Xlab 2014: Bigger + Better Than Ever!

"Here's the Deal: Xlab Rocked!"

Close to 350 Xlabbers packed the SVA Theatre in Manhattan last week for an intense and energizing day exploring how digital technology and customer experience design are shaping the future of EGD/XGD. Attendance jumped 172% over 2013 and Xlab has grown phenomenally—300% in attendance—since it launched in 2011 as SEGD’s design + innovation event.

“XLab has grown into an extraordinary gathering of designers, technologists, and inventors who are defining user experience in the public realm,” says Leslie Wolke, Leslie Wolke Consulting (Austin), founding Xlab co-chair with Phil Lenger (Show+Tell, New York). “This year’s speakers challenged us to reimagine our role when we visit a museum, a garden, a sporting event, and a store—and surprised us with enchanting experiences at each location. I’m thrilled to be a part of such a diverse community of professionals dedicated to building novel and delightful experiences for all of us.”

The day of four fast-paced sessions—Insights, Content, Platform, and Make—included perspectives and projects from a wide range of players in the digital experience realm, from creative studios to technology manufacturers.

“Here's the deal: Xlab rocked,” says attendee Brett Posten, chief brand officer for Dimensional Innovations (Overland Park, Kansas). “To get a behind-the-scenes look at what our peers are doing really inspired our team. We’re already taking what we saw and applying it to client projects in process. This kind of peer-to-peer transparency is hard to find across creative industries and SEGD should be proud of creating this kind of dialog.”

Making memories, engaging emotions
“We are all in the memory business,” Jake Barton (Local Projects) told the audience as he described his firm’s work for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. In Cleveland (with Gallagher & Associates), the firm created a game-changing suite of digital interfaces with the museum’s collections. And at a new Cooper Hewitt exhibit opening in December, Local Projects designed a custom stylus that visitors use to interact with the museum and “make things,” learning about the design process as they create.

Barton shared insights he’s learned from working with a behavioral scientist studying how people experience museum exhibits:

1) We are less likely to remember things we photograph.
2) But when we photograph details, we remember more.
3) When our emotions are engaged, that supercharges our memories.
4) When we’re challenged with solving a problem, our memories are even stronger (we learn by doing).

David Schwarz, HUSH (New York) said his studio’s work for clients such as Nike and Under Armour attempts to embody the emotions behind the product or brand. When we engage people’s emotions, he said, we create powerful experiences. In particular, retail is harnessing the power of engaging with customers’ emotions.

“We think where retail is going is that the physical space is about a unique experience that is achievable nowhere else, not about moving units. That can be done in many other ways.”

Throughout the day, panelists bemoaned the fact that many companies see digital as a magic bullet. “We spend a lot of time helping brands to understand that the latest and greatest digital gimmick is not always the greatest,” Schwarz shared in one of the day’s panel discussions. “We ask, What is the content you want to deliver, and where is the emotional resonance of what you’re trying to say?”

Aligning content and technology
Much of the day focused on the primacy of content and how it should drive the selection of technology—not the other way around.

“We’ve changed. Our stories have changed. The way we consume information has changed. And the places we tell them need to change,” noted Daniel Meyers and Traci Sym (Second Story, Portland). They create digital narratives that engage emotions and encourage presence. “Only presence can reconnect place and story,” said Sym, describing the team’s recently opened exhibition Learning to See at the Denver Botanic Garden. Like much of Second Story’s work, the project leverages architecture, materials, and digital narratives to tell compelling stories about the garden’s important scientific research.

Alexandre Simionescu, Float4 (Montreal) talked about matching content to technology. “Clients often don’t think about how you cannot translate small-scale content (videos) onto large screens.” And he quoted artist Donald Judd on the power of content: “Give your content primary of place, and find the technology to deliver it most immediately.” 

Changing landscape
Paul McConnell of Control Group (New York) avoided talking about his own projects (which include the new interactive wayfinding kiosks for the NYC subway system), but hazarded his predictions of the digital future, including how mobile technology will continue to change the way people interact with their environments. Not only will smartphone use increase 20-fold and interfaces will change dramatically, but the emerging Internet of Things will ensure that devices will be talking to each other (“Your fire alarm will be talking to your toaster saying, Is there a fire? And the toaster will say, No, I’m just making toast.”)

McConnell gave an important tip to the designers in the room: “The big opportunity for designers will be creating platforms and content that work from device to device.”

The reviews are in
The Xlab buzz was phenomenal and the day’s content made a huge impact on many attendees, from students to seasoned practitioners. Networking breaks produced a loud hum of conversation about the presentations and the impacts digital technology is making on experiential design.

“From the very first session this morning, I’ve been exposed to things that will completely change the way I approach design,” said a University of Oklahoma design student attending with a group of fellow students and their professor, Karen Hayes-Thumann. “It’s really been amazing!”

Digital signage and marketing consultant (and sixteen:nine blogger) David Haynes tweeted his endorsement of Xlab: “HIGHLY recommend putting SEGD Xlab on your conference plan next year. Seriously good day of learning.”

And you can see Core77’s review and recap here.

Thank you to the sponsors who helped make Xlab possible!

Presenting Sponsors: S|N|A and Samsung

Sponsors: Daktronics, Design Communications Ltd, NanoLumens, International Sign Association, GableVision, Planar, Visual Citi, Premier Mounts, Electrosonic, Scala

Photos: Robin Lopez

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