This interview was originally published on Snow Mag, an online journal by Jean Snow.
Q: AQ created the website of the Setouchi International Art Festival 2010. With generally positive press coverage and visitors flocking to the museums and installations, it seems to be a pretty successful operation. How did you first become involved in the project?
In 2008, we were contacted by the Kagawa Prefectural Government, who, together with Fukutake Art Foundation are the main organizers of the festival. They had heard of us through our work with Tokyo Art Beat, and were interested in having us design the website for the festival. Because of our familiarity with promoting the arts online, our command of multilingual web design, and oddly enough, our clean HTML: the prefectural official said that he checked our code.
Q: Was the brief centered on the website, or did the Kagawa Prefectural Government also request its promotion?
It was centered on the website, and the first thing we did was create a preview site. But we became concerned that it would be difficult to raise awareness of the event with just a few pages of content. At the time, there were no PR activities in any language aimed at the general public.
Q: So you suggested talking with art lovers on Twitter.
Twitter was just starting to reach serious adoption rates by the Japanese mainstream, and we noticed that there were several art world personalities who had found a voice on Twitter. o we asked if they would mind us starting authorized Twitter accounts in English and Japanese, and they consented.
At the same time, Paul [Baron, a designer at AQ and co-founder of Tokyo Art Beat] was having great success promoting Tokyo Art Beat on Twitter by experimenting with different types of content, tone of voice and frequency to interact with the 34,000 followers. This experience gave us confidence for Setouchi.
Q: Did your client or yourselves consider a more traditional route, such as putting out advertising for the web site?
Not for a second. The budget for online promotion was tiny, and there were no obvious affordable advertising opportunities that fit the audience and tone of the event. Besides, the website didn’t have a whole lot to offer at the time. It left more questions than answers, with no artists chosen, no photos of artwork, etc. At that point, our goal was to build name recognition and, more importantly, curiosity.
Q: It sounds like your work on Tokyo Art Beat brought you the project, but also gave you knowledge of an audience that was likely to be interested in the festival. What resources were needed to run an effort like this?
The Twitter account was kept humming along with one bilingual writer, [AQ staffer] Tomomi [Sasaki], spending 15 minutes a day. Most of that time was spent searching for Twitter users who would likely be interested in the festival, because they were already talking about art, about Naoshima, about their hometown in the Shikoku area. We asked questions, retweeted interesting personal stories, etc.
A lot of promotional Twitter accounts do blind retweeting of masses of people, but we felt doing so would damage the account, and by extension the festival. So we were careful to read people’s tweets, and only follow people who were very likely to take interest in the event, or better, to come to the event. As a result, the festival accounts enjoyed a lot of back and forth with other users, via retweets, replies, and follows, with relatively little time spent per day, and relatively few tweets.
Q: The English and the Japanese account now have over 10,000 followers. How fast did you reach this number?
At the opening [on July 17, 2010] we had about 8,000.
Q: You talked about principles that you followed to keep the social conversations interesting and positive. Did you discuss those principles with the Kagawa Prefectural Government before jumping into the conversations, or did those principles develop over time while you were operating the Twitter accounts?
They were developed as we were working, mainly based on our personal experiences on the receiving end of similar efforts. On Twitter, it’s easy to tell if you’re doing it right or wrong because people will usually tell you. A few times we dipped into local news that was a little more sensitive than we expected (like the opening of a convenience store on Naoshima), and one follower wasted no time telling us to stick to what we’re good at!
Q: Many companies fear PR disasters, and are concerned about controlling the conversations in social media. Engaging in open discussions in public can be daunting for companies or public bodies. How did your client react?
Well, as a government-sponsored, taxpayer funded project, there are very clear rules about what can be considered official communications, and as an outside entity, we were not permitted to speak for the festival via an official channel. But it was decided that the Twitter account would be “公認”, Japanese for “authorized”, rather than “公式” (official), as this would allow the organizers some deniability if anything went wrong.
Q: Did you ever have to make use of that option?
No, but designation or not, we maintained a pretty close dialogue with the executive committee to ensure that we were staying on topic. We also discussed approaches to the handful of antagonistic voices that did pop up. We also shared the account with one official from the committee (using CoTweet). This allowed each party to track what the other was doing with the account, and eventually hand over most responsibilities to the officials once the event opened.
Q: Are the Twitter accounts now operated by the event organizers themselves?
Mostly. Our office is in Tokyo, which is fine for building initial interest, but once volunteers gathered, artworks began to be built, and visitors arrived, we really needed someone on site to report what was going on. We still spend some time tweeting interesting photo reports and blog entries that we find, but the main chatter has become about the many openings, closings, and weekly events that are taking place during the festival period.
Q: So you built a website, and promoted it through clever use of social media channels starting in early 2009. But I imagine the site itself kept on evolving during that period. Did the Kanagawa Prefectural Government maintain the site’s content, or did you do it for them?
They maintained everything. Unlike the Twitter account, the site is designated “official”, so our job was to provide a flexible design and easy-to-use publishing tool for their content. Occasionally we do suggest edits to photo crops, blog entry topics and such.
Q: The site is a pleasure to browse, and the quality of the content is very high. Did you offer training to your client, to help them make the best possible use of the publishing tools?
We did spend a few afternoons showing them the ropes, but most training happens within the interface itself. We spent a lot of time customizing the publishing interface with labels and hints to make it was clear what type of content belonged in each box. In the past we’ve done more extensive training, PDF manuals and the like, but that information often gets lost in the client’s inbox, or someone leaves the organization without passing the tutorial on.
