Masters of Narrative Design™ 1: Jan Sircus – The Narrative Design Exploratorium™

Masters of Narrative Design™ 1: Jan Sircus


This is the first part of an ongoing NDE series featuring interviews with Masters of Narrative Design™. While a seemingly new term, the design of story experiences is as old as time itself. Storytellers have been making careers out of it since the days of Sumerian ritual. As game developers are increasingly looking to create meaningful virtual narrative experiences, looking back at the lessons learned by these masters becomes increasingly valuable. Today’s Master is Jan Sircus,  place maker, storyteller, architect and designer. His almost 40 year career has had him working on everything from location-based entertainment (LBE), and theme parks for Disney, to Olympic resorts. Jan has spent a lot of time crafting interactive story in the real world, with huge teams with big dreams and big budgets. Today I’m hoping to see what virtual world creators can learn from his wealth of experience.

Stephen E. Dinehart: Jan, it’s a pleasure, thanks for taking the time to speak with me. You are currently President of the Themed Attraction Association (TAA), Canada; can you explain what you do there?

Jan_Sircus_team@work.jpgJan Sircus:
The themed attraction association really brings together people that
are involved in just about every possible aspect of creating what I
would call story places. From very simple media experiences, in museums
or exhibits, to visitor centers, science centers, entire places, expos,
attractions and pavilions, theme parks all the way up to big
international destination resorts. So it’s a very big field, it goes
from the small and particular all the way up to the big and general.
People in the association could be economists and planners or
designers, not just architecture and show designers but lighting
designers, media people, filmmakers, producers and fabricators of
various kinds; again a very broad selection of people. It’s
interesting, it’s such a complex business in many ways, and not really
fully understood; I’m always having to explain what our association is
all about. If you think about theme parks, at Walt Disney Imagineering
for example, literally under roof we had 300+ disciplines to put
together a theme park, which is pretty substantial if you think about
it. Especially when putting together something that is going to be a
complex, fully integrated, coherent and consistent, from the smallest
detail to the biggest idea, or vice versa.


It also seems to me because your creations are real world experiences
you have to address a full array of sensory possibilities?

In some situations yes, but that doesn’t always come into play. We
wouldn’t be necessarily doing that in say a museum exhibit, like you
would be more inclined to do in a theme park attraction. So it depends
on the application as to how far you go, and how many people and
disciplines need to be involved. The theme park is the most complex, in
my experience. But a lot of these general principles apply. You can do
something like an expo pavilion with a tenth of the people and
disciplines. It’s a matter of the problem type and what needs to be
brought to the solutions.It’s one of those things, how complex is a
story place? It depends on what the program is, what your audience is.
If it is a place people are for the most part visiting only once, the
way you would approach that design is very different from what you
would do in a place where you are trying to bring people back, and need
to refresh it and bring in new things to rebuild or remarket it and so
on. Again the design strategy changes for the solution.

You often mention that the balance of rich meaning in an experience and
information overload relies on hierarchies designed within the
experience to gate users and allow them to choose how deep they go.
Can you elaborate on that?

think that is really important, to have those layers. If you were to do
it all in one level for example, yes admittedly you could put it all
out there. I’m trying to think of an example. Let say you had a museum
where there is a bunch of exhibits, just exhibits in glass cases, or a
gallery with a bunch of paintings on the wall, and there is nothing
else, that’s it. To me that is a one level experience.  While you could
look at it again, you are essentially looking at it the same way; there
is not another dimension to it. Now for example if we were to add in a
media component to that experience it might be, let’s say, a large
immersive media component that provided a context and story for those
glass cases or paintings on the wall. That’s one other level, and then
you might have say a small media kiosk, or something over your cell
phone, or whatever, that was giving you another set of information, and
now you have a third level. So how you engage with the experience can
be at several levels, and once it takes on more dimensionality it
allows you to engage in different ways.

Disney Land Map

SED: I’m wondering how does that relate to legibility? Do you try to
create legibility within these hierarchies or do you let the user
intuitively move through them?

