Enhancing Branded Environments through User-Centered Design

Not every project is as big as Texas, and not every client is as ambitious as Texas A&M University, which recently opened its “brand”-new, state-of-the-art Bright Football Complex.

Brian Mirakian,Populous principal and project leader for the Texas A&M complex, explains his client was unique in its desire to create an experience never before seen in college football. “What made this project a success was a client that believed in a vision and constantly urged us to push the boundaries of what was possible,” he notes. The client’s emphasis was on using technology (and team spirit) to create not just a branded space, but an experience that would wow young recruits. >>Read our story on this project!

But Mirakian insists that this game plan is transferrable to many other branded experiences, even those of varying scales and budgets. He shared a few ingredients from the secret sauce:

1. Listen to your client.
The Populous team conducted numerous focus group sessions with the football coaching staff, university athletics, university officials, players, recruits, player family members, and students to learn what was important to them and how the brand story could be told.

Visioning and discovering sessions were aimed at identifying what stakeholders love about the school and what the university’s goals and aspirations are, he adds. “As designers, we need to find that source of authentic inspiration, the energy that will energize the project.”

“Simply put, they know their brand better than anyone,” says Mirakian. “It’s so critical that their voice be the driver.”

2. Connect every design decision to the brand attributes.
Populous examined every design decision it made based on the most important criteria: does it support the brand, or in any way distract from it? “We wanted to make sure that every piece we touched was driven by the brand, communicated the A&M story, and was custom and tailored to the target audience.”

Elements such as the suite of interactive experiences, for example, were aimed at pulling young athletes away from their phones long enough to engage them in the experience. The Virtual Uniform System, for example, invites visitors to dress out a virtual football player with all the myriad of options available, from jerseys to helmets.

“In the focus groups, we found out that these young athletes love seeing the uniforms,” explains Mirakian. “So we decided to have some fun with that.” A sophisticated gaming interface allows them to access a deep “closet” of uniform elements. When they’re done, the interactive sends a jpeg of their final selection to them, complete with their name on the back of the jersey.

3. Map the experience.
Populous meticulously storyboarded every step of the “recruit path” through the Bright Football Complex, both to ensure the experience was meaningful and exciting to new recruits, and to ensure that every image, graphic, and interactive component in the story arc was aligned with the university brand.

“We storyboarded every moment of engagement,” says Mirakian. “We were lucky to have Adidas as a partner, and we did custom photo shoots where we captured all these different moments in Aggie football. We were able to weave those images into all the branded spaces to reinforce the story.”

4. Add some fun.
It’s no surprise that ESPN called the complex “an 18-year-old boy’s fantasy land.” Interactives are so sophisticated they can pull the recruits away from their mobile devices. But the space also includes surprisingly low-tech fun, like the graphic mural created by MiQ Wilmott of Hot Wheels car fame.

“MiQ actually sat in on our focus sessions so that he could hear the players and other stakeholders talk about the program and what was important to them,” recalls Mirakian. “He was sketching the whole time, and the result was a very cool graphic element that really speaks to the brand and to the people using the space.”

5. Remember, it’s about problem solving.
“Innovative design work always stems from discovery through problem solving,” concludes Mirakian. “It should address human-centered needs and respond to the client’s aspirations.” And great work doesn’t require huge budgets. “Some of the most meaningful and inventive work we’ve produced is the most simple and elegant. In every project, our process is strategically focused on the voice of our client, the authentic story, and the aspiration to create something that provides betterment for people. These are always the primary drivers, indeterminate of budget and project scale.”


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