The Spark Behind Paul Allen's 'Experience'

Andrea Weatherhead and Diane Andolsek have done a lot more since helping launch Seattle's Experience Music Project.
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When philanthropist and

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

co-founder Paul Allen wanted to pay homage to the first personal computer, he tapped the talents of two women who helped make his

Experience Music Project museum a must-see stop in Seattle.

Andrea Weatherhead and Diane Andolsek were behind many of the award-winning elements of the Frank Gehry-designed museum, most notably Sound Lab, where visitors could learn to mix a platinum record, roar Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll" in front of an audience of thousands and harmonize with Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart.

Since forming Weatherhead Experience Design Group six years ago, they have been lauded by ASCAP and won five Gold MUSE Awards from the American Association of Museums, a Webby and the Communication Arts Award of Excellence.

TheStreet.com

caught up with the team at their Seattle loft after the recent opening of

New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science's

Startup: Albuquerque and the Personal Computer Revolution

, which they designed and curated.

TheStreet.com:"Experience" is a nebulous word. Why have it in your company name?

Diane Andolsek

:"Experience design" is a real term in the design field that means aggregating disparate elements -- from education and technology to cognitive science and storytelling -- so that you can experience something on multiple levels.

Andrea Weatherhead

: That's what Weatherhead Experience Design is all about. Our company tries to create an emotional and physical connection to museum content that engages all of the senses and learning styles.

Both of you are former audio engineers with backgrounds in education, technology, literature, media and business management. How do all these skills and your experiences come together?

DA: Our experiences enable us to pull from many places and identify talented people with diverse backgrounds to complement our skills. We focus on hiring the best people and then finding the right things for them to do.

AW: It's a bit like conducting an orchestra. It takes architects, writers, researchers, software developers, graphic and acoustic designers, air-conditioning specialists, video producers and more -- sometimes over a long period of time. Visitors would be surprised to learn what it takes to create the kind of exhibits Weatherhead creates.

Can you take us through the process from Startup's inception to museum visitor?

AW: As with the Experience Music Project, Paul Allen had an idea: Originally he wanted a little storefront to show his Jimi Hendrix collectibles, which eventually with encouragement and input from his sister Jody Patton, became the 140,000-square foot ... project.

To view the video take of today's Good Life segment, click here.

With

Startup

, the motivation behind Paul's idea was to pay tribute to the city of Albuquerque and the first PC, the Altair, developed by Ed Roberts, who has not been given the credit he deserves in much of the history being written about the PC. The Altair was the inspiration for Paul and his friend Bill Gates to go to New Mexico to create the first software program for it and then eventually form Microsoft.

Can you say a little bit more about how Microsoft got started?

DA: The short of it is that Roberts built the Altair but didn't have a program to run it. Paul called him up and said that he and his friend had a program.

AW: But they didn't exactly have a program yet. The phone conversation claims were a great example of "vaporware."

DA: Sort of like, you've imagined it, so then hurry up and do it. And the amazing thing is they did.

Then Weatherhead gets the call?

AW: Well, unfortunately it doesn't exactly work that way. We competed with other firms and had to come up with a compelling concept.

DA: Basically they gave us six months and a stipend to refine the story, build prototypes and prove that we could make beige boxes compelling.

AW: Paul was very specific. He had it all on a whiteboard and just needed someone to execute his ideas. That's where we come in. We immediately gather together our team and brainstorm to see exactly what this would entail.

And in this case, it was a challenge to tell someone's personal story, especially someone who's alive.

DA: We then design the experience -- in 4,000 square feet here -- and work with a fabrication firm to build what we want. Anything that has a look, feel and sound we design.

AW: We aim for a visceral response to hearing, seeing, doing and letting people relate to the material. Participatory learning. Not force-fed or pushed, but learning in the true sense of interactive, where you have agency and control in what you choose to engage in. The experience is really about you and your impact on the experience.

We try to set up an environment that is most conducive to learning. We also problematize factors that might hinder it. Lighting, acoustics, text, physical space and time, for example. We pay attention to these things. In exhibits, you have to think about all that.

DA: For example, we were teaching about scale in

Startup

. The ENIAC computer weighed something like 30 tons. It was

huge

. It literally took an army to run -- so we wanted to convey that feeling. We made that particular display almost overwhelming, tall and inaccessible as it was for the average person.

By the end of the exhibit, we're onto handhelds, things within reach in a gallery of infinite mirrors, where your image is projected and captive in an iPod, a laptop -- everywhere -- with what we hope is an invitation.

AW:

As visionary computer scientist Alan Kay said, "The best way to predict the future is invent it." You can with imagination and technology -- as Paul Allen and Bill Gates did.

That's quite empowering.

DA: Yes, that's part of our aim. Making knowledge accessible and reinforcing that you can make a difference.

Is there data supporting this all-sensory/participatory and collaborative way of learning as effective?

AW: Yes, including Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences work that considers a person's visual, auditory, kinesthetic senses and that there are multiple learning systems and styles. And that people respond differently. In each exhibit, Weatherhead tries to hit as many of those as possible since people respond differently: They all bring their own personal experiences to the exhibit.

Can you give an idea what this costs?

AW: Let's just say, as the press release does, that the

Startup

project in total was a $5 million gift to the people of New Mexico.

Tell me about Weatherhead's own start-up.

DA: We were working under Paul's umbrella, for Experience Music Project ... when we decided that maybe we could launch our own company and do this for all sorts of cultural institutions.

We financed it ourselves and just kept it small with low overhead and room to grow.

AW: Our core right now is eight people, which often expands to more than 25 on larger projects. We expect to grow by half this year.

Your sense of humor comes through in the work you've created. What's been the most fun for you?

AW: Our latest project is always my favorite. I loved it when the kids, during a focus group, thanked us for not making the computer museum a boring room with beige boxes -- for making it interactive and fun.

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