28 March 2012 // Thoughts

The Value of Experiential Design

For the next few weeks, we’ll be turning over JRA+blog to our Vice President of Marketing and Business Development (and frequent guest blogger), Shawn McCoy, who’ll be teaching us about what exactly experiential design means and how it generates value.

Several years ago, the marketing department at JRA updated our logo to include the tag line “experiential design + realization.” This change was due to our belief that our core business had shifted from simple attraction design or exhibit design to something deeper and more encompassing. At that time, the phrase “experiential design” was relatively new (and it still is today). So new, in fact, that a lot of people, even those of us in the experiential design business, have a hard time defining what the term actually means. With that in mind, this article not only provides some background about experiential design, along with a variety of definitions, but also highlights the ways in which experiential design provides value, from a variety of perspectives.

What is Experiential Design?
To best understand what experiential design is and its value, we must first understand the concept of “The Experience Economy,” a term and concept made popular by Joseph Pine and Jim Gilmore in first their article and then their book of the same name written in 1998 and ‘99, respectively.

In The Experience Economy, Pine and Gilmore offered a simple explanation for what they call the experience business:

If you charge for undifferentiated stuff, then you are in the commodity business.
If you charge for distinctive tangible things, then you are in the goods business.
If you charge for the activities you perform, then you are in the service business.
If you charge for the feelings customers have because of engaging you, then you are in the experience business.

   Commodity (Cake Mix)

    Service (Cake Decoration)

   Experience (Themed Birthday Party)

Pine and Gilmore provide a great example of this using a birthday cake. At one time, if it was your birthday, your mom would get all of the ingredients or commodities together and make you a birthday cake from scratch. Then cake mixes, or goods, came out, making it a bit easier to make a cake. Then it became more popular just to outsource the cake making to your local grocery or bakery – who are providing a service. And finally, instead of just outsourcing the cake, you can just outsource the whole birthday party experience to an experiential provider.

So, as Jim Gilmore states, you can track the history of economic progress through the evolution of the birthday cake: from the agrarian economy cakes were made from scratch; through the industrial economy when cake mixes were purchased as goods, in the service economy where you paid someone to make your cake, and finally to the experience economy where you outsource the entire birthday experience.

I would say that most of you reading this post are in the experience business in some way or another. And those of us who help create these “feelings that customers have” –– or these experiences –– are sometimes called experiential designers.

Experiential design can take place in the development of both products and places. As “experiential design” is a relatively new term, there really isn’t one universally accepted definition. In general terms it has been described as the “practice of designing products, processes, services, events and environments based on the consideration of an individual’s or group’s needs, desires, beliefs, knowledge, skills, experiences and perceptions.”

In essence, experiential design is the act of thinking about every touch point that an individual or group has with a product, service or environment and making that touch point resonate in a memorable way.

To better understand the definition, tomorrow we’ll take a look at an example of an experientially designed product.