into model drawings into small pieces, small workups of the installation that then grows into the experience. We have that opportunity each time we connect with them to educate them and also to bring them along the journey.
They have that opportunity to tell us whether we’re heading in the right direction or not heading in the right direction, what they would like changed about it if it didn’t sit right with them or their brand. By the end, they have as much ownership in it as we do. It is truly a partnership. We work well in a partnership situation with our clients. It’s difficult for us to be in a bidding war with someone else because what we offer and the value that we bring to the table is not necessarily monetizable. The value at the end is always greater than the costs that we’ve sold it for.
This makes me think that next time I walk past a piece of public art, I’m going to wonder if that was something that the artist made in their studio or if that was something that the artist made in conjunction with the client to express something.
We tried to work with our clients, with their message and branding, so that there’s an underlying structure to what we’re doing. There is an artistic expression of the brand. Unless you’ve talked to us or been in the process, you may not necessarily understand what those connections are, but you can feel it when you walk in the room. There is a gravity to it that you don’t necessarily get by somebody building a piece of art in a separate space and then inserting it in a lobby.
I’m curious, could you give us some guidance? Next time we walked through a public space, what should one think about? I wish I could borrow your eyes and brain, both of you next time I walk around downtown and see the public spaces. As a normal ordinary reader to this show, how could we learn to notice these things?Beautiful constraints lead you to a place where new forms are created. Click To Tweet
I can give you an example of something that has always tickled me. There is a Highway 99 that goes down through Seattle. If you head south on 99, there is a relatively new baseball stadium that’s been built. First, the football stadium was built, then the baseball stadium was built, and then there’s Mount Rainier in the background. When you drive around this one particular bend of 99, which I believe does not exist anymore, which is a crime, this one bend arches of both stadiums mimicked and came into contact with the angle of the mountain as you were coming around.
It was done on purpose that the architects who designed those stadiums were clearly taking the space and mimicking and shadowing the mountain in the background. It brings joy and delight to anybody if you’re in a public space to open your eyes and think about how things are falling, how’s the light coming through the windows? What shadows are being presented by that light? How might that change throughout the day? What angles are being used and why does that exist?
I was going to say the designers of Stonehenge would have taken that into account. This is not a new concept, but that’s a cool thing, Bob, are you going to say something?
It perfectly encapsulated in that. I don’t know that I have anything else to say. Other than that the spaces that are extraordinary versus the ones that are ordinary, which are fine. The ones that are extraordinary are the ones where it becomes apparent that there has been given this intentionality to the design. As Colleen beautifully laid out, why the light comes from that direction? What effect does the light create through shadow? How did those feel arches above the stadium have that moment where they overlap with the Mount Rainier and make a perfect composition. They happen through intentionality. That’s because those architects understand that those spaces serve a logistical function.
They serve a use case function, but they also serve a narrative function and a psychological function. Maybe these are as important as the base commerce or the base logistics. It’s when we can add that layer of the context of the mind’s eye, the story we’re arriving with, we receive, and how that all needs together with the commerce with the logistics. That’s how you create an expanded effect. That’s how you begin to compel people or inspire people or create real moments of joy or inspiration.
This makes me think that one of these days, I need to sit down with you two with an adult beverage and talk about how we’re supposed to think about spaces in terms of over the years. I suddenly had an image of wooden ceilings in 15th-century castles and such, but we’ll save that for another conversation. What I want to ask you about is here we are in the middle of a pandemic. Many companies used events and conferences and trade shows to promote their products and their brands. A lot of the speakers I work with are promoting speaking on behalf of a company and that has all moved online. As people who design events, what are you seeing? Where do you think we’re going?
Bob can handle that one.
There are micro and macro to that. I’m going to start with a macro, which is events in our view are acts of in the moment ad hoc community building. It can be easy to think of an event as a presentation listener, actor, audience. It can be a common conception of that. That is a one-way relationship. I attended TED. I hear a talk. I received the talk. I attended the Ring Cycle, I witnessed Brunhilde on the Mountain and I received that. Brunhilde gives that to me. Events are a two-way circuit. They’re about broadcast and feedback. That can manifest in the simplest way as I’m a speaker and someone might ask me a question. The relationship has become a two-way relationship.
