Designing Extraordinary Experiences

After hearing Emilie Baltz speak at a PSFK conference about Lickestra (an orchestra made of ice cream lickers!) I felt compelled to learn more about her and her creative process.  Her ideas were simply too original to ignore and her workspace seemed like a foreign country — I mean how exactly does one get hired to develop a drink experience for the Museum of Sex?  So we talked.  In fact, after my recorder failed the first time, she graciously agreed to chat again resulting in the interview below.   We covered a lot of ground while I circled around my primary question — how could we non-artists be more creative?

Not surprisingly, Emily did not provide a pat answer since originality and creativity are the result of several factors including perspective, process, personality, practice, passion and whole bunch of other things that don’t start with P.  So enjoy the interview and stay tuned for a follow up article that attempts to clarify how we all can (at least try to) be more creative.

Drew: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your interests as an artist?

I work as a food and experience designer as well as an artist and educator, and my interest is primarily in understanding how sensory experience can change our perception of taste. That’s been my focus for the last few years. And I come from a background in screenwriting and industrial design as well as modern dance and photography, so I sort of blend all those experiences like a cook in the kitchen to ultimately bring an idea to life in multiple dimensions.

DrewTo begin discussing the creative process, maybe we could start with Lickestra and you can talk through how it came into being.

Lickestra is a licking ice-cream orchestra. The project was created as a food design and smart object project, developed in collaboration with Carla Diana, who works at the intersection of technology and design, while I work at the intersection of food and design. So Lickestra became a project where we basically poked and tasted and rubbed things together to understand what it was that we wanted to do. We asked ourselves, what if we started to find ways where sound and food could intersect? To do that, we started bringing technology into a variety of food materials, and that included making something that we called a jam band session.

Prototyping led us to discover that the most fun thing you could do was to bite something or use your mouth and then make sound. That was very novel and got a lot of great positive feedback. Through that, we just ended up testing a lot of different materials and realized that here was ice cream, this thing that already had a built-in gestural interface that asked you to lick. From there, it just very easily then developed into Lickestra, where participants got to lick a series of conductive ice cream cones that would trigger different tones and sounds.

Drew: When you’re initially running through ideas, how do you get past that prototyping stage and know how and when to take the next step?
This is where the critical mind comes in to play. It has everything to do with the knowledge of the landscape that you’re in. Some ideas we have, but have already been done, so they’re automatically off the table. Other ideas we come up with are just not as clear in their direction. I think the best ideas are ones that you look at and immediately say, oh yeah, oh duh, that works. That’s the best way I can describe it.

To get there, one needs a process and one needs clarity in the process because the “duh” is really the revelation that all the pieces are fitting together. It’s saying we want to make food and sound come together, we want to make it interactive and physical, we want to be delightful and joyful, we want to make a band. Those are our self-imposed constraints. Then we come up with some ideas and ask ourselves which ones we find more interesting. We usually decide this based on our emotional reaction to them, but the decision also comes from some training and an ability to look at them objectively and decide whether or not an idea actually fits within our constraints that we’ve set. Drawing helps you organize the thoughts and prototyping actually helps you see really what that thought looks like and figure out if it works or doesn’t work.

Drew: Can you talk a little bit about the recent project you created at the bar Play in the Museum of Sex?

We had the idea to give desire a form, which naturally lends itself to food and drink because that’s where we become the most emotional in our consumer habits. The most natural venue for this was a bar. I served as the Art Director for Play and developed the brand and interiors with the Museum of Sex, as well as architect Eric Mailaender and restaurant consultant Brendan Spiro. In addition, I developed an experimental cocktail menu that presented artist crafted cocktails that push our relationship to desire through drink. The first cocktail I developed was with the Dutch London-based artist Bart Hess and called Pareidolia. It’s a black porcelain plate that has a ribbed texture, almost like this alien skin. When I contacted Bart for this project, it was with an interest in looking at gestural interfaces, because I think so much of our sensory communication also comes through literal muscle memory.

