How to build
new convergent media labs
for the liberal-arts student
Building Media Labs:
an evolving experience
Honest discussions and openness of motivations
are the best approach in the process of media
While part of it is obviously technical a lot of it is
surprisingly political. If you don’t adequately
share the politics of why it’s being built your
design will not succeed, but a few basic rules
can help you with the rest. Here are mine.
“State of the Art” is an illusion
It is ﬁctional and elusive. When you have it you
will not beneﬁt from it. When you lose it you will
be despondent because of it. Ignore it.
Find out what you really want to do and provide
ways to do that. Don’t hold back from daring
ways to work. Finding exciting ways to work
really helps develop the work. Do what you love.
Remember, that will change over time too.
Don’t buy equipment –
build workﬂow (systems)
Every thing has to work together. Fun items and
single interest equipment have no place in a
production workﬂow. If it doesn’t help the entire
system forget it. It’s just money down the drain.
The power is always in the system.
Theory vs. Practice
Labs should be theory free zones.
Experimentation in methods and styles should
have a free range in the edit rooms. Ideological
criticism should be reserved for ofﬁcial critiques
of ﬁnished work formally presented.
Experimenters should always experiment.
There’s a great deal of learning in both
successes and failures. You need to experience
Don’t buy everything at once
It’s easy to be wrong. It’s easy to be mislead by
others. Only direct and personal experience will
conﬁrm whether or not items are really useful.
You actually have to use things ﬁrst to know
what should come next.
Turnkey installations will fail faster than ones
built up over time.
Build it yourself
Fancy, expensive, special purpose furniture can
constrain playing around with equipment. Often
there’s only one way to use it. Generic tables
and home built counters allow more freedom
Four coats of polyurethane and Ralph Lauren
crackle-glaze can work wonders on 3/4” birch
Interpret faculty requests –
donʼt take them literally
With current revenues scarce individuals will
seek funding for their personal projects. Usually
they misdirect system ﬂows with requests that
are too speciﬁc and don’t ﬁt in. Be respectful
and supportive, but always think total system.
Then turn it around and ﬁnd ways for the
system to allow them to work in another way.
This personal funding is what school deans are
for – get a grant.
The best results come from direct
experimentation. Research and skill building
come from work and using the facilities.
Turn away gifts
Gifts are always more trouble than they are
worth. They don’t really ﬁt in and usually are
dead-end or end-of-life products to start with.
Just say no thank you.
Computers are very labor intensive
Computers don’t take care of themselves. You
don’t need a lot of people, but without them
nothing will work for long.
Donʼt buy more than you
can afford to maintain
It’s easier to get money up front than it is to get
it later to keep everything running. Agree on
how much your yearly budget and replacement
account will be and get it in writing. Buy only
what you can afford to maintain over time.
It’s better to have a smaller system that works
than a big bunch of stuff that no longer works.
All media facilities
Media facilities have a very real political function.
The more honest you are about the reasons for
the facility the greater the likelihood of success.
Honesty and frankness will help in fulﬁlling the
facilities role in the organization, but it’s much
harder to do than it sounds.
Stop using the word digital
A decade ago digital was a hot topic. It no
longer is. Understand why it’s now 16:9,
Talk about capabilities, formats and workﬂow.
Try to understand the foot trafﬁc
How people move through the facility has
tremendous impact on placement and design.
Trafﬁc brings both distractions, noise, and often
ﬁngers that don’t belong. Quiet areas are
necessary for recording. Other areas will make
noise with music and editing. They shouldn’t
impinge on classroom spaces or each other.
Visualize the entire day.
Whoʼs day is it?
The day changes after faculty and staff leave.
The student run part of the day is actually longer
than the normal workday part. If you don’t know
what’s going on during that time you’re lost.
Nothing is special
In the old days media was a speciality item. It
was expensive and rare. Today it’s cheap and
every where. Most students will actually work on
their own systems. Labs aren’t what they used
You can buy equipment from any one and it’s all
the same. Low price is the determinate. And
does it ﬁt in.
Donʼt design for today
Try thinking about 5 and 10 years from now.
You will not be correct, so plan in buffer areas
and the ability to have constant change. If you
can not accommodate “the next big thing” and
“the next big thing” after that one you have a
museum to the past.
Thereʼs a long time between
the drawings and the building
You may have the perfect blueprints, but by the
time it gets built and you move in a lot can
happen. You don’t want opening day to feel like
a 1970’s movie set.
Don’t be trendy, don’t be cleaver. Think “little
Watch people work
It’s all about the user experience. You can’t
discover it with forms or reports. There’s only
one way to ﬁnd out how it all gets used, that is -
The success of a facility is in the satisfaction of
the users not some administrator in another
Make rooms look good
The best method to protect the facility is to
make it look nice. Users will spend a lot of time
there so make it a desirable environment. Just
as with people, the best looking get all the
breaks - every thing will be treated better.
Go drinking with the architects
Insight into each other’s process is faster to
build with camaraderie. Work hard at having fun
together. This is more important than you can
The biggest bang for the
buck is lighting and paint
Using inexpensive materials is OK if it doesn’t
actually look cheap. Controlling mood and tone
is the job of color and lighting – and you can
change your mind.
The old client is not
the new client
Who is doing and using media is a lot different
than it used to be. The fastest growing group of
new users is in Social Science. The hard core
ﬁlm students all work in their rooms and most
don’t need labs.
The utility of media labs is not what you think it
is nor what it will be.
No one has solved the
problem of classroom vs. lab
Some facilities are great labs, some are great
classrooms, almost none are both. Just having
computers in a room doesn’t mean it works.
Hard core users may use multiple stations.
Differences in skill-set levels plague most
classes and make discussions and training
difﬁcult. Each has implications for facilities.
Faculty want classrooms – students want labs.
Never underestimate the
need for storage
Just because it’s broken doesn’t mean you
should throw it away. Supplies and equipment
take up a lot of space and usually you don’t
want to see it. If you don’t want to keep all of
your light kits in the classroom they have to go
somewhere and not bother people when you
have to get them.
Only hire people who get along
with each other
Fancy names or credentials aren’t worth the
trouble if you don’t want to be around that
person. The only real problems are personnel
problems, every thing else is the job.
Having fun with the people you work with is the
best environment of all.
Magic is any ceremony performed in the
absence of reasonable knowledge as to cause
Every one should understand how things work
and why. No one should feel that it’s not
understandable. This is very hard work.
The Good News
Computers, cameras, decks, and most media
equipment prices are getting lower and lower.
The systems are remarkably ﬂexible and provide
support to a wide array of different users with
the same system – photography, video editing,
audio editing, graphics and web design.
Convergence is real. This is economic
democracy. This is the best time in history to
buy media equipment.
The Bad News
The federally mandated kill date for NTSC video
and the forced move into digital formats has
huge implications for equipment purchases that
no one really understands. Almost everyone will
be wrong. This is the worse time to purchase
production equipment in decades for
predictable outcomes. No one really knows
where it all will go or where they even want to
Video is Dead
We’ve moved into a new realm that as yet
doesn’t have a real name. It isn’t digital
cinematography, though that’s very close. It’s
the result of convergence, but not the original
version that we all though we knew – that your
computer thinks it’s your TV. No, this is a
convergence between photography and video
and it’s a surprise. Neither of them will remain
unchanged. This new form will dominate over
Manager for Advanced Media
Amherst, MA 01002