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11 June 2014

A Conversation With Hal Kantner, HOK’s Director of Experience Design

halkantnerenvironmental-portrait-new-2-448x227Hal Kantner, AIGA, LEED GA, is the director of HOK’s Experience Design group. Providing clients with creative programming and design, he brings organizational, marketing and management skills to the business of experience design.

What is a typical day like for you?

HK: It seems my personal pursuits and my work in design ceased to be distinct and separate spheres some time ago. At present, the days seem to have graduated from a career to a calling. Each day is a bigger gift than I usually take the time to realize, though I do try to lift up my head from the daily turmoil and catch a glimpse of our great view out to the creative world stage.

How do you get your design ideas?

The short answer would be that ideation, for me, is a hand-brain relationship. Writing and drawing each are acts of ideation in response to any project puzzle.

A longer reply would describe the discipline of visual listening. A great essay on this topic has been written by Dr. Temple Grandin under the title “Thinking in Pictures.” I usually approach the design challenge by asking what would success look like — and sound like. I listen to the problem as stated by our clients while taking notes visually enhanced with side sketches. I let their words create pictures in my mind and try to be precise with language used in my interview notes, because these written words will become image triggers. I then undertake comprehensive presentation sketches while reacting to those interviews and notes. In a writing and drawing feedback loop, I then add wordsmithed annotations to the sketches that embellish the hand-drawn presentation offered to the client — usually as a Possibilities Sketchbook.

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Neurons: Relationship Models, Organizational Diagrams, Mental Maps
Atoms: Artifacts Displayed, Products Exhibited, Spatial Maps

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Pixels: Storytelling Screens, Scripted Narratives, Motion Graphics
Bits: Interactive Screens, Information Strategies, Navigation Sequences

How did you develop your Possibilities Sketchbook approach?

It was the 11th hour and we needed to win back the imagination of our Nortel headquarters client. At my disposal in the construction trailer — the night before the presentation — were cheap pens and blank paper from the copier trays. Necessity became the driver of format. The “a-ha” discovery was that the sketchbook presentation format “draws” out the client’s desire to be involved in the design and connect with the solution, rather than just approve it. It invites participation in its visual spontaneity and informality of presentation. In this way, it is a co-creative process. The sketchbooking product is more inviting of the involvement and exchange that creates consensus around ideas and greatly clarifies the go-forward direction.

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“The world headquarters project for Nortel, some twenty years ago, was the catalytic event that sold me on the power of sketching tied to rapid conceptualization.”

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How did you start as a founder of HOK’s Visual Communications studio?

There has been an ebb and flow of successful eras for graphic design within the large firms primarily known for architecture and interior design. Talented people succeeded at HOK previously in traditional 2D graphic design — and later helped to pioneer 3D environmental graphics. This evolution continues: our current iteration is succeeding at storytelling environments and branded experiences that employ visual communications in print and pixel, bits and atoms, art and artifact.

What’s the next frontier for storytelling environments?

Dynamic bits and pixels are eclipsing the traditional delivery of messages within architecture. Info-tainment, edu-tainment, retail-tainment are evolved approaches to messaging and communications that are being poured into media-tecture, data-tecture, market-tecture — simultaneously evolving approaches to environments. The next frontier will balance what is new and shiny with what is useful and needed. The pendulum is swinging, though the debate will ask when and where does media immersion become cognitive and environmental overload?

Who or what inspires you?

Astronomy’s breakthroughs and space exploration are fascinating as so many mysteries have yet to be revealed. Every new day offers the possibility of discoveries that astound. The imagined worlds of science fiction have always intrigued me, especially their notions of futuristic urbanism and industrial design.

What is your advice for young designers?

My advice is perhaps more obvious than one might think: listening and speaking and writing are important design skills. Listen with your optic nerve, speak with imagery vivid in your mind and write with powerful images flowing through your hands. I would add that empathy, respect and patience serve us all well—especially in creative commerce.