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On the Job: Working Knowledge

Edwin Schlossberg, the interactive designer, wants people to learn with and from each other.

Thanks to video games, kids take interactive design for granted, but when Edwin Schlossberg founded ESI Design in 1977, show and tell meant look, don't touch. ESI has done "experiential" projects ranging from Web sites to store displays to museum exhibits (they're currently working on a new wing for the Museum of Science in Boston). No one does touchy-feely better.

What's your educational background?

I got an interdisciplinary doctoral degree in physics and English. I've always been interested in both the physical novel we live in and the sciences, where you prove things wrong or right.

I bet it's hard to get a job in either physics or literature with that.

One of my advisors said, "It's a fascinating but doomed effort." I wasn't worried. Two months after I finished I was asked to design the Brooklyn Children's Museum.

Which was ground-breaking, right?

Museums were about objects, not intellectual discovery. Montessori and Piaget were beginning to talk about interactive learning, but it was talk.

What have you learned about cognition?

The world doesn't have text around it. You should be able to experiment with learning from and with other people. Ideally, the subject matter of the experience is a collaborative reaction to a phenomenon. I never thought that was my goal until I saw how joyful and natural it was.

What's an example of collaborative discovery?

We did this thing at the Henry Ford museum called the Innovation Station—a giant ball-sorting machine that took 35 people to operate. Each role involved one key invention of the mechanical world, like pulleys, levers, an Archimedes' screw. You're kind of yelling at people—"Send it this way, send it that way!"

Is finding interactive solutions challenging?

We were asked to design the educational Macomber Farm for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. They said they wanted children to learn about all the ways people are cruel to animals. I said: No you don't; that would be off-putting. So in one area we made masks that replicate the optics of each of the farm animals so you see the world through their eyes. The chicken mask says, "I'm seeing like a chicken." Humor is a really good way to get people to do stuff they might be embarrassed about doing. To get a dialogue going is good, even if it's just smiles.

Could you theoretically make any material interesting to anyone?

Maybe. We did a classical music education center. Music is about teamwork, notation, metaphor, storyline, organizing sounds in space, ritual, and celebration. So we decided those would be the subject matter for the experiences. And it worked.