The Official NYC Visitors Center is a digital-era launching pad for New York tourists.
The renovation of the Official NYC Information Center is not a mere before-and-after story. In the hands of New York-based designers Local Projects and WXY Architecture, the storefront space in midtown Manhattan has been transformed from a stereotypical visitor-service station into a new model that swaps printed maps and brochures for digital interfaces that are seamlessly integrated with the architecture.
In the process, it catapults some of New York's 47 million tourists into the streets armed with cell phones and Blackberries laden with wayfinding information. And the occasional printout.
“Stereotypical” is exactly how Local Projects and WXY's client, NYC & Company, refers to the previous iteration of the Official Information Center. The official marketing and tourism organization for New York City had occupied the 2,500-sq.-ft. street-level space for more than a decade and for most of that time, it was flooded with brochures and populated by staffers manning a long, intimidating counter.
"Visitors were overwhelmed by hundreds of brochures in a dark, uninspired space," NYC & Company senior vice president and creative director Willy Wong says of the old center. "Keeping up with the printed materials and all the events and programming that changed on a daily basis across the five boroughs was nearly impossible."
Personnel turnover in 2005 also warranted a change in direction for the NYC & Company brand. Not only was Wong hired as part of that shift, but the tourism boosters also began work on a new website with exclusive editorial content (plus event listings provided by Time Out New York and other media partners) and a radical do-over of the Official NYC Information Center itself. The website and visitors center launched simultaneously this year.
Reinventing the experience
The commission was hatched as a competition, for which Wong wrote the brief. It stresses radical reinvention, but he intentionally kept the document vague. “I knew strategically where we needed to head: a complete overhaul that had to be user-centered, dynamic, manageable and, last but not least, inspirational. But I wanted to tap creative partners who were willing to collaborate with us to reinvent the experience from the ground up."
Local Projects and WXY principals Jake Barton and Claire Weisz, who had teamed up for a never-completed visitors center for the Times Square Alliance, won the job in March 2008.
Barton and Weisz say the winning scheme has links to their earlier Times Square Alliance concept, and other precedents. "You might assume that it is closely related to retail design and display," Weisz notes, "but in the end our explorations led us to a design strategy closer to a museum experience that makes the correlation between moving through the space and searching the content."
They heart digital
Today the Official NYC Information Center welcomes a steady stream of tourists and curious onlookers, who should feel comforted by the curated selection of brochures nestled within integrated channels on facing three-quarter-height walls: The signifier of old-fashioned tourism survives.
Yet punctuating one channel are four 32-in. Cybertouch touchscreens through which guests can begin their New York City journeys. They can access the answers to visitors’ top 100 questions, removing that burden from staffers' shoulders. These FAQ stations can be accessed in 10 languages, and NYC & Company programmers constantly update the interfaces with events information. Users can email any of the references to themselves in turn.
More curious visitors can explore New York in greater depth using one of three interactive map tables. The 4- by 6-ft., tapered parallelepipeds marching down one side of the room are topped by 36- by 57-in. touchscreens. A similarly shaped table nearest the front door holds a series of orange card-stock discs sporting the phrase "You are here" and bearing a printed code on the flip side. Guests grab one and place it on an interactive map table, whose interior cameras read the printed code and identify the disc as a unique bundle of memory. By activating the user interface this way, guests can explore the city map according to 11 different themes, and within a specified walking radius.
Alternately, laying the tangerine puck on one of five amenities circles running down the left side of the map-table screen initiates a different user interface. "Free in NYC," for instance, will display bargain sites and things to do within the visitor's chosen geographic area. Content is created in house or by Time Out New York and is continually updated by NYC & Company, although all subjects in the interactive map are partners of the tourism organization.
In either process, the visitor can save destinations to a disc, from which a final, custom guidebook is created. It can be emailed or text-messaged to guests’ cell phones or PDAs, or printed on site.
Private tour, public canvas
While the experience is highly personalized, it can also be shared with others, using the architecture as canvas. Guests can elect to carry their discs to a lectern-like interactive pylon at the rear of the center, where it launches a personalized Google Earth flythrough projected on a 4- by 4-ft., high resolution Salitek videowall.
This seamless circulation is an example of how the design team dovetailed user interfaces with the architecture. Another hangs from the ceiling: Oversized Barisol (stretch-membrane) forms—which may evoke chess pieces, bottle openers, or even anvils—contain rear-projection “digital mirrors” that reflect the itineraries being crafted below.
“They allow what you are doing to be seen by others," Weisz says. “So the space tangentially provides clues to what other people are looking at and makes the information center feel more urban and more public."
A new digital model
Not only does the Official Information Center incorporate more technology than a typical renovation, but the pas de deux between architecture and digital infrastructure also required intense coordination, says Marina Faelli, project manager for construction services provider 3-D Laboratory. “We had to work more closely than usual with the A/V team, making sure their very specific needs were met and the inevitable challenges adequately addressed."
That careful juggling of digital infrastructure and bricks and mortar sums up this prototype for future visitors center—and tenders a metaphor. "Traditional street signage and wayfinding work well to help you navigate what you already are looking for, while the clustering of similar shops and experiences by neighborhood helps you browse a general topic," explains Local Partners principal Jake Barton. "Handhelds allow you to gather an itinerary (or in our case a custom guidebook), lift clusterings above the cityscape, and provide detailede navigation between those points. And because they are dynamic, you can get contextual and dynamic information as it arises, whether that is an unexpected friend walking one block over, a particular store having something on sale, or a restaurant reservation opening up."
Handheld technology is not necessarily rendering traditional urban wayfinding obsolete, but rather enhancing it—making the historic city both more comprehensible and exciting.
--By David Sokol, segdDESIGN No. 26, 2009
Editor's note: David Sokol is a contributing editor for Architectural Record, Greensource, and Surface magazines, and the author of The Modern Architecture Pop-Up Book (Universe, 2008).
OFFICIAL NYC Information Center
Location: New York
Client: NYC & Company
Design: Local Projects/WXY Architecture
Design Team: Jake Barton, Claire Weisz (principals in charge); Mark Yoes, Layng Pew (architects); Ian Curry (interaction director); Katie Lee (art director); David Lu, Brian House, Jack Kalish, Veronique Brossier (developers); Tiya Gordon (producer); Claire Lin, Benjamin Bours (graphic designers); Ariel Efron (videography); Jim Aveni (sound designer)
Fabrication: 3-D Laboratory (shopfitting); Barisol (tensile structures); Cybertouch (touchscreens); Salitek (videowall)
Photos: as noted