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Interview with Bob Bonniol – Director and Designer

Bob Bonniol is a Director and Designer of live production, broadcast, and media driven interactive installations. Currently he is the Creative Director for the massive renovation of The GM World at General Motor’s Global Headquarters in Detroit. In 2016, Bob was Production Designer for the Star Wars Celebration segment of ABC’s Disneyland 60th Anniversary Special. Along with his creative partner Butch Allen, he Directed Tim McGraw’s critically acclaimed Humble And Kind segment for the American Academy of Country Music Awards on CBS. He has designed video and interactivity for Blue Man Group productions world-wide. He recently designed the massive scale projection mapping for Marvel Universe Live tour. With Abbey Rosen Holmes, he designed the interactive environmental work “Light Weave” occupying the multi-story cores of Nordstrom’s Vancouver, Toronto, and Chicago flagship stores. Bob’s Projection Mapped scenery appears widely in popular TED talks online. On tour, he has designed video and interactivity for Post Modern Jukebox, Paramore, New Kids On The Block, Nickelback, Journey, and Catch Me If You Can (Broadway & Tour). His work has been widely seen on television, with content design on The Billboard Awards, X-Factor, American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and The MTV Music Awards.

Q: POWER in design is…

A: Understanding that all design answers questions. Listening carefully and understanding those questions allows us as designers to create deeply impactful and durable moments that people will experience and engage in. With an understanding of that, I feel it’s incumbent on me as a designer to fully investigate context in design so I can apply meaningful choices and foster identification with the people I am trying to connect to and with. When a human identifies with a design choice, when it provokes thought, affirmation, or alignment, then that encounter with design creates a durable and potentially profound moment. One kind of power is identifying these design potentialities. A second power is derived from using them to propel culture in positive, progressive directions.

Q: What are three implications of design power that you have encountered?

A:  When I think about executing design, I find that people respond really powerfully to recursion. Repetition of elements creates powerful impressions. It’s why music is such an important aspect of design. Musical structure and tempo is a form of this recursion. There are visual implications as well. Nested scenic forms focus attention, or create reinforced perceptions. Now when I think about design results lately, in the light of implications of design’s power, I find myself pondering the importance and meaning of truth. Design enables “fake news.” Design enables distorted social communication and cultural echo chambers. These cultural and political problems are created by design, and could be resolved by different design.

Q: When have you had a powerful impact through design?

A: Any time I have given the cue to turn off the house lights in an arena, and 20,000 people scream at the same time I realize I am extremely fortunate to create events that generally entail mass consensual experience. There is amazing, visceral power in a room with thousands of people experiencing things simultaneously. That’s a bit of a superficial answer though. I believe that the period of time I designed the TED conference, while it was resident in Long Beach, was perhaps a time when my design was fostering substantial impact and empowerment for the people experiencing it in person, or on video.

Q: Who inspires you?

A: A vast cast of characters inspire me, inform me, and motivate me. A huge part of my daily routine is learning about what are other practitioners and artists up to. I listen regularly to Debbie Millman and her Design Matters blog. I am so fortunate to call some stunning designers friends, inspirations, and collaborators, including David Rockwell, Robert Israel, Butch Allen, and Alex McDowell. I’m a huge fan of Es Devlin—her practice in fashion, theater, and concerts is so compelling.

Q: How did you get into design?

A: My route into design was through execution. I think that many or most of the people who have a similar practice may have been educated as designers, and have extensive academic backgrounds. I attended college and studied theater, however I also jumped at an early age into a career as a theatrical technician working on sets, lighting, and those sort of elements. It’s not at all typical for the person with a career in hanging the lights, or programming the technical systems, to ascend to the design positions; that almost always results from attending an MFA program. Yet, I was able to bridge that gap, and then progress into work as a writer and creative director as well. It’s actually been quite gratifying to go on to chair an MFA program (Video for Performance at the California Institute for the Arts).

Q: Describe your creative process.

A: Ha! Well, as I mentioned, I actually developed a whole curriculum at CalArts in my design process, but I can perhaps talk about the main heads: First is investigation. What is the end goal? What questions are going to be answered by design? What impressions are we trying to create? What story are we telling? These are examples of the first destinations on the journey. Investigation then extends into context. I think EVERYTHING benefits from the old theatrical application of Dramaturgy. The Dramaturg brings cultural knowledge, psychological insight, an understanding of contributing factors, and expertise in the ‘text’ or if I may, ‘texture’. This second level of investigation provides a deeper understanding of motivation and implication. If the character behaves this way, if he is lit in this color, if he is surrounded by this scenic look, what thought or reaction does that foster in the audience? Knowing and applying these contextual questions leads directly to tool choices. Color palettes. Scenic looks. Fashion. Costuming. Interactive theory. Once design is developed, execution begins, and along with it design oversight. Once I have participated in defining a vision, I am then responsible for making sure that it get’s actualized as designed, or if departures happen, that they happen because thought has met opportunity. Although my mode for communicating this relied on theatrical convention, the process is equivalent for me in architecture or experiential work as well.

Q: What is your ultimate goal when it comes to your work? What do you want to contribute?

A: Increasingly we are given the means to make experiences deeply immersive. My ultimate goal, is to be engaged in a constant process of world building. I want to be enabled to think in whole ways of expression, and the power that will bring.  The fidelity of experience grows by orders of magnitude when we appeal to multiple senses. My goal is to be operating in a space with all of my design, where I am maximizing the senses I can serve, and witnessing the enduring impressions and memories that will result.

Learn more about Bob’s work:
MODE Studios
MODE Architectural
Twitter – @BBONNIOL
Instagram – @bobbonniol
Email – [email protected]

Bob is a panelist on the SDF2017 Knowledge is POWER Design Discussion on September 13.