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Where It's At: An Interview with Two Place-Based Experience Designers

By Chris Buettner

To create exceptional place-based digital experiences, you need wizards in architecture, technology, storytelling, experience design, engineering, and data science. When done well, the resulting fusion connects, inspires, and immerses us in ways that other types of digital experiences can’t.  

For this second piece in a four-part series on experience design trends, I sat down with Jake Barton and David Schwarz to hear their perspectives on a range of challenges and opportunities related to crafting these experiences. Both of their companies, Local Projects and HUSH, are members of SoDA (a global, invite-only network of digital agencies), of which I am the executive director.  

Create: Could you tell us a little about yourself and how your company got into place-based digital experiences?

Barton: I’m the principal and founder of Local Projects, an experience design and strategy firm with a passion for testing the limits of human interaction. We author concept designs, media, physical architecture, software, hardware, and content for exhibits at some of the world’s top museums, cultural institutions, and attractions.

Before starting my company, I worked in interior architecture for museums and was interested in creating narratives using computers. Leveraging physical space allows us to create a broad array of new experiences.

Schwarz: I’m a founding partner at HUSH, a design agency based in Brooklyn. While our company was quite different at its inception than it is now, our first project was in fact a place-based experience that combined digital content, physical design, interaction, and user experience for an auto show.

These are some of the same pieces of the puzzle we continue to combine today, albeit now in much more substantive ways. My background was in visual design, interactivity, and narrative content. My partner’s background was similar, but with a much heavier 3D and technology practice.

The overlap of our skills meant we understood the power of design (in terms of thinking, process, and output: “Design”) but we could also leverage technology and software to expand beyond the 2D plane into both virtual and real 3D space.

Our initial forays into place-based digital experiences were out of pure interest and creativity, not business strategy. But as luck would have it, experience design has become a more fundamental element in many companies’ brand articulation and marketing mix.

Create: As an early innovator in the realm of place-based experiences and interactive media installations, what types of changes do you think institutions, brands, and agencies just entering this realm need to make to get it right; that is, to ensure that they create experiences that are well-crafted and deliver real value to people?

Schwarz: Experience design is fundamentally a hybrid practice. Unlike “web” or “tv” or “digital products” or “branding”, there is an inherent combination of skills and practices that tend to broaden the requirements for delivering good work: the agency teams, the client-side participation, the interdependencies among partners in the ecosystem, etc. It’s not an auteur’s practice.

I believe the only way to be successful in this area is to be open-minded, collaborative, and inquisitive. If the practice of experience design is a natural mixture of creative forces, who is to say which is more important in any given project? In one instance, digital tools and interaction might drive the core of a project. In another, spatial design and customer experience considerations. In another, content and narrative storytelling. We’re building teams with this mindset.

Barton: The key will be to create experiences that are both emotional and innovative. It’s easy when thinking about something in physical space to focus on a novel technology, but anything that is gimmicky will not age well unless it delivers a human experience. Lots of technologies age very well, such as movies, radio, and photographs, and they do so because they carry a human truth and touch us. When you invest in something physical and installed, it needs to reach that depth or it will look cheap and “old” in short order.

Create: Crafting interactive media installations seems incredibly complex, requiring an exceptionally broad range of expertise, including technology, user experience, visual design, architecture, engineering, content/storytelling and more. How do you manage that complexity?

Schwarz: Complexity is the ticket to entry. We hire folks with a core competency, but a desire to stretch that skill into other areas. Digital designers and software developers have to learn that place-based digital has to bend to the behaviors and desires of people interacting in groups, or to the disinclination of others to contribute personal information in public.

Architects who are used to practicing traditional architecture need to flex to the requirements of a digitally-enriched space. Narrative storytellers, animators and directors need to consider their stories told in unconventional viewing environments, where visual and sound become broader and uncontained –not the TV-on-couch or the film-in-theater paradigms. These are realities of place-based experiences, but not impediments to creators.

Complexity is actually what we signed up for. Our team doesn’t revel in simplicity and refining repeated creative processes. We love juggling this complexity, and helping to fulfill our clients’ desire to deliver their next innovative move.

Barton: We do everything in-house. With the range of design disciplines, content development, architecture, engineering, research and development all in the same room at the same table, we have a level of multidisciplinary expertise that turns complexity into collaboration. It’s less of a management task for us, and a requirement to maximize opportunities for our clients and for ourselves.

Create: What are one or two of your projects that you are most proud of in this area? Why?

Barton: I’m most proud of our work on the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. We were half the team that pitched and won the Museum, leading to us design and develop the project over a period of eight years. This initiative, in particular, is emblematic of the depth of resilience, ingenuity, and meaning that we look for in our projects. On the other side of the spectrum, our work for Target with Open House, a lab/store that puts IoT [Internet of Things] products into a responsive, translucent home, reveals the range of experiences, architecture, software, and storytelling that we bring to a project. Our mission is to be both innovative and meaningful, and both these projects deliver on that pursuit in incredibly different ways.

Schwarz: Recently, we completed a sales gallery experience for the late architect Zaha Hadid and the developer Related Companies, in conjunction with Zaha’s only New York residential building currently under construction. I think it’s one of our most balanced projects in terms of its use of content, space, and interaction.

A couple of years ago, we designed a retail experience for Under Armour in China that allowed us to reimagine retail — focusing on expression over transaction — through 270-degree film content, spatial design, and digital touch points.

Lastly, we just finished an interesting project with Equinox around group cycling. We were challenged with designing a front-end visual experience for a group of interactive participants engaged in collaborative and competitive behavior in real-time. I’m very proud of the solution we designed and developed.

In each case, and to different degrees, our work has sought to blend the lines between technology, content, and spaces in which people engage.