When we started working together, I was poking around with him and looking at projects and saw this piece of fabric that he had developed, which is totally alien and very weird looking. We both decided that it was really very interesting, because you naturally sort of wanted to lick it but also didn’t want to lick it. It was so bizarre and alien, you couldn’t really understand what it was, but it was incredibly suggestive as a form. And so part of the intent with Pareidolia was to offer this vessel, and then through its usage what you actually end up seeing is a visual landscape of people bending over and licking, like a piece of performance art.

Though the artist isn’t present, all these guests are engaging in this really intimate action in a public space. And it’s great that it took place at the Museum of Sex, one of the institutions that I think is so interesting because it does allow people the permission to look and now with Play, the permission to act on their desires. This is especially true in American culture, where the topic of sex and sexuality is still continually taboo. It doesn’t have to be weird for it to be fun.`ss in other dimensions and in other work. It’s all about getting perspective.

Drew: Can you talk about the LO.V.E. Foodbook and how that came into being?
The L.O.V.E Foodbook was inspired by working with the Museum of Sex while I’d been researching aphrodisiacs to make a prototype café in the basement called Oral Fix before beginning to work on Play. What was amazing to me during this research was finding that all of the definitions of aphrodisiac were archaic: stories and mythologies about things like Casanova and Greco-Roman times and Montezuma. It seemed to me like we were in a time when we should have new stories and new languages around this idea.

So I ended up working with a French publisher in Paris and proposed this idea that we would make a cookbook that was about love. We put together a list of chefs that we would approach and ask to translate a definition of love in their material: food. That’s how the L.O.V.E. Foodbook was born, consciously chosen to be described as love rather than desire, because I think desire is actually quite linear and love is much more complex and in its complexity much more representative of contemporary culture.

Drew: What are you working on now and what do you see in the near future in terms of artistic endeavors?
I’m most interested in performative pedagogy, a term I’m toying with where the “education” exists as an act, both witnessed and performed by an audience, in which we learn by doing, not simply watching. I believe that education exists everywhere and I’d love to be able to educate people on just how much of an experience taste is, rather than merely flavor. I’ve been doing these more performative dinners. I actually just came back from Stockholm this week with Brooklyn Brewery Chef Andrew Gerson and we held a dinner in a former nuclear reactor.

This is exactly the type of thing I would like to keep doing, because here were these incredible settings and it was completely transformative. You’re totally out of your world and out of your comfort zone. The goal of the night was to create an experience that was fueled by taste and would allow guests to explore not only a part of themselves through ingestion, but also a part of their city that they had never seen before. I think what that does is start to cultivate curiosity. That’s what I hope to do, to cultivate curiosity, because with that you get people who are empathetic, who are playful, who are collaborative and who have interest in others.

The New Curators (of Content)

How Thrillist, PSFK and start-up iFlow are capitalizing on the accelerating need for content curation. (This article first appeared on
Barring the invention of a “time turner” like the one Hermione Granger sported in 3rd Harry Potter novel, most of us will never have enough time to consume the information we might otherwise want to absorb.  There’s simply too much info and too few waking hours.  Enter the notion of curation, a relatively new term that is not unlike the editor of old, a trusted person or organization that filters information and aggregates it in an organized fashion for others to enjoy.

According to Steve Rosenbaum, author of Curation Nation, “curation is the new way of organizing the web going forward.”  And no doubt he’s right.  Curious about why new curators like Thrillist and PSFK were thriving while the traditional publishing world floundered, I spent some time with their respective founders, Ben Lerer and Piers Fawkes.  These conversations plus one with Eric Alterman, the founder of a new curation engine called iFlow, revealed four insights that could help you too capitalize on the curation phenomenon.

You can’t curate for everyone, so be targeted
In Brian Solis’s recent tribute on to Rosenbaum’s book, Solis noted, “the social capital of a curator is earned through qualifying, filtering, and refining relevant content.”  The key words here being filtering and relevance, something that Thrillist with its focus on urban males 22-30 has done exceptionally well.  Explained Lerer, “we’ve zoned in on a niche group that was previously starved for the kind of information we deliver.”

