Bill Johnson, design principal for HOK’s Kansas City and Columbus practices and a recognized leader in the design of sports facilities says, "assuring a memorable game-day experience is driving the early integration of experiential design thinking into stadium architecture."
Bill Johnson is the lead designer of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new home of the Atlanta Falcons and Major League Soccer’s Atlanta United, set to open in Fall 2017. The stadium is already getting attention for its architectural features, including a retractable roof made of a clear, lightweight polymer that adjust its opacity to control light, exterior walls that allow views to the outside, and flexible seating. The stadium also, says Johnson, "sets the bar high in terms of experiential graphic design.”
"Mercedes-Benz Stadium will have the first-of-its-kind digital scoreboard built around the roof structure." Dubbed “the halo” for its shape, Johnson says, "This is a truly innovative medium that can project a variety of content onto a 360-degree LED video board.”
"The size, position and design of the halo board will give the Falcons a unique platform to fully immerse fans in the event day experience. Its graphic and broadcast capabilities will showcase ever-evolving content that will complement and enhance the action on the field—and be something for the fans to enjoy.”
HOK has helped to pioneer 3D and digital environmental graphics in thematic environments like Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Dolphins’ Stadium and Rogers Place. HOK strives to integrate space and message. The firm has witnessed an evolution of the fan experience and graphic design for built environments.
At Dolphins’ Stadium, a $350-million modernization for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins involved an extensive branding exercise that focuses on telling the story of the team’s brand and history. The exercise included developing distinct wayfinding, signage and experiential design components that were incorporated throughout, including parking, concourses, concessions and premium spaces. This consistency allows the team to reinforce their brand and find opportunities for engagement.
Bill Johnson says, "We're using experiential graphics in all our projects–Dolphins’ Stadium included-to stimulate an environment and communicate a brand identity───people expect to interact with graphics." There's a paradigm shift away from pure advertising and towards creating an experience that ties into the quality of the franchise or the event the fans have come to see, and the vitality that fans have come to expect.
At the collegiate level, the approach to graphics tends to focus much more on tradition and history. But, even still, Johnson explains that hall of fames and displays have moved from static to interactive. “We’re trading expansive wall graphics for engaging kiosks that let fans choose how they want to explore and engage with the information available.”
"That shift is enabled by technology," Johnson says. "The intersection of high-tech systems with environmental graphic design allows the creation of a virtual environment that could never be achieved with flat signage. From a designer's perspective, our job is to force a new way of thinking about digital content that is “on brand and of culture”. People may remember a graphic message more than a moment in the game, so it should be a good message."
"Between HOK's research and teams' in house resources, today's fans are pretty well understood," says Johnson. "There is customized data on ticket sales, on an individual's buying habits, when they come and when they leave, where they like to sit and what they like to eat. A digital experience can be customized, for example to ask for Mr. J to please use gate A because other gates are backed up.”
"Connecting to the millennial generation and understanding what's going to be the cool new thing that appeals to fans is essential. But we may not be as advanced in knowing what people want a few years down the line. It’s an interesting challenge for designers to look around corners and anticipate what's next. That all has huge implications on graphics."
Balancing what is known about fan expectations when a stadium is designed with what those expectations may be at the end of a long construction cycle is especially challenging for designers.
Behind all the effort to assure the fan experience is memorable are his client's interests. Bill Johnson’s design approach is defined by his ability to develop integrated solutions that achieve the unique objectives of owners. "Everything in sports design is revenue driven. Seat sales are a revenue source. Advertising and sponsorship are revenue driven. In some cases the naming rights are part of the financing structure of getting a new stadium built. Creating value around showcasing the brands in the best possible ways is absolutely necessary in getting anything done. The emphasis of experiential graphics integrated into the architecture plays a big role in portraying the brand in the way the owners, advertisers, teams want.”
"Part of our role as designers is to help people think differently about value. Value used to be about space—how large is the logo? In the evolution of experiential graphic design in sports, we've quickly come to the idea that digital technology allows us to promote time rather than space. If you can create a singular impressionable moment, that's worth all the static display space that money can buy."
Mercedes-Benz Stadium, HOK and AMBFO | Dolphins Stadium, Christy Radecic | Auburn Arena, Ed LaCasse | Moody Coliseum, Steve Hinds