Create: What are three things you’ve learned about crafting interactive media installations that you think agencies and brands entering this arena should know?

Schwarz: It’s important for brands to understand their expectations around value and return on investment. They should commit to either a quantitative or qualitative analysis of the experience and not get stuck in the middle. If it’s quantitative, be wary of the same metrics as with pure digital initiatives, for example. Place-based experiences have a limit on through-put. You can only fit so many people in a space at any given time. Web sites and applications don’t have this threshold. They are infinitely scalable.

If, however, brands can commit to a qualitative evaluation of the experience — which most innovative and risk-taking brands can do confidently — it’s still important to define the softer terms: What do “branding” and “brand awareness” actually mean to them? How do they measure it? How do they define the esoteric and squirrely quality of consumer engagement? Of brand perception? Of PR impact? Of internal cultural morale, or team-building?

Lastly, place-based experiences mean dealing with real people in real spaces. People are weird. They do things you wouldn’t expect. They surprise you. So, experience design needs to work from a smart, thoughtful strategic foundation, but it also needs to be flexible to iterate over time. People surprise you — and teach you — how things could work better. If there’s no flexibility to improve over time, it’s not a smart design system. Experience design needs to take a page out of the agile and iterative aspects of digital product making. It should improve over time and add greater lifetime value.

Barton: Don’t be afraid to be innovative and break the mold. Figure out your own process to deliver experiences that sound interesting and actually deliver on engagement.

Create: What types of prototyping and design software do your teams use to create these experiences?

Barton: Prototyping is the key to our work. Because we have all development in-house, we’re able to run quick prototype tests in real-time during all phases of the project. Ultimately, we design human behavior, so we focus on making prototypes, discovering what’s working, and amplifying that magic.

Schwarz: We use a variety of 3D modeling and rendering applications, the full Adobe suite of apps, as well as creative-code and real-time software tools that allow us to harness data and create compelling visualizations. We often build small-scale interactive models that prove out scale versions of a concept. These are as simple as foam core, pico projectors, and sensors, or as robust as full-scale, 5,000-square-foot retail prototype stores that stakeholders can inhabit and absorb.

Of course, any good response to this question wouldn’t be complete without mentioning VR. While we’ve delivered a few VR projects for clients, our initial work in VR started around pre-visualization. Early modeling of place-based experiences helps guide internal teams — but it’s an even more compelling way to present the work and get collaborative feedback from clients than any PDF has ever been.

Create: What is the potential for digital installations and place-based experiences to unite people in new and interesting ways? Are there technology advances that still need to be made for that potential to be realized?   

Schwarz: Well, bringing people together to “commune” isn’t always the goal of place-based experiences. Certainly, that’s not the case for our Zaha Hadid project. In fact, it was the opposite scenario. It was a high-touch, focused guest experience that would have failed had it been interrupted by other audiences.

Having said that, in our work for brands and in the context of many brand experiences, activations, retail or permanent architectural installations, the intention is that more is more. The more people, the better.

The beauty of place-based experiences is that they’ve been around since the dawn of time, before technology as we know it existed, and before anyone cared about the “how” and simply focused on the power of the experience at hand. Technology isn’t unlocking something that wasn’t already there. It’s simply a way of enhancing interaction among audiences, acting as a catalyst or a recorder of the experiences through data and evaluation.

Our flavor of experience design isn’t about inventing things that aren’t natural — it’s about capitalizing on innate human behaviors and augmenting them with all the creative interventions that are most powerful.

Barton: Physical space is the best way to connect people. In our work for the Gates Foundation, we designed an app that requires groups to collaborate by exploring science through play. This is truly social media, as groups of people collaborate together in real time with all the expressiveness that physical space and proximity afford.

Create: What’s next for your companies? Any upcoming projects or areas of exploration that you’re really excited about right now?

Barton: We are focused on bringing together architecture, media, and content, creating full experience designs for a range of clients. A museum/attraction about espionage, an archaeology experience that interprets an ancient Roman religious cult, a lot of work around cognitive computing for a large corporate client. There’s always a ton of exciting projects happening at the same time.

Schwarz: We’re continuing to innovate within the luxury real estate market, helping some of the world’s most notable architects and developers express the power of their creations to potential buyers. We’re working on several large-scale architectural installations and exhibits that bring to life unseen — but ever present — data and systems.

Create: What do you see as the biggest experience design trends for interactive media installations that should be embraced (and ones that should be avoided like the plague) in the coming year?

Schwarz: Experience focused agencies, having already planted a flag to differentiate ourselves from broader creative agency pursuits, will have to further define our point of view. Companies focused on utility, transaction, optimization, and efficiencies will break from those offering more “expressive” modes of brand communication. Are our experiences viewed as “products” or “advertising”?

Everyone will need to figure out a legitimate way to quantify the dollars spent on brand experience in terms that brand marketers can understand. Every other marketing sector has generated a means of articulating ROI except for experience design. TV has Nielson. Web content has clicks, views, etc. Social has shares and likes. Experience has nothing — except a fundamental belief that quality direct-to-consumer experiences compel and motivate in ways that others cannot.

In terms of what should be avoided, I certainly can’t speak broadly, but…I’m pretty tired of the true practice of experience design being equated to colorful light installations at Coachella for kids on drugs.

Barton: I think VR is a massive challenge for physical spaces. Famously, they make the user look very, very stupid. They react and hold up their hands and in general embarrass themselves. So, designing a space that can harness the power of that technology in a way that doesn’t undermine that experience by making people socially awkward will be a big trick. We’re actively working on it, and will be excited to share!

Have you read “Demystifying the Craft and Promise of VR,” the first article in this series?