An Interview With the Industry’s Shape-Shifters: Thinkwell Group

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Unlike most creative companies, Thinkwell does not want to stand out. Producers in imaginative industries –authors, film directors, or architects for instance – typically hope to be recognized for their distinctive styles much in the way that Tim Burton movies are distinctively Tim Burton, and Disney experiences are distinctively Disney. Thinkwell, however, stakes its career on being able to mold to its clients: “We don’t want someone to say, ‘That looks like a Thinkwell project.’ If you go to Frank Gehry, you’re going to get a Gehry building. When you come to us, you don’t know what you’re going to get because what we do is tied to your vision,” explains François Bergeron, CFO and COO of Thinkwell. Some of Thinkwell’s most popular projects include the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London: The Making of Harry Potter, the Snow Park at Ski Dubai, and The Show at the Pier at Caesars, a state of the art multi-sensory fountain in Atlantic City. The thread that unites all of their projects is Thinkwell’s steadfast commitment to making experiences fun and entertaining.
Even when the content is education-based, entertaining the guest remains Thinkwell’s number one priority. For example, their task at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta was to create an experience to teach kids about nature. Fernbank is located next to the largest urban forest in the country, but most of the local kids are afraid to venture into the woods and explore. Fernbank wanted to educate kids in a safe environment, and so Thinkwell brought the forest to them through the exploratory exhibit NatureQuest. Instead of being filled with the didactic placards usually found at a museum, NatureQuest is a wonderfully forest-like environment embedded with fun instances of RFID technology and multi-media. While the interactive elements present factual information, the experience never strays from being entertaining. As François points out, “Museums and theme parks are getting closer; museums know they have to entertain a little bit more. The difference between them is that museums want everything to be very precise. You can’t invent something new because the content has to be accurate.” When dealing with museums, there is a careful balance between fact and fantasy.
Similarly, when creating an entirely new experience, there is a balance between fantastical ideas and the project parameters, which are generated by conducting a feasibility study. Without a feasibility study, it’s anyone’s guess how well the proposed project will do. According to Francois, “The worst is a blank canvas with no theme and no parameters. We love having the feasibility study to hone in on the target and help us frame the canvas for what the project could be.” Once the project parameters are in place, Thinkwell establishes a strategic roadmap that serves as the basis for all ideas going forward. It’s no wonder they would want parameters to frame the canvas: their main conference room, aptly named the “Charrette Cathedral,” has enough blank canvases for several days’ worth of new ideas. A blank canvas offers free creative rein, but this can border on too much freedom: the most successful concepts are those based on a sound strategy, rather than subjective ideas that were created in a vacuum.
If there is one word to describe Thinkwell it’s “flexible.” Their main building is comprised of a handful of offices for their core team, and adjacent to these offices is an enormous studio full of workstations to accommodate their fluctuating staff. Depending on the project, this team can number up to about 150 people. This makes for a highly collaborative, nimble environment that can fashion solutions for multiple platforms and industries. The office modulates from serene and quiet to bustling and busy on a day-to-day basis: “If you come here on Friday afternoon, it could look completely different from Tuesday morning,” François explains. The highly skilled folks who populate the workstations hail from various industries, which include anything from theater and computer programming to behavioral science.
Each project has a core team of 4-5 people that guides the creative process from start to finish, bringing in specialists as needed. These specialists have to be nimble in character, because as François points out, “The people who work here are reinventing themselves every day – one day they could be working on a project in Dubai, and the next day it could be something completely different in China.”
One of Thinkwell’s values is bringing young designers onto projects: “A lot of young professionals left the industry after 2008, so we’re having to recruit and mentor a lot of new young people. Recruiting is very important, especially from adjacent industries. We hire a lot of people who specialize in something but have wider interests. If you work in animation for a big studio, all you might get to do is color the backgrounds, which gets tiring after a while if you’re a creative person. We nurture the spirit of people who are just starting out and want to spread their wings.”
Perhaps this inclusion of the younger generation is what inspires Thinkwell’s unusual and silly office culture. You never know what will happen in the midst of a work day: a spontaneous marching band could appear in the Charrette Cathedral, parade around for a few seconds, and then disappear; or perhaps a goat might show up (but that’s only if Saturday Night Live comes in for a charrette). François also does his fair share to encourage silliness at the office; after an 8-month stint in Macao, he returned to find that 90% of the office didn’t know him. To remedy this, he hired a mariachi band to follow him for the day as he made his rounds and introduced himself. While the incentive of a six-pack for punctual timecards couldn’t last, many other fun office activities – such as themed dress-up Fridays – are still going strong.
Thinkwell is currently working on two theme parks in China (Jurassic Dream and Monkey Kingdom), and while we can’t disclose details about their other upcoming projects (at least, not for another 48-60 months), we can tell you that they’re busy jet-setting around South America, the Middle East, and China. François doubts there will be another large theme park development in the U.S. anytime soon, which points to an increasingly global future for Thinkwell.
Like most entertainment designers, François sees the future of the industry as one where the digital and physical world will continue to merge: “The pendulum swung very far towards the digital world with things like Second Life, allowing people to live entirely in a digital world. Then it swung back. The reality is that we need people. Future experiences will allow you to be in a physical environment with your friends while enjoying a digital component that enhances your experience and even virtually connects you with people who are elsewhere.”
As large theme parks continue to pop up abroad, we will be interested to see how Thinkwell finds ways to implement virtual connectivity. Maybe we won’t have to feel so far from their international theme parks after all. But wherever their next project ends up being, now that we have gotten to know Thinkwell, we are sure it’s worth the trip.
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