One of the things that we’re missing these days that we have to imagine is that energetic feedback from the listeners when you’re up on stage giving a presentation. You’re giving your energy and ideas out and they’re taking it in and feeding it back to you. That’s one of the things I miss from being mostly online these days is that I don’t get the chance to get that energetic feedback from the audience anymore.
As we’ve gone to this virtual transformation, the virtual versions of this, I think a lot of people are naturally focused on how we could create a good, well-produced stream. They’re still thinking about that one-way direction. In the ways where we’ve been working to participate in these events and create them, we’ve been trying to think of a little, how can we create space for people to interact with each other? That moment when you’re an audience and you look at the person next to you and you’re like, “Can you believe this?” You yell back at the performer, whether it’s a question or a reaction of joy or a heck hole, whatever that is. How do you create a space, a channel, and an agency for that? It’s easy to see these circumstances. It’s time as one that is limiting us, but Colleen and I are big believers in beautiful constraints and how they lead you to a place where new forms are created. At the same time, there are these constricted that we all are suffering. I think there’s this kind of fatigue meeting after meeting, webinar after webinar. Yet, at the same time, we can look out in unexpected places like Animal Crossing, the game, which you may or may not be familiar with.
It’s a little game where you’re able to set up an island and curate your own life. It’s childish, simple, fun, and compelling. You build a little world. You collect animals who do things. Some brands have the nifty idea that they could stage without the permission of the game developers, which made it all the better. A stage like a trade show gathering on their Animal Crossing Island. The context is completely weird. It’s like, “We’re going to have a business meeting in Minecraft.” Now, people had agency and they had to have an ability to express themselves the way they made their avatars, the way they created themselves and it was wildly successful. If you look at the world of music performance, there’s a talented hip hop EDM star named Travis Scott. He did a concert in a game called Fortnite, which is popular. If you have a 13 to 16-year-old, you already know what Fortnite is.
It’s a game where basically a hundred people are dropped on an island and a phenomenon happens that will kill you if you go outside this shrinking circle. It drives everybody towards the center of the island and the point is to stay alive. It is a survival thing. Travis Scott, in collaboration with the people that developed that game, staged a concert on the island in Fortnite and twelve million people showed up to that concert and enjoyed that at the same time. They had an extraordinary agency. They could style their avatars. They had dance moves they could do. They were given props to play with. There was a massive production value. They had put a lot of work into manifesting this. That is a new form that when you are witnessing, taking shape right in front of us. That is the human drive to gather and share stories and experiences.
If we can’t do it around the fire on the Savannah or we can’t do it in the opera house downtown, we’re going to do it online in any way that we can do it. Those are two examples of that. One of the world’s biggest music festivals, which is called Tomorrowland, which happens at this time of the year in Belgium, typically 250,000 people show up for it. It’s happening virtually. Like the Travis Scott as an example, it’s happening in a gaming engine, but in this game, they’ve built this wondrous venue where they’re going to have multiple concert halls. They’re going to have art installations, attractive things. In this case, about 20 million people have bought tickets to this event. We are seeing the beginnings of a whole new way to gather in a virtual way and in a way that gives us agency and abolishes that one-way connection and makes it a multi-way connection. That’s the secret.
That’s a cool way to think of it. Colleen, do you have any comment on this? It looks like you were about to say something.
I am happy that he brought up Tomorrowland because it’s happening soon. This is all exciting. We’re working on a project as well that’s in a gaming environment. How do you take something that was originally conceived for a stage and put it inside a gaming environment? How does that allow you to take all of the restraints off? There is a beautiful constraint and to me, I’ve always found that to be helpful in the creative process because when you can do anything, then you grab it too much. It always gets very muddy.
If you have a focus and you have a constraint to work with, somehow you have the ability to build your solutions and work your way out of it. That becomes your language in the piece, but the idea that we’re taking this production from a live production and putting it into this game environment has expanded all of the possibilities for us. Now we have to figure out other constraints to keep us contained. Otherwise, we’ll have the artist going in one direction, we’re going in another direction and we’ll all fall apart. It’ll be interesting to see how it comes about.
