Chuck Roberts: You Know, He’s Pretty Good

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Chuck Roberts is a Senior Art Director with Thinkwell Group and was recently named one of Blooloop’s Top 50 Museum Influencers for his multi-award-winning career that spans almost 40 years and includes work for theme parks, brand centers, museums, Presidential Libraries, World Expos, and much more. Chuck brings an extensive breadth of knowledge, experience, and understanding to his work in location-based entertainment, but he also reveals a disarming and sincere humility. He is quick to deflect praise and credit his colleagues and collaborators for their critical contributions to each and every project. His signature projects include Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Launch Experience, The Lincoln and Nixon Presidential Libraries, and the highly acclaimed USA Pavilion at this year’s Dubai Expo.

Chuck on site at the US Marshals Museum, with teammate Shengyu Zhang.

Chuck’s career path has been, like many in this industry, a long and often windy road, but each chapter along his journey brought new disciplines and skills that built upon the others to make his destination seem inevitable in hindsight. As a young child growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Chuck’s Grandma Wilma would take him to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). They visited so often in fact, that he regarded it as an extension of his home. Each visit would bring “tingles” of awe and revelation, a sensation that continues to drive his work and has become for him a key objective for every guest experience.

As a youth, Chuck was intensely shy and admittedly a bit wild. During his middle and high school years, he attended a private school (“Because public schools likely couldn’t handle me,” Chuck remarks without a hint of irony). Chuck always loved to draw, and at the Overlake School in Redmond, Washington, he would draw wherever and whenever he could, often transforming his school desk into a canvas, leaving behind drawings that his schoolmates would eagerly seek out. “They weren’t good,” he insists in typical Chuck fashion, “And they would all be washed away at the end of the day…” but they were good enough to gain the approval of his peers and the attention of the faculty. This positive reinforcement fed Chuck’s spirit and boosted his confidence.

He volunteered to build sets for the school’s production of Our Town, and gained a foundational understanding of construction techniques and materials, and a personal revelation. “Our Town is a very minimalist show, ” said Roberts, “but with really simple parts we were able to shape a space. We suggested walls, doors, windows… a whole world for the cast, and I found that very powerful.” Drama teacher Myra Goetz was impressed by Chuck’s skills and went out of her way to introduce him to the show’s set designer, Craig Martin, who invited Chuck to develop his drafting skills. Martin was so impressed by Chuck that he recommended him to work at Beverly Travis Electrical Engineering after graduation.

Drafting taught Chuck how to communicate through drawing. He gained an appreciation for precision, an understanding of electrical systems, and a growing confidence in his abilities. “You know, I was pretty good,” Chuck notes, quickly adding, “I didn’t like the work, but they sure taught me a lot.” His job also earned him enough income to help pay for tuition at Cornish School of the Arts, and later ArtCenter in Los Angeles, where he explored the aesthetics of design. Throughout his professional career, he tackled real world challenges like intrusive support columns, ventilation ductwork, guest accessibility, egress paths, catwalks, and many others. He learned not to fight or ignore these necessary evils, but to gain an understanding and appreciation for them. “If you don’t deal with them eventually, someone else will,” he insists, “It’s important not to leave them in the hands of others. Take control of them early on and use them to the benefit of your design.”

Over the course of his career, he has seen enormous changes, of course. Advances in computing, digital art, the internet, and smartphones have helped streamline workflow and improve design capabilities and communication, but this, he cautions, is a double edged sword. “Constant email, text messages, and meetings can create the illusion of progress,” he warns, “but you still need time to unplug, dive in, and do the work.” He loves the work, and so prefers to focus on what’s ahead than to rest on his past successes. “There’s always a little disappointment when a project is finished. I miss getting my head down and solving problems, so I’m always looking forward to the next thing.”

Chuck starts new projects by asking lots of questions. “We are going to tell a story in this space,” he says, “so what do we know? Is there a topic? A key element? An IP? What is the box? Do we know? What is the budget? And then, what is the thing we can do in this space that is really special, magical, and amazing, and how can we achieve that?”

The tingle that sparked his imagination as a boy continues to be the driving force behind his work today. He passionately wears his guest’s shoes as he seeks out new ways to surprise, awe, and engage audiences. With ravenous curiosity, a collaborative spirit, and a wealth of design experience gained over a lifetime, he has transformed ordinary spaces into extraordinary experiences. Through Chuck’s magic, Presidential libraries come alive with intimate profiles of these all too human beings, guests are transported to a raging Civil War Battlefield or high into space inside a Space Shuttle cargo bay. Visitors from all over the world are inspired by America’s spirit of freedom and opportunity to explore their own role in shaping the future. In every experience, Chuck strives to touch the hearts and minds of visitors of all ages, backgrounds, and interests, driven by a desire to give them the same gee-whiz excitement he felt with Grandma Wilma back at OMSI. Whether you are a guest or a close collaborator, his work always brings a tingle.