Experience design is changing the way architects and designers conceive their role. At the same time, it is shaping the way people interact with the built environment.
While experience design isn’t an entirely new concept, it has emerged as a more prevalent practice over the past few years. Many architects have been following John Portman’s advice:
If a building is to meet the needs of all the people, the architect must look for some common ground of understanding and experience.
That is, the question of experience has become increasingly more important to designers seeking to innovate and create spaces that deliver a lasting emotional connection between human occupants and the built environment.
Taking cues from branding and marketing, this movement has already made waves in the building community. I’d like to examine why experience design is so different and what it means for the future of architecture.
The Growing Necessity of Experience in Design
Before I dive into a more specific analysis of experience, I want to examine the idea of experience itself. It’s easy to define experience, but how is it measured? While it’s not a dogmatic resource, the Gensler Experience Index gives a structured, holistic view of how experience can be qualified. Notably, Gensler outlines the goal of the Index “to inspire the creation of great places that engage people’s emotions and keep them coming back.” That ethos is crucial to experience design.
On a micro level, the Index considers various modes of experience and looks at how design affects those modes. The five modes––task, social, discovery, entertainment, and aspiration––are essentially the reasons people seek out experiences. Gensler also specifically analyzed the relationship between experience and design, concluding by emphasizing the importance of the two elements working in tandem: “The overall design look and feel of a space influences positive emotions, which in turn influences positive experience—and positive emotions and experience are at the heart of engaging users, whether connecting employees to organizational purpose or shoppers to a brand’s larger mission and story.”
In short, design works as part of the overall experience of a place to engage occupants and visitors. With that purpose in mind, it’s easy to think of experience design as design that creates and facilitates a positive emotional connection between the occupants and the built environment. Furthermore, these emotional connections are what underpin an individual’s reason for visiting any sort of space. People are no longer going out to eat just for food but for an experience. This is especially true of millennials, who are seeking out design factors like authenticity and novelty that are crucial to experience design. Factors like sustainability and aesthetic appeal also come into play, but these factors should contribute to the overall experience.
Creating an Emotional Connection with Experience Design
The next step, of course, is to determine how to create and foster these emotional connections. Here, it helps to look at what some architects and designers are doing to push the envelope of conventional design and bring experience to the forefront.
Heritage Hall at the H&R Block World Headquarters in Kansas City is an excellent example of how experience design can be utilized to ground occupants in a brand story. Designed by HOK, the installation features company milestones, photographs of the founders, and even integrated iPads that provide interactive content opportunities. It evokes a sense of authenticity that allows passersby to attach themselves to the heritage of H&R Block.
When El Palacio del Hierro Polanco, a shopping mall in Mexico City, sought out design help, they tasked Gensler with making the gourmet department “an incredible, one-of-a-kind destination.” To that end, Gensler focused on making a space that was not only beautiful but also authentic to local history and tradition. As Gensler’s Kate Russell said, “What was really important about this particular Polanco location was that it responded to the city, and the character of not just being a luxury department store, but being a department store that has a Mexican heritage.” Eating and shopping at El Palacio del Hierro is an experience of tradition, and the design of the space is an integral catalyst for that experience.
While design concepts like sustainable design and biophilic design have certainly changed the world of architecture, experience design is a completely new animal. Architects and designers are understanding that the experience needs to be the impetus for an environment. For brands, this is especially important to acknowledge, as design then needs to be viewed as a business opportunity. Connecting occupants and employees to a larger narrative and purpose is not to be an afterthought; it should be built into a space from the outset.