The Beginner’s Guide to Experiential Design

Experiential design is a multi-disciplinary approach to creating an interactive environment, product, service, or event. The field involves building a memorable experience associated with a place or product, whether virtual or physical. Drawing from a wide range of expertise, from linguistics to architecture, from storytelling to hazard analytics, experiential design is an innovative way to communicate information and facilitate meaningful interactions with users or visitors.

While there is an increased prominence of experiential design that is tied with technology, this environmental approach to design is hardly a new phenomenon. From ancient cave paintings and hieroglyphics, to elaborate murals in chapels and cathedrals, to storefront signage and window displays, experiential design describes a way that we have told stories and conveyed information for much of human history.

At its core, experiential design is about aligning the principles of design with a physical or virtual environment in a way that facilitates the flow of information. The scale of this information exists on a spectrum as broad as the tools used to convey it. For example, the message conveyed could be as commercial as that of window displays that use eye-catching art to sell their products; the message might also be as ideological as that of a government-built public space that uses national imagery and themes.

Sometimes called Experiential Graphic Design or Environmental Graphic Design, experiential design is used in many industries around the world. While the concept may sound too broad to be described as anything but vague, its application is highly pervasive. As the term environmental would denote, experiential design is quite literally all around us. If you have been to an airport, museum, or busy city center in recent years, you have undoubtedly encountered some forms of experientially-oriented design. Smart phone navigation apps are another example of experiential design in everyday life. When you begin to familiarize yourself with some real life applications of this multi-disciplinary approach to building products and spaces, you will begin to see it everywhere.

Travel & Navigation

Since location and environment are closely tied, experiential design is commonly used in spaces associated with transportation and wayfinding. Using interactive technology and visually attractive maps, many train stations, airports, hotels, and GPS apps construct a sense of place that helps visitors and users stay informed about where they are, where they are going, and how to get there.

In 2013 the TSA screening checkpoints at the Dallas Fort Worth and Charlotte International Airports got an experiential design makeover. Because security screening is something that travelers often grumble about, the revamping of these TSA checkpoints was intended to impart visitors with more pleasant associations about travelling and airports. The redesign combined improved technology with calming interior design that boosts both the efficiency of the screening process as well as the mood of the travelers in line – two factors that absolutely go hand in hand. Examples of better technology in these two airports include a PA system that reads instructions so that TSA agents no longer need to loudly recite reminders, bins equipped with tracking chips to collect better data about airport volume, and video monitors that display accurate wait times. In addition, the lines are outfitted with zen inspired images, calming music, and lush leather couches.

Experiential Design in DFW TSA Screening
Travelers put their shoes back on and reassemble their carryons in the newly built lounge area after TSA screening in the DFW International Airport. Source.


Marketing & Branding

Many brands use experiential design in the retailing and marketing of their products. Swedish furniture giant Ikea uses its onsite locations as a way to transform shopping for furniture into a day-long excursion akin to visiting a theme park. Their Brooklyn, NY location, for example, features a variety of elements of engaging design that, when brought together under one roof, encourage customers to partake in the Ikea brand as a lifestyle. A customer traffic heat map charts the most crowded areas of the store so visitors can plan their routes; life-sized show rooms display creative furniture and storage solutions for living spaces small and large; guests have a chance to experience Scandinavian cuisine in the onsite cafeteria. By making their stores interactive, absorbing, and visually engaging, Ikea uses experiential design to encourage visitors stay longer and buy more products.



Public Spaces

Public spaces like parks, museums, universities, and hospitals have always been built for the purpose of improving the quality of life for residents and visitors. In this sense, experiential design seems a natural choice for such projects.

Hospitals, for example, are not often described as a desired destination. For patients, families, and staff alike, hospitals tend to be associated with the stress of emergencies. However, numerous studies have found that well designed hospitals not only impart a more pleasant experience but also have a positive impact on patient recovery. By taking steps to include features like gardens, art, and sound-proofing throughout hospital designs, many medical sites have seen an overall reduction in the stress of their patients and staff – something that undeniably aids in the healing process. Thoughtful layouts and information maps reduce the stress of visiting family members, who are in turn able to boost the much-needed psychosocial aspects of recovery. Advanced technology, both medical and communications-based, helps patients and doctors stay well informed.

The Children’s Hospital of Orange County was built to showcase “vibrant spirit, progressive vision and a world-class sense of place.” In addition to state of the art medical technology, each level of the hospital includes a fun theme like fossils in the basement and outerspace on the top level. Source.
The Children’s Hospital of Orange County was built to showcase “vibrant spirit, progressive vision and a world-class sense of place.” In addition to state of the art medical technology, each level of the hospital includes a fun theme like fossils in the basement and outerspace on the top level. Source.


Looking into the Future: Combining Experiential Sites & Augmented Reality

As a real-time supplementation of the world around us, augmented reality is an engaging tool increasingly used in technological design. Augmented reality projects computer generated images or points of interest onto the real world, thereby encouraging interaction between the virtual and physical.

The hottest example of augmented reality to debut in recent memory is the smart phone game Pokémon Go. The game combines augmented reality and navigation, using a player’s real geo-location to guide them in their pursuit of digital creatures. Local monuments become hotspots, long walks are rewarded by the in-game point system, and colorful Pokémon interact with a player’s hometown by appearing in the camera view.

Future of Augmented Reality and Experiential Design
In game screen shots of Pokemon Go. Source

The incredible success of this game has many speculating about future developments for game play. Since augmented reality builds upon the physical surroundings of a player, experiential design would seem a natural choice of influence should the game developers choose to one day open a real-world Pokémon theme park. Imagine a sort of Nintendo Disneyland where legendary Pokemon are plentiful and visitors are given exclusive in-game upgrades for visiting certain sites. What Pokémon Go and experiential design have very much in common is a focus on creating a highly unique experience for every user – a combination of these two fields of design is something that we are likely to see develop in the near future.

Experiencing Design & Designing Experience

Designing an interactive and informative experience is to create a positive and lasting impact on users and visitors. It requires designing for different levels of engagement – for both passersby and dedicated users. While longer interactions should absolutely be rewarded, short, passing experiences should also be impactful. Experience is a deeply personal and subjective phenomenon, and so every visitor, user, and customer arrives with their own perspective. Just as experiential design sits at the crossroads of countless disciplines, its effects should forge connections across diverse experiences. The impact of a rich and engaging experience lasts can outlive any product or building.