The Power of Storytelling

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The former president of Walt Disney Imagineering, Bob Weis knows a thing or two about narratives and design. In the kick-off episode of this year’s NeoConversations series, host and editor-in-chief of METROPOLIS, Avi Rajagopal, sits down with Weis, one of this year’s NeoCon keynote speakers, to discuss the power of storytelling in interiors.

Currently the global entertainment leader at Gensler, Weis has a truly bird’s-eye perspective on cities, spaces, and experiences. Listen as he and Rajagopal discuss the big opportunities for storytelling in the built environment, how architects and designers can leverage storytelling in their creative process, and how we can make our buildings, communities, and cities vibrant again. And then stay tuned for our next episode of NeoConversations, as Rajagopal continues his thought-provoking discussions about the power of interiors with some of the most exciting thinkers and doers in the design world today.

NeoConversations is produced by the SURROUND Podcast Network in partnership with Turf. Special thanks to producers Hannah Viti and Rob Schulte and the rest of the SURROUND team. During Neocon, visit the NeoCon Podcast Studio, powered by the SURROUND Podcast Network, and sponsored by SnapCab, on the first floor of The MART. After Neocon, visit us at surroundpodcasts.com. 

Avi Rajagopal:[00:00:00] Welcome to Neo Conversations. I’m Avi Rajagopal, your host and editor in chief of Metropolis. This year on Neo Conversations, we’re going to talk to some of the most exciting thinkers and doers in the design world about design and the power of interiors. For today’s episode, I sat down with Bob Weis, global entertainment leader at Gensler, about the power of storytelling. 

Bob was formerly the president of Walt Disney Imagineering and has a planet-wide perspective on cities, spaces, and experiences. So, you can imagine he knows a thing or two about narratives and design. This series of NeoConversations is brought to you in partnership with Turf. Bob is also a keynote speaker this year for NeoCon. He will be speaking on Monday, June 10th, from 10 to 11 a.m. Central Time at the NeoCon Presentation Studio on the second floor of The Mart. His talk is titled, “Leveraging the Power of Storytelling for Commercial Design.” 

Now, let’s get into this episode because this conversation was so thought-provoking for me, and I can’t wait to share it with you and get you excited to hear him speak in real life at The Mart. 

Avi Rajagopal: Bob, it’s such a pleasure to have you with me today. 

Bob Weis: Oh, thank you, Avi. It’s great to be here. Looking forward. 

Avi Rajagopal: So, Bob, that transition from Disney to Gensler—tell us a little bit about your role at Gensler. What does a week in your work life look like these days? 

Bob Weis: Well, first of all, I was at Disney for almost 35 years. Since before you were born, too. I went to Gensler, retired from Disney, took four days off, and then started at Gensler, so I didn’t do too well at retirement. But I had always wanted to come to Gensler. Andy Cohen is a good friend, and what I was always very attracted to with Gensler was the creativity and the global nature of it. 

The fact that there are Gensler offices in so many amazing places in the world, and that you can pick up the phone. I do this in my daily life. I can pick up the phone and talk to a Gensler partner in Costa Rica, France, or Dubai. There’s nothing else like it. Disney is a very global company, but the global nature of Disney is really Paris, Hong Kong, China, Japan, the United States. 

Gensler is so diverse that it’s just very exciting to hear what designers and people that are really committed to the kind of global impact that Gensler can have. It’s been great. So, daily life for me is, I come in and we have our entertainment team, which is quite small relative to other teams in Gensler, let’s say sports or hospitality. We’re pretty small. We’re starting out. As you probably know, the entertainment world is different than other design worlds. Every project tends to be completely different. A theme park is completely different than some kind of immersive design, in the same way that each time you cast a movie, you use different actors, cinematographers, and crew. 

