Experiential design is communicating through graphic design for the built environment, whether it’s the interior of a building or outside. It’s for the people in a space, to help them find their way; or it could be to delight the senses. It all points back to communicating information.
What we provide ranges from important educational or informational graphics to something that celebrates or enhances a brand. A project begins with architects and interior designers laying out the framework of the space. Then, experiential designers, who understand the flow of the foot traffic, determine opportunities where they can tell a story in that space.
For example, people sometimes need help finding their way through a space and getting oriented—called “wayfinding.” The architect might suggest a location inside a building where he or she thinks the major foot traffic will be and might help determine where the design element will be. Then, experiential designers will be responsible for what the design element, such as a directional sign, will look like: the scale of it and, if it incorporates text, the colors and the typeface. All of that is informed by our research as it relates to the client.
The experiential designer works with the architect to come up with design elements in the space. Once we establish the design elements, we determine how the elements will look and function. Then, it’s on to the development phase.
In development, experiential designers outline the plan and how the project will be built. Next, we estimate how much the project is going to cost, and the client decides whether to proceed based on pricing. From there, we see that the project gets built correctly by reviewing samples and shop drawings. And then we oversee the installation.
Throughout this process, we’re collaborating with the client or architect—or with the landscape architect if the project is for a park. Experiential design is a highly collaborative field.
Getting involved in a project can happen in many ways. For example, we could be approached by a client with a problem, such as a need to orient staff or visitors through a space. Sometimes, we’re approached by an architect to work as a consultant. The designer may come on board as a specialist and deal with a specific need: to help users find their way, for example.
My company generally focuses on interior spaces, which could include retail stores, corporate offices, or residential buildings. But experiential design can also be in places like a park or an airport.
Creativity and a sense of discovery are essential. We may come up with solutions that are practical, but having an imagination, really pushing and playing with an idea, is important because there’s no limit to what we can envision.
Also, you need communication skills because designers have to be able to articulate to someone on the team what we are doing and why we are doing it.
I have a bachelor of fine arts degree, with a double major in industrial design and graphic design. I completed both tracks so that I’d have a working knowledge of industrial design with a focus on product design and I’d have a formal graphics education, too.
In my case, when I graduated twenty some years ago, I was not aware of a program that specially trained you for experiential design. So I went to school for graphic and industrial design.
Toward the end of my college years, I was trying to figure out how to blend my interest in product design and ergonomics with communications and typography. For independent study, my professor suggested I do a signage and wayfinding study for the art school, where I was taking classes. He introduced me to environmental graphic design through a project. He said, “With your interest in architecture and materials and your love for typography and graphic design, this might be an interesting way for you to combine the two.”
Out of college, I ended up getting a job in a company that is known for signage and wayfinding for cities, hospitals, and cultural institutions. And that’s how I got my start. It really piqued my interest in graphic design, architecture, and materials.
Because there aren’t a lot of experiential design programs, look into a school that has a graphic design program that allows you to take an independent study course. Or maybe there’s a particular class that focuses on experiential design.
Even if there aren’t formal degree programs in experiential design, there are schools where you can get a graphic design or communications degree. You can take courses in learning how to put together a project and in learning how to take a company’s identity and bring that into a branded environment.
There are times when you have to go after the work. We are always looking for partners, which we have to put energy into, and then balance that task against delivering the product to clients we are currently working with. It’s a challenge. You can’t just sit back and twiddle your thumbs, because then the work runs out.
It’s a pretty great field. We get to work with a wide range of clients. Sometimes, the projects have a really quick turnaround; other times, they take a year or more to do. And we get to help people, whether it’s just making their day more pleasant, informing them, or making sense of a space.
It’s also really exciting to be creative and have your work out there. Our work has to have the ability to survive. So you can have something up for 3 or 4 or 20 years. That’s neat, because it’s woven into the architectural content. There’s something satisfying about that.
Interview by Domingo Angeles, "Experiential designer," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2018.