Thursday, March 16, 2017

Mediocrity Part III – Visioneering (Inspired Design)

Inspired Design

Everyone knows you can’t compare apples and oranges. On the other hand, people do it all the time.

Take, for instance, my recent blog posts about the “ordinariness” of Disney Springs’ new Town Center – you can’t help feeling you’ve seen it all before because you have, many times at malls and resorts, for at least the past decade. I was writing about how the design process can inadvertently default to mediocrity as the most cost-efficient outcome, how that process works, and what should be done about it – particularly if your brand is based on creating magical, memorable experiences.

Some people took that to mean that Disney Imagineering had lost its position as the Gold Standard in park design to Universal – citing The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ and Diagon Alley™ as attractions that left Disney scrambling to offer a crowd-pulling alternative from their non-Disney Star Wars and Avatar properties.

Disney doesn’t usually play defense, but that doesn’t mean that Universal Studios is the new Disney. What Universal had was J. K. Rowling’s very compelling, remarkably detailed, proven vision in her book and film version of the Hogwarts universe to build on--with the financial support to do it right. This last part is important.  The Imagineering path is littered with the ruins of creative visions destroyed by a single guy in a suit who shrugged and said, “Just give it a Marriott-level finish.”

There is no lack of design talent.  But for a vision to work, it has to be shared all the way to the top. This all goes back to the original genius that illuminated Disneyland in taking a set of mental images (as story) and giving them unexpected power in three dimensions to create a walkaround artform no one had experienced before. In the Disneyland case, the vision was driving the outcome. As the late legendary Imagineer John Hench once told us about creating the original Disneyland, “Even we didn’t really understand what we were creating, but we trusted Walt’s vision.”

To bridge the gap between the creative vision and practical economics, we need a new way of thinking about what people really value about experience – what we think of as Visioneering – in which the value proposition is built into the Vision itself. One aspect of this is behavioral design, a discipline parallel to neuroeconomics in that it merges psychology, neuroscience, and social science with the “rational man” theory of classical economics. Economic theory has come to recognize that money and wealth theories must be grounded in the way people actually think about and handle their spending and saving, far from the left-brained numbers scan of money experts. In the same way, experience design, to succeed on the ground, has to be based on the ways people intuitively consider their personal issues and opportunities in using architecture and space.

As a parallel example, despite many decades of trying by the financial sector, they have come to the reluctant conclusion that it’s really not possible to re-engineer the customer.  People don’t buy “financial instruments.” What they are buying is a home, a better future, an investment in their children, and security.  That’s why neuroeconomics was created: to study the way the brain actually makes decisions about money in order to design new financial products that people are predisposed to buy rather than trying to foist habits of saving and spending on unwilling customers. Likewise, designers can’t re-engineer the guest. You have to understand what and how people are motivated to act in a given set of circumstances.

The original Disney Imagineers were artists and filmmakers operating under Walt’s edict illuminated by brilliant intuition, not marketing.  Not everything worked as planned.  But the team was led by a guy whose main talent was not artistic but editorial.  Pitting his keen brain against the prolific output of his team, he made the many cuts that always need to be executed in-between what works for the artist and what works for the audience. What worked in Anaheim and Orlando has been copied worldwide—but without the underlying knowledge of how or why it does its job so well.  This is “the magic” that Disney marketing sells, but this magic is knowable and its essence can and does work to inform the future of public space.

With the brain revolution in science added to evolutionary psychology, it is now possible to know far more than Walt did about how to design the way guests think, act, see, and move – and the critical role of place in shaping behavior by using space creation to set the mental agenda of people in groups.  It is the role of cultural analysis as a partner in the design suite to identify the human factors that operate within any design concept. This map of the brain, behavior, and biology guides design ventures a long stretch beyond the upscale Tuscan mall at Disney Springs.

Visioneering v. mediocrity

How can such cultural intelligence enable us as design thinkers to recognize “Visioneering” when we see it?  What warnings and cautions should we observe in looking at the design outcomes visible around us all the time?   

Let’s begin with museum publication awards.  Some are inspired, but the AAM awards tend to go to the same cluster of studios--because these are the same names, year after year, that turn out design for leading museums across the country just by the force of reputation.  It’s a circular logic that takes hold as museums quite reasonably opt to hire the best.  But that loop doesn’t promote a search for new ideas or inspiration from the corners or margins – less fashionable quarters geographically or by museum type (science v. art centers, for example). 

