“Eventually, people are going to come back.”
That’s how Scott Strzinek, NI’s director of global facilities, started his conversation in mid-April 2020 with Susanne Harrington, principal of Asterisk, an experiential design and branding consultancy in Austin, Texas. They had been working together to roll out the company’s new brand—NI was the new name for National Instruments, an engineering tools company headquartered in Austin. Strzinek had hired Asterisk to design and deploy the new brand as signage at seven major facilities around the world. In the midst of that project, he called her with a new challenge.
It was about a month after COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization and the City of Austin had issued its first shelter-in-place order. Strzinek was already focused on how to keep his colleagues safe when they would go back to work at the 70-acre campus in northwest Austin. He asked Harrington, who happened to have expertise in wayfinding as well as branding, to collaborate on messaging to convey all the safety measures that would be in place for returning employees.
Working remotely over the weekend, Harrington; her husband and fellow Asterisk principal, Shawn; and their four designers tackled the problem. By Monday’s check-in with Strzinek, they had sketched out a visual vocabulary for a family of modular, temporary signs with bold iconography and concise messages. Four weeks later, the whole system of vehicular, exterior and interior signs was in place, awaiting the return of NI employees. As Harrington says, the signs convey a simple message: “There’s a system here. It looks like this. Follow the signs.”
But while the Asterisk team was implementing the signage program, Harrington envisioned further applications. “I recognized the few places I went, everyone was struggling with providing clear on-site guidance and instructions. As a small business owner, I knew I had so little time to think about this,” she says. “From the nail shop to the pizza place, they could use something really easy, and we should just make it available to them.” Strzinek agreed: “Go do the most good you can with it.”
In May, Asterisk launched GamePlan, a free collection of downloadable sign templates based on the NI program, with links to commonly available fabrication materials, and planning instructions for nonprofits and small businesses. In the next six weeks, GamePlan swept Instagram, and the documentation was downloaded more than 100 times. Large-property owners licensed the program or engaged Asterisk to customize it for their use. Harrington sums up GamePlan’s mission: “Briefly and authoritatively, we want to give you some confidence that you are going the right way and doing the right thing.”
Experiential design is defined expansively—placemaking, wayfinding and interventions in shared spaces that help us understand and navigate the built environment—and since the spring and summer of 2020, experiential designers all over the world have been brainstorming how they might use their skills to help people navigate, literally, the new conditions imposed by the pandemic. Anna Crider serves as the president of the board of directors for the Society for Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD), and in her Zoom-powered conversations with designers around the United States, she’s taken the pulse of her profession. “We’ve all been facing our own unique aspects of the challenge, and everybody’s been rising to the occasion,” she says.
Like the Asterisk team in Austin, designers at Mijksenaar’s studios in New York City and Amsterdam were working at home during those early months of the pandemic. Mijksenaar, a design consultancy with expertise in wayfinding, is best known for its iconic signage system at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. Managing director Cesar Sanchez remembers that conversations with clients quickly turned from addressing immediate needs, like designing social distancing signs for ProRail, the Dutch national railway, to the longer-term and larger-scale implications of COVID-19.
The Mijksenaar team held a series of internal visioning sessions to discuss how designers, owners and architects could transform the visitor experience in reimagined shared spaces. Three white papers—on airports, museums and rail transit—were the result. Diagrams describe “ambitious interventions” that reconstruct visitor circulation through train stations, airport terminals and museum galleries at a safer cadence. “We’d like to think of this not just as a solution for the moment, but an opportunity for how we can improve the passenger experience,” Sanchez says. “If we start doing the right things, like [designing] better digital tools and enhanced communication, hopefully the result of COVID will be a smoother, easier journey.”
He sees parallels between how the attacks of September 11 rewired our use of public space and how the coronavirus health crisis is redrawing those same places. And he wants to help ensure that this round of change, albeit disruptive, will not further erode the travel experience. “If ten years down the road, COVID is a memory, at least we can say we weren’t saddled with huge security lines like post-9/11, but instead we gained larger waiting areas and more-interactive and -seamless experiences.”
“It’s a shake-up,” says Crider. Aside from her duties for SEGD, she also coleads the New York studio of place branding and experiential design firm Entro. Like Sanchez, she started to see a shift in her clients’ thinking in the spring of 2020. “The norm had become ‘cram more people in.’ Now clients want more space for the human aspect of the experience. We have a lot of spaces that need to change across the board, and new wayfinding and experiential design is an easy way to retrofit and rethink those spaces,” she says.
Bluecadet, an experience design agency with offices in Philadelphia and New York, specializes in interactive experiences, and at first meetings with new clients, “interactive” often meant touchscreens. During their engagements, Bluecadet designers frequently transformed those expectations into truly imaginative experiences, like a tabletop game played with a banana as a controller.
Recently, Lilly Preston, managing director of the New York studio, has been pondering the concept of “touch” and its recently required and perhaps hereafter preferred opposite, “touchless.” “The conceit of broadening the vocabulary of modalities of interaction was already percolating for us in the studio,” she says. For example, last year at the Henry Ford museum, Bluecadet wrapped twelve-foot architectural columns with stacked digital screens to tell the stories of American innovators. As a visitor approached, the screens came to life. Make a gesture or touch a screen, and the story continued. Visitors engaged with the columns via multiple modes: presence, movement and touch.
The pandemic, she says, has “accelerated a trajectory already in progress: What is interactive that doesn’t start with a touchscreen or a monitor? Before it was a provocation. Now it’s a mandate.” Preston believes that this new era of design will “not define a single new interaction style,” but, like the columns, will invite “multiple entry points to be mindful and inclusive.”
Inclusivity is also on the mind of Aki Carpenter, an associate and creative director at the New York headquarters of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, a planning and design firm celebrated for its work with museums all over the world. “As an advocate for inclusive design, I have to be committed to keeping tactile [touch] in some form because it’s such an effective communication tool in museums,” Carpenter says. The question becomes, “How do we ensure that we are still creating affordances for inclusive design? It’s an important aspect of an experience in a physical space.”
Another interesting point of tension that Carpenter is exploring is the omnipresent cell phone and its role in the evolution of the museum experience. “For so long, we’ve been focused on how to ensure that people are connecting to the story not just on their phones. Now people are going to trust their own devices more because they know where they’ve been,” Carpenter says. She sees an opportunity to use our own devices to create and contribute to communal experiences in a space. Inspired by emoji and comments floating by in a live stream on social media, Carpenter envisions a museum experience in which visitors can virtually “gather around something, interact with each other, and see their own reflections and reactions to a piece of content.”
Carpenter is hopeful about this moment in exhibition design, in spite of the difficulty of safely congregating in museum galleries. “In museums, there are a lot of good challenges. The shelf life is very long, so there’s the timeless aspect of the design and the story, and now there’s another challenge,” she says. “How do we design for distance and be creative with it?”
Great experiential design is always born of constraints, whether the requirements come from our evolving definition of the workplace, our ever-entangled relationship with technology, or, as we are experiencing now, the anxieties and necessities imposed by a pandemic. One early and potentially enduring outcome may be a new sensitivity about what makes a place feel safe, comfortable and welcoming for everyone.
“We’re all trying,” says Anna Crider of SEGD and Entro, “in some cases not always hitting the mark, but at least taking the shot.” ca