Q: What are the aims of the website? What is it supposed to achieve?
First off, it acts as an authoritative resource on the festival, that visitors can use to understand the concept of the event, commit to attending, and plan their trip. To achieve this, we spent a lot of time ensuring that information was presented in a clear geographic context, which is sometimes hard to do on the web. The geography and infrastructure of the islands makes it very important that visitors came with realistic expectations on what they could accomplish in a day, and the website was one way for them to understand that.
The second goal is perhaps a little more subtle: it must convey the aesthetic sensibilities and values upon which the festival was founded. This was achieved through time spent on the islands, and long conversations with the organizers. When we first heard the word “festival”, we thought “inclusive”, “accessible”, “fun”, “social”, etc. And Setouchi is all of those to some extent, but the organizers knew they needed to first attract a very specific core audience, namely travelers seeking very refined cultural experiences. If they lost that group, it would be unlikely that the event would be taken seriously by anyone else. They also wanted to make sure that anyone who did decide to come did so with in the right mindset: inquisitive and celebratory, but also respectful and thoughtful.
Q: How does that get conveyed on the site?
I think we were able to achieve this by using a little restraint. Page layouts were kept simple and free from too much extraneous detail. Even banners were kept mostly within a narrow range of colors. We also took a lot of visual inspiration from the islands themselves. Using photography and texture to capture the feeling that we experienced when we first visited.
Also, tying back to the first goal, the completeness of the information conveys respect for the visitors, which hopefully they reciprocate! And by making hard decisions on when to release content, the Kagawa Prefectural Government sustained that feeling through over a year of operation, with only minimal help from us. When, for example, they need to post partial content, we made small adjustments to the design to make sure the site never felt broken.
*8Q: You were talking about adding hints in the content management tool to help maintain a certain level of quality. Can you give some examples?**
Mostly they hint at text lengths, formatting and context. For example, a single artwork may require several different descriptions that appear at various lengths throughout the site. By simply stating in the interface where the text would be used, it nudged the content manager to think about how it would look in that page when they write it. I think the site also benefited from having just a few editors in control of the content.
Q: The site seems to have been a central piece in the festival’s public communication. It was used to call artists to submit proposals, some of which were eventually commissioned as artwork to be installed on the islands. This public website and the social media promotion efforts around it ensured that significant portions of the festival’s inner workings were transparent, and open to the local population and the broader art world. What kind of demands did that put on your design and development work?
I think the main demand was accessibility. Japan enjoys some of the best internet connection speeds in the world, but this is not really the case in the Seto Inland Sea area. Slow internet is not ideal for a website about visual art, but we were very careful to make sure that every image on the page counted. There is also no Flash, and very little scripting, aside from a few Google Maps. So all that is to keep the site as fast as possible.
We also focused on legibility of the text. We kept font sizes and white space generous, and broke the text down into digestible chunks.
Q: Did the information architecture you first designed hold up, over time, as the audience visited the site and the event itself unfolded, through preparation, the call for submissions, the opening, etc.?
Yes, for the most part. We were careful not to over-build in the beginning: not to try solving problems that hadn’t arisen yet. For example, we had an idea of how the artwork would be presented many months before we actually had the actual content, but we kept our ideas to a few pencil sketches. When we saw the content, we realized that some of our assumptions on the volume and shape of the data were off, so we were relieved we hadn’t spent too much time designing or building an overly complex system to house it.
The biggest discovery was that the islands themselves were the primary organizational framework for all of the artwork. Museums are often organized by periods, genres or media, which allow for very focused, concentrated consumption. But this would be impossible at Setouchi. So we used the information architecture of the site to establish the islands themselves as the starting point for any trip planning. And in doing so, relieve visitors from the burden of trying to visit all of their favorite artists in a day or two, which is a complete impossibility.
Q: Indeed, you were mentioning earlier that Setouchi Art has a particularly strong link to its geographical environment, with art being commissioned for specific locations or buildings on the islands. It seems to make the perception of people, of travelers, an interesting angle. So how about user content? Visitors’ blog posts, their photos of the artworks or of the incredible scenery of the Seto Inland Sea: could you find a place for that content on the site?
It was decided early on by the committee to limit user content on the official site, something I disagreed with at first, but have come to understand. At the end of the day, the official site is about clear communication of accurate information about the event. Trying to balance that voice against the voices of artists as expressed in their work, it’s hard enough to maintain coherency. We didn’t feel a need to capture the voices of users on the site, knowing that they will pop up naturally via the tools that exist out there. That separation is not necessarily a problem. Trying to force the two together can be. So, this is where the Twitter account acts as a soft link: we regularly draw attention to visitor’s blog reports, photo groups on Flickr, etc.
Q: Your team is based in Tokyo, more than 4 hours away by the bullet train. Did you find time to visit the islands once the festival started?
Yes. We rented a beach house on Megijima Island for the first two weeks of the festival, and brought down friends and family for a retreat. Obvious biases admitted, it is a fantastic event. Like any exhibition, some works commanded more attention than others, and some will have left stronger memories. But unlike any art event I have attended, Setouchi left me with memories of the place itself. Peeking my head into attics filled with hay, treading across sun-bleached planks, daily friendly exchanges with old ladies in wide-brimmed hats on winding alleys, and watching the islands from the ferry as they change color and shuffle across the horizon line.