A studio director currently working in New York City, Jeff Straesser has a solid resume for someone in the architecture field.
He obtained a graduate degree at Yale, worked in a number of studios across the country, and was even part of the team at Peter Gluck & Partners who won a contest sponsored by Dwell magazine to design a modern modular home. He could probably be working on a variety of residential or institutional projects, but he’d rather focus on finding ways to get you interested in buying a bicycle.
Straesser isn’t a salesman. As one of the lead architects working at Eight Inc., a multidisciplinary experiential design studio, he focuses on creating branded environments, new retail spaces, and new experiences for companies and organizations such as Shimano, a bicycle maker, the school charity Donors Choose, and Apple (his firm was approached by Steve Jobs years ago to help create the company’s now-famous retail outlets). He’s far outside what he considers traditional, siloed architecture, and he loves the opportunity
“I’m really intrigued working at a place where architecture is a piece of the puzzle,” he says. “When you have to factor your work into branding, communication, and digital technology, it’s a much more intriguing proposition.”
Eight Inc. is one of many firms working in the emergent field of experiential design. Combining architecture, branding, graphics, event production, and digital technology, it’s a hybrid of design and marketing that’s been around for roughly a decade.
Arising as part of the confluence of numerous trends—advances in mobile and display technology; the demise of traditional retail; the millennial preference for experiences; and tech firms looking to expand their brands into the physical world—the discipline is offering architects a new way to practice and new opportunities.
“It’s more about traditional architects realizing it’s not enough to design something that’s visibly compelling,” says Straesser. “It’s about bringing all these other considerations into design experiences.”
Building for brands
Architects working for brands—and the concept of experience design itself—is really nothing new. Frank Lloyd Wright designed car showrooms in New York. The Eameses created a massive pavilion for IBM, and Disney Imagineering built theme parks decades ago that brought together many of the same disciplines. Temporary pop-up installations have become almost cliche in advertising and marketing, especially at Austin’s SXSW, which has become a carnival of themed set pieces in recent years.
But the field has changed significantly in the last decade, driven by technology and the attention economy. Retailers and brands, seeing traditional advertising dry up and traditional store design fail to lure shoppers—according to Elite Wealth Management, there were 34 billion visits to U.S. stores in 2010, and just 17.6 billion by 2013—have turned to new physical spaces, from pop-ups to elaborate retail spaces, in search of awareness and profits. And they’ve become incredibly elaborate: Ford built an escape room-type stunt, asking people to try and find their way out a giant maze while driving one of their vehicles, while Bumble, a dating app, created a physical room for users to meet before going out.
At the same time, the world of architecture is changing, too. Between parametric design and programs such as Grasshopper and Revit, digital technology is becoming more and more a part of the profession, and the field of experiential design offers opportunities to experiment with it in new and novel ways.
“It’s about the through line, where the architectural profession overlaps with digital design,” says David Schwarz, an architect and partner at Hush, a New York-based experiential design firm. “These brand activations aren’t bound by huge construction timelines, developers, or financing. They’re less formal and more playful.”
Experiential work also offers the opportunity to see fast-moving projects take shape much quicker than traditional buildings, which often have multi-year timelines.
“Architecture school is pretty divorced from the real world,” says Marc Kushner, partner at Hollwich Kushner Architects and co-founder of the website Architizer. “Jobs like this aren’t theoretical. They’re embedded in a fast-moving pop culture world.”
The world after the Apple Store
“Apple changed everything,” says Kushner, discussing how the store shifted the retail landscape. “It was a revolution that opened up a Pandora’s box of experimentation.”
While Apple Stores and their approach to service and streamlined design were revelatory, the introduction of this new shopping experience in 2001 wasn’t just impactful due to aesthetics. It was a new way to interact with customers—events, product demos, Genius Bars for service and troubleshooting—and a tech company making its mark on a physical space (while Apple has such a massive hardware business, over time, both Facebook and Google would become big clients for experiential design firms).
“Look at the last decade of retail, and think to yourself, ‘how much have you bought on Amazon compared to five years ago?’” says Schwartz. “Amazon is a brandless space, there’s no frills. If retail is moving to digital, what do brands do?”
What’s left, and the area where experiential design is growing, is in creating ways to engage with customers, ideally in new, intriguing spaces (if they stand out on social media, even better). Luxury brands such as Tesla and Cartier still offer upscale shopping experiences. The rest are trying to build a culture, or even a cult, around themselves, and are increasingly trying to do that through interactive, social spaces that tell a story through design. Technology companies are especially eager to create branded spaces (and boring software needs experiences to show customers where brands are going). In this environment, marketing and advertising firms are eager to tap the experience of those who understand environmental graphic design, placemaking, wayfinding, and fabrication.
Eight Inc.’s recent project for Shimano in Singapore is a store, but more importantly, it’s an event space, a repair shop, and a library consisting of hundreds of books about cycling. Hush recently built an interactive space for Google that allowed visitors to play with and interact with an overhead light sculpture, a visual metaphor for the power of data and digital interaction.
These examples show how architects working on these projects are being pushed to utilize an entire suite of tools. Architect Robert Cohen is the Director of Digital Experience Design at Gensler, which has had a branded design department for the last 35 years. He says that the real challenge to create an engaging experience is integration, bringing together sculptural and kinetic elements, and thinking beyond just physical space and figuring out how to integrate narrative content.
“How do you craft an experience where people have a more emotional reaction to the space?” he says.
Advertising’s big event
With the changes in the media and advertising worlds expected to accelerate, experiential design to continue to expand. Cohen sees the confluence of digital technology and physical design blurring even further. Instead of relying on specialists, Gensler has created its own in-house team, bringing together content, software, and hardware on one team.
As the discipline expands, Cohen believes the focus will be on telling better stories. We have enough screens in our lives, so it takes more than a moving image to capture a consumer’s attention.
“How do we use this as a tool so we don’t have Times Square everywhere?” says Cohen. “Most people who are new to this world see it as a hardware play, and just put up screens. They’re thinking just like an architect. The content is what you want people to remember, not a 30-foot-long wall of monitors. Without the content, it becomes an arms race. Nobody remember the third-tallest building. But they’ll always remember the Chrysler Building because the design is incredible.”