Thrillist, for the uninitiated, started in 2005 with a newsletter to 600 New Yorkers and is now in 18 markets with 2.5 million subscribers.  Added Lerer, “our voice is extremely targeted to a very specific part of the male demographic.”  Lerer and his fellow curators of newish nightlife have built a highly profitable business during a time when traditional publishing tanked. This was done, according to Lerer, “by zoning in on a small sector of the population and speaking to them in a voice that they trust.”

It’s not curation without a well-defined focus
The New York Times famous line “All the news that’s fit to print,” made sense when newspapers were the primary source of daily information.  Now it seems more like a potential epitaph, as newspaper readership plummets in the face of more focused web-based alternatives. One of the up and coming alternatives is PFSK, which founder Fawkes described as “the go to source for new ideas for creative professionals.”

Founded in 2004, PSFK has grown from a trend-spotting website to a hybrid company that publishes content, creates events and provides consulting services to clients like Nike, Target and BMW.  When asked if PSFK was in the curation business, Fawkes affirmed, “yes, our job is to find new ideas and we present them up to 50 times a day.”  Reflecting on their focused approach, Fawkes added, “every month a million designers, ad folks, digital entrepreneurs and media mavens get inspired by our content.”

If the curation is good enough, it will [almost] market itself
In the new world of curation, “information becomes currency and the ability to repackage something of interest as compelling, consumable and also [as a] sharable social object is an art,” wrote Brian Solis. This perhaps is the fundamental difference between the old world newspaper and the new world of curators.  New world curators can connect and engage with other curators, helping to disseminate information quickly and at little to no cost.

Ben Lerer of Thrillist recalled taking this approach out of necessity since, “one of the stipulations with the money we raised was that we couldn’t spend any of it on marketing.”  “So we focused all our energy on building something that people actually liked and would want to pass along to their friends,” explained Lerer.  By “putting content first and making sure its written for the guy reading it,” Lerer and his team developed a loyal audience that in turn shared the content and or acted upon it demonstrating they too were in the know.

Human curators beat the algorithms
No matter how you many words you type into Google, you’re not going to find a recommendation you trust without clicking deep into another site.  On the other hand, a quick visit to Thrillist and PSFK provides recommendations and ideas that are trustworthy without fail. When discussing the shortcomings of algorithmic curation, serial entrepreneur Eric Alterman explained, “only human curation can deliver real time content… that consumers are actually seeking.”

Seeing an opportunity in the limitations of algorithmic curation combined with the overwhelming flow of content generated via social media, Alterman is just about to launch a new curation platform called iFlow.  Alterman believes that iFlow will address the problem of information overload, enabling “efficient curation into highly contextual aggregate streams [that] include all content types.” Given Alterman’s track record of turning ideas into successful companies like KickApps, his hope “to bring the art of content creation to the widest possible audience,” is anything but a pipe dream.

Final Note:
While admittedly I’m no longer in Thrillist’s demographic, I became a fan in ‘08 when one of my clients wanted to connect with their readers.  Seeing Lerer’s presentation at a recent PSFK event, I was simply blown away by their success in three short years.  It was the quality of the presenters at this conference that got me thinking about curation and led to my conversations with Lerer, Fawkes and Alterman (see their respective interviews on

Making a Hit While Serving Customers

I saw Ben Lerer speak at the recent PSFK conference and was blown away by how quickly Thrillist has grown.  In many ways, its is a classic example of Marketing as Service, with the newsletter being the service and in this case part of the product that meets a distinct information need.  Thrillist has also had a profound impact on the businesses they’ve recommended, gaining the kind of “make a hit” influence that newspaper critics used to enjoy.

DN: Thrillist has grown quite a bit since its founding.  Can you give me the highlights of this growth in terms of subscribers, markets, revenue, profitability?
We sent the first Thrillist email in 2005 to 600 friends in New York and in that first year slogged through the mud and grew to 30,000 subscribers by the end of 2006. By the end of 2008, we had expanded into seven cities and became profitable, bringing in approximately $5 million in revenue. In 2009, we launched in five additional markets and passed the one million subscription mark. And now, just a couple of months into our sixth year, we’re in 18 markets including our first international edition in London, reaching over 2.5 million subscriptions. With the acquisition of members-only online retailer and the launch of localized deal site Thrillist Rewards, we’re expecting to bring in more than $40 million in revenue this year.

