EXPERIENCE - Chuck Bajnai (visionary, artist, dillettante)

Chuck Bajnai.jpg

I have been working on gathering the thoughts and knowledge of people who educate and inspire me... and then sharing them. I am thrilled to be inviting Chuck Bajnai, Chief Creative Officer at Astound, to participate in this "verbal history" at The Experiential. 

Chuck is first, a friend.  He and I share a love of boats, race cars, and huge spectacles…  But he is also a collaborator, and his creative vision and enthusiasm for art infused with “why?” makes him a potent force in the world of Auto Shows and permanent brand installations.  So, without further ado, our speed round.  

Chuck, what’s your origin story ?  How did you find the creative life ?

This is a much larger question than it first appears.  My road has been constantly evolving.  It is built upon a series of obstacles and achievements that give light to the next challenge…

Growing up I always loved to draw.  My father was an Architect and I remember him and I drawing cars for as long as I can remember.

I was accepted to RISD as an illustration Major in 1990.  RISD has all freshman go through a Foundation Program.  This included all types of art and design.  It is indented to expose students to the wide range of majors the school has to offer and the different opportunities to find a profession in.  During this time, I quickly realized illustration was not my thing. 

I was fascinated with a profession called Industrial Design. It offered me a completely holistic opportunity to draw, think, solve problems and find a well-paying job.  RISD’s ID program was fantastic.  It did not (unlike most ID schools) teach me how to be an amazing illustrator… It instead focused on the solving problems and understanding materials.

I had a professor once tell me about this industry called Exhibit Design.  He thought my history with architecture aligned with a speed in which projects get done would be an interesting fit for me. 

I started at a very small company and I was 1 of 2 designers on staff.  A Place called Star Displays.  They expected me to hit the ground running.  I had one major issue…  Because this is prior to CAD being a common place in the industry, everything they did was hand sketched.  Remember that part about RISD not teaching me how to draw J  I spent the next few months learning how to draw with markers.  My boss sent me home weekly with a drawing exercise focusing on perspective, rendering materials and composition.

After a few years, I decided to search for a company that would give me bigger opportunity.  I ended up at Exhibitgroup/Giltspur.  Projects here were so much larger and the amount of creative talent that worked in the studio was so inspiring.  I was challenged here to learn this program called AutoCad and 3D Studio.  After a few projects, I was for the most part self-taught and had an unique skill set not found on the team.  This allowed me to be part of a team that got to design an RFP for Pontiac and GMC.  I had seen these auto show stands before and they were at the time the pinnacle of the industry.  They dealt with Architecture, Furniture Design, Graphic Design, Lighting Design, Media Design and even had a substantial budget to design to.  We won this RFP with what ultimately was the first double deck display at NAIAS.

I knew I needed to stay in this industry and the Automotive sector was perfect.

After a small stint, back in New England for Exhibitgroup/Giltspur I was recruited by George P Johnson. 

GPJ was the place to work if you wanted to design auto show stands.  I was in awe of all the talented designers they had.  I was quite intimidated. 

My first few years I become creative director on the Saturn account.  But it was when I was asked to work on New Business opportunities I came into my own.  I was asked to participate on numerous RFP’s including the Launch of a new brand Scion. 

The competition of the RFP was amazing… Not only was I using my problem solving skills and my design skills I was using something very primal in my DNA… Competing!  I found so much fire in the quest to win business it was addicting.  This also put me in a very unique position on the team,  I was the only designer not dedicated to a single automotive account.  This unique spot allowed me to touch a wide variety of industries and get exposed to the business of the industry. 

Trying to sell work to new people you don’t have prior relationships with was quite a challenge.  I was confident in my design and my ability to have an unique perspective to the clients challenges, but how do you get them to buy my vision?  I realized all of my competition could design “nice” exhibitions.  I differentiated myself by learning how to tell them “Why” I designed what I did and “Why” it solved their problem.

Experience design quickly became another aspect of my creative recipe.  Combining my unique perspective to understanding questions, designing unique solutions, integrating experience into everything I do and being able to take a client on a journey within my presentation; I found my niche!

This recipe has allowed me to not be intimidated by the scale or obscurity of a challenge.  I believe 100% that there is nothing out there I cant do.

I joined EWI in 2013 as their Chief Creative Officer.  EWI was a much smaller company compared to GP,J however they too were a major player in the Auto Show world. 

The first challenge was to create a culture that fosters Attitude, Competition and Enthusiasm.

Applying those principles, in the next few years I created a very well rounded team.  One that blurred the line of traditional roles and focused on cross disciplined skills.  The team has traditional Industrial Designers and Graphic Designers but added Creative Strategists, Story Tellers, Digital Designers, Technologists and even a Political Cartoonist. 