JS: That’s sort of
interesting. There are two ways to think about that. I think there is
value to both. There is value to having a structure that is clearly
understood. I think there are a lot of people that really need to feel
secure in the way they move through and experience information; it
needs to be delivered in a way that they get it, every step of the way.
Otherwise it becomes confused, and if you’re confused you’re stressed
and then the first thing you’re going to do is turn off. So that’s one
aspect of it, beyond that however, the fact that other people can go
off the path, or can access information in a kind of browsing,
serendipitous way, is also very powerful. Because you discover things
there you may not have done if you stayed consistently on the path. My
view is, ideally, you want to try and provide both kinds of experience.
You want the sort of obvious structure. Again it’s like having a ‘main
street’, if you will, everybody will understand “I’m walking down the
main street, and things are coming at me as I go.” But then if you
provide these doorways, these other little sort of alleys, for people
to escape down and discover things, for those that want to be more
adventurous or browse around and pop out at a different place, so to
speak, that’s I think, highly desirable. That’s what makes it rich,
fun, more engaging, it invites you to come back and discover new
things. Never just walk down the same old street again.

Jan Sircus Story Place Design Concept SED:
What you saying makes me think of play. I’m wondering when you design
spaces, these systems, these story systems do you think about play? And
if so what is that you to you?

JS: It depends how you
define play.  To me it’s part and parcel of the experience. Play, to
me, involves engagement at a certain level. It is obviously supposed to
be about enjoyment and interacting in someway with something. Whether
it’s full body interaction or mental interaction, that is what play is
about. There are ways to do that in the real world or in virtual worlds
or vice versa, because as you move through these spaces mind and body
are reacting to what you encounter. So at a certain level you are
engaged in play whether you like it or not. It can be unscripted in the
sense of playfulness or competition, or may come about in a more
crafted and controlled theatrical sense of play. Either way, you are
engaging yourself and others in a sequential interaction that may be a
conscious one, or it may be again, serendipitous, and not planned, but
it’s going to happen.

SED: That’s awesome. As games are increasing trying to focus on
creating space and places and really inviting people into virtual
worlds and trying to make them emotional experiences at the same time.
I think the idea of what play is and how to integrate play with the
designed experienced is really important for games.

And I think it’s something even more important as body motion becomes
more involved in gaming. Your actually now introducing that sort of
other visceral dimension which is so powerful in terms of creating
emotion and engaging you, and in terms of creating a memory of the game.

Jan Sircus Story Place Structure ConceptSED: In your article in the TAA newsletter, “Invented Places”,
you speak of your guiding principles for creating place [1. Structure
and form, 2. Sequential Experience, 3. Visual Communication]. You
suggested that the combination of these elements creates gestalt in the
audience. How do you know when you’ve found the right balance?

JS: Exactly,
it may be at a very subconscious level, and that’s fine; in fact it
often works better that way; as this sort of underlying knowledge of a
pattern, one which you’ve been told or taught, or you kind of pick of
as you go along. It doesn’t necessarily matter how it occurs, but the
recognition of the pattern can obviously reinforce the entire game
structure, the narrative, and your sense of how you relate to it.

SED: You use story in a pretty unique way, what is your definition of story?

JS: Wow,
that’s a good question. I don’t know that I’ve been asked that before.
Other then the fact that I just talk about it. You might be able to
relate to that? (laughs) If you think about classic story telling, a
story is a describing to others of an experience or series of actions
that have taken place that you want to share. Obviously there have been
very classic story structures, like the 3-act play. It sort of comes
back to Joseph Campbell and the heroes’ journey; and you know, it’s the
beginning, middle and end. That’s what it’s all about, and it’s really
if anything a mirror for life. The basic 3-part evolution of what we
feel comfortable with in story, is really something that is derived
from our own life cycle. How we perceive what we do, both on a daily
basis, and as our entire existence on the planet. It’s deep stuff, and
it’s genetically hard wired. Story in it essence allows us to share
experiences in ways that we have a common understanding. Which comes
from real world experience of life, which does tend to unfold in these
limited, simple few steps – in the broad sense. Obviously it can get
complicated, poetic, abstract, and so on, which is fine. There are
situations where the intent is for people to create the story out of
pieces of information that you give them. Which can be interesting, but
often can result in very diverse experiences for people, and depending
on what you are trying to do, that can be a good or a bad thing. There
are all these parameters, or creative constraints, which determine
whether you want to make something loose and serendipitous or highly
structured and predictable.
Disney MGM Studios Hollywood Boulevard

SED: That seems to relate to what you spoke of early in terms of scoping solutions?

