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
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.
The goal of any attraction, exhibit, or any shared
experience is simple: to max out the rewards of visitor time and focus to
optimize the experience and the memory so important to return visits.
For Americans, at least, who count and measure time as
a form of currency, nothing is worse than the report that an attraction was a
waste of time. Which means money and
energy were squandered, which could have been better spent elsewhere. Part of the value of an experience is how
easily it can be found, and then, how easy or difficult it is for people to
engage with it.
How do you get and keep audience attention in an
attraction / exhibit? This is the basic
question of where and when in the process guests are prepared to receive
information. Not all content is equal (the
“what”), and context (the “where and when”) rules how or whether we pay
Nothing happens in a vacuum. A solitary experience is far different that a
shared one – just ask any golfer who hits a hole-in-one with no one else there
to see it. The social group is the validator of the experience. The group can
be an emotional multiplier – enthusiasm is contagious – or exert a dampening
effect. If you think you had a great experience but your companions don’t share
your enthusiasm, you will soon start to rethink your own experience.
One notable example of this dampening effect occurred
shortly after the stage version of Disney’s Lion
King debuted on Broadway in 1997. At the time, there was a lot of hostility
in the New York theater community to the very idea of Disney even coming to
Broadway. We won’t mention the name of the theater critic, but his early review
praised the show highly – an opinion not shared by his colleagues. After a few
weeks of negative reviews by his peers, he saw the musical again and wrote a
second review. Basically he said that
somehow he had been duped by the Disney magic and the play wasn’t nearly as
good as he thought it was the first time. His memory of his first stellar experience
was sabotaged—retroactively--by colleague negativity.
We are social primates. So the experiences of the people around us
shape our own expectations and experience, and we affect theirs. In order to
entertain – and by entertain we mean in the original sense of the word – “to
attract and hold attention” – you have to understand what else is going on. Where is your audience mind being pulled, in
which directions, while you are trying to show footage, deliver key information,
or display science laws or live animals?
Years ago the Washington Zoo was studied to see how
long people would look at the live exhibits in their enclosures. The answer was an average of eight seconds. And much of that tiny time slice went to
reading the usual fence-mounted signage.
Museums didn’t do much better – under an hour is all that visitors will
spend in a North American museum of any size.
In contrast, though, the average theme park stay was eight hours or more,
with the highest repeat visits. This is
why the theme park is the gold standard for experience design. What’s going on here? How is it that attention is far better in a
low-level or no-reading zone?
First off, the Disney Imagineers who designed the
original park worked with images, not words.
They understood that the best designs are those that work with the way
people already think and react to the world around them. That is why there is was very little directional
signage in the original Disneyland (aside from stylized “art” signs), and the
reason that the park has always been high on the list for international
visitors—you don’t have to speak English to understand what’s going on and what
you should do. It also adds to their
exceptional export value. They are
essentially artworks that function as total immersive environments. Immersive experiences don’t work like books
(which demand close visual focus and control) – they invite the entire body and
all the senses. And reading divides
attention away from the group, into the introversion of eyes and brain
At the other end of the scale, take botanical gardens
and arboretums. These garden
environments insist on Latin classification tags and even dense botany-textbook
extracts, a kind of technical communication that for any visitor not already an
expert, is especially fatiguing to read in public venues.
Who is your real audience?
These places tend to be treated as research venues
with signage by and for specialists. They project the way the people who work
there want to be perceived by their colleagues. But for the casual visitor who just wants to
enjoy the majesty of a white oak or the exotic intrigue of orchids, it’s not
helpful, and lends a touch of elite disdain to the experience. The question is suddenly, “Do I know enough /
am I educated enough to even be here?”
