Synoptic Office (Caspar Lam & YuJune Park)
Synoptic Office
Services: We help organizations unlock human stories and reveal connections through design, language, and information. We believe in the potential for every organization to activate its data and institutional archives in ways that resonate personally with audiences. By integrating products, experiences, and spaces with backstage data through thoughtful and beautiful design, organizations can extend their influence beyond physical walls and communicate in new and meaningful ways.
San José Museum of Art and Opera Philadelphia

Our exploratory project investigates how cultural institutions can generate evergreen content through the use of reusable microstories: themed, short snippets of written content encapsulating a tangible idea and its impact.

The goal of each microstory is to activate the meaning, context, and/or themes around cultural objects to highlight the power and relevance of the arts today. Multiple microstories can be strung together to form personalized narratives that can resonate with new audiences and be deployed across different formats and channels by an institution to reduce the time and resources spent on continuous content creation. As the amount of microstories grows over time, an institution can have a library of these microstories in a CMS that can be readily reused to form the basis of new narratives.

As cultural institutions increasingly become borderless centers of knowledge, they contend with a multiplying and diverse array of media formats and channels that target specific audience segments. This creates intense pressure on institutional team members and resources to keep up with the pace at which content is consumed.

Our goals for the project were to:

  1. Identify existing institutional content that would be suitable for the creation of microstories
  2. Formulate key characteristics of a microstory
  3. Create sample microstories
  4. Test how these microstories might connect with audiences and deepen their understanding of works in new ways
  5. Test how microstories can be deployed
  6. Build a framework and content management system that can house such microstories for reuse

This project would not have been possible without the support of Stephanie Pereira and Kelsa Trom from NEW INC and the underwriting by the Knight Foundation. In addition, we would like to thank the institutions who generously agreed to participate in the different phases for this project. From the San José Museum of Art, special thanks goes to Sayre Batton, Jeff Bordona, Amanda Helton, Frederick Liang, Karen Rapp, Melanie Samay, and Paulina Vu. From the Opera Philadelphia, special thanks goes to Veronica Chapman-Smith, David Devan, Shannon Eblen, Steven Humes, and Frank Luzi. Finally, we want to thank Marina Garcia-Vasquez, Alexandra Israel, and Bruce Nussbaum for their unending support and encouragement.

  • Dropbox Paper
  • Miro
  • HTML/CSS/JavaScript
  • R&D
  • Experiment
  • Collections Management System
  • Prototype
  • Audience engagement
  • Database
  • Archive
  • Content Creation
  • Microstory
  • Microjournalism
  • Social Media
  • Storytelling
  • less than 3 months
  • $25k-$50k

Briefly describe your project’s timeline and development.

Through the NEW INC Cultural Futures program, we were able to connect with both the San José Museum of Art (SJMA) and Opera Philadelphia during the first quarter of 2021 as potential partners to help us explore this idea of a microstory. We worked with SJMA first to develop an initial foundation for the idea and began working with Opera Philadelphia towards the end of the second quarter of 2021. The work with Opera Philadelphia is still ongoing.

Because our idea was very early-stage, the collaboration with SJMA was a way of understanding and elaborating on how a microstory would function. What are the mechanics of it? How would it be written? Who would it target? In addition to this, we needed to understand the context in which the museum operated. We conducted an initial workshop to explore the variety of external facing activities as well as the constituencies of the museum. In a subsequent workshop, we dove deeper into the works of art held by the museum and discovered the potential of generating stories from a recent project that they had released called 50X50: Stories of Visionary Artists from the Collection. The work provided insight into how stories could be written in a condensed format that combined the who/what/when/where/how of a story with an impact that could resonate with an individual. In this process, we discovered that there were high-level themes that could be attached to each story and could serve as an organizational structure to group similar story types. We extracted some of these microstories and sketched a rudimentary application with HTML/CSS/JS to test out the experience of piecing together larger narratives from these microstories. Some of this content was used to create quickly sketched Instagram stories where each microstory occupied one segment to form a larger narrative.

The process of working with SJMA has greatly informed the second microstory iteration for Opera Philadelphia, which is currently in progress. For Opera Philadelphia, the microstory format has been a way to reframe the abundance of content generated by their Reflection & Re-Vision initiative, which looks deeper into the way opera intersects with culture, society, and history. In particular, our workshops and discussions have revealed that the condensed format of the microstory offers a way to convert long-form scholarly content into a more compact way of delivering ideas to students and general audiences. While the process is ongoing, the team at Opera Philadelphia is excited by this breakthrough, and we are now working with them to identify a set of microstories that will be related to their upcoming production of El Cimarrón.

What do you think went really well?

Despite the project occurring entirely in a virtual setting, we were surprised and delighted to see that online whiteboards like Miro were effective in creating a space for everyone to gather their thoughts and consolidate disparate materials/media. An interesting aspect of a digital whiteboard was the fact that it did not have to be taken down after the session was over. All involved could refer back to it as a snapshot of the discussion.

What were the outcomes?

With SJMA, we tried to quickly tackle all of our goals on a very high level. Much of the time was spent on the first three goals which has resulted in our definition of a microstory: a condensed format of around 50 words that combines at least one aspect of who/what/when/where/how with significance/impact. In addition, a maquette of how the CMS of microstories would work—as well as a few test posts on social media created from a reusable and rearrangeable Keynote template—has potentially revealed how long a narrative created from these microstories could be. Our continuing work with Opera Philadelphia will dive deeper into creating a more diverse array of microstories and subsequent narratives to further test their impact.

What was most helpful in pulling this project off?

The most important aspect in an experimental project like this is to work with organizations and individuals who are open, enthusiastic, and willing to build upon ideas. Because such ideas are not guaranteed to succeed, everyone involved must be communicative, able to operate in ambiguity, and be able to continually propose new ideas and methods in the hopes of discovering something new and unexpected.

Based on your experience, what advice do you have to share?

Because the nature of these projects is experimental, obtaining buy-in from all collaborators, setting expectations, and having everyone contribute allows all involved to learn together. Here, the process of working together and the dialogue and discussion that ensues is as important as the final outcome.

Do you plan to continue this project?

Yes. We are continuing to build on our findings from San José Museum of Art with our second iteration with Opera Philadelphia.

This case study was generously contributed by
Synoptic Office (Caspar Lam & YuJune Park)
San José Museum of Art and Opera Philadelphia
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