Inventing an Interactive Future

Alumni / Mar 21, 2014 / Christine Szustaczek
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Pietro Gagliano (YSDN, 2006) has never been one to take the road well-travelled.  Growing up with a knack for design, but living in a town of 300 people, his creative options after high school were limited to creating newspaper ads for a home electronics shop.  Rather than thumb his nose at the opportunity, Gagliano took everything he could from the experience, including an understanding of how to deal with customers and the gumption to start his own one-stop-design-shop at the age of 19.

To build his career and his budding company, Gagliano enrolled in Sheridan’s art fundamentals program in 2001.  Much to the shock of admissions staff, he declined an opportunity to move into animation, and transferred to the York Sheridan Bachelor of Design degree in 2002.

“YSDN was awesome for teaching design fundamentals like typography, colour, and layout. It taught me design theory that’s worked for a hundred, perhaps a thousand years.  But there was a bit of a divide for me because I wanted to do interactive at a time when this really wasn’t being taught anywhere.”

Gagliano came up with his own solution.  “I started put little to no emphasis on my marks and focused on building my portfolio by inventing projects for myself – hoping that I wouldn’t flunk out of the program,” he said. “If the project was to design a poster or a stamp, I’d do an additional piece that was a website.  At the graduation show, we were instructed to print our best work, and display them on a felt panel. But, I knew I didn’t want to work in print, so I did something gutsy and displayed an empty white panel that read ‘Is print dead?’ with additional small type suggesting ‘The work of Pietro Gagliano is on the computers to the right’.  That got me a reputation for being the ‘interactive guy’ and job offers at couple of agencies straight out of school.”

But true to his self-starting nature, Gagliano declined these opportunities and concentrated instead on growing his own company and freelancing with a number of advertising firms. He began specializing in branding and interactive as well as motion design. He also built connections with other like-minded people “who weren’t afraid to push technologies to the limit or talk nerdy with each other.”

Perhaps quite fittingly then, it was through a digital platform  – YouTube – that Gagliano connected with his current business partner and the founder of Secret Location, the interactive design firm where he’s worked as Creative Director since 2009.  The Emmy award-winning company bridges technology, entertainment, design and advertising to engage audiences in experiences that centre on interactive storytelling. Earlier this month, Secret Location won three Canadian Screen Awards for the best cross-platform, interactive projects they created related to the TV shows Amazing Race, The Next Step, and Continuum.

High points like this one are well-earned and welcomed, even if they are accompanied by a caveat.  “Technology inspires what we do and pushes us to invent new things every day, but the curse is that your portfolio has a limited shelf life.  If you were a painter, your painting could be good for a thousand years.  It keeps increasing in value.  But in interaction design, you’re lucky if you get three years out of a piece before it gets taken down.”

What might be off-putting to some, Gagliano finds motivating.  “Interaction design is all about blending elements that were never really intended to go together to create something new,” explains Gagliano, who thrives on playing in a field that he’s partly helping to build.  “If Apple creates a new TV or Samsung launches a watch, how does that change how advertisers talk to their customers?  That’s what we think about.  Right now, it’s the most exciting time to be alive for interaction designers.  It’s like being an visual artist at the time perspective was discovered.”

Beyond his work in industry, Gagliano is helping to further the momentum for his field by volunteering as a Professional Advisory Council member for Sheridan’s new Bachelor of Interaction Design degree.  “I think the program is excellent at teaching people how to approach interactivity from different angles, both the left and right brain way of thinking, and that’s a huge asset to any company in the future.”

While interaction design might not yet be main stream, Gagliano does feel that Canada is one of the best places in the world to be entering this industry.  “Much like the way that the National Film Board redefined animation in the 70s, they’re now re-inventing documentaries and storytelling by using interactive platforms.  Canada has a network of talent, an emerging market and government grants and tax credits to fuel experimentation.  I’ve spoken at conferences in Italy and the U.S. about interaction design.  People keep telling me ‘You guys in Canada are killing it.’  I feel blessed to work in a city and country where that power and potential exist.”

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