Meditations on Experiential Design


I recently attended a great talk on mixing more the digital realm with the physical world. This is a subject that interests me much. Being both a letterpress printer and an interactive designer might have something to do with it.

This talk was given by Samuel Stubblefield, an artist interested in the intersection of architecture, digital technology and human behavior. He’s part of Studio 07, an Environmental and Experiential Design team, and a branch of NBBJ, the renowned architecture firm in Seattle. In their experiments, they solve problems using a multidisciplinary design approach (graphic, architecture, interiors, environmental, way-finding/signage, etc).

Samuel showed clever samples on how his team was experimenting with bringing more digital into the physical world. Interestingly though, a few questions from the audience showed a different point of view, which I also shared.


The first example our speaker presented was done at Boisbuchet (near Poitiers, France), a collaboration between Vitra Design Museum (Weil am Rhein, Germany) and Centre Pompidou (Paris, France). The experience of arriving at this beautiful retreat was described as lacking: people would arrive and just showed their rooms. Samuel’s team solution to make the experience more interesting was to engage visitors upon arrival (before being showed their rooms) in an outdoor game that involved people running with balloons containing secrets from each participant. Toothpicks were provided so folks could chase each other and find out their secret (it seems that the digital part of this project is yet to happen). Beautiful photos were showed of the new guests having a blast.

But, physical and digital aside for a minute, for some reason listening about this experience made me think of my personal experience of going to eat out at restaurants. Get to restaurant, wait to be seated, learn the name of the water, not enough time to read the menu, interrupted by the “today’s special” theatricals, constant conversation interruptions by the water again, and the last downer, get the bill before you ask for it. In other words, the restaurant assigns where you seat, when you’ll order, interrupts conversations to serve more, decides when you’ll leave. It’s very much a controlled experience; for a moment which I wished for leisure.


This widespread idea — that of if one is not involved in an activity, then one is not having a good time — is what needs to be observed in any Experiential Design. The idea of bringing more of the digital into the physical is only a tool. Before we use that tool, we must exercise our design thinking of what type of experience we want to design, and then determine if, why and when we bring in the digital (or any other tools or mediums). I think this design thinking is what prompted the following questions from the audience:

  • “What do you say that the digital makes us less present in the physical world?”
  • “Can/should experiences really be designed?”
  • “Is it what we need, more controlled experiences, rather than more serendipitous/open moments?” (my own non-asked question).

I believe the sense of being on one’s own time is essential in any activity related to leisure. That’s why the description of the experience arriving at Boisbuchet made a part of me cringe. As well, on the restaurant experience, I understand businesses’ main goal is to be profitable, and that organization and logistics are important. But crucial as well is to not lose sight of the customer’s needs or desires. My hunch is that restaurant procedures are due to the highly capitalistic/business and marketing-oriented culture in the U.S., which has crept in the smallest areas of life. This is a subtle thing and might go unnoticeable by most people, because they grew up used to it. However, I polled around and I was surprised that other people do feel the same way about it. I can say from experience (being born and raised in a different country) that the experience of going to a restaurant elsewhere is very laid back, while restaurants are still profitable. Want do an experiment? Next time you go out to eat, try an ethnic place (really ethnic, not some some chain owned by McDonald’s), and see what you find out on the difference in pace, organic seating, time-owning, and overall malleability of the experience.


Samuel also mentioned that we “can influence emotions” [of the people being exposed to or “entertained” by the experience]. Of course, we can. And that’s called Marketing. But is this what we want? To manipulate emotions, or would it be more productive (I mean healthy) for all to produce a framework where people take care of their own emotions?

So, what’s the alternative? I believe a better way would be to create frameworks for experiences, where people entertain themselves. And if one thinks people can’t entertain themselves, think again. Nature, for instance, provides open framework experiences that we never tire of, or cease to be awed by. In such experiences, not all things are pre-determined and many elements are left open, unassigned, or would be discreet enough that not all people would notice them in the same way, order, or fashion.

We played with that concept months ago at our lab here at Ply: Slow Gif 1. Keep in mind the audience for this specific experiment would be avid readers that land on a page to read an excerpt (not shop, etc). And here’s another one, Slow Gif 2, where we took the timing even further slow for audiences that appreciate total quietness.