I think that mostly entertainment projects, you cast depending on what it is. It’s been an exciting time to be here, trying something new at Gensler. I love cities. I love traveling to cities, and it was hurtful to me to see during COVID how many things closed down and how many city centers lost some or many of their most important assets. So our impact really is to go out there and use entertainment and immersive experiences. That’s one more tool in bringing that vibrancy back, and there’s definitely a hunger. 

Avi Rajagopal: This is what makes your role at Gensler, I would say, not just exciting, but also so critical for our times. 

Bob Weis: It’s exciting, and I’ll tell you, you know, I worked at Disney where we did big projects. I worked on many years on Disneyland in Shanghai—big resort, subway stations coming out to it, roads, a big park, and big resorts. And if you think about that, or you think about Walt Disney World, when you go for people who go down there, take their families, you’re going on a vacation. You’re going down for four or five days, you fly down, drive down, or go on a cruise for three or four days. 

We expect entertainment, storytelling, and immersive experiences when we go on vacation like that. We expect that, or even to just go to a beautiful place like Dubrovnik or Barcelona. You become immersed in that culture, right? That’s part of what travel does for us. The question is, can you not have storytelling and magic and immersive experiences in daily life, in the life we live every day? Can our cities be more vibrant because of that? And I believe that completely. And not everything is post-COVID, but I’ll say that we’ve seen since COVID an incredible swing in people wanting to go out, to go out together. This is classic city building, right? We want to be together, celebrate things, have all our senses alive, see new things, and have something to do with outcomes. When you have a ready audience like that, it’s exciting. There are just so many things, and it isn’t all just new projects. It’s also enriching places that we already go, like going to a stadium, concert, or museum. 

So many people are interested in expanding their relationship with Disney. I call it the guest here at Gensler. I call it the consumer, expanding their relationship with the consumer, the visitor, in such a way that is really meaningful. And I think when we bring them into a story, let them be a part of it, let them connect, they’re very likely to repeat, they’re very likely to come back again and again, and that’s what we want. Each time you come to some interesting place that you love to go to, you bring yourself to it. You complete the story. That’s why the vibrancy is there because we’re not telling them everything. We’re sort of setting the seeds and then letting them experience it in their own way. And that’s exciting. You know, Avi, designers, interior designers, architects, and landscape designers, we’re all storytellers. We’ve been storytellers for a thousand years, right? Since Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci, great storytellers. But I think what our clients are asking for is, tell me more about the guest-facing story of this place that they are going to have repeatedly over the decades, and why is that telling the story of why I built this place, why I renovated this place, and why people should be connected to me? That is different. Architects are more used to telling stories about how they got the design together. What our clients are asking for is, adapt that now and tell me what the consumer-facing story is. 

Avi Rajagopal: I think at the heart of what you’re saying is the fact that we’ve lost that relationship between people and place a little bit during COVID. That’s the fundamental malaise. That connection that people feel to the spaces they’re in was numbed by isolation and all of those things. So the question, I guess, is how can we get better at telling the stories of place? How can we let our architecture, our interiors, do the storytelling? Not so much the story of the architecture and interiors, as you said. 

Bob Weis: Andy and Diane Gensler have this new book out, “Designed for a Radically Changing World,” and boy, have we been through a radically changing world, right? You know, amazingly. I think that the anchors have shifted. The kinds of retail stores that were anchors, restaurateurs that were anchors, they’ve lost their vibrancy because people have so many ways to shop, to get dining. If you’re going to go out, it has to be special. It has to be really sensory and interesting. People want to have something really unique, but I don’t think that’s changed over a thousand years. I just think it’s become more intensified. And we see, as we walk through some parts of some cities, too much space that is not being used. Office tenants have gotten smaller. People aren’t going back as much in some places. And a lot of what we’re trying to do is to say, urban vibrancy requires us to have lots of reasons for people to want to go out and be together and share together. We’re seeing that, but it takes work. And I think we’re all very happy that you’ve put a lot of emphasis on sustainability and how we’re going to keep our world going. But to me, part of that is using the spaces. We don’t need to build everything. We, as an entertainment group, could imagine a scenario where we build barely anything. What we do is we take spaces that are underutilized and turn them into really vital new places that are impactful to their surroundings. And that’s exciting. It’s hard to think of venues and think of completely new uses. We certainly have great opportunities there, and there are a lot of talented artists, storytellers out there who previously made movies or did theater or did different kinds of things, who are interested in creating immersive spaces. I’m interested in creating immersive spaces on an interesting scale. And Gensler has the opportunity not just to help them develop those ideas because we have this incredible global network. We can go out and say, well, that idea would work really… 

