The Soda Academy
"Only recently has the evolution of technology made it feasible to digitally enhance human experiences in physical space."
"When brands and their agency partners strive to reach people where they live, work, play and visit (in the physical world rather than online) all manner of ancillary disciplines and knowledge are required: architecture, engineering, lighting, interior design, technology, human geography and more."

Nathan Moody, Stimulant

Spatially Literate Experience Design

Experience Prototyping

What turns a space into a place? In the realm of architecture and urban planning, “placemaking” is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of physical spaces. It is both a process and a philosophy that capitalizes on people’s assets, inspiration and potential to create meaning through human use of a space. Physical space has vast reserves of untapped potential as a means to connect people to ideas, brands, and to each other. Welcome to the age of placemaking in experiential marketing.

Experiential marketing has explored this idea for some time, but only recently has the evolution of technology made it feasible to digitally enhance human experiences in physical space. Indeed, the only barriers to site-specific digital experiences that adhere to the principles of placemaking are those of understanding and workflow. When brands and their agency partners strive to reach people where they live, work, play and visit (in the physical world rather than online) all manner of ancillary disciplines and knowledge are required: architecture, engineering, lighting, interior design, technology, human geography and more.

When done right, a place becomes a space and a space becomes smart. The key to successful smart spaces is spatial literacy. If you develop a place-based digital experience without understanding user expectations, analyzing patterns of past use of the space in question, examining cultural norms, or grasping architectural principles rooted in humanism, you will never be able to craft something that is true and appropriate to its physical context.

In his seminal book Digital Ground (2004, MIT Press), Malcolm McCullough shares an example of a real estate developer who builds homes based on pre-existing, stock designs. All of the homes in one such development end up being sited incorrectly because the developer lacked an understanding of the architect’s original design rationale as well as the physical geography of the land where the houses were to be built. Rather than having sloped roofs angled to the north towards the prevailing winds (with the windows facing south for warmth), the roofs were all built facing the opposite direction. The result is spatially illiterate as it ignores the basic tenet that the physical context of the homes should have shaped their usability and design.

Similar examples abound. In North America, micro-cafés have recently sprouted up inside of supermarkets. These small coffee shops often feel disconnected to the consumer because the lighting, flooring, sound, temperature and context are largely out of sync with consumers’ assumptions and expectations of what cafés should be like. One would never design a cozy café with bright vinyl flooring and fluorescent strip lighting. Clearly, this attempt to co-locate a place with such rich social meaning (i.e., a café) in a visibly mismatched environment (i.e., a large supermarket) is spatially illiterate.

Pairing a place of gathering and relationship-focused commerce with a place of task completion and efficiency-focused retail is destined to fail on many levels. Even with comfortable chairs, I’ve never seen anyone seated in these places except for store staff, turning the space into a public breakroom for store employees. It’s highly unlikely the retail store designers intended for the cafés spaces to be used in this way.

Similarly, when producing place-based digital experiences, it’s so important to take a holistic approach in order to ensure congruity with user intent, the context, the surrounding environment as well as the brand. Brands should not expect content that plays well on the web or in a mobile app to translate into a meaningful (or even satisfactory) experience in the physical world. The very essence of such a digital experience needs to be specifically mapped to the needs of the inhabitants of that space. This is true for design, content and technology alike.

Information needs also vary dramatically from one context to the next. In the case of permanent corporate installations or tradeshows, it’s almost a given that visitors will have already seen that entity’s (or brand’s) website before visiting. Indeed, that’s how most people learn about the installation in the first place. At worst, repurposing online content for such experiential marketing initiatives has the potential to significantly damage a brand’s credibility. At best, it suggests a considerable lack of attention to detail.

For years, research has shown that people don’t read much online. They skim and skip constantly, and that assumes they are seated comfortably. What about standing on a hard floor? Information and content strategy must be uniquely aligned with the context of use within the physical environment.

The technologies used in place-based experiences have evolved to the point where they can be uniquely specified for the space in question and for the messages to be conveyed. Frame rates that are unheard of on the web can easily be achieved in 2D and 3D within digital installations. Input and interaction paradigms that would be fatiguing in other contexts might be perfectly appropriate for short-duration usage sessions at a trade show, for example. Digital displays can now be quite massive physically, but are often intended to be seen from far away. Frame frequency, interaction design patterns and the size of the digital canvas are just a few of the factors that need to be considered when crafting content for place-based digital experiences.

If this all sounds like a lot of work, it is. However, when done well, digital experiences exhibiting high spatial literacy just “feel right.” They are authentic extensions of the physical space and the brand.

The rich installation that Obscura Digital produced for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission uses an approachable, hand-drawn style in an amphitheater-like environment. The immersive experience serves to instill consumer confidence while helping the community appreciate the tremendous complexity involved in operating public utilities.

Stimulant’s interactive mirror installation at the Bezos Center for Innovation (within Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry) leverages dark walls and dramatic lighting to literally reflect the user in the exhibit. The experience surrounds visitors with information and inspiration, underscoring that anyone can be innovative if they simply cultivate certain habits of mind. Occurring as the final installation in the exhibit, its placement in the experiential flow bolsters its relevance and effectiveness.

These are the kinds of rich opportunities that the Web doesn’t offer. These are the kinds of impressions that create stories which people will share through word-of-mouth and social media.

By focusing on spatial literacy as a process and goal that technology has the potential to enable, forward-thinking brands (and their agency partners) are spurring a revolution in experiential marketing.

About the author:

Nathan has designed award-winning interfaces, interactions, illustrations, motion and sound for two decades in almost every digital delivery medium and communication channel. His diverse professional background informs his holistic, interdisciplinary approach to the design, art and craft of experience design. His clients have included Adobe, Charles Schwab, GE, Google, HP, Intel, Microsoft, National Geographic, New Line Cinema, The North Face, Reebok and Timberland.

Illustration by UK-based illustrator, Owen Gent