Designing experiences is stimulating, no doubt, but being “entertained” by a controlled experience might not be so, however practical it may be (think vacation tours, agh). As designers, I think we ought to refrain on the tendency to create perfectly and beautifully controlled experiences (specially for non-marketing purposes). What do I mean by controlled? Experiences with limited breadth and depth to the user. Non-controlled (or think “open source experiences”) would allow the user to stay as shallow as possible — maybe even on the perimeter of the experience — or go as deep as s/he wishes. One way this can be done is by not having too specific or limited goals on what we want people to do with that experience, and that’s how open experiences differ from Marketing-oriented experiences. Remember we’re talking about experiences related to leisure, not checking your bank account, or other practical things where one wants to be productive and be done quickly. Finally and most importantly, designers might also want to think about that not all experiences need to be designed or redesigned (quite the contrary, I believe). Think wabi-sabi.


Add the digital when there’s a problem that the digital will solve. If there’s no problem to solve, and all we’re looking for is too furthermore distract people from themselves, then in my opinion, it’s superfluous. Therefore, in any non-work, leisure-like experience, I advocate that there must be enough openness for the individual to be creative and free to enjoy his time, despite of the experience itself.

Studio 07 did another experiment, an installation for the Living Well Health Center, Microsoft’s first on-site wellness clinic. A video that is 15 minutes long, 5700px-wide (yes!) is encrusted in low relief in a long wall, in such a way that it looked like part of the wall, and it formed a sort of a shelf in front of it. I would love to see that installation. Things changed on the video at a discreet rate, and looked more like things on a shelf. Very clever, somewhat un-obstructing (easy to put to aside from the field of attention), and also beautiful. My only concern is regarding night usage of the center and exposure to the to the effects of blue light on our health.


No, it’s not chaos. In less controlled experiences there’s an underlying flow that gets everything in its place, only it happens in a more creative, or organic, or serendipitous way, and in directions we not always have anticipated, but which is interesting and stimulating. Usually over-focusing on business goals tends to create experiences that are more controlled, even when they are masked (or sold) as “fun” — in which case, they tend to look like great case studies — in reality they’re permeated by marketing nuances that take out the authenticity of each moment. A hint is that if everybody is having much the same experience, it might be too controlled.

It might be that in a way or another, most experiences are designed, with the exception of totally uncharted territories. Even a small path in the middle of the woods means somebody, consciously or unconsciously, have provided an experience for you that wasn’t there before. The distinction, a hard one too, that we need to constantly bring ourselves to think about is “how far we want to go in manipulating any experience, and to what purpose?”. Personally, a priori, I think we want to manipulate as little as possible, and let things fall into place naturally. But, the world has become way more complicated than that. Still, I insist on the frequent exercise of questioning the necessity of masking reality too much.


I like to remind myself that the farther things get from our core (as beings) the less accurate, and less lively they become. From intuition, to sensory perception (physical experience), to thoughts, to words, to digital experiences. As we move down the line, things get more abstracted and lose vibrancy. I’m more interested in going up the stream: bringing the physical into the digital. The physical realm is already sensorially rich. It’s the digital that is abstracted from that. Putting more physical into the digital could bring more meaning and vibrancy to that later realm. How do we bring touch, smells, sounds, the senses to digital experiences? Can we? Should we? Search fields type letter-pressed characters; smells arise from my digital recipe collection; I feel the wind on a book passage; I feel the smoothness of a sweater I’m buying online.

The field of Experiential Design is an extremely fresh one; I don’t even think there’s a description for it. But experience (the act of perceiving) itself has been here forever, as part of consciousness. Being a person who designs at these times is exciting. I hope we will be able to put Experiential Design to meaningful ends. Ends that don’t detach us from ourselves, but which by relying on more serendipitous ways of doing things will serve the purpose of helping us knowing ourselves more, and above all, enjoying ourselves as much as possible.

I’m glad I saw this talk because it brought forth in a clear way ideas that for while I have been ruminating on. I look forward to seeing more of Studio 07’s experiments; hopefully they will post them online soon? There can never be too much innovation or experimentation; by playing with things and concepts we learn our way through our problems and discover what works towards our best interests.

Do you have a leisure experience that you would like to see freer and more enjoyable, and less “productive” and structured? Share with us!

Posted by on August 27, 2012 with no comments yet

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