Carnevale Simplifies Complex

January 2, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — As it turned out, the online application to create hip-hop music was remarkably similar to the one used to process mortgage applications. Both had a unique goal with complicated challenges and a need for an easy-to-understand user experience. And the key to both, explained Carnevale ID principal Michael Carnevale, was to determine how the object at hand would interact with its intended user.

At this base level, design is universal, said the industrial designer turned Web wunderkind, whether it be a Kodak printer, a Boeing 737 custom interior, a sales force software suite for Pfizer, or an online media player for VH1 — all of which the 33-year-old Carnevale has designed in his young career.

"The design process I use is largely formed out of the industrial design process," he said. "It's about exploring ideas and getting clients involved, garnering feedback and making prototypes, then building it. It's all the same, this notion of design and process. It's just that in industrial design, you're dealing with three dimensions; in user experience or interactive design it's two. … The problem is figuring out how to simplify complexity."

While the process is much the same for any design project, the end product can be starkly different. The application Carnevale built in partnership with NuSoft Solutions for National City Home Loans needed to be user-friendly above all else. If potential customers could not complete the application without outside assistance, then the Web site would fail its fundamental goal: to sell loans.

The design and tone of the Beaterator and Rhymerator is a far cry from the National City application, but the online music-making suites had the same usability concerns, providing an aid for potential hip-hoppers to make beats and rhymes with no additional training.

Alone and with partners, Carnevale has had the opportunity to work on some high-profile West Michigan software developments, including the National City application, the user interface for the Robertson Research Institute's NxOpinion and interface applications for Dematic.

His national work — which Carnevale doesn't want to overshadow his local projects — is about as far from old-line Grand Rapids business as Grand Theft Auto is from the Big Three, and it's these projects that have defined the company.

The Beaterator is the latest in a series of Web-based applications created to promote Rockstar Games. The free application creates up to eight full tracks of sequences with up to 240 bars of composition that can be downloaded as an MP3. The sequencer and sampler kit is like nothing else available on the Web, and last year was featured by Rolling Stone, XXL and G4 TV.

The Beaterator was a sequel to an earlier Carnevale project for Rockstar, the Rhymerator, an online application that assists in rhymes and metaphors for use in hip-hop lyrics. The success of that project in 2000 prompted Rockstar and parent company Take 2 Entertainment to hand the then 27-year-old Grand Rapids designer the Web marketing responsibilities for its edgy Grand Theft Auto franchise.

"When I was approached to provide the entire flash design for Grand Theft Auto 3, it wasn't the pop culture phenomenon it is today," Carnevale said. "Before that it had been a niche product, and then it became this phenomenon. To be involved with that was really exciting for me. It's set the tone for the growth of my practice."

Grand Theft Auto 3 was the surprise hit video game of 2001, and with its ViceCity and San Andreas sequels, the franchise quickly grew into a multi-billion dollar enterprise with exhaustive Web marketing requirements. Carnevale ID last month completed the launch of its fifth Grand Theft Auto Web site.

The video game exposure quickly led to work with other pop culture icons. Carnevale has become an integral piece of the online marketing efforts of VH1, leading the Web design for a long list of the channel's signature brands, including Best Week Ever and the Hip Hop Honors. Country Music Television is also a client.

With these, he has found it beneficial to remind clients that Grand Rapids is in the same time zone as New York, he jokes. Coincidentally, he is only a few years removed from the East Coast himself.

After graduating with a degree in industrial design from the DesignSchool at CarnegieMellonUniversity, Carnevale returned to Grand Rapids and worked briefly at a local industrial design firm, where he worked on automotive and medical furniture projects for Prince Automotive and Steelcase, respectively.

He then took a position at classic New York City firm Henry Dreyfuss Associates, the design shop responsible for the Honeywell thermostat and most of the standard telephone models of the 20th century. He worked on a number of high-profile projects there for clients such as Kodak and Boeing, and when the firm decided to relocate to New Jersey, he opted to return to West Michigan

He began working as a contract industrial designer in 1998, later incorporating as Median Group. He soon added interactive and Web design to his portfolio, something he had offered as a service while in college.

"It was fun to be part of the Web back then; it was really a growth period," said Carnevale. Shortly after, a friend suggested him to Rockstar for the Rhymerator project, and the industrial design aspects have since taken a backseat to the two-dimensional work.

Last year, Median Group became Carnevale ID. The ID is ambiguous, representing interface, information, industrial, international and identity design, which Carnevale collectively refers to as use-experience design. This year, the firm moved into a new studio at

560 Fifth St. NW

He attributes his jack-of-all-trades mentality to a portion of college spent studying in Italy

"Italian industrial designers are typically architects by education," he said. "There is less of a mental barrier between disciplines. An architect is just as capable of doing graphic design as industrial design — a very unified method."

Carnevale is not much of a gamer himself, confessing a lack of time to devote to the hobby. He feels that the most significant aspects of the field won't be its growth as an entertainment medium, as evidenced by Grand Theft Auto, but in the ability of companies to leverage the complicated interfaces of video games for business applications.

"You have a whole generation that has grown up as experts in these interactive environments, with maps and multiple things happening on screen, controllers with all these buttons that do different things," he said. "Now imagine poring through a ton of sales data, an overwhelming amount of data, recognizing that you can use these multiple dimensions and time-based displays."

Several firms have approached Carnevale to create such an application, including Pfizer's New York operations. He used the hypothetical example of a traffic management application. The same screen could represent average speed in a sector, traffic density, problem spots and other data points, with users manipulating and accessing all of these sets simultaneously.

"It's really exciting what we can do in terms of representing complex data," he said. "It's an interesting crosspollination."    

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