This group has proven to be incredible and being at a smaller company has allowed us to be nimble.  We have had incredible success at winning and executing projects so much larger then I could have ever imagined.  I always say I would not want to compete against this team!

As much as I have done in my professional career as an individual, I have found so much passion and challenge in developing a visionary team.  Design is not done singularly, It is a process that involves many voices and through those voices we identify amazing solutions and our individual skills allow us to bring those solutions to life in amazing and unexpected ways.

What is your super power as a creative ?

 Solving problems and telling stories

What are some of the current implications of design in today's culture that are on your mind ?

 Design today is needing to be so cross disciplinary.  Audiences expect more and more out of everything they engage.  There are limits to this and we must figure out how to harness simplicity and focus in everything we design.

Looking back, can you describe a moment where you had some profound impact through creative work ?

The designing of GM World.  Living in Detroit and observing first hand how hard this city has struggled to get traction in its renaissance.  It was amazing to design a project that was larger than the company I was designing it for.  We were not only creating a space to highlight GM’s vision and achievements but a space for all the world to come and be inspired.  This is a small piece in the much larger project called Detroit.

Looking ahead, where do you see immersive experiences and storytelling going?

The convergence of Architecture and Experience.  Architecture has always been purposeful, inspiring and utilitarian.  As the decades have past the expectation on what architecture can and should be has evolved. Today we want environments that responds to us, ones that we can interact with, share with others and of course be inspired by.  Similar to my exhibit industry Architecture is looking for this evolution.  Architectural companies like BIG are perfect examples on how architecture can be more experiential. 

Living or dead, if you could sit with anybody for an hour, who and what would you discuss ?

Bjarke Ingels founder BIG.  I am so completely inspired by his problem solving and ability to see the world through unique lens.  I would love to discuss his motivation, his process, where he finds inspiration and what it took to create a team that can conquer the world J



Tension or Intention

Picture 7.jpg

Quiet Please !

I find that silence was an amazing tool of communication.  When I am in a phase of gathering and learning, silence enables deep listening.  Silence affords space, space which can be filled with knowledge, or honesty, a shared feeling, an advantage, an emotional transfer.  In a negotiation, comfort in silence is a powerful tool.  Watch and listen as people negotiate with themselves, lowering their asks, their expectations.  In introducing a moment of art, it is a reset of the mind and the soul.  Wagner habitually began each of his operas with extended periods of silence.  He did it to introduce tension.  A tension of expectation.  A tension of WANTING.  A tension that shifted the experience to make the moment of the first string chord in the overture of Gotterdamerung a prescription for amazement, rapture, and enlistment.

Now that is probably a very different use of silence than you may imagine, to deliberately make your audience uncomfortable.  But it created a consensual yearning for release ! a tee-up for a state change.

In Tension

I am very fond of the idea that there many different flavor of tension as well.  When Seth Godin talks about sharing tension in a generous and constructive way, I identify entirely with that notion.  My primary craft is creating immersive environments to tell stories and create reactions… When I am describing, or pitching my work, I seek to enlist my clients or collaborators by attempting to create an echo of the feeling they will have in the powerful moments we will make.  Now I can’t bring the same fidelityof reaction without putting you into the immersive moment I am going to bring, with all of the production values that go with it.  But I CAN create an echo, first by my own total belief, total buy in on what I am about describe… And then… I perform it.  I get up, I walk around, I describe with enthusiasm,  what the visual will be, what the sound will be, the temperature, the feeling, the emotion.  And I AM that.  I seek to create what Benjamin Zander describes as the “gleam in the eye”.  Maybe it starts because you chuckle at how enthusiastic I am, but then I set the tone, I commit, and you know I believe this… and then the transfer (If I am lucky, if I get it right).  Now YOU believe.  These moments are also tension.  It’s easy to equate tension with fear, but tension also manifests as expectation, as anticipation.

Tension is the raw materials of savoring.  To savor is to enjoy with a consciousness of THIS moment, and it is all the more special because it is fleeting.  You savor because you are IN that feeling now, and you know soon it will be gone.  And that is tension.

The more I live with this thought, the more I realize that perhaps “Creating Tension” is an apt byline for my vocation.

Armed with this perspective on tension, can you see ways that you perhaps utilize tension, generate tension, leverage tension ?  I suspect perhaps so…


EXPERIENCE - Jeremy Railton



Jeremy Railton is a giant of experiential.  He is an accomplished artist, and using the tool of scale, he consistently defies expectation, creates the future, and blow’s minds.  His practice has spanned the world, and exists in almost every genre.  He was a featured speaker at my EXPERIENTIAL day at LDI last fall.

Jeremy and I sat down for some fascinating discussion on the where, when, and how of his process and inspirations.