Let’s go back to conferences then. We’re still in the middle of some of us are shut down and some of us are not, but certainly, large events are not happening. At some point, there will be a vaccine for the COVID virus or it will mutate and that’ll be the end of that. It’ll do something else. Maybe a year from now, live events we’ll be back. I do believe though that a good 6 to 9 months of virtual life means there’s always going to have to be a virtual part of it. You guys are the people who designed that. Where do you see the conference business going? I’m not going to hold you to it. What are you thinking now, but what happens when live events start again?If you have a focus and you have a constraint to work with, somehow you have the ability to build your solutions and work your way out of it. Click To Tweet
I think that live events will become way more intimate. I think that the larger conferences that we see where people come and collect in massive quantities will break up into smaller groups. We may have an East Coast version, a West Coast version, or a European version of that conference. I don’t think that we’re going to have global conferences that happen where there are 5,000, 6,000 people that attend. I think it lends itself to a much more intimate setting for speakers to share their experiences or share their knowledge. Those experiences will also be recorded and they’ll also go online so that the viewership of those experiences will probably increase.
One of the things I’ve been thinking is that certain small events will come back before large events and maybe those who pay a premium, can get the in-person experience and everybody else gets the virtual experience. I’m curious, the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, WBEC Pacific is where I’m certified. You’re certified as a women-owned business. They did a conference that was all online that you designed. I am curious if you could tell us a little bit. I don’t know how much of that’s going to be available in the future. If I can, I’ll put in a connection to it. How did you approach designing one of the first for a completely virtual conference that was different from your basic Zoom call or something? How did you make it different? How did you approach the thinking around it?
We started with the idea of a two-way connection. We started with finding those in-between moments and how could we make that work? How could we engage the people in front of their cameras, in their rooms that have their children, mother, and father? How can we engage them in such a way that they have an investment in it? They’re getting something out of it, but they want to put more back into the situation. We did that by hosting the event, which I think was important. Leslie Fleming was our host for the day and she worked with us for a month coming up with the script and all of her interactions with the audience. Each and every interaction with the audience, we had a bunch of digital swag bag that we sent out. We had a bunch of digital items that people could print out and follow along with us.
Everybody knows the things that do this if you can fold them up. We had fortune tellers. We had bingo games. We had logo games. We had all these different levels of interactions in-between the speakers and in-between the sessions. It gave everybody a lift, a time to stand up, a time to move around, a time to take care of the personal things that they needed to take care of during the course of the day. It was a long event. It was an eight-hour conference. One of the things that we’ve learned in that is that eight hours is probably too long to have everybody stay with us for that entire length of time. We had people that left for periods of time and then came back at the end. Other people were business owners. It was for the CEOs and women-owned businesses. They had other things that they needed to do during the day, but they were able to participate in certain aspects of it. Bob, anything you want to add to that? I’m sure I left out a whole bunch.
No, I think that you nailed some of the most important parts. We’re thinking programmatically about it. If I’m putting together a show, I have scenes that are feature narrative scenes. I then have what we call in the theater, the olio scene, which is you bring in that curtain at the front of the stage and you have a little scene in front of that curtain. That scene exists so that the behind the curtain, we can shift everything around and get you ready for the next big narrative scene. There are these olio scenes and that comes from the name of the curtain.
It used to be an ad for Oleomargarine, which was oil-based margarine. They created these heavy curtains for vaudeville that would come down and you could have an act that was going on right in front of it while meanwhile, there are shifting the scenery behind it.
We thought a lot about virtual olios. We have these featured moments of communication, which are important, but between, we need to cleanse the palate. We need to give you a moment to rest. We need to take your mind out of a serious point. It’s common for those olio scenes and vaudeville to be slapstick frothy, easily accessible, and funny. We put focus on having things that seem to have at what is otherwise a very serious conference about economic outlooks and the challenges of diversity, procurement, and supply. Now we’re going to play a bingo game. That might seem a little weird, but in fact, it elicited a lot of joy from people that day. There were a lot of reactions in the chats, which was another mechanism we gave to people to be engaging with the event constantly was they could be in the chats asking questions, sharing reactions, and feedback.