Bob Weis: Andy and Diane Gensler have this new book out, Designed for a Radically Changing World, and boy, have we been through a radically changing world, right? Amazingly, I think the anchors have shifted. The kinds of retail stores that were anchors, the restaurateurs that were anchors, they’ve lost their vibrancy because people have so many ways to shop and get dining. If you’re going to go out, it has to be special. It has to be really sensory and interesting. People want something unique, but I don’t think that has changed over a thousand years. I just think it’s become more intensified. 

As we walk through some parts of cities, we see too much space that is not being used. Office tenants have gotten smaller, and people aren’t going back as much in some places. A lot of what we’re trying to do is to say that urban vibrancy requires us to have lots of reasons for people to go out, be together, and share experiences. We’re seeing that, but it takes work. 

We’re very happy that you’ve put a lot of emphasis on sustainability and how we’re going to keep our world going. To me, part of that is using the spaces we have. We don’t need to build everything. As an entertainment group, we could imagine a scenario where we build barely anything. What we do is take spaces that are underutilized and turn them into vital new places that are impactful to their surroundings. That’s exciting. 

It’s hard to think of venues and new uses. We certainly have great opportunities there, and there are a lot of talented artists and storytellers who previously made movies or did theater, who are interested in creating immersive spaces. I’m interested in creating immersive spaces on an interesting scale. Gensler has the opportunity not just to help them develop those ideas because we have this incredible global network. We can say, “That idea would work really well in Paris, and this idea would work really well in Abu Dhabi.” We can connect creative ideas to potential places where they can go. People who are interested in having those experiences, I think that’s something really unique for me to be here. 

Avi Rajagopal: You know, very often, we portray this fight for vibrancy or relevance as almost a fight against the screen. It’s like, well, people would rather be on Zoom than in the office, or people would rather be on their phones or order food on their phones than go to a restaurant. Traditional architecture has always seen screens and buildings as, I won’t say the enemy, but certainly as a competitor of tension. 

What you’re talking about, immersive experiences, what do you mean by immersion? What is a great immersive experience? 

Bob Weis: I think the characteristics are sensory and tactile. There’s lots you can do on screen at home, but I don’t think it’s the same as going out and participating in some kind of art project or dance move. You see people wanting to go out and do things together as humans, right? Not just sit down in a restaurant and order a plate, which you can actually do at home pretty easily, but to taste food, to taste wine, to be outside. It’s almost like we forgot that outside is amazing, even in places with weather we don’t think about. To see shows in a context that is not sitting in a dark theater, watching a screen, but is out in the open. 

I think the idea of being able to take a real place and virtually create things on our phones that we can look up and see characters and stories occurring at, and they appear to be in that real place. They appear to be a combination. So it isn’t, do we have screens or not screens? It’s, can we break free of screens? Can we do things group-oriented where we can all celebrate out there together? Have the stories be not so fixed that they have one author, but they have many authors, many people can participate in these things. 

I have a lot of respect for pioneers in the middle of COVID who tried to do things, but some of them were just like a big room with projected art in it and some mirrors. It wasn’t really what you’d say is immersive to me. I want to go somewhere, and I want you to take me there. I want to smell the flowers. I want to feel the wind. I want to really be in a place, and I want to be able to break free of screens and be in a world or an environment, whether it’s outside or inside. 

