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By: Chris Brune

George Zisiadis is an interactive artist and designer who playfully reimagines the everyday. He inspires in those who touch his work new ways of seeing the world. His San Francisco-based studio produces work independently and in collaboration with brands and institutions.

Through both guerrilla interventions and my public art work, I’ve focused on re-imagining mundane urban experiences into opportunities for joy.
— George Zisiadis
George Zisiadis at the TEDxSacramentoSalon, "This Changes Everything: City," on March 7, 2015.

George Zisiadis at the TEDxSacramentoSalon, "This Changes Everything: City," on March 7, 2015.

George wasn't always the urban design rebel we met on the TEDxSacramento stage at “This Changes Everything: City” at The Guild Theatre. He was once a self-proclaimed jaded New Yorker until he took a stroll in Manhattan's Central Park in the winter of 2005.

George's 'Ah-ha!' moment

Hungarian artist Christo Yavacheff and French artist Jeanne-Claude, known jointly as Christo and Jeanne-Claude, descended on Central Park in early January 2005. They employed an army of volunteers to help create a remarkable installation piece entitled The Gates that transformed the massive park with vibrant deep saffron-colored nylon fabric banners along its many miles of pathway.

For George, the same walk that he had done hundreds of times before was now a sublime experience. He found himself wandering for hours in a mesmerized state of awe. When reflecting over the transformative experience of the installation, George recalls a moment of epiphany.

People spend millions of dollars to build giant ‘things’ in cities that serve no other purpose than to make people happy? That’s awesome!
— George Zisiadis

He decided to seek out more experiments in urban imagination. George has dedicated his life to creating experiences, like The Gates, so others might be inspired, too. He set out to bring a sense of joy and wonder to the people who participate in urban spaces across the country.

Urban Inventions

George set out on his new path by making simple observations to add poetry to the everyday. He started asking questions like “maybe something more could go here, something more joyous?” He didn’t have to wait long until he found his first opportunity to experiment. His first project centered around the bike racks of New York City. It was his first in an ongoing series of installations that playfully re-imagined public space.

Musical Bike Rack  - An urban intervention re-imagining the use of bike racks.

Musical Bike Rack - An urban intervention re-imagining the use of bike racks.

In George's mind, music (gongs) + the mundane (the ubiquitous NYC bike rack) = potential for a more human, emotional, and reflective experience. George summed up the whole experience in one simple truth, "Who doesn’t like hitting gongs?"

As adults we come to rely on routine. It’s experiences like the Musical Bike Rack that shake people out of their daily routines and give us permission to play. Simply put, George is creating experiences that punctuate the everyday urban landscape and remind us how to seek joy as a child might.

Mistletoe Drone

The introduction of the Amazon drone delivery concept presented George with an opportunity to, once again, inject some whimsy into an otherwise ordinary tool whose purpose was utilitarian in design. When the drone delivery stunt first took off, George said, "We can do better. How about a mistletoe drone?"

Mistletoe Drone - An urban intervention in San Francisco's Union Square in December 2013 designed to spread holiday cheer.

George was able to reach pedestrians in an urban setting without having to deploy a (semi)permanent installation. The drone itself wasn’t placed ‘on’ the urban landscape; it was placed ‘above’ the fray of busy holiday shopping. The experience was piloted to people instead of relying on pedestrians to make their way to where an installation was located. This added layer of mobility created an element of surprise that co-opted the passersby into participants.

The drone also illustrated how a relatively small execution can impact participants and onlookers in a deep and relevant way. George learned that he didn’t need to build an imposing physical structure to make a big impact on the public. A quadcopter, mistletoe, and some holiday cheer were all the ingredients necessary to spread joy that afternoon in San Francisco’s Union Square.

Pulse of The City

These early projects inspired George to tackle bigger issues in cities. There is a truth that comes into focus when we humans gather in increasingly dense space — we lose touch with our natural rhythms and become increasingly drone-like. George shared his solution to this unfortunate effect of city living. He asked himself, "Amongst the chaotic rhythms of the city, how can we connect people to the rhythms of their own bodies?" His answer to this question was realized in his installation Pulse of The City where participants' heartbeats are turned into music.

Pulse of the City - a public art installation that turns pedestrians' heartbeats into music. 

When visitors hold onto the handles, they hear their heartbeat layered over with custom music produced from their real-time pulse data.

Pulse of the City gave people the opportunity to stop and playfully reconnect with the rhythms of their bodies. The installation is another example of how George transformed the soundscape by adding joy to the maelstrom of noise endemic to city life.

Urban Imagination

George shared with us the elegantly simple ideas that eventually found their way into his book, Urban Imagination. It's a collection of fifty whimsical drawings that add a playful twist to everyday urban objects. Skyscraper ziplines, gumball parking meters, and disco ball traffic lights are just a few of the charmingly illustrated ideas that explore how to make cities more fun.

For adults, Urban Imagination is a reminder of what it’s like to see the world through a child’s eyes. For children, it’s a validation of what they already know is possible.
— George Zisiadis
Grass Bench  - The first Urban Imagination concept turned into reality! Created for the San Francisco Exploratorium's night of Civic Hacking.

Grass Bench - The first Urban Imagination concept turned into reality! Created for the San Francisco Exploratorium's night of Civic Hacking.

This series of sketches proved to be far more than the makings of a fantastic coffee table book. Those who thumbed through the pages of childlike crayon and color pencil drawings found that their own latent urban imagination had been ignited with the possibility of designing for joy.

Isn't it frivolous: Is urban art worth the cost of investment?

George introduces us to two very different cities with wildly different outlooks on function and design. The first city "Boring," as George calls it, is the type of place where overpass and stairwells are grey and empty — it's a familiar scene in most cities. George also introduces us to a city a few miles down the road that employs a fundamental difference in its approach to urban design. In this second city, a sterile, unremarkable, underpass can be re-imagined as a communal meeting place. But, is it worth the expense and effort?

Simple considerations at the design phase can result in urban spaces that are not only entertaining, but also profit centers for the municipality that commissions them. George returns to his formative experience with joy-centered design to substantiate this claim.

The Gates in Central Park is estimated to have attracted four million visitors during its fifteen day run. Those visitors that flocked to Manhattan from around the world paid for lodging, ate at restaurants, bought souvenirs from street vendors — you get the point. The taxes from these transactions fill city coffers, not to mention the extra dollars that find their way to the pockets of vendors and small business owners. It's estimated that The Gates installation was responsible for over $254 million in revenue; not bad for a bunch of colored sheets waving in the wind.

George adds some insight by saying, "...designing for function and designing for joy are not mutually exclusive." Embracing a joy-centered design ethos can indeed have a real world impact on the fortunes of cities and the individuals who live there.

George left us with a very simple question.

We have a choice as a society. We can continue building and shaping our cities to be boring, or we can have more happy adventures — which would you rather live in?
— George Zisiadis

He showed us how any idea, no matter how grand in scope or singular in focus can both effect how we shape our world through joyful design.


For more examples of George Zisiadis' work and creative process, including his '100 Questions to guide any creative project,' visit his website.

Interested in learning about and sharing more ideas worth spreading? Register for the upcoming TEDxSacramento "THIS Changes EVERYTHING!" on June 12, 2015. Join thousands of fellow Sacramentans at the biggest TEDxSacramento conference ever!