Why experiential design has never been more important

To coincide with the launch of experience design handbook Worlds of Wonder, Anna Mitchell caught up with Stan Boshouwers, one half of the author duo behind the book, to explore how a space can tell a story.

The need for collective spaces and the desire for tangible experiences has never been greater and it’s a fact that a range of organisations – from corporate to visitor attraction, and healthcare to leisure – are waking up to. 

Delivering an experience to your customers, staff or even patients is a powerful way to convey messages surrounding a brand, tell stories and offer engagement, enjoyment and even relaxation. 

And it’s something that Tinker imagineers knows all about. Founded by StanStan Boshouwers Boshouwers [pictured right] and Erik Bär, the experience design and production agency has crafted experiences for world class museums, multinational corporates, art galleries and hospitals. 

Now the secrets to those experiences have been laid bare in Worlds of Wonder, a book written by Boshouwers and Bär that promises to outline the history, principles and methods behind the growing field of experience design. 

The authors met at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands in 1990 when they were both studying AI. If AI seems a strange starting point for the business the pair would eventually create, Boshouwers points out that, back then, the field of study was largely about imagination. 

“AI was science fiction back then and it’s not anymore,” he says. “It’s still imaginative but not how it was back then. I wanted an education that made work out of fantasy. It was also a rare occasion where you could combine technology and psychology. That’s why I started studying AI.” 

Despite the links to imaginative and virtual projects, it’s still surprising the route Boshouwers and Bär took. While most of the students headed off into computer science, the pair realised an exhibit they had created for the AI faculty could be the key to their future career. 

At an event celebrating the 350th anniversary of the University of Utrecht, Boshouwers and Bär were tasked with designing and setting up a stand to present the field of AI. They built a huge computer and encouraged people to ask questions about artificial intelligence. Hidden from view, Boshouwers and Bär were inside the computer answering questions to give the impression of artificial intelligence. 
The attraction sparked debate and was popular with everyone. Academics and non-academics, people of all ages and backgrounds engaged and had something to say on the topic of AI. In Worlds of Wonder, the authors write that they learnt a powerful lesson: “Everyone can have a gripping conversation about abstract subjects. What matters is telling the right story. Intellectual capacity, the ability to enjoy thinking about abstract concepts, does not depend on your degree or your IQ.” 

Experience design – or to coin Boshouwers and Bär’s terminology, creating Worlds ofWonder - is about architecture, objects, journeys and inspiring stories. And, according to Boshouwers, around 25% to 40% of any project is the application of AV technology. 

The emergence of video mapping, in particular 4K video mapping, has been a welcome addition to Boshouwers’s toolbox. “The way we do video mapping, we can create real immersive worlds and collective VR experiences,” he says. 

In other AV related developments, he’s currently interested in advanced face recognition. And he’s excited about the possibility of advanced AI used in exhibitions and public installations. “Object oriented sound projection is coming up,” he continues. “It means when I walk through an exhibition I hear everything in Dutch and you hear everything in English.” 

Boshouwers has also seen a rise in museums leveraging people’s own smartphones as informational devices but is interested to see how that trend plays out. “The big danger is people are distracted by emails, messages and alerts,” he cautions. “The whole point of the museum is to put those things away for a minute. I don’t know where this trend is going yet.” 

Working across a range of disciplines allows Tinker imagineers to take lessons learnt from one organisation over to others. “They each have their own strengths,” he says, “Museums have a great tradition of storytelling. Leisure venues are good at hospitality. It’s great when they can learn from each other. 

“Medical is very interesting now,” continues Boshouwers. “Hospitals and day care centres are using more AV technology and we currently have five hospitals as clients. We’ve created a training centre for children with obesity to encourage movement within a 3D game environment,” he offers as an example. 

In another application Tinker imagineers [office pictured below] worked in a children’s hospital to relieve stress. When children enter the hospital, they are introduced to five “friends”. The animated characters are projected on to walls as the child is transported through the hospital. 
You can’t help but be buoyed by the positivity of the work Tinker imagineers and other experiential designers are doing. It’s about corporations conveying their values, hospitals calming patients and museums engaging with visitors in fun and interactive ways. But some of the projects and where these principles can be applied deal with sombre subjects. Is it appropriate to be applying the same principles that are designed to take people on “adventures”? 

“Not all projects are light-hearted,” confirms Boshouwers. “Right now we are working on a project at a concentration camp in the Netherlands. But themes like hope and honesty apply and can be adventurous without being spectacular or entertainment. The same principles apply to the more serious quests.” 

What ties together all the projects that Tinker imagineers delivers is the creation of shared spaces and collective experiences. I wanted to know if what is sometimes seen as our current retreat into isolated online worlds has helped to fuel our desire and need to share an experience with others. 

“The bigger the online world grows, the bigger the need for collective spaces grows,” answers Boshouwers. “I mean real spaces, having real meetings with real people. We’re drawn to spaces where something happened. Spots of historical significance. The meeting is not only on a screen but a real physical meeting. I think it’s a counter culture actually.” 

However, the situation is more nuanced than the real, shared experience replacing the isolated, virtual one because so many of Tinker imagineers’ projects interweave the two. To illustrate this Boshouwers outlines one of his projects currently in the pipeline. 

“We have a National Audiovisual Archive in the Netherlands and we’re working on the experience centre at the top of that called Sound and Vision,” he explains. “For 10 years it’s looked at television and radio and now we are doing a completely new release about entering cyberspace [pictured on the previous page]. It will be the first place in the world where you can enter the online world physically. It will be made tangible.” 

One thing I took from reading Boshouwers and Bär’s book is - whether you call them experience centres, immersive spaces, themed environments or even Worlds of Wonder - these spaces are increasingly sought after. Whatever message you are trying to convey, whatever story you want to tell; appealing to the collective imagination of your visitors is vitally important. But whilst the concept is gathering pace, it’s still lacking a definitive language or area of study to bring all these ideas into a coherent discipline. The book Worlds of Wonder may just be the publication that starts that process. 

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