No such question occurs in a theme park, which deals with our shared
history and archetypes, those icons and events we most treasure and identify
You may have to make a momentous decision about who
your audience really is – who you want to attract, and why. Expert audiences have quality attention to
pay to your holdings or environment, and this is the attention that most
curators, researchers, scholars, directors, and many designers actually
identify with. Art museums were
originally galleries of painting and sculpture for sale, not improving
institutions trying to educate the non-art-collecting public. The
public-education impulse dates back to Carnegie and his crusade to lift
American taste into the middle class, and continues in grants and evaluation
programs for the widest possible audience
But the managerial class for public venues, especially
art and history based, is most interested in expert-to-expert communication;
that’s where their personal and career reward lies. Hence the signage in Latin, footnoted exhibit
labelling, expert treatises and lectures that need translation for any public
The way the mind attends to, takes in, and understands
any content is by broad themes, not scholarly documentation—that’s the genius
of the themed environment.
The audience experience is a journey through your
design project. That journey can be
understood in many ways, but it always happens through the human toolbar of
needs and abilities, the human factors constraint list. Throughout this journey
every guest is an adventurer with a different agenda, depending on age, gender,
social networks, and their social group or travel “outfit” (to redeploy the old
cowboy term), for the duration.
Even the briefest of visits involves the following
concerns, or themes, which your design must accommodate so that your audience
can address them as a series of questions:
· Purpose: Where am I going, and why?
What are the goals of my travel group (the “outfit”)?
· Orientation: Where am I at any point in the journey?
· Context: What is this place, and how do I act within
· Expectations: What expectations can I have, or take from
it? What am I supposed to do, and how
should I feel about it?
· Story: What is the story of this experience; what
are its leading themes, the affect—emotional tone—and what inner states does it
evoke from my own personality, culture, and history, alone and as shared with
Exactly what am I supposed to learn from this trek, and how does it reward me
and those important to me? This has to
be clear not just at journey’s end, but from the start, so that guests can
attune their intellect and emotions to what they are going to learn, see, and
· Wayfinding: As I proceed from the entry experience, how
do I get around and through this space?
This question introduces loss aversion through disorientation,
separation anxiety, and flexing time and space within the journey as the group
splits up and reassembles for various purposes.
· Focus: What do I attend to while I’m here? This is the big attention question: where
does my attention go, when, and in response to what cues?
up: Experience quality, during and after
the journey: Did I have the experience I
was meant to have? Did my outfit? Were expectations met?
What is the larger story behind this
experience, that is, the meaning? Where and how can I now carry forward the
meaning of this experience as I fold it into my life?
Believe it or not, the answers to all these questions
can be found anywhere and everywhere; for example, in an everyday round of
miniature golf. This scaled-down game is
one of the richest mini-experiences available within a small space footprint,
within a period of just ninety minutes, for the price of a movie ticket. So can walking a labyrinth, a mini-version in
symbolic space of the religious pilgrimage.
And so can a shopping trip to the mall.
Or a wedding, a funeral, reunion, sporting event, vacation. The experience agenda is the unifying mental
map of any conscious design program.
What is the moving audience focused on? The answer is not your design, but other
audience members. Few people go to
events and experiences solo; that’s because the main value of group experience
is in the bonding made possible by sharing events. This is especially true of scary or
horrifying negative experiences; surviving them shows what people are made of
and what they mean to each other.
Such is the power behind roller coasters, which are
near-death journeys carefully engineered to be safe while giving the impression
of extreme danger, all in the space of 90 seconds of sheer terror. This is the reason that playing with gravity
in whole-body total immersion will always be popular, and the reason that parks
of all kinds look to include, update, ratchet up, and replace these key
experience bases as bigger, faster, and scarier.
Much of the experience of places has to do with
herding and shepherding the group, from couples to mom, dad, and kids to
extended-generational outfits. While groups are walking toward a destination,
exploring the territory and its assets, or slowing down to rest and regroup,
they are in the process of doing a full list of activities: Planning, coordinating, pre-planning, re-planning,
checking-in, questioning, decision making, considering new ideas and projects,
re-considering those ideas and projects in the light of new information, making
dates ahead for lunch, the afternoon schedule, dinner, the evening
Mom in particular is watching the clock, the budget,
and the kids’ faces, as well as the husband’s body language, for signs of
distress or dissatisfaction, in order to gauge how well or poorly things are
going. Each person is mentally comparing
their private expectations against what is going on and has just happened. How good are these experiences, and what will
they mean in the future? Is this a
worthwhile use of my time, energy, money, and planning?