People loved it. They loved those moments of fortune teller moment, the other game moments, creating those transitional places where we can shift your mindset, your state of mind, or consciousness. It gets you ready to receive something else. You’re not fatigued from having gotten something serious. You’re going to stack something else on top of it. Let’s hang on a minute. Let’s do some intentional laughing. Let’s do some intentional dancing movement. Ballets and operas, in my view, often have the same purpose, which is to move, to take a break from narrative singing. We’re going to give you a moment where you can construct your story points. We’re going to express through dance what’s happening and you can sit back and not have a dictated view, but come up with your own thing. Live events and live performances have these opportunities. We tried to create them in the virtual as well.
The idea of giving joy as part of a conference is a great way to end. Tell us, who are the people that you work with? If somebody who’s reading knows somebody who would be appropriate for you, who would it be?
Elizabeth, that’s changing right with COVID-19, who we’re working with now is different than who we were working with before, but we work with communities that want to build community, or that have a community that they want to entertain and educate. That’s the biggest broadest look on that. We work well with people that don’t necessarily know what they want. They know they want something different. They know they want help with it and they’re willing to partner with us in terms of getting them what they’re looking for. We don’t come in with preconceived notions of what somebody wants. We listen to them and figure out what it is that they’re looking for. We solve problems and build solutions.
Do we have to be the size of Salesforce or General Motors to work with you?
No. One of the most gratifying things that have been going on is most of the work we’ve been doing has been for marginalized communities. We’re in conversations now with the NMSDC, which is the National Minority Supply Diversity Council. We’re talking about working with the San Diego library system. We did that last event with WBEC Pacific. We’ve been finding a need and what more appropriate or more critical place right now to be working than to be providing this opportunity to create community. Also, to bring people together and give them inspiration, joy, and information than to be doing that with communities who are otherwise stifled or have their voices or their being has been oppressed.
It’s been gratifying to find that so much work is happening there. At the same time, we’re talking to Salesforce about stuff. We’re talking to other big brands because they also have communities that they want to communicate with. Interestingly enough, though, they are scaled and they are big commercial ventures, we find that the leaders of even those people are thinking about how do we connect? How do we stay connected? How do we do good? That is amazing to hear.
Colleen Bonniol and Bob Bonniol, thank you for coming on the show. This is a nice different spice to add to this art series. If you’re interested at all in thinking about presentation skills and how your presentation skills could maybe be better, I invite you to take my free assessment. It’s only four minutes and it’s at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. You can see where you are strong with your presentation skills and where you might need a little bit of support. I’ll see you at the next one.
- Colleen Bonniol
- Bob Bonniol
About Colleen Bonniol
Personal: Colleen Bonneil is a listener, learner, leader, beach camper, and Founder/CEO – MODE Studios. My business motto… my creed, has been to ‘work my way through the entertainment industry’. Be it theatre, rock-n-roll, or film. MODE is an amalgam of all these experiences over many years, rolled into one fantastic experience. The last 22 years have been epic, you’ll find all that on our website: www.modestudios.agency . My favorite part of being on Team MODE – the people we work with, & moments we get to create and share. There is nothing better than watching an audience react to the magic of the whole experience!
Official: Since 1997, Colleen Bonniol has been the owner, CEO and executive producer for MODE Studios, a Women’s Business National Enterprise Council (WBENC) Certified business. Responsible for managing growth and consistently driving innovation to new heights, Colleen has been instrumental in the Seattle-based company’s rise as a preeminent force in media and interactive design. MODE has rendered top-tier applications that span the global architectural, entertainment and marketing industries. Today, the company’s client list includes many of the world’s leading corporations, architecture firms, and entertainment networks… and recording artists too numerous to count.
About Bob Bonniol
Partner / Chief Creative Officer
Emmy Award winner Bob Bonniol is an acclaimed director and designer of live production, broadcast, and media-driven interactive installations. Widely known for his ability to transform live experiences into must-see spectacles, his imaginative implementation of media and interactivity has rendered top-tier applications spanning the global architectural, entertainment and marketing industries.
Bob’s most recent projects include his award winning role as co-creative director and producer for the massive renovation of GM World at General Motor’s Global Headquarters in Detroit, Co-Production Designer for Princess Cruises newest spectacle, Fantastic Journey, and Designer of the interactive lobby installation in Salesforce’s Bellevue Washington skyscraper.