DN: Why do you think the Thrillist newsletter has been so successful?
As with any successful company, the winning formula is always a strong demand and a quality product. We’ve zoned in on a niche group that was previously starved for the kind of information we deliver. They were looking for trusted recommendations on where to go and what to do in their city and the best ways to spend their time and money and we do a good job delivering that.

DN: How do you decide what to feature in each of your newsletters?  What is the editorial review process?
We have a local editor on the ground in each of our markets whose main job is to scour their cities to find awesome things.  It has to be something new, unknown or under-appreciated (i.e. an underground supper club, a maker of custom shoes operating out of a warehouse in Brooklyn, or a restaurant with an off-the-menu three martini lunch special).

DN: Talk to me some more about the importance of curating great content…
When we first started out, one of the stipulations with the money we raised was that we couldn’t spend any of it on marketing. So we focused all our energy on building something that people actually liked and would want to pass along to their friends. We know how valuable our guys’ time is and we don’t want to waste it with anything but the winners, so we always put content first and make sure it’s written for the guy reading it.

DN: Newspaper and magazines have been curating content for years yet almost all are losing money.  Why do you think Thrillist has been able to be successful curating editorial content when these other info sources have not been able to make any money, especially online?
Our voice is extremely targeted to a very specific part of the male demographic. We’re not trying to reach all people in all cities. We’re zoning in on a small sector of the population, speaking to them in a voice that they trust and relate to and delivering content that they want to read, in a way they want to read it. Because of this, we’ve developed a loyal audience that trusts us and acts on our recommendations.

DN: Do you have a customer feedback system in place to help you measure what content is resonating?

We do have a system that collects data, click-through rates, etc. but we mostly find validation by speaking with the owners of the businesses we cover. We have stacks upon stacks of testimonials about selling-out seats, packing restaurants and huge increases in traffic to websites. We also see the companies being covered in additional press outlets and going viral across all social media platforms.

DN: Have you ever recommended something that turned out to be a bust?  If so, how did you handle this?
We’ve definitely recommended some things that were better than others — that’s part of the challenge of breaking stories. But our batting average is high and I think the audience has patience for when we miss because they really appreciate when we hit the nail on the head.

DN: Can you give me a specific example of a new restaurant or bar that you featured and the impact it had on that business
We recently covered a food truck named “Feed Your Hole,” that serves specialty hot dogs and burgers. We spoke to the owner a few days after our write-up who told us they were experiencing lines around the block and that they even had to turn away crowds of people. Prior to our write-up, they were unknown and by their opening day, there were masses of people lining up for their food. This is common feedback for us but its still awesome every time we hear it.

DN; What role does your website play in your overall marketing and customer service mix?
We recently redesigned our website but prior to that, it was mostly just used as a tool for capturing subscribers. Most of our partnerships efforts drove traffic back to the site with hopes of enticing new subscribers to sign up. Now, our website is more of a destination for users seeking local lifestyle and entertainment content but we still have lots of work to do. Basically, we know we’ve got lots of valuable content on the site but we’re still figuring out how to surface the right content to the right guys.

DN: You’ve added some new services in the last year or so.  What are they and why did you add them?
In the past, we had covered JackThreads editorially – they hosted a lot of brands that we also frequently covered and so it made sense for us to actually be able to sell these brands to our audience, instead of simply recommending them. Another recent launch is Thrillist Rewards, which gives us a chance to monetize some of the local transactions we’re able to drive every day. Our mission is the same with this as it is with our content: we want to bring guys deals that they’ll actually enjoy and are actually relevant for them. A few of our recent deals are “Unlimited Beer and Ribs at Hill Country BBQ” and “a Strip and a Strip at Robert’s and Score’s.” We are also able to help small business reach our audience beyond editorial coverage and national display advertising.