Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Your Brain on Place

What is design? It's where you stand with a foot in two worlds - the world of technology and the world of people and human purposes - and you try to bring the two together.

 --Mitchell Kapor, founder of Lotus software

Social spaces

The first order of business for space design is to understand and work with the human dynamics of placemaking whether at a theme park, museum, resort, cruise ship, or mini-golf course. It is the human system that will dictate design go or no-go.  The most ingenious design is only as good as the first human experience of that design, the user encounter that makes or breaks the experience.

These principles of deep design apply equally to space stations, supermarkets, libraries, airports, factories, convention centers, and cafes.  We need these places to be clearly hospitable, organized, workable spaces that accommodate and encourage our hyper-social natures.  At the opposite end of the scale, studies of solitary confinement (“the box”) and its devastating effects on the psyche show exactly how dehumanizing denial of our social nature can be—ending in madness and suicide. 

Punishment is closely predicated on space control, even under house arrest.  We are built for social life in social situations; our problems are with the uncontrolled experiments with social venues and their less-than-ideal outcomes that play against specific cultural constraints. These are the “human factors” that dictate the ideal setting for the activity it embraces.       

Brain and culture agendas

Phase One is to understand the user on the ground (a lifetime occupation in itself).  In most studios, this is a seat-of-the-pants body of shop knowledge based on past design forays, both good and bad.  As observant designers put it, however, the learning curve post-building can be drawn as a flat line. But now there is enough brain science awareness around so that neuroscience can and should be integrated with design intuition. 

The brain base for design is the universals of perception and movement that operate across time and geography, common to all human beings, driving our motivation and decision making in all settings. Discrete cultural values (American, Chinese, Brazilian) are an overlay on the universals.

Every designed journey—the visit context--sets the mental agenda, and that agenda is always based on universals of age, gender, culture, and community.  How and what the brain is focused on depends on where we are at any given moment, and within that locale—showroom, classroom, stadium, or cruising the open ocean—how old we are, whether we’re male or female, and the reference group (the travel unit) we find ourselves with at the time.  Space is negotiated between people and the elements most affecting the brain.

Creating any design involves clarifying the cultural issues—the leading values that motivate us all under the conscious radar—active in any idea, product, or experience that operate not just personally but broadly across groups. This is the essence of the “wisdom of crowds.”  Culture is the record of all human expression not only ancient but prehistorical, going back more than the 37,000 years documentable by artifacts.  Culture is both hard-wired (for basic values) and adaptive (by situation), informing our collective behavior every minute of the day.  It operates under conscious awareness, which makes it difficult to identify as the prime directive of all we do. Thus it must be deliberately sought out and identified as the moving force in any piece of design.

Personal space

Two basics are in play: first, the need for personal space, and second, mood control.  The personal space requirement is actually most important in public space, where we interact with strangers, which runs an agenda of risk-management.  In any public situation, we are always asking, “Is my personal boundary being respected here?” a variation of the bigger question we ask about place:  “How am I being treated here?”  Many public spaces simply disqualify themselves out of the gate because they are perceived as a threat to the invisible bubble around the body that defines “me” versus “you” and “others.”

Concerts have a well-deserved young audience simply because part of their reward is close-proximity bonding through heart-pounding music. Over forty (following the age chart) demands a more generous spatial distribution. And family-friendly is even more demanding than other space types because child safety, a function of the family-unit space, is considered a non-negotiable given (for American venues).  

After the personal space and travel unit bubble come crowding and noise as part of environmental press.  These two aspects alone raise a suite of questions: How crowded can or will the space become?  How fast are people moving, and how often? Will this crowding impinge on personal space, and on noise tolerance?  What are the noise levels, from what noise source?

Mood setting

Music is the master mood-setter.  What genres create the right emotional cueing for an exhibit, show, ride, or other attraction?  How will it work within the architecture / structures of the site? 

This question is key to how we determine “too loud” not by decibels, but by style. Where classical music is fine, heavy metal is not; and safety sense determines how much conflicting sound can be tolerated (rock, punk, and rap overcoming others).  Class cues tied to musical types determine whether these will be non-starters for the middle class.  What sound and levels can work in the super-safe themeatics of Disney parks is far less tolerated in thrill-based urban parks like Six Flags in New Jersey.

The brain baseline

The cultural values set is also the master style sheet.  It does something very useful in that role – providing the basic tool set for understanding all the background information of the project, as well as the template by which each design option can be compared and ranked for suitability to the mental platform of the audience.  This is a working definition of brain-based design.

There is plenty of information around – too much, in fact.  Without some baseline, some set of “file folders” for research results, backdrop information may all be “true, but not useful.”  What is the usefulness on the ground of the information you have on your clientele or prospects; where does it fit the purpose of the project?  We are often asked to apply cultural analysis to fathom the client question, “What is my research trying to tell me?”  Just a few of the answers, like those above, can make or break any design made for humans.



Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Deep Design: Human Factors in the Staging of Experience

“At the Sahara, the seats are banked and most of the audience is looking down at the stage.  Everybody in the business knows: Up for singers, down for comics.  The people want to idealize the singer. They want to feel superior to a comic. You’re trying to make them laugh. They can’t laugh at someone they’re looking up to."
 --Buddy Hackett

“I prefer the old theaters, because the audience is … trapped.”
  -- Jerry Seinfeld

What attracts and motivates people to experiences any and all 3D space?  Why is time spent on extensively designed ground so valued by visitors? 
Ever since the themed world invented by Walt Disney in mid-twentieth century these questions have been driving the field of public design—including virtually every public place on earth affected or created by the “Disney Effect.” The unprecedented success of thematics has created an entire new field of “experience design,” along with a host of questions about how to think about and execute successful “occupied space.”  

The answers discovered by Cultural Intelligence are very basic, while exercising a deep appreciation of human biology, the brain, and collective human expression--that is, culture.

Culture is the longest-running invention of mankind, the collective brain evolved through time that directs our decision making.  The shared mindset does this by defining basic values that direct those decisions.  The social and historical record reveals a deep logic of thinking and acting driven by a set of values that all groups, across the vastness of time and the breadth of geography, share in common. 
This shared thinking is the baseline of all successful environmental artworks—the houses, monuments, parks, malls, museums, restaurants, neighborhoods, towns, and cities we shape and in turn, shape us as we inhabit them.  All are built around our brains, bodies, and behaviors—the same forces, over time, that build culture as a self-perpetuating lifeform that powers and propagates itself through us.  They respond to our cultural beliefs about what life is for and how best to live it.  Those formats that perform best call upon human-based building, or “deep design.”   

Cultural Logic

Culture is not arbitrary or capricious.  It answers the opening question about how we direct our time, money, and energy by defining a set of values behind every decision we make—including how and where we will expend these in three-dimensional public or semi-public spaces.

Culture follows a set of rules that, once discovered, can be explained and predicted.  The process of cultural analysis is to understand, integrate, and apply these rules to issues of buying, believing, and behavior in all areas of life, as it is here, to "experience design"—the architecture of environments, and the design of people’s thought and behavior lived within them.
No design stands apart from its use and interpretation by the complexity of human behavior in cultural context. Some perform superbly, while many more force their users to work around them, adapting their needs to the design, rather than vice versa.

Human Factors

Design guideline number one: People come preloaded with their own thinking, behaviors, goals, and focal points.  The best you can do is to know what these are and how to work with them.  Your audience is never really a captive audience.  It is always the space designer who is captive to the dynamics of audience behavior.

Much of the proverbial “blank page,” the human factors style sheet, is already heavily filled in before anyone ever touches it with their own vision.  An example of this silent program of parameters is personal space.  How much we “need,” and feel is appropriate in any room, is a parameter built into our heads through cultural practice from birth.  Americans and Australians need a lot; Japanese and Dutch need far less.
Personal space demands vary across the globe.  But violate this basic human factor and your design faces a fatal flaw.  (A major component of the punishment of prison is in its restriction of free space.)  And people won’t be able to tell you precisely which cultural rule you’ve broken; they just feel intensely and intuitively uncomfortable--meaning that they are going to spend their time and money elsewhere.
This incoherent response may actually be the reason that, whatever the lip service given to the audience as boss, inside the place-design studio there is widespread contempt for the audience who is the end-user of everything built and decorated. 

When people seem too slow to understand and respond to a design or to fall into line with its proposed workings, the artist is tempted to dismiss this slowness as lack of intelligence, education, or breeding.  Design purpose and reception are separated by the gulf of the human factor.  And, like culture (or the minivan), it’s not something people can tell you they want—like all intuitive desires, they will know it when they see it.
There is a simple answer to “creator contempt.”  It is most likely your design that isn’t connecting on one or more levels, not the audience.  Designers don’t like to hear this, because in their mind, everything is perfectly clear and their ideas and brilliant—we’ve all had that moment.  But the question is, as in all consumer goods and experiences—how well do these ideas do, not just how good do they look, on the ground and in the marketplace?  As Imagineer John Hench used to counsel new hires at Disney, “You can’t do this cynically.”

Effective design—the good kind—fits naturally and seamlessly into the brain and works with the body of the user, in a lockstep program of sending and receiving. The built environment sends out cues and signals that the audience on the ground is already primed to receive and respond to: operating without any signage, verbal commands, orientation programming, or, the ultimate excuse, “educating.”

If there is a design problem on the ground, look to the failure to fit between what’s there (and what is not) and the human factors that design needs to satisfy and reward.  The human factors list comprises biology, the brain, behavior, and culture, which is the received intelligence of the group over time, the shared reality of expectations and needs common to all groups. 