And of course woven in and out of all this mental
activity in reading the landscape of time and attention is the need for
bathroom breaks, hydration, snacks, and interactive stock-taking in the form of
verbal outputs and feedback.
There is also another layer: the social media of
texting, cell phoning, internet searching, and photo-taking, which must fit within
and around the non-media activity. No
wonder it is difficult to get (and keep) anyone’s attention – it is already
commandeered by dozens of other demands.
Altogether, group outings are loaded with competing
agendas both social and internal. These agendas
require constant reading, calibrating, feedback, and monitoring. Just to get included as part of this ornate
communications network, the design of exhibits, signage, and oratory (live or
recorded verbals) must be tailored to fit an incredibly complex sight-and-sound-
There is nothing simple about designing even the most
basic exhibit, walk-through, or tour. We saw just the rudiments in the one-day
charity tour of TV’s Downtown Abbey. Designing for optimal experiences is of
course an even more sophisticated endeavor.
The question comes back to this:
How do you get people to pay attention to X or Y when you want them to? The answer relies on deep knowledge of how
people experience things together in motion.
Recently we spent several weeks at a small liberal
arts college to take a measure of their leading cultural values. At the foot of a picturesque mountain and
alongside its own mist-covered lake, we listened to students, staff, and
faculty talk about what they believed made the school special and how that
quality could be translated to the world in better ways—one of them through the
ever-popular branding channel.
We also watched –eavesdropped, actually—a lot. As Yogi
Berra famously opined, “You can see a lot by just looking."
And we saw and heard a lot. Among our observations:
The campus is set in the woods between a lake and a
mountain; no one is walking into town for a pizza from here. This school is not
for everyone. Even its most ardent supporters use the word “isolated.” That
isolation has been a workaround topic for decades.
You would think this would be a drawback, but we saw
it as a unique selling point. Let me explain.
A college campus is an experience environment, just as
a neighborhood is – and needs to be seen and planned around that reality. This is where all the action happens (except
for on-line remote degree-getting). For 1500
resident students, and the day-to-day interactions with their teachers and
college staff, this is home, the stage where everything takes place.
The faculty may go home in the evening, but for the
students, this IS home. It’s the setting of the overnight stay, which has been
identified by marketers as a leading factor in the student’s decision to
enroll. It’s the very inability to cross a street and stroll into town that
turns a college campus into what it really is – a village with its own close sense
As a selling point, that actually makes isolation important
to incorporate into the brand. The most
successful students are those who spent their growing-up years camping and
hiking and climbing in just such settings—the value of the place is, for them,
already sold, because they are already home. The same goes for kids from small
and mid-sized towns and communities. They already know how to maximize limited
resources and make their own fun—and they do it by building strong social
Add to that the urban kids who want to get away from
the distractions and negative side of big- city life. Altogether that’s a
pretty good-sized pool of potential students who would thrive in that
For urbanite types and kids with their sights set on
the big state schools, this isn’t a place they would thrive in anyway.
So don’t sell to them; they aren’t appreciators, and
will never be converted. Target the 20%
of the 80/20 mix who are already on board.
This logic follows our advice to clients who ask “How can we drive sales?”
to ask the larger question, “What are people already prepared to buy?” Good marketing is not about educating the
consumer, or talking them into doing something they aren’t already predisposed
to do. This is key to good marketing. This
shouldn’t be a secret, but judging by much of the marketing work we’ve seen
over the years, apparently it is.
Identify the function
This campus is not, as had been traditionally thought,
a university with student housing. It is a village with a university. It supports all the fondest aspects of a
small settlement –the cohesion, closeness, tolerance of differences, deep
knowledge of its inhabitants and their personal business. There is a price to all this snug close
living, of course – in privacy, ability to separate oneself, autonomy,
metropolitan lifestyle. It’s about
living within the boundaries of a small, and yes, isolated place, and making it
your own – bringing it inside the circle of the personal. There are plenty of faculty who wish they
taught elsewhere, someplace with a wider purview, restaurants, the theater,
more intellectual choices, and a few more subcultures.
