Whatever our immediate environment, wherever we are, our surroundings make many demands on the mind and body—most of which we aren’t even aware of. How we respond determines where we choose or choose not to spend time. We spend our lives subconsciously adapting to sub-prime elements in the places we live, work, and travel.
Environmental press is a term used to describe the demands of the immediate context (physical and psychological environment) and their effects on thinking and behavior. These factors include lighting, wayfinding, acoustics, mobility, and social sets like crowding, safety, risk-taking, and costs of planning, reciprocity (support), and expectations of costs versus reward.
In general, good design facilitates the usability and payback of a venue: workplace, airport, soccer field, resort, metropolis. Poor design makes being there more difficult and less enjoyable, leading to scores of problems for the user and the group, and raising the chances that people will spend as little time as possible in less user-friendly venues.
Good design is based on a solid appreciation of how and why people act within particular spaces, and what their goals are coming, going, and within. Most of this intelligence operates under our conscious radar and can only be elicited indirectly: by watching how people’s behavior changes as they adapt to the environment, not by direct questions (“What is your ideal space like?”) in surveys and focus groups. Cultural intelligence - awareness of the human values that drive regular use of space - is considerably more comprehensive, relying on thousands of years of consistent patterns of collective experience and behavior.
Groups in motion
At the start of any trek, visitors’ minds are especially mobile and unsettled, weighing uncertain expectations (and hopes) against what they are experiencing around them, and the way they see others responding. Characters, props, staging, and especially music, are the cueing devices; there is little room for taking in the precision of print messages, or even verbal instructions. The needed focus isn’t there yet.
People are still working to figure out where they are and what is expected of them. You have to create a break in the form of a platform to deliver messages when people are in fact most receptive to them. That may not be when you want it to be, or when you would expect attention to be most active.
When people are seated, or standing in semi-darkness, that’s the cue for attention and quiet to attend to a stage or screen. Which explains why the introductory film at the top of an exhibit or whole museum, like the “Briefing Room” film narrated by the voice of Linda Hunt at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. is an effective mind- and mood-setter (whether dark or light). Film, of course, is easier for groups (the outfit) to focus on together, versus the divisive force of written language.
Over the past two decades, we’ve seen experience venues built with seemingly no idea of how guests take in and processes information into a coherent, compelling experience. We’ve seen exhibits built backwards – the big reveal is the first thing the guest encounters, followed by information support. Every guest intuitively understands that once you’ve seen the fireworks, it’s time to go home. Don’t expect them to hang around to hear the history of fireworks. Now reverse that order: history first, then fireworks = compelling experience. Think of the crescendo in a music experience, as the finale.
We’ve also seen attractions that violate the implicit agreement of the switchback line (you maintain your place in the hierarchy, knowing you will be served after the people in front and before the people behind). It is the promise of fairness as a hard and fast rule that enables the line to function. Yet we have seen attractions where, after a long and patient wait, guests are dumped into an unstructured holding zone just outside the attraction doors, so that the resultant scramble for new positioning totally violates the sacred social contract of the line.
We’ve seen attractions where a guide-speaker was trying to deliver critical information at the line’s most chaotic point. We’ve seen exhibits that gave guests no critical information at all about where to go or what to expect. We’ve seen attractions that did all of these things in the same venue--all designed and built by top companies in the experience industry.
What we saw was the result of ignoring the social dynamic of experience, the “press” of place. Each guest is exchanging multiple experiences within the social group. The designer’s work is to know at what points the guest is seeking information, rather than trying to share reactions with others, to deliver just-in-time intelligence.
It’s the paradox of theme park communication design. What’s needed next—just-in-time is preferable—has to stand out in the field of vision for eyes that are scanning a very rich visual landscape, balanced against the demands of the line or walkways. And they need to be “here and clear” well before the fork in the road must be taken, not after investing a half-hour wait in a ride queue where you suddenly realize that coming up is a coaster or dark ride that you don’t want to hazard after lunch.
Where, what, and how the main material or experience is surrounded by messages, and in what sequence, is a top challenge calling for a complex appreciation of how people use places on the ground or in the air. In our experience as human dynamics advisors, too few designers and park executives actually walk the parks and ride the rides to see how everything plays out as a system of concepts in motion. Again, it all happens in the mind—before and after the body behaves.