Cultural Analysis

What cultural analysis of place design does is to clarify these factors and how they relate in space and time to predict how well places will work for their audiences—the people you want to attract and keep time after time; the secret of any successful place is that it attracts and continues to attract its users year after year in the holy grail, repeat visits.

Human beings are social primates.  We experience things together – or through language, share them, historically, around the campfire.  Our experiences are interactive and social, rarely solitary.  We travel together in order to maximize designed experiences, wherever they may be. This is why the entire travel industry is committed to this basic truth: we grow and develop through shared experiences, and rare ones are especially valued for this outcome.  Intimacy through sharing has in fact long been listed as the apex of a happy life. 
Public experience venues like to think of themselves as inviting and entertaining captive audiences.  In truth, however, these audiences are hardly captive hearts and minds.  They are acting out as social primates by occupying a special themed stage, and adapting it to their own set of needs and wants, the real dynamics of experience architecture.

However your space is designed to work, whatever your organization’s goals, it is the audience, not you, who will determine how or even whether those aims are met.  Experience space is always transformed by human use.



Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Why understanding culture is good for business

Why would it be important for business to study culture?  This question is just what the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis has been doing for the past 25 years, and there is in fact a great reason:  because culture is where the consumer lives.  Culture is the software of the consumer mind.  Over time we’ve been occupied in decoding the cultural mindset to see what it has to tell us about ourselves, the culture we live in, and why we buy. 

Although the college-educated think of culture as synonymous with cultural expressions – architecture, literature, music, the fine arts—these are just the elite side. 
Widen the cultural lens and we enjoy a panoramic landscape that includes all of culture – everything people have ever produced, over time, including the thinking and behavior behind both the highly creative and the habitual mundane, from opera to soap. In the wide-angle format, popular culture contains everything needed to tell us about where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re headed, including the ability to extract the major values behind any single culture, like our specialty, the American one. 
This finding is arresting in itself because Americans don’t really think we share a “reality by common consent,” the software that drives our collective thinking.  Without some means of relating to each other within a greater mindset, however, there would be no way to talk to each other, no basis for negotiating agreements or governance, and no mass market for anything.  There is indeed such a shared reality, to be discovered across two and a half centuries of national history.

Cultural Studies & Analysis has isolated the basic values that inform and motivate Americans.  We’ve shared this short list with our clients—most of whom thought they understood their customers quite well.  Most often that belief turns out not to be reliable.  Our job as cultural analysts is to conduct a reality check on what companies think they know, in order to target our laser vision on exactly what’s behind customer buying.  We have plenty of information—but until that information is subjected to analysis, we don’t assume we know the answers it contains.
That is why there is no more important research question than the one we ask: “Why do people buy [x or y, your industry product], and what are the deep cultural needs driving both its sale and use?” 

Two decades ago we posed this question to the world’s largest entertainment company, The Walt Disney Company. First we made the distinction between entertainment and amusement—rooted in the difference between theme versus amusement parks.  It turns out that these terms are not interchangeable, but channel opposing values. 

To entertain is to engage the mind, as in entertaining an idea; whereas to amuse is to distract, as in the magician’s diverting our attention by misdirection.  Second, if to entertain means engaging focus and attention, what subjects exert the heaviest gravity for any group of buyers?  
Through the theme park, arguably the most successful art form in the experience economy, this question can be explored to answer the next one:  what is this art form’s secret to success--the force behind its incredible repeat visitation record?  Surprisingly, it isn’t the rides, games, food, thrill-seeking, or merchandising, because these are also the stock of the amusement park and carnival. 
What Walt Disney did, because he identified so closely and positively with American people and their past, was to create an iconic cultural landscape that distills what we like best about ourselves—our favorite venues, values, and communal memories, starting with Main Street, USA as the entryway, and culminating in Tomorrowland, the original positive view of the future. 

Unconsciously and not by design, but by natural affinity with his guests (as he was first to call customers), Disney’s genius was to build Disneyland on the way park patrons already thought and felt, without the least need—one companies so often assume—to “educate the consumer” about what he was trying to communicate or how he wanted them to respond. 

This is exactly the way The Center works, in a consciously focused way, to discern and define the natural fit between products, ideas, services, and experiences, and the mind of the consumer.  We use a suite of original tools, models, and definitions worked out against thousands of cultural cases using cultural intelligence.  CI is our method based on the inductive logic of mining culture so as to reveal the rulebook of human thinking and decision making in groups over time.

By drawing on the four principal dimensions of culture: community, context, age, and gender, our studies have derived high-value meaning from consumer issues presented by top businesses, agencies, nonprofits, educational and government groups.  Our laser compass is now the secret weapon that gives our clients an extraordinary edge in understanding and strategic planning centered around the world of the consumer rather than based on their business or industry conventions.