Experiential design engages the senses, creating spaces that evoke emotion, increase productivity and improve the user experience.
Design has the ability to alter perception, draw attention and shape how we react, behave or respond in a given space. Like an artist orchestrating the response of an audience, this can be achieved through subtle, discrete gestures, carefully designed spatial elements or overt technologies.
For Savills Studley Newport Beach offices, experiential design was used to emphasize what is outside the office space — striking coastal and hillside views. Through the extensive use of glass and a simple white color palette, the emphasis draws the eye outward, rather than inward. Forms are lifted off the ground and held back from the window wall to allow light to filter freely throughout the space, connecting each environment through light.
“The simplicity of the design creates the complexity of emotion you feel as you experience the space,” says Rick D’Amato, Director of Workplace Interiors for LPA. “It connects the user directly to the exterior environment.”
Research has shown a powerful connection between the built environment and the user experience. Elements like texture, color, scale, sound, circulation and lighting impact how people are affected by a space, influencing emotions, behaviors and interactions. Designers can create environments that spur people to action, increase productivity and inspire specific feelings, turning a workplace or classroom into a place that people love —even if they are not sure why.
“Often the design measures are understated, but the experiences are transformative,” says Patrick McClintock, Associate Principal at LPA. “Users may not fully recognize their emotions and behaviors are being motivated by their surroundings. That’s when we know we’ve done our job to create a thoughtful experience that is authentic and personal.”
There is a science to developing an experiential design strategy that creates a meaningful connection between people and the environment, whether it’s an office, hospital, museum or school. It starts with a willingness to learn more about the needs and interests of people using the space.
“Physical spaces influence our mind and body, including physiological reactions, such as increased heart rate in a noisy, chaotic space,” says Kimari Phillips, Senior Research Analyst for LPA’s research arm, LPAred. “We have to design for the desired emotional responses and physical comfort, as well as the intended activities.”
Engaging the Senses
A well-developed experiential design has the unique ability to influence all five senses, developing perceptions that linger in the human mind. Small changes can be modulated to create specific experiences.
Creating those customized spatial moments doesn’t necessarily need to be expensive and doesn’t require complex digital graphics or animatronics, D’Amato says. “It doesn’t have to be Disneyland,” he says. “It can be about the subtlety of light or movement that can make all the difference in the world on how you feel in a space.”
In Mazda’s new North American headquarters in Irvine, California, the automaker wanted to visually engage visitors to evoke a defined feeling. “Mazda used the experience of driving as a model,” D’Amato says. “When you drive, outside influences such as a tight curve in the road or a misplaced lighting element can sometimes create a feeling of tension or anxiety.” That tension permeated the design narrative for the common areas of the Mazda space. “The tension of the space creates a feeling of engagement,” D’Amato says.
Dark colors, lighting and visual patterns in specific areas produce that sense of subtle tension throughout the five-floor headquarters. In each lobby, shadow images are projected on the walls, using a traditional Japanese concept known as “Kage,” creating a distinct and memorable impression. On each floor, darkness is contrasted with bright natural light, jarring the senses and pulling people through the environment, encouraging them to move toward spaces that are designed to focus attention and promote gathering.
Different elements such as shading and sound can stimulate different senses and create very different reactions. Color also plays a key role; certain colors impact people in different ways, depending on age, country and culture, research shows.
Color is especially important in educational environments, according to Kari Kikuta, Director of Landscape Architecture at LPA . Color and texture are used to create the appropriate atmospheres for learning, play and socializing. At Tarbut V’ Torah (TVT), a private K-12 school in Southern, California, blue, yellow, orange and green were used throughout the redesigned playground to create a lively and playful setting. In the design for a multi-school campus for Santa Clara Unified School District (SCUSD), color and shapes were used to distinguish each campus, while still creating a cohesive single-school aesthetic.
A Sense of Scale
In many cases, the orchestration of the experience depends on the size of the space. “When you have a big open space or a large plaza, you’re not going to see one person or two people in there,” Kikuta says. “It just feels uncomfortable.” The size of a space must match the intended experience. “When you get the right scale and adjacency appropriate to the use, it’s a lot more successful,” Kikuta says.
Impacting that sense of scale and size can change the interaction and turn a space from imposing to inviting. For example, for the TVT elementary school, table heights, chairs and reading pods are smaller to engage the younger students. At Schaefer Branch Library in San Antonio, the children’s activity space is enclosed by sloping plastic panels, which decrease the scale and make it more appropriate for young children to feel comfortable and safe.
In some workplace environments, designers often encourage higher ceilings, when possible. “If a user’s environment feels too crowded, they tend to feel stressed or uneasy,” says Dave Gilmore, Principal of LPA’s San Diego studio. “We spend a large amount of time at work, so it should be warm and comfortable.” However, low ceilings typically are more effective in small conference or phone rooms, where users need to feel secure and focused. “People engage with each other very differently in a small, more intimate space than they do when there’s a small group in a very large space,” Gilmore notes.
The basic positioning of a building often plays a key role in creating the right type of experiences Orienting a building correctly allows more natural light, which is an important and often overlooked element of developing an engaging environment. According to a report by The Lighting Research Center (LRC), daylit environments increase occupant productivity and comfort and provide the mental and visual stimulation necessary to regulate circadian rhythms.
LPA designers recently infused a large, dark warehouse with natural daylight by cutting out portions of the roof to create a center atrium. “Sometimes we have projects that weren’t originally designed to house people or product,” Gilmore says. “What we do as designers is create quality light opportunities, which allows developers to increase the rent levels because it’s a more attractive and desirable space.”
A 171,000-square foot, three-story building in San Diego, was designed around wind and fog patterns to control the experience in a 1.4-acre outdoor space. “By redirecting the wind and fog flow on the site, it’s a much more palatable environment in the outdoor areas,” Gilmore says.
Circulation with a Purpose
Encouraging thoughtful movement in an environment shapes the user’s behaviors and direction. Lighting and color can help circulate someone through a space as much as signs, creating positive experiences and a meaningful connection.
Instead of using bold graphics on a wall, D’Amato often uses lighting to guide users through a workplace. The lighting will dramatically change from one area to another. “We want to express the transition from an open environment to an enclosed environment, so it will create a distinction,” he says. “People will notice a sensory change like that—the color of the environment changing.”
Circulation in high schools is a major component of student social activity, Kikuta says. Massive, open quads are the norm, but designers are recognizing teenagers often enjoy hanging out in smaller groups or cliques. “We’ve spent a lot of time trying to accommodate social spaces so that they’re still easy to supervise,” she says. The design of a recent campus modernization incorporates a linear weaving circulation through the buildings with small, breakout spaces such as learning pods and a small amphitheater that doubles as a social area.
The same ideas translate to different types of work environments. At technology company Celestica’s customer experience center in Silicon Valley, prospective clients are ushered into a circular room, where the surrounding glass walls come alive with a visual, fully immersive presentation customized for the client. The customer experience center was specifically designed to engage visitors at a multi-sensory level, creating an experience that inspires a dialogue with clients and allows Celestica to actively garner and process customer feedback in real time.
On every level, projects that efficiently incorporate experiential design are more successful. They move the discussion away from the latest trends to focus instead on addressing human needs and inspiring users. At their core, they are moving beyond brick and mortar to develop as places people want to use, learn and explore.
This story originally appeared in Catalyst Issue 1 2019. Subscribe today to receive Catalyst, a quarterly publication that takes a deep dive into design ideas, industry leaders and initiatives.