Saturday, April 30, 2016

It’s about the Magic


The real magic of the human condition is that humans share a reality we don’t realize we share – until provided by way of an experience designed to evoke it.  A very early example is the campfire that provided light, warmth, cooking, and safety, the original heart of the home, the hearth—as well as the heat and light that anchored the earliest settlements. 

The first effects of controlled illumination were visible in the faces warmed and colored by firelight, along with the sharing of food, drink, and stories of the hunt, the journey, the battle, and fear and danger overcome.  250,000 years later, romance is still fueled by the hearth and candlelight, just as the outdoor grill and its aromas serve to recall and rekindle the rewards of the hunt, the original human teamwork project.  The gift of fire was the gift of reassurance, social cohesion in bonding, and confidence that we could fend off dark and cold, hunger and loneliness, with our creative crafting of the natural world.

Perfect places

This magic of the campfire has been extended in places so ingeniously designed that, like the fireside, they evoke behaviors perfect to their purposes, as if on autopilot.  No signage is needed, as in sacred spaces, because the purpose of the place is perfectly clear in itself, making intuitive sense.  The most successful places ever built pull this off seemingly without effort.  What their designers did was to understand instinctively, without doing the math, exactly how people behave, where, and why.  Find ways to build in this intuitive knowledge as a conscious act, and the public will visit, and more important, re-visit—the whole secret to public spaces that succeed to survive, prevail, and even turn a profit.

Magic on purpose

But this magic doesn’t just happen, it must be learned at a Hogwarts Academy, that hard place where magic must be earned by the exacting act of learning and absorption, then applied.  Intuition can take you so far, because it comes from the same brain as knowledge.  But there is a science of design as it fits human needs and wants, and that is the work of cultural analysis in centering human-based building.

Familiar spaces are those we know so well, from our homes to the White House, from the office to the zoo, department store to gift shop, as object lessons of problem-solving at its most pragmatic.  But the process of coming up with solutions to place-making problems can’t be explained by the “magic” touted by Disney Company.  We know how to behave in a castle – even a “real fake” one in Disneyland, or in the glitter of a casino, or the awesome majesty of a cathedral, or again, the civil sanctity of the Oval Office (where the most sophisticated guest can choke up on a planned speech). 

Why?  Because each of these places evokes a set of behaviors within each visitor—an inner character and core script close to theatrical.  The ability to cue this acting is the outcome of clear design parameters that set the stage.

This blog will describe various stage sets.  But it will do something more: lay out the parameters of our common cultural equipment that make these stages work, starting in the mind with perception.

For example, how do we know, at any moment, where we are, and what we are supposed to do there?  The answer depends on some heavy brainwork: work that takes in the sensory world, compares it to inner templates of meaning and motivation, and makes almost instant decisions about the appropriate script.   There is a whole rationale for this instant recognition, the built-in rulebook by which people understand and act within the spaces we all know – as well as new ones (hint: we treat the new as an extension of the old by sensing and filing its perceptual cues in the old folders). 

How it works: Rules for human-based design

Once these rules and rubrics are out in the open to demonstrate the dynamics of space use and wayfinding, the task of designing places that work can be an informed one.  Not through some arcane process that defies explanation, but as a deliberate decision sequence that illustrates the logic of thinking and feeling as inspired by design. We should be the sorcerer, not the sorcerer’s apprentice, practicing magic by design.  The better the marriage, the less dependent it needs to be on the magic of romance and more on the harder logic of relationship maintenance and negotiation.


Such decisions include: How much space for how many people?  What colors should dominate for this purpose?  Lighting, furnishings—what styles are best suited to the behavioral theme?  What historic or geographical themes offer the most effective outcomes?  Music, programming, drama, icons and symbols, and “talis” array (the touchstone takeaway objects and images) are all synthesized into creation or re-creation of spaces to promote the purpose. Designers make these decisions intuitively all the time.  But what I’m raising here is a bigger question: how do all these aspects interface with the visitor mind? 

This is the human/design interface.  What is already in this person’s mind?” What template will they use to identify this place when they see it? What emotions are attached to that template/algorithm?  How do we manage those emotions? In what context will the observer be observing- where will they “stand” contextually – solo, with a group, what sort of group – intimate? Strangers? Colleagues? Other?

Much of the rulebook of contemporary retail was worked out by Henry Selfridge from the turn of the last century in his London emporium.  He operated by shrewd instinct to create retailing traditions out of his head that are now industry templates.  He also had his store designers to consult.  But what works can be copied, explained, and replicated for future success.