Yet, in the New England landscape, this was the original
American settlement model, and living a college lifetime through its village
strictures (or box) creates a toolbox of skills: the ability to work with and
appreciate others at close quarters, to be entrepreneurial within a set of
resource, space, and dollar limits; to be self-reliant outside city life,
developing networks of relationships like those aboard ship, on the space
station, or even in a research station like those in the Antarctic. There are developmental advantages to
contending with sub-prime dormitories, harsh winters, limited menus, classrooms
and equipment that are a tic behind state of the art. College X is the acid test to distinguish
between what is fundamental to a great learning environment and what is
window-dressing expendable luxury.
This is in fact the virtue of places we think about as
“privileged” in livability because they are set apart from the mainstream,
including gated communities, resorts, and exclusive residential enclaves within
cities or in upscale suburbs.
But such places are also “un-linked-in,’ except by
internet and the auto – and they need better infrastructure to provide those
links, such as: 21st- century post office that takes Amazon
deliveries, 24-hour cafeteria as the hearth of the campus, pool, track, and gym
open late, places to have coffee (Starbucks islands), all-hours pizza (study
groups and cramming sessions don’t respect the 9-to-5 clock). All these fixes
are geared to promoting food, sociability, and the outreach we all crave as the
highest-rank social primates. The rule here
is that campus design in general needs to assume very high values for whatever
is social and collegial.
These are the same virtues we seek out in our
after-college lifestyles. As I walked
the 60-year-old campus, bathed in the greenish light of a rainy June late
afternoon, I noticed other things: facing benches and outdoor tables inviting
dialogue. There is seating everywhere, providing venues for the original form
of teaching and learning: the dialogues we spontaneously construct at unplanned
moments of day or evening, those moments in which a community of two creates
the true education, the kind wrapped in mutual respect of one mind for
another. It’s the way culture is forged
across thousands of years, linking us through the generations through the
mind-melding that happens most iconically at college.
Beginning with preschool, this is the way people have
always learned—far more than clocking classroom hours, which are more like
check-in exercises to see how our book learning is progressing. As one of our interview subjects put it,
“Here I was, walking and talking with my professor about something I was
reading when it suddenly hit me—this is what college was supposed to be about.”
The faculty have another view, and it’s one they come
by honestly—they want to be able to identify as sophisticates, whatever their
discipline, and that calls for the traits of grading, filtering, and protecting
their personal environment—consisting of faculty office, meals, meetings, classroom, library, and yes,
parking. At more urban campus, my group
was involved with design-upgrading a lab space into an art collection and
faculty club. At a busy medical school,
this was the single space where collaboration across specialties could be eased
into happening. At this University, a
club space would provide another kind of upgrade—to show status and support of
leadership for colleagueship. This is
something praised in catalogues but barely acknowledged on the ground, in real facilities.
We think that there are other tweaks and upgrades that
can maximize the defined Village value – an operation outside athletics (for
which the school is well recognized) – a mini-golf course right on campus. Maybe themed to the state or the college
namesake, it can provide outdoor recreation on a very accessible scale for the
whole community—almost anyone, including kids, can play. Eighteen holes provides about 90 minutes’
playing time, as a solid study-break for dating, collegial bonding, conversation
(the primacy of dialog again), parents’ weekend, and even donor entertainment –
Clemson University has discovered what a great investment their full-size golf
course and club have been for fundraising.
Study-Break Mini-Golf can be run as a project by interns in the business
school’s Sports and Recreation program.
Just one more design question to be considered in the
process of place-making. First, find out
what business you are in – then, as Walt Disney put it, “plus it,” or what the
theme park ops call Enhancement. But
before you design, have a solid idea of what the design intention is, or decide
what it could be. That’s the cultural
piece, and it’s the basis, conscious or not, of every place that performs to or
even above expectations.