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Grumpy Sailor creates immersive experiences that promote change

From exhibition design to 3D mapping, James Boyce of Grumpy Sailor studio uses technology to tell compelling and powerful stories.

A photo of a table set with white ceramic dishes, lit with 3D projection mapping

Visuals by Grumpy Sailor

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Putting into words what Australian experience design studio Grumpy Sailor does is hard. They admit as much on their studio website: “It’s difficult to describe exactly what we do. Truth is, if it was simple, we'd probably have been bored years ago.”

While the studio’s service offering spans a wide range of disciplines, from experience strategy and design to 3D mapping to exhibit installations, they all revolve around one thing: storytelling.

How a Grumpy Sailor steers his ship

Grumpy Sailor was founded by CEO James Boyce, who wanted to use his background in film and advertising to tell stories he was interested in, on his terms.

His stint at Weta Digital — Peter Jackson’s visual digital effects company behind the iconic computer graphics in Lord of the Rings — showed him how powerful the relationship between technology and storytelling can be. This would play a big part in shaping Grumpy Sailor as a studio that unfolded experiences through the lens of technology.

“I knew what I wanted to make, and I needed to find people who were willing to come with me,” James says. “People to work for me, but also people to work with.”

As James set out to make Grumpy Sailor a reality, he collected a “band of misfits” - over a dozen employees from different backgrounds, each with a unique set of abilities. The multidisciplinary team allows the studio to approach the experiences they build from many different angles and create a truly immersive experience.

A table set with ceramic dishes and a background of mushrooms and a clock in a forest
The Mad Hatter's Tea Party by Grumpy Sailor, a projection-mapping installation.

Managing such a wide range of professionals can be complicated. Despite not being an entirely software-driven company, the studio adopted an Agile workflow to keep things moving along and has recently hit 100 sprint cycles. They hold daily check-ins to keep on top of their tasks.

They also use these regular check-ins to hear about what inspires each and every one of them — every day a different team member runs the meeting and shares “inspo.” With team members coming from a range of backgrounds and expertise, the inspiration can come in any form. “We have visualists, we have experience junkies... It can be anything,” James says. “It could be a toasted sandwich that you've made. It has been in the past. There are no rules.”

Continuing on this same spirit of shared creativity, James strongly believes that good ideas can come from any department. “For that first stage — particularly in concept design or when we're prototyping and creatively exploring possibilities — creativity is not contained to our design team,” he says. “It's a whole organization approach. So there's a whole lot of interdisciplinary interaction.”

The studio has an unconventional approach to UX, given their eclectic team. “Interface design is a pivotal part of what we do; we see it as any point at which someone engages with what it is that we've created”, James confirms. “So UX takes on a much greater role in the work behind the scenes because in our work there are so many touchpoints for the user.”

For any creative ideation, but especially in UX, Grumpy Sailor has a mantra: “Turn over every stone.” Even if the first idea feels right, it always pays off to continue brainstorming and iterating.

James notes that making mistakes earlier in the process is better than later, mentioning his tech director Emily McCartney: “She's always talking about how it's much cheaper to make those mistakes in UX design than in the actual build. Try to eliminate all those edge cases at that point rather than when you're paying developers to rebuild and rebuild and rebuild.”

“Rarely does a project come along where you can make the world a better place through your creativity. It wasn't intimidating; it was a dream come true.”

Experiences that make a difference

James is very particular about the projects the studio takes on. Grumpy Sailor’s values have always been to create experiences that can facilitate change. They call themselves a “for purpose” studio — united around leaving the world in a better state, for future generations.

One standout project of Grumpy Sailor’s is their work for Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission, Road To Zero. The team built an educational complex with different stations to educate teens, not yet old enough to get a license, on road safety before they engage with the road network. The endeavor was quite a departure from the studios’ more entertaining work, but one that they were eager to tackle. “Rarely does a project come along where you can make the world a better place through your creativity,” James says. “It wasn't intimidating; it was a dream come true.”

An exhibition view of a car facing a large screen showing computer graphics of a road
Road to Zero exhibition design by Grumpy Sailor.

An exhibition view with two people exploring the space.
Road to Zero exhibition design by Grumpy Sailor.

In Learning Lab, the studio utilized VR, iPads, a green screen and wall and floor projections to explore First People’s perspectives. Showing in the Melbourne Museum, the exhibition was built in collaboration with First People’s elders and artists. This involved the Grumpy Sailor team going “on country,” visiting communities and listening to their experiences — a process indigenous Australians call “Deep Listening.”

“I think that the success that we've had is really where we take a back seat and act as an instrument for amplification as opposed to the definers of the stories that will be told,” James reveals. Inspired by these insights, the studio’s website launches into a modal window acknowledging the ownership of the indigenous people whose lands they operate on before the user can view their site.

An audience watching an immersive film screening
Learning Lab in the Melbourne Museum by Grumpy Sailor. Credit: Museums Victoria, photographer Rodney Start.

Two children sitting on the floor and watching an immersive film screening
Learning Lab in the Melbourne Museum by Grumpy Sailor.

Looking ahead, James describes his outlook as “relentlessly and misguidedly optimistic.”

“I think there's never been a better year to be a designer because everything that was fixed is no longer tethered, and everything that was static is more dynamic than ever,” he says. “That presents an opportunity very few of us will ever have in our lives — I think we're going to see an explosion of creativity as we try to understand ourselves and what we value in the world.”

Two people facing a pole with a grid and numbers on it at an exhibition.
An installation by Grumpy Sailor at the MOD's Hedonism exhibition

An exhibition view with various items from the Australian music industry
The Australian Music Vault exhibition design by Grumpy Sailor.

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