The Art of Telling Stories: Harley O'Brien

Welcome to the next in the series of interviews on The Art of Telling Stories. Today we will hear from Harley O'Brien, a multimedia architect and big-picture thinker. Coming up, he will be at mLearnCon, speaking on Redefining the Document: Creating Content for a Mobile World. You can follow him on Twitter, check out his LinkedIn, or click here to visit the conference webpage. 


Harley, tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

I'm a multimedia architect, I deal with images, forms, and colors, but also with computer code. It's a nice blend of designer and programmer. My formal background is communications and marketing, but from a very early age I got involved with computers, and the interactivity captured me. I fell in love with the worlds you could create and control using media and programming.

How would you define the idea of storytelling?

The basic idea is to convey a story... sounds simple, but that's what makes it so exciting. It can be as simple as a short marketing message, pretty obvious, uh? But also an e-learning module where you need to communicate new concepts, or even better, an RPG or an immersive scenario!

As a Multimedia Architect, how does the work you do make an impact on the way the story is delivered or perceived?

It affects it in almost every way. I'm a firm believer of the old saying "the medium is the message." And that applies even more to interactive media. If you think about it, audiovisuals and interactive media require a lot of team work. You need graphic design, audio, music, layouts, interactions and of course, a good story!
I see a multimedia architect as the orchestra conductor that weaves it all together, carrying the responsibility to respect the essence of each of the parts and enhance it in a new whole.

What role do graphics and images play in storytelling?

Nowadays, a lot. We live in an audiovisual culture. For good or bad, not judging, it's just the way it is. Most of the world's population believe that an image is worth a thousand words :)
I think I could put it this way: "visuals" are important. Even a still image can tell a story, ask any photographer... but also the right word, the right font and the right background can be a powerful visual. See how it is all the medium? Anyway, I feel that text can be a flexible, on-demand and cost-effective media when used correctly. 

What thought process do you use to approach the way you present information to your consumer?

I think you should start with the end: what is the reaction you want? You work from there. You know your times, media, resources. Put yourself in the user's shoes. In what context will he receive the message? a video on a TV screen sitting on a couch or just 20" from a computer monitor? Maybe walking down the street on a smartphone screen?
Then you dissect the message, identify the essence, and start creating different ways of communicating it effectively. Keep in mind that "the message" can be anything, a conventional message in the case of a marketing piece, an e-learning lesson or an interactive experience in the case of an application. I would say that creating interactive media is creating user experiences, something like on-demand, user-controlled storytelling.  

Would you consider yourself a storyteller? Why or why not?

Definitely. I see myself as a user experience designer. You as a writer can identify with this. The end goal as a creator is to create a user experience. In computer lingo, there's even an acronym for that, UX Designer :-)

How do you think multimedia architecture is going to change over the next decade? In what way will that impact the way we communicate and the way we tell stories?

I think the technological aspect of it is the least interesting. I'm sure most people won't be surprised to be able to create holograms at home or use 3D printing. Our fascination threshold is pretty high. But it's the social implications I'm excited about. The Web 2.0 gave us the tools to produce content and share it with the world. Some developing countries have gone from no land lines to a cell phone in every hand and internet connections in just a few years. This moves us towards scenarios that should make us think.
With the overwhelming complexity of search, the trend to "curated" content is growing. Are we sharing our knowledge or giving up on our decision processes?

What about the cloud? It's not only for storage. A lot of "smart" devices are now windows to content that get processed in "the cloud." But remember the PC revolution of the 80s that meant breaking free from the big central computers to have your our processing power on the desktop?
I could talk for hours, but imagine a world with overwhelming audio and visuals, interactions that affect other senses but only 140 characters for text. I'm so up for that challenge! :-)