Toward an Experiential Future

Design education is currently facing one of the most significant shifts since computers were integrated into design nearly three decades ago. You could call it a turning point, a shift, or a call to action. The reality is that the design foundations taught today are simply not enough to prepare emerging designers for practice in a rapidly changing, digitally embedded, experiential-driven world.

Many might argue this point. Yes, foundations and core competencies can allow students to solve design problems, and can equip them to deal with a wide variety of contexts and problem typologies. But it is not enough to be competent with just the baselines. Students who are equipped with the foundations of design and who can also navigate problem-solving in the digital/experiential realm will find many more opportunities than their peers who did not acquire this body of knowledge from their education. Students today need to understand that their future will be about things we have not yet defined nor fully understand.

This challenge or lack of understanding exists in most prototypical graphic and visual communication design curriculum throughout North America. Curricula designed between the mid 1990s and the early 2000s, when “new media” was the default umbrella term to define the multimedia, animation, and then-emergent mobile interactive space, are in many ways antiquated. Today, we are designing for a post-iPhone era when smartphones have hit near-total saturation in established western markets like the U.S. and Europe. The experiential-based design problems that students will face will not be about making straightforward websites, apps, or motion graphics for a screen. Those things will still exist, but the mainstay of their careers will be creating compelling content through immersive storytelling that not only integrates information, but also denotes the immediate context of place. They will be designing experiences that trigger emotion, define a point in time, and truly remove us from the traditional notions of space and interaction as we know it today.

The once hyper-connected dreams of virtual reality, and even to some extent the now possibly doomed Google Glass experiment, are revealing that reality does not need to be augmented by devices alone. The interface or overlay upon our environments and physical spaces will be embedded, integrated, and for the most part invisible unless activated or engaged by users. The devices we use today will become seamlessly integrated into our everyday surfaces and environments. Place will become the interface for seeing, hearing, and experiencing story and information.

This is the future we envision as we take steps to explore what experiential graphic design (XGD) will become for the next generation. XGD will in many ways be rooted in and evolve the foundation we have come to know during the last half century as environmental graphic design (EGD). There will still be a practice that communicates information and stories about brands, people, and places in a very visual and straightforward way, but it will be more encompassing, and will perform across platforms through a fluid ecosystem. XGD will be about taking that core storytelling and information function and expanding it to be connected and ambient, a part of everything: every move of the day to day, every normal and mundane space, every ubiquitous platform. Design will be less about creating touchpoints and more about creating integrated experiences.

In many ways, XGD will create a continuous flow from start to end for everything in life. This has already happened through our mobile world. The next step is very much connected to the Internet of Things. This shift will go beyond what we can see (the visual), to encompass everything we feel, hear, smell, and taste. Today you can’t taste a website and you can’t smell an app. And honestly, just adding those elements to the existing “containers” as we know them wouldn’t make sense. It requires a new immersive paradigm: body in space.

Our goal over the next several years is to elevate and transform the EGD profession and you as members of it into a vibrant collective of creatives who are actively involved in all elements of this new experiential spectrum of possibilities. In order to make that jump, but more importantly to sustain and continue this development, we must prepare the next generation of designers to solve a much wider and more immersive set of problems. This is where the “new foundation” of knowledge is required, and we must start to develop it now. 

Be clear: The experiential design curriculum of the future is not just about hardware, software, code, and pixels. While these elements are certainly part of the toolkit, the “experiential building blocks” required to make the new model of performative environments possible, design curricula must go beyond these new skills. They must connect to the foundations of design as well as to the human factors that should be considered to create balanced experiences. The human experience, our physiology and psychology and how we interact with each other and our environment, remains an essential mechanism not only for assessing and measuring an experience’s impact and effectiveness but also for making sense of how we can evolve experiences and interactions in the future. This type of understanding will require a new perspective of how research, beyond mere observation, can impact the design process. The human factors that affect design must be integrated into the process, including cognition, perception, and the “way we work.”

The “way we work” extends beyond how people interact with our design in space. It also requires a holistic approach to how we work with each other and collaborate in the design process. The silos of the traditional design disciplines have eroded in professional practice. Multidisciplinary is the norm, and hybrid designers who can cross platforms and spatial contexts have a unique advantage over those who work in traditional “spaces.” The understanding of scale and how scale translates across experiences has never been more important. This understanding is critical, not just in the practical sense of “how big this will be,”  but in how it will perform, how accessible it is, and how it will be integral to the larger ecosystem while working on its own.

The time is now for architects, interior designers, product designers, and graphic designers to realize that in an “experiential design world,” the playing field has been leveled, and we are all working toward the same goal: connecting people to places, and to each other. We can start working more effectively together, not against each other, to develop integrated and unified experiences that improve life, solve the mundane day-to-day challenges, and captivate the world’s imagination.

We can do this, and we can do this together. But it must start with transforming the educational experience from day one. Designers today have the power to initiate this change by speaking with students, from high
school through college, to create excitement about this undefined, emerging, yet incredibly powerful field of XGD that is waiting for them, the next generation, to help innovate and solve our 21st century design problems. Professionals can engage academics in their local community and encourage them to consider a special topics class that uses the context of experiential graphic design to teach students to work across design disciplines and even beyond to other disciplines such as business, marketing, and science.

While curriculum at private institutions can be changed relatively easily, public universities and colleges are often limited to incremental change. This is unfortunate in a time when change in the world around us is happening at warp speed and markets shift overnight. But even at public institutions, there are still opportunities for innovation. The newest and typically younger faculty of art and design programs bring new ideas and methods that should be supported and tried.

In the next few months, SEGD will begin developing templates for integrating new experiential graphic design problem typologies into existing course models. We will also introduce topics that can be added as expanded components of existing courses or programs. We will invite professional experts in these areas of practice to be a part of the discussion, helping us build a new platform that can be distributed to schools, and ultimately be integrated and adopted into courses and programs.

There may be many of you who do not believe in this new world of experiential design or think it’s a passing trend. But no one can deny that students graduating in 2018 will need globally competitive and broad-based skills to successfully position themselves as capable candidates. The foundations will remain, but new methods of practice integrating digital and experiential problem-solving must also be included. These components are already a part of design practice now and will be an even more significant part of practice in the future. Now is the time to embrace change and think about what is next, but most importantly, who is next.

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