Another museum example is the trophy-collection museum, like the Liberty Museum in Philadelphia.  Showcasing and celebration go far to satisfy founders and boards.  But this impulse doesn’t fuel the spirit of inquiry that promotes creative ways of understanding or exploring things, people, and ideas.   Museums and historic homes and monuments are sacred spaces built to inspire reverence and awe. 

However, such an impulse doesn’t invite critical thinking or education—the stated goal of the AAM.

At the other extreme is Las Vegas, dedicated to pleasure, excess, and adrenalin.  Now its casino arcades and gaming floors are widely themed.  But notice the repeat floor plans, often with the same stores.  Whether cast in marble or neon, strolling from one spot on the strip to the next, the furnishings start to look alike.  Think back to the 1992 inspiration of Caesar’s Palace Forum mall that so effectively recreated imperial Hollywood Rome by sculpture, motifs, and classical fountains under cycled lighting--that sparked themeing on a scale outflanking the Stardust, Flamingo, Riviera, or the low-profile Dunes.  Heavy capital investment (and stupendous water bill) in a luxury experience has paid off by creating the highest-grossing mall in the country (including all of Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills).    

Elsewhere on the strip, creation of a Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1998 lasted just a decade because the electric bill to light the Enterprise (as it looked down at earth) was considered by Accounting an unacceptable luxury: even for a glimpse of a future way of life in space and the History of the Future Museum. Unlike the water bill at Caesar’s, this cost broke the budget barrier at the Hilton.  Subsequent licensing and funding problems have now blocked the ST Experience from feeding on the energy of the film franchise success. In New York, Julie Taymor’s spectacular innovations with The Lion King on Broadway weren’t sufficient to surmount the budgetary limits that got her fired as artistic director of Spider-Man in 2011.   

Cost / Benefit

Chris Barlow, Clinical Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship and Director of Experiential Learning at the University of Illinois at Chicago commented on our pervious posts on mediocrity’s merits: 

In our Value Engineering work, I have been very conscious of our process being the unpacking of a bunch of previously made and tested decisions, having the expertise available to reanalyze those criteria and goals and the current situation (both problem side and potential solutions), exploring the alternatives this makes possible, and choosing one to re-collapse on.

Innovation and design is very expensive in time and resources and demands expertise which is also expensive (including paying you guys the big bucks). Innovation is a capital expense. As someone living near the original "Town Square" in Wheaton, IL, I see in your posting evidence that developers around the world saw no value in investing the capital to find new approaches.… The real question is what profits and advantage could the developers and investors have reaped from investing the required capital for better design?

For both building and performance, world expos are current ideal incubators for brilliant design ideas and solutions – when they aren’t vetoed by committees who can’t determine their value to international audiences.  Ultimately all creative breakthroughs must somehow grapple with and overcome the bean-counters’ blade. The simplest way might be to build the value proposition right into the Vision. 

Why not? It’s do-able, and desired. As one executive told us, “I’d love to have some other way of determining value besides just numbers on a page – some way of evaluating soft costs, for instance.”  Successful Visioneering relies on those “soft costs” – all the extra detail that drives the vision home. Without them everything is just the dread “Marriott-level finish.” 

Clearly, we need better ways to recognize the value in ideas in order to nourish them – in visionary design teams better equipped to generate, vet, and nurture ideas in their early stages.  This goes beyond artistic merit: how will these ideas operate on a grand scale for thousands or millions of people in groups? What, where, and how do you provide the experimental value that people will instantly recognize as worth more than the cost of admission?  And the clincher: How will you maintain that value over time in repeat visitation?


Mediocrity is cheaper because it creates a “confidence comfort zone” based on guaranteed outcomes.  Deep knowledge of customer needs and wants can be built by digital communications, giving experience economy mainstays like cruise lines better confidence to invest in new ideas (as Joe Pine of Strategic Innovation notes in his January 2017 piece on mass customizing at Carnival Cruise Lines).  Novelty grabs attention in the business press. But the enduring value to audiences of any offering can be measured in advance against the human factors involved as they’ve operated for millennia.