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Eyes wide open

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Boasting a diverse portfolio, Pod Productions revels in designing communications solutions for different audiences

How about this for a design portfolio: all the buildings at a major business park, an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and an airship that functions as a luxury hotel? The last is a giveaway, since the project is evidently virtual. This is not an architect's workload, but the portfolio of Pod Productions, which likes to describe itself as a new media/communications consultant.

Since its two founders, Casper Cummins and Chris Lamb, both come from an architectural background, most of the projects have an architectural bent, but this does not have to be the case. As Cummins explains: 'We are trying to present ourselves as a new consultant for the team. What we are trying to do is get people to have a new media strategy right from the start of the project.'

The first reaction to this suggestion might well be, why on earth do we need yet another consultant? But look more closely at what the company is doing and you start to see the point. The airborne hotel, although visually dramatic, is actually the least radical example of Pod's work. Produced for the millennium issue of Conde Nast Traveller, it is a visualisation of a fantasy by that most fantastical of architects, Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo. Strip away the makebelieve element and it is a straightforward computer visualisation, as pioneered by Hayes Davidson.

Indeed, this was the company's bread and butter when it started five years ago. It is still an important thread, although even here it is attempting to do something different.

'We are moving towards taking panoramic photography that will give you a walk round in the existing street, ' says Cummins. 'Press a button and the building will pop up. This approach does not fetishize the building, it makes the environment just as important.' Cummins defines the more radical, more comprehensive side of Pod's work as 'information design'. He says: 'It is about how to communicate ideas and other complex information to whatever audience.'

The medium used depends on the potential recipients. For a widely spread audience, a website may be the answer. Touch screens can be very effective for public communication.

Where presentation is to be done in a controlled situation, DVD or CD-ROM may be the best technique.

This all sounds very worthy, but how does it translate into real projects? One client is London Underground, for which Pod is working on the redevelopment of Camden Town Tube station. It has used video, sound capture and three-dimensional graphics to show how congested the station is at present. Time-lapse photography of the platforms demonstrates the overcrowding and inconvenience caused, and film of the congested exits is quite disturbing.

Pod provides various routes through the information for different sets of people - the interests of members of the public are likely to be different to the concerns of the planners.

As the original design by Wilkinson Eyre Architects developed, Pod produced block diagrams showing the construction sequence. Now Jestico + Whiles has been appointed, Pod will incorporate the new designs into its work. This type of representation is important for reassuring people about the level of disruption and demonstrating that a promise to keep the station open is achievable.

Chris Lamb says that Pod is 'building a body of evidence, then proposing what we should do about it and explaining it in the most easy to use way'.

This emphasis on accessibility was also key to a project in Bristol, consulting the public about a proposed development by Land Securities at Broadmead. There Pod designed material for touch screens in prominent locations. These used a mixture of graphics, talking heads and visualisation. One local was so impressed he said he would not have opposed an earlier scheme if it had been presented as professionally - a disturbing instance of the medium being more important than the message.

Farnborough Business Park, a development of 160,000m 2, is Pod's current project and its largest so far. It comes close to the company's ideal of being involved throughout the life of the project, from day one. Pod became involved with the business park at an early stage, before any of the impressive list of architects - Foster and Partners, Allies and Morrison, Nicholas Hare - was appointed. It worked with masterplanner Bruce Gilbreth Architects to design its own generic business park module. This clever solution was not too specific, yet managed to look like real buildings which could evolve into the type of work the developer's choice of architects would produce.

'Gilbreth brought us on board to look at ways of communicating the scheme before it had been designed, ' explains Cummins. 'He wanted to communicate to the public and the big international hi-tech companies that they wanted to relocate there.'

For Slough Estates this was a new venture, and it wanted Farnborough to be 'the best business park ever'. Pod did fly-throughs and visualisations, combined with information for a public exhibition.According to Cummins, this meant 'all the interested parties had something quite tangible to talk about'. The work combined animation with scaled maps so people could 'burrow down through the project in relation to the town, to transport links, into individual buildings'.

Presentation methods were as varied as the material. A presentation suite was developed at Slough Estates where it could show the scheme in its latest form to planners, public and potential tenants. The material produced by Pod impressed the planners so much that, in place of the handdrawn images originally required, they are now working entirely with digital images.

In contrast to the carefully targeted material for the marketing suite, Pod also created a website, aimed at potential occupiers. The second version of this, with new drawings from Foster and Partners and Allies and Morrison, will be launched on 23 March at www. innnovatelocate. com. Cummins believes this website could outlive the lifetime of the construction project, with useful information about the area and the business park for new and established residents.

'With other clients and other projects, we are proposing that rather than wait until the marketing phase, we should have a project website from its inception. It could be like one of those Russian dolls with different levels of accessibility. It would present projects in development to the people that should know about them, ' Cummins says. 'What we are pitching at the moment to architects and their clients is that from the start you can raise the levels of understanding and consult more people sooner. This should facilitate the development process and even get you a better design.'

Though many may nod at this idea, Cummins finds the greatest problem is 'to break down the pigeonholes that exist. Big developers have somebody who deals with planning, who is completely different from the marketing department.'

Breaking down these barriers is worthwhile but must be frustrating.

How nice then to work on projects where the imagination can be given relatively free rein, and the negotiations are less complex. One of these was Pod's relatively early project with portrait photographer Steve Pyke.

Pod gave him a virtual exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Having filmed the building Pod then replaced the existing pictures with Pyke's photographs, and peopled the gallery with some of the other subjects. It created banners outside the gallery - and then realised there was a danger people would be fooled into thinking this was a real, not a virtual, exhibition. It backtracked by making the entrance to the site through a rainbowcoloured airship floating above Cummins' home town of Hastings.

Other projects include a concept for Virgin Clothing & Cosmetics to persuade US stores to give the company space using little robots full of make-up brushes whizzing about; and developing a new concept in bars for Bass. The link in Pod's diverse portfolio is making technology serve communication instead of using it as a substitute, as is too often the case.

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