I think museums are picking this up. Sports events, people are returning to sports events. If you think about a big stadium, it has the potential to be essentially like a four or five hour experience. It has infrastructure, it has the ability to get people from close by by subway or public transportation, and then you can have food, drinks, and things for your kids to do. If you can break people free of the seat, stuck in a seat all the time, and you have a giant beer like this big, do you want to walk around and taste every beer that was locally made and every kind of food that was locally made? And once in a while, you turn over, look down, and see what’s happening in the stadium. Your kids can run off and be in an immersive play zone. That starts to become like a real immersive experience to go to, and you might go more often than just for a game. 

I know at Disney, and I think it’s the same for sports teams, loyalty of the consumer was based on whether your parents or someone brought you to the parks when you were pretty young. If you came at a young age, it was likely that you were going to come multiple times in your life. If you never came until you were 20 or something, it’s likely you kind of came, saw it, and might not come back again. So that early time when you bond with people is really important. When I look at something like baseball, I love baseball, but I think of it as someplace I went with my grandfather. I don’t think of baseball as something the newest generation is going to. 

So how do you do that? You have to make things more relevant. You have to have more for kids to do so they say to their parents, “We want to go to the baseball game because we could do all this stuff.” We want to be connected with the story of what baseball is. Can we play? Can we do parts of it? I don’t think we’re as passive an audience as we used to be. We’re active and we want things that are authentic. 

I know you, you probably, like me, stay in a lot of hotels traveling around. There are so many days I wake up in a hotel and I can’t tell if it’s Newark Airport, Atlanta, or LA. They all look the same to me, and it doesn’t even matter to me what brand, what flag it is, they all look the same. Here you are, maybe in an amazing city with incredible history, and you’re probably staying someplace that doesn’t convey any of it. It doesn’t convey the rich history, the important cultural history, the great things that occurred, the tragic and amazing things that happened in a place. That’s story. That is, I think, the opportunity to differentiate one brand from another by really using story as a way to differentiate the experience and make it really something. 

Avi Rajagopal: You’ve said so many profound things here. One is that we’re looking for stories that are sensorial. Two, that we need layers, many options, many journeys that we can take with the stories. It’s hard to say this, authenticity and specificity in the story, and that’s really important. 

There are two other things you said that are pretty new to me. One is this idea that we’re not talking about a scenario where there is a storyteller, as in somebody who controls narrative, and a bunch of people sitting and listening or experiencing the story passively. This idea of letting people become part of the story of a place is really, really quite radical. It’s not how we think about even immersive experiences quite yet. 

Your example of the game is so telling. It’s not that we’re seated passively looking at the game; we have the opportunity to do other things, and we can create our own experience of the game for our families. That leads me to the other profound thing you said: focus on young people, on children. Cities don’t always shape themselves with the idea of building loyalty and passion with their youngest citizens. And I think that’s a really profound challenge for storytelling. 

Bob Weis: I think the issue of how you connect to young people and make things a tradition—”I go there every Saturday or every holiday”—is important. But this idea that the generation of folks, a couple of generations by now, who are used to playing games where they are the star of their own story. They’re not passively watching a story; they are in the story and they are affecting the outcome. 

We’re not going to suddenly stop making movies, but I think experiences, people are used to having outcomes. A simple example in Disney, for instance, every time a new food item would come out—some kind of ice cream cone or dessert or something like that—even without marketing, without saying it was coming out, you’d get this group who would go and stand in line for this food item. As soon as they got it in line, they didn’t even taste it, they just picked up their phone and put it on TikTok. They had to instantly go out to their Instagram site or something before they even knew what it was. 

This builds in such a way that you want to be the first out there. You want to see what it was like and then see what you want to do creatively with it. That is a different behavior than we have had in our past history. People participating in something where they are the star, able to go out—we have to think about everything we do. We’re not just creating shows; we’re creating opportunities for people to create their own show and their own story. 