And what is the purpose of any given space?  This is a question more often assumed than analyzed; we think we know this intuitively.  We do—when we see it.  But before we do, someone must know what they are doing in order to create place out of space.  Disney’s original statement about what was in his head was nothing anyone else could relate to: (Iwerks and Kenworthy in Hench, The Art of the Show, p. 2) “…a small amusement park…designed to appeal to both children and adults….something of a fair, an exhibition, a playground, a community center, a museum of living facts, and a showplace of beauty and magic.” No wonder, under this rudimentary business plan, that so few people were able to understand his start-up vision by this hazy outline.  What Disney was inventing was a new kind of public space, attuned to an audience he loved and respected—an experience environment.

What Disney and his team designed was far more, but it had to be experienced to be believed and understood a generation later – nearly twenty years after Disneyland—by the handful of architectural critics and practitioners who were, despite their formal training, able to transcend that barrier to grasp what was in Walt’s mind. The first Imagineers weren’t architects, and the initial appreciation for themeing came from the ranks of people trained outside architecture, in animation, filmmaking, theater and interior design, and urban planning.

With the creation of the first park, Disney achieved an institution beyond the user-friendly public space now so widely praised and emulated. In fact, he produced something far greater, a template for the building-scape of our cities and suburbs ever since.  This early innovation deliberately followed a sequence of related thematic stories for a walkthrough environment, a series of crafted experiences to be lived and re-lived in totally immersive 3D; a living movie in which the visitor is the lead actor.

Just as theme parks embody “the art of the show,” we use the wider term “thematics” to encompass the entire built environment and all that visitors “perform” or experience therein.  This domain includes the humanscape of buildings, transportation (from land vehicles to ships and skyways), suburb and waystation, malls, assisted living communities, from major cities to edge cities to villages and small towns; oil rigs, castles, hospitals, airports, warehouses, and golf courses – every node imaginable. 

Everything people do within and about these designed worlds is included—working, socializing, buying, selling, browsing, walking, riding, boating, flying, hiking, and biking; learning, adventuring, meeting up, gardening and growing, sporting, worshipping, fair-going, recovering, being born,  grieving, and dying—from birth to funeral, our lives happen within spaces designed for the grand scope of human talent and potential. The gamut runs from hospitals where we now are both born and die, to theme parks that showcase our deepest and dearest motivations.   

Human-based design

The age when designers could dictate their own terms is closing down.  The humanscape is becoming a flatter ecology.  The visitor, user, or guest always did shape place to their own ends.  It is now far more clear that in order to compete in the mass public arena, the audience and their aspirations and perceptions of things has moved up to take the helm of the design agenda.

Architecture and building can no longer operate within the “pure” control of the architect and builder alone; they have to engage with the instincts, tastes, and talents of those who will use the space with their own agendas drawn from the broader cultural mandate.  Rarely are these the same as the private creativity of those who conceive and create these places for their own personal ends as monuments to their own talent.  It has to be about the user as the client, with the architect as a rapt artisan who serves at the client’s pleasure.

The best places are custom-designed for the innate genius of the human brain, body, and behaviors—to fit the cultural (shared belief) program, after Universal Design has been satisfied. This means there are actually two style sheets for place design:  first, what all humans share, and second, the cultural “set” that distinguishes one group from another—northern and southern, French and British and Arab and Asian, male and female, younger and older, upper, middle and lower class.

These categories each come with a unique value system that requires different stylings to promote and underwrite them.  “Family” is code for child, class, and cost, most often in a category by itself that excludes adult, and especially teen, themes (Las Vegas being geared to these two). Both New Orleans and Las Vegas have gone through branding experiments pitching their images to the family market. These failed because people have a mental file folder for both places labeled “hedonism, adults only, and 18 and older.”  These are special “forbidden zones,” escape valves from the righteous and careful ethic of civil society geared to order.  Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has explained the gap in his quip “There is no such thing as fun for the whole family,” because, as our age-stage development chart shows, adults, adolescents, and children have widely segmented priorities.  Many times these are at odds. 

While this is a very general schematic, it outlines the categories key to audience-based decision making in design.  Twenty-five years’ experience in guiding our clients’ focus on what is most critical to their audiences will be clarifying to every designer who needs to create the public space that targets every type of experience.  

We are too often called in to troubleshoot when the issues causing problems could have been addressed, avoided, or solved far earlier in the design process—at the fuzzy front end.  Human dynamics introduced earlier, rather than later, always yield cost and time-saving, up-front economies that go far to prevent the expensive bill for damages to operations and reputation otherwise doomed to happen on the ground.

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