12 October 2020 // Thoughts

Attraction Design and the Art of Art Direction

by David Ferguson and Tony Schmidt

The keystone of successful attraction design process is a strong team. Together, we push the boundaries of each theme park’s grand idea, immerse ourselves into the content of each museum exhibition, develop innovative ways to showcase top brands, and embrace the variety of new hybrid experiences emerging all of the time. Through each of these journeys, we celebrate the new, the acutely potent, the operationally sound, the intensely truthful, and the unbelievably exhilarating experience we’ve all dreamed to create. We love what we do.

From exciting new rendering software to immersive virtual reality platforms, attraction designers have more tools available than ever before to pre-visualize each imagined vision in precise detail. This precision enables them to fully coordinate in real-time with every discipline as part of a living, multidimensional, digital working environment. The workflow yields immediate evaluation to expedite review and testing with tighter budgetary and operational controls. The outcome continues to narrow the gap between what is conceived and what is ultimately realized to become the next great built attraction.

A successful attraction design and development process necessitates extensive pre-construction review to visualize the guest’s journey through each entertainment experience. This process enables immersive examination of fundamentals such as:

  • pre-visualization of the experience from many vantage points
  • the level of each emotional delivery
  • ergonomic spatial efficiency, and the fluidity of throughput
  • places of action versus places of reprieve
  • the user-friendliness of wayfinding signage
  • ensure guest safety and comfort

Such checkpoints enable designers to assess the overall attraction experience from the guest’s perspective. They bring clarity to review the extent of an attraction’s visual appeal, as well as its effectiveness to deliver the intended storyline.

Art Directors are tasked with the poetic follow-through of the grand attraction design vision. A project’s Art Director knows how to acutely transform an aesthetic vision into a built reality, despite whatever detours that aesthetic vision might take along the way. But how exactly do they do it?

Art Direction in 5 Steps:

Attraction Design Art Direction JRA

Senior Project Director, Rick O’Connell (right foreground), in a brainstorming session for The Friends Experience NYC with members of the SuperflyX team.

Step 1: What’s your story?

It is paramount for an Art Director to keenly identify with the Design Director’s vision on a project. Throughout design development, a Design Director will inevitably lead extensive refinements to an attraction design to meet a client’s ambitions for that attraction. Art Directors may be present throughout the life of an Attraction to help the Design Director visually unify a thematic story and coordinate across a team of multi-disciplinary contributors towards the established aesthetic. Yet, following the delivery of a design, The Art Director ensures that nuance to the design language is carried into the built environment down to every material finish, tactile pattern, wall treatment, unblemished wall projection surface, clarity of graphic signage, a sculpted model’s fidelity, effectiveness and character of theatrical lighting, and many other details. The total package must deliver The Story, as any visual deviations from the Story context will get noticed by the guests, both consciously and sub-consciously.

Attraction design

Tony Schmidt and Senior Project Director, Jason Hedges, review the plans for Ferrari World Abu Dhabi.

Step 2: What’s your budget?

Budget is the stop gap. Success to an attraction begins in part by meeting budget. Collaborating with the Project Manager, the Art Director can pivot through design realizations with adept fluency for alterations to maintain The Story. The design calls for x…but y will meet budget and continue to deliver the authentic story and can be fabricated or delivered on time to stay on schedule.

Attraction design

As part of his art direction work on the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, David was tasked with sourcing hundreds of historical and petroleum-related artifacts.

Step 3: Filling the gaps

Inevitably, when it comes to the finer details of the built attractions, there are subtleties to the setting where the Art Director must bridge vacancies. For example, perhaps a specific look and feel was prescribed for a propped area of a set and now must be sourced? The Art Director is the one you will find sifting through merchandise at thrift stores, flea markets, or online to track down the perfect solution to populate the set props that ensure an experience feels authentic. Character, scale and arrangement all go into play to deliver the authentic story. Perhaps there is a late adjustment to the facility, or a new component is added that directly encroaches on an attraction experience? The Art Director is on-site to make decisions and adapt to surprises in the field to ensure that the total, unified thematic experience is delivered.

attraction design Ferrari World Abu Dhabi

David proofreads graphic panels for Ferrari World Abu Dhabi.

Step 4: Quality Control

Is the built outcome aligning to the prescribed direction, or isn’t it?  When it comes down to evaluating the quality and accuracy of material finishes, are these matching the samples agreed to? When reviewing printed graphic signs or murals, does the pixel density, color, finish, and assembly of materials meet expectations? The reality is that when it’s right, it naturally feels a part of the themed experience. However, when it’s wrong and out of character, it gets noticed and feels disruptive to The Story. The Art Director must give razor-sharp attention towards the total delivery of the attraction design to ensure the finest details align to theme.

Tony is “immortalized” as a 2D graphic in the History Ride at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi.

Step 5: Finishing Touches

The Attraction opening is quickly approaching, and inevitably, last-minute decisions are required to direct the built setting another notch towards a unified delivery of the authentic Story. The Art Director is positioned to help shepherd this vision all the way to the end. Is the attraction visually rich? Is there consistency on theme across all nuances of every material and finish? Is the lighting enhancing each exhibit with rich color, sharpness, contrast, mood or patterned overlays? Is the audio-visual balanced and effective to align to the overall Attraction Story? Visit after visit, as a guest, are you still mesmerized by the way an experience may delightfully sweep you away into the full escape of a Story with a lasting rich memory?

Step back and remember to BE the guest. First impressions are established in seconds. To translate the design intent into the built setting, the Art Director must deliver solutions that bring cohesiveness and authenticity in support of the Story.

Every built decision must uphold the Story’s content and vision. The Art Director knows too well the difference between mediocre and acutely convincing when it comes to the built environment. As so often described when finishing anything with a high level of precision: ‘the devil is in the details.’

Conclusion – Attraction Design and the Art of Art Direction

Art direction requires attention to detail, commitment to collaboration, an ability to think and react quickly, and a passionate devotion to an attraction’s story and guests. With these tools in hand, the art director becomes an integral player in transforming an attraction from a conceptual vision into a memorable, meaningful and repeatable guest experience.

About David

David Ferguson’s 38+ years in the industry, along with his knowledge of and experience with art history, theatre and design, heavily influence his work at JRA as Consulting Art Director. Using the motto: “the show begins as the guest walks through the front door,” David works to create the richest possible environment for each attraction while balancing the guest experience with the client’s budget. David received his Master of Fine Arts – Theater Design from Temple University and his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Pittsburgh. Outside the studio, he has served as Design Consultant for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and on the renovation of the historic Taft Theater. Prior to joining JRA, David worked for Paramount Parks as the Director of Art, Show & Design.

About Tony

Tony’s 22+ years of professional design experience, combined with his core competencies in exhibit design, attraction design, graphic design, technical design, creative writing, and project management, make him an invaluable asset as JRA’s Art Director. Tony’s technical skills include extensive experience using production techniques and materials ranging from hand sketches to final illustrations, scale models and 3D modeling, fly-throughs and CAD drafting. He is also competent in concept to production-ready graphic designs, as well as on-site management.

Tony graduated from the University of Missouri with a Master of Fine Arts, Set Design for Theatre. He also holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Featured image – David Ferguson had to artfully arrange the thousands of pieces of “stuff” that famed comedian George Carlin donated to the National Comedy Center.