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Ken Burns’ iPad app turns U.S. History into a Mixtape



A few months ago I got a sneak preview of a new iPad app that was being created for filmmaker Ken Burns by producer Don MacKinnon and Big Spaceship.  When I saw it I thought the concept and user interface design were brilliant but this new app went back to an old theme in Don’s work – mix tapes.

The world first got to know Don’s work when he was the head of Hear Music which was the brand name for Starbucks’ wildly successful retail music concept. What made that brand work so well was that it let Don and the rest of us revisit that time in our youth when we would sit with our record player or tape deck to make your own custom mix tapes. With Hear Music, Don just got to make mix tapes again but he got to do it with some of the world’s best artists. So when it came time to concept a new app for Ken Burns whose movies run a total of 136 hours, Don knew right where to start – mix tapes.


It is not a small task to take 8,147 minutes of footage and break it down into concept and an interface that would make it easily digestible for anyone through an app. This is why the mix tape idea works so well because the app lets the viewer watch a single clips at a time or have the clips organized into “mix tapes” with the themes of innovation, race, politics, art, hard times, and war.

When you first launch the app you see a time line stretching from 1776 to 2000 filled with clips from various films represented as dots. Tapping on one of the dots will enlarge it and give you the full name of the clip, length, film it comes from and a short description. But the really cool part of the mix tape concept kicks in when you drag a dot to the top or bottom of the screen. As you start to drag a dot to the top of the screen you will see other dots start to rise to the top as well which are all associated to one of the 6 “mix tapes” or themes. Once the dots is dragged all the way up then you can now watch all the clips in that theme as a continuous mix tape or playlist. You can also drag a dot towards the bottom of the screen it will create the same type of effect that you see when you drag it towards the bottom of the screen but instead of having the dots organize into a theme it will collect all the dots from the film the selected dot came from.

There is also an e-commerce component to the app that I think is handled really well since this app obviously looks to expose people to Burn’s films, get the to see them in new ways and ultimate spend money to buy this films. The app is free to download but you will quickly find out that only clips from the Innovation playlist are available for free.  If you want the rest of the content in the other themes then you have to pay $9.99 to unlock remaining three hours of content. There is also a section when you looks at the dots by film where the app has the expected link out to iTunes to buy the film but also links to the PBS site to watch it for free or Netflix apps where you can watch it if you have a membership. It is nice to see an e-commerce model that takes a more modern view of how people consume media than just trying to drive everything to only a purchase model.

We all know that given enough time everything old becomes new again but in this case the return of the mix tape concept is a fantastic example of the power of digital because it takes these brilliant, long form films and lets the app give them a whole new multi dimensional context that lets you see them in a whole new way. Because in the end, isn’t that promise of taking something and giving it new life and context what we are all hoping to design for our clients?

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