Avi Rajagopal: What advice would you have, Bob, for architects and designers who might be listening to us today and who want to leverage the power of storytelling in their work? Are there any tips you would give them? Any places to start? 

Bob Weis: Yeah, I think there are a few things I would say. The focus should be on refining, in the collaboration we usually have with clients, refining the focus to be on the visitor. Visitor first. That doesn’t mean just the program of the visitor—how many will come, how many dining seats we need, how many restroom stalls we need. Why is the consumer coming here, and what is the story that you can recurrently tell them that conveys the vibrant story of when you go to this place? It isn’t just a concert, but it’s also about the world, the city that it’s in. How can you convey in a game the excitement and give people a chance to participate in some ways? 

I think it’s rethinking the relationship of the visitor to the design of the place and really thinking about their experience and also why they come back, why they repeatedly return. This is something that so many clients are asking, not just what it is when you build it, but what is it years from now? What’s it going to continue to evolve to? 

I’ll tell you, there are a couple of great resources out there. Margaret Kerrison has written two books about immersive storytelling. I worked with Margaret in Imagineering, with Marvel and Star Wars. But we might tell your visitors, those are both really great books to take a look at because they’re almost like handbooks for storytelling in immersive places. 

One of the things I think is important is people have to get out. Walt Disney told his original Imagineers to go to Disneyland once a week and just sit on a bench and watch people. I think we all need to watch people more and see what they’re looking for. We have, I don’t want to be down, but if you read the news, there’s an epidemic of loneliness going on outside. People are lonely. They don’t have things to do. The more people are vibrant members of communities, especially mixed communities, mixed age, mixed diversity, the happier people are. So I think we have an impact. We have an impact, not just for entertainment and the senses and activity, but also just the general vibrancy of life, which seems to be hurting. 

I think the return to office is really important. The reason I think it’s important is that people inspire each other, and when they work together, they inspire each other to do better than if they were all working separately. The biggest thing you miss in the work environment, which I think is part of this loneliness thing, is people miss the opportunity, not for a scheduled meeting, but for the unscheduled interaction—the things that just happen by coffee or serendipity. I ran into you and I had this idea last night. I was going to tell you about it. That’s the step that’s kind of cut off by being too programmed and scheduled. 

The other big thing I think, at least that I miss, and I even miss it when I walk around design spaces, is touching stuff. We don’t touch stuff. We don’t paint with our hands. How many of us use pencils anymore? Pencils on paper, and you get, you know, I work with a few people at Gensler that work on pencils, and the bottom of your hand gets black from the amount of pencil you’re using or marker or something like that. I’m kind of done with mirror boards. I’ve seen enough mirror boards in my life. Let’s get a big sheet of paper we can all physically touch and do together. 

There is, in art history, a connection between tactile hand motion and group thinking. I just think experience includes all of those things, and the richness—we ought to have the richness of life around us all the time. 

Avi Rajagopal: I think the biggest idea I’m taking away from this incredible conversation with you, Bob, is how can we hope to design for life if we’re not immersed in the richness of life ourselves? Thank you so much for reminding us of that. It’s been a wonderful, wonderful conversation. Thank you so much. 

Bob Weis: It’s great to meet you, Avi. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at NeoCon. It’s going to be an exciting couple of days. 

Avi Rajagopal: Yes, definitely. This series of NeoConversations is brought to you in partnership with NeoConversations and produced by the Surround Podcasts Network. During NeoCon, you can visit us at the Surround Podcast booth by SnapCap, on the first floor of the MART. And after NeoCon, head on over to surroundpodcasts.com. 

A big thank you to our guests, our producers, Hannah Viti and Bob Schulte, and the rest of the amazing Surround Podcast team. And thanks, of course, to our partner, Turf. Stay tuned for more Neo Conversations wherever you get your podcasts! 

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Avi Rajagopal

Avinash Rajagopal is the editor in chief of Metropolis, an award-winning architecture and design publication. He is a frequent speaker and moderator at events related

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