Was there a moment when you realized you were going to go down this road as a professional creative ?

There was no real moment , I am always just looking for a way to “do art” and get paid . As soon as I left art school I had a series of wonderful opportunities that kept coming , not without pain ! I think I have been a professional creative since then through no planning or thought. There was a time in the eighties when it seemed a series of jobs just kept coming and I had to keep hiring assistants to do the work . At the time  I had a manager that said “you better start a company to help with your taxes “ and I named it Jeremy  Railton and Associates , so perhaps that is the moment . I guess I just kept saying yes .

What is your super power as a creative ?

My super power has developed over the years .  Starting with the ability to draw  ,followed by being able to empathize with the project and understand audiences;  I can now imagine a project immediately by seeing a full video in my head with lights, sound and animation. Basically I have to try to unpack the video in order to create what I am seeing in my head! No wonder I am never satisfied with any project as it is always better in my mind!! Fortunately no one sees the version in my head !

What are some of the current implications of design in today's culture that are on your mind ?

LED screens .  I have always loved large scale media  and did my first giant projection at the Mark Taper theater in 1970 using a Drive In Movie projector !  Then I started by putting TV monitors on MTV shows . Then I had the idea of The Fremont Street Experience . Nowadays every stage has an LED screen behind it and so the screens have taken the place of backdrops. Being a theater person, my focus on stages is trying to subtract the difference between scenery and the media - it is  wonderful to be able to add digital cast members to the stage ! The problem with the big screen culture is that it tends to completely upstage the performer, and great care has to be taken to make it SUPPORT the Act and not be the Act itself. DJ’s not withstanding! (laughs)

Looking back, can you describe a moment where you had some profound impact through creative work ?

For my whole career, I have been in a creative tunnel, always looking forward, so I have no sense of what has been an impact. I do notice that every art director who has worked for me becomes a success. Maybe training designers to function creatively, politely, and as pragmatic team players is my biggest personal impact. They tell me this quite often with a big grin as they take my jobs!!

Looking ahead, where do you see immersive experiences and storytelling going?

Story telling is the beginning and the end ! Immersive experiences make it real and are an outgrowth of You Tube era. So much time watching a screen has made audiences hungry to be “in the experience “, “feel it”, “ smell it “, and “touch it” and sometimes even able to change an outcome. We live in an amazing era that we are almost at the place that if we imagine it we can do it! 

Living or dead, if you could sit with anybody for an hour, who and what would you discuss ?

My favorite discussions are with inspired ambitious young people with crazy ideas and energy. I am enlivened and inspired by them. In turn I believe I can help them to have confidence in themselves and go all out without fear. I have been fortunate to have already had discussions with Buckminster Fuller, Noel Coward, Christopher Isherwood, Cecil Beaton , Salvador Dali,  Jack Nicholson,  and Elizabeth Taylor just to name drop a few ! Not that I am comparing myself to them but I could tell that they were talking

What else is currently motivating you ?

The motivation I have now comes from my company EDC, composed of young talented and ambitious designers. Having had a lifetime of freelancing I have never stopped looking for jobs. I have been mentored and helped by amazing people all my life, so I consider it my duty to pay it forward.



Bricks, Pixels, Steel, Code, and Soul


We are long accustomed to the idea of bricks, mortar, stone, and

steel in the creation of space.  Let’s now explode our ideas about

materials to include data, interaction, media, and motion.  With

these additions to our palette, we discover a way to transform public

places  into theatrical spaces. The result ?  Joy.  Drama.  Discovery.

Problem Solving.  Memory.

Today's Epiphany On Making Magic Real


There is an opportunity, every time you engage a person in an in immersive construct, that you can, you MIGHT, create magic.  It isn't proof.  It isn't obvious.  It's actually dazzlingly hard.  But the door is there, if you can open it, to create an amazing, memorable moment for somebody.  They will carry it with them.  It will shape them.  And this is your opportunity, your gift.  You better treasure it.  And feel the opportunity and RESPONSIBILITY every time you create.

It's Here...



...on a NY streetcorner.  A tightly coordinated operation results in an appearance of spontaneity... Cues are called, traffic stops as the police crew swing in, and the timecode rolls creating a magically immersive environment on LED screens in the intersection as a flashmob gathers to deliver hype.  Highly technical production delivering a brand moment disguised as civic art of occasion.    

It is also here, in a team building exercise, a collective solution session hosted in an Escape Room.  The goal: to sort through the files of a scientific collector and find the gems from the works of Michaelangelo, Einstein, and Hawking that create the "ah ha" pattern for the participants, unlocking the room, as well as a new capability in their leadership arsenal. Leveled up via production of a live consensual experience. 