JS: What
I find, to be perfectly honest, is that it doesn’t matter so much what
the scale of the problem is. Whether it’s a very complex mixed-use
resort with entertainment centers and theme parks, and attractions, or
a simple museum exhibit area. What I find is that apart from creatively
approaching it in the same way, ultimately what I’m looking for is a
very simple construct to begin with. As a way to get the big idea, to
get that gestalt, to get that understanding ‘what is this really
about’. Regardless of size you essentially need to do the same with
both. It almost then becomes, rings within rings, because if you start
at a high level place, there still needs to be a clear systematic
organizational set of relationships to that world. You can then go into
one part of that world and derive another set of relationships, but
again relatively simplified. And then you can drop down to another
level within that place. Let’s say we were talking about a series of
cities, so there is a relationship between cities. Then you can go into
each city and in each city there are neighborhoods, and there is a
relationship between the neighborhoods. You can go into them and then
there is a relationship between the buildings. You can go into the
buildings and there is a relationship between the rooms. So you sort of
drop down, level by level, but at each level I believe there really
needs to be a way to organizationally and structurally sense what is
going on.

A Story Place ConceptSED:
I find that interesting, especially with your architectural background.
There is a well know theorist and professor at MIT, Henry Jenkins, whom
has a published a paper called “Game Design as Narrative Architecture”.
His view is that designers are really creating an architecture, a
system for people will navigate this space and come away with, their
own story. What you are saying in terms of these interrelated systems
within a space sounds very architectural.

JS: Well it
is architectural; there is no doubt about it! When I first got into
Interactive Media back in the early 80’s, when I first had to design
how people would come across this information, touch-screen was very
cutting-edge, no one was quite sure how people would react to it. The
big problem initially was to try and understand how to keep people
engaged and how they would feel comfortable with the material. It is
really an architectural problem, because it’s about time and space.
When programmers create these complex tree structures with all these
various bits of content, well that’s architecture.

SED: How has technology affected your craft as a storyteller?

JS: In
the end of the day the fact of the matter is, and it doesn’t matter if
you are talking about a movie, a place, or a game, so much depends on a
good story. Whether you do something as a simple animation, just by
drawing a few lines, or you do it as full-blown 3D CGI stuff, it’s a
total waste of time and money if the story’s not there. If the story is
better with the simple line presentation it will get a better response
than however much money and digital effects you throw at something,
which is good for about 5 seconds, and then everybody goes “OK, so now
what?” So I’m a believer that story is a foundation for a great
experience and a great product. Actually one of the best examples of
that is that when you look at PIXAR, the most successful studio in
animated movies these days. And why are they so good? It’s cause they
spend 3 to 4 years on building a story, for each of those movies. I
mean 3 to 4 years, just on the story! But you really see and feel the
difference, compared to others that don’t take that time.

There’s an analogy I make in reference to my problems with the
production methodologies employed in videogames. It would be as if
PIXAR would animate for a few years, and after animating for a few
years they’d kinda try to figure out what the story was. Maybe if then
if they couldn’t figure it out they’d higher some hotshot writer to
come in and try making sense of the omni-directional chaos that’s been
in the production pipeline for two years.

JS: Exactly!

SED: That’s not how they do things, right? They preplan stuff with people who are trained storytellers

That’s exactly what my friend David has to deal with in the Games
world. He’s trying to get in there and setup stories right at the
beginning, so the game flows out of it. As opposed to trying to fit a
story to a game structure that, you know, is there for other reasons.

SED: Hmmm… Maybe he’ll have to be my next victim?

JS: Why not?

SED: All right, well thank you Jan, it’s been a pleasure!


was in transcribing this interview that I truly realized the deep
nature of the approach Jan brings to the table. His wisdom certainly
inspires me, and I hope you can say the same for yourself. For the
Narrative Design Exploratorium™,this is Stephen Erin Dinehart, thank you
for your time.

You can find out more about Jan Sircus and TAA Canada on their websites:

A fascinating article by Jan, which is quoted in this interview can be found @

Recorded: June 11, 2008

Note: All Disney Related Illustrations Presented in this Article are © Walt Disney Co.

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Sircus attractions from Ethan Kennerly IMD Blog on July 2, 2008 11:41 AM

Jan Sircus talks about theme parks, installations, and a hint of how he designs an architecture for a quasi-narrative user experience, he calls a “story place.”… Read More

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This page contains a single article by Stephen E. Dinehart published on June 23, 2008 6:00 AM.

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