Over here too, a vast multi layered, coordinated production combining a Blake Shelton performance aboard an aircraft carrier, becoming a 30 second broadcast commercial, following into an interactive street engagement,  all one calculated CURATED piece of art, production, and commerce for Pepsi featured throughout the festivities of the Superbowl. 

what happens when pixels blend with bricks ?

Add to these experiences a vast, every single day deployment of massive AV, complex scenic installs, pop up retail, conventions of EVERY stripe, and trade shows.  This is the exploding world of experiential and immersive entertainment.  Much of it is in the service of marketing, but some of it exists as secondary or tertiary layers of 360 degree storytelling, leveraging creative media intellectual properties.  It includes personally delivered productions (experienced a multi-million dollar wedding reception lately ?).  More and more, it is woven into the fabric of retail architecture.  Brands are recognising the value and opportunity of activated spaces, places where brand identity and marketing becomes compelling and entertaining story, and where interactive engagements, rich with production values that rival high end concert or broadway, integrate to create immersive and interactive environments. 

The result ?  Vivid experiences, that create deep and durable memory, reaction, education, and epiphany.  Such things are immensely valuable to brands, causes, and creative that seek to establish important and lasting connections to consumers, constituents, and collaborators.  A deepening understanding is gripping the agencies and brand creative that drives most of this market:  Create experiences, moments, that compel people to include them in their personal story.  In the memory, narrative, and tone of their own inner movie.  Now a symbiosis is established, an authentic connection that transports payloads of knowledge, message, emotion, or motivation.

The technology supporting these productions represents some of the most powerful, versatile, and cutting edge capable to be seen anywhere in the world of technical production.  Familiar layers of projectors, lighting fixtures, and LED are woven into complex, often kinetic sets, and controlled and programmed via complex bespoke layers of environmental interactivity, programmed playback, and very individual occurrences of interactive phenomena.  Augmented reality and virtual reality are being deployed more and more.  Projection mapping found a fundamental use in many of these applications, allowing outdoor architecture, or constructed environments to become on message immersion. 


Among it, within it, performance.  On screens and off, experiential production utilizes a range of personality from greeter, to aerialists, to superstar pop acts.  And the production required to support and enhance live people in spaces is here as well, one more layer in what are often some of the most multifaceted instances of telling or selling that exist.

The confluence of creative is also an embarrassment of riches.  It is HERE, in this space that you find academy award winning film makers joining forces with creative ad agencies, starchitects, top tier live production designers, masters of game engine rendering, interactive installation artists, and performance directors with broadway and vegas pedigrees.  Normally these people practice in what has been there compartments of the industry.  But immersive experiential requires all of their talents combined, and that combination means we are seeing some of the most powerful and memorable events happening anywhere.

Supporting all of that creative staff are huge teams of people that include account managers, lighting programmers, AV vendors, game engine programmers, projectionists, content management personnel, technical directors, fabricators, electricians, grips, gaffers, and camera trackers.

Some might find new semantics and acronyms here.  It's also a fascinating intersection of languages.  Terms like attract modes, activity heat mapping, lidar surveys, street teams, sampling, breakouts, dynamic edge blending, facilities impact, and mobile vehicle tours all find a home in this marketplace.

Speaking of new, on the front and back side, these extraordinary events are plugging into familiar pipelines for those who practice social media marketing, advertising metrics, or CRM.  Data collection at opt in, passive and active metrics on what people do within engagements, what they like, how they react.  A near constant stream of value added takeaways for participants (all requiring production elements to be coordinated).  It's cooler to go into an LED cave with your friends if you are snapchating and tweeting it as you go.  And the upside of this outside ?  A growing TRACKABLE avalanche of consumer data and opportunities for ongoing connection.  It is here that the all powerful ROI (return on investment) is found.

take a journey

Now, an invitation... Join me as I spend some time pulling the curtain back on the work of the best creatives in the business, as well as in depth profiles of the technology and techniques that you can sample to inform your own work, making your clients look fantastic.  I'm going to be connecting you with some of the most interesting and prolific minds in brand experiences, retail architecture, production technologies, interactive engagements and immerssive themed installations.  We'll be telling the tale of the biggest installations, as well as reviewing the newest technology, and curating a series of interviews bringing you into the room on conversations with masters practitioners of all these disciplines.  We're going to be shining the light on the tech and logistics, balanced by seeking out the why and how of the creative.  We hope this is going to expand the horizons of the production culture we know and love, while introducing a new gathering place for professionals from all these diverse sectors to spark discussions and make the most of opportunities.

So keeps your eyes and ears peeled.  If you like what you are seeing, please do give us a thumbs up, a like, and by all means share away.  Let's not just discuss amazing things... Let's create them. 


Thanks... BOB