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We create exceptional environments that meet our clients' most complex design challenges.

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31 August 2017

Hal Kantner on the Origin, Growth and Future of HOK’s Experience Design Practice

The director of Experience Design shares his vision for HOK’s graphic design and experiential branding group.

Hal Kantner has been helping organizations communicate their stories and build their brands for more than three decades. Here, the head of HOK’s Experience Design practice, which officially launched in July, describes where design storytelling has been and where it’s headed—and how the architectural underpinning for this media enables HOK to bring a unique perspective to clients.

Every tangential consultant to brand and media is staking claim to experience design and storytelling environments. Ad agencies, trade show designers, brand strategists, multimedia authors, and now fabricators and production houses are competing for the design of experiential spaces. And the internal communications and brand management entities inside our client organizations want ownership and control over the branding, experience and messaging in their environments.

The differentiators for HOK’s Experience Design group are point of view, philosophy, portfolio and process. Unlike many of the new entrants into this field, who may have little knowledge of the design of architectural environments, our experience design is based on decades of practice. We understand the vocabulary of brand and can manifest it in 3-D space plans that employ architectural language to bid and build.

Much of our current work had its origins in the dot-com era. In that age of startups and disruptive technologies, the workplace often was the only evidence of the business entity—the lone physical expression of an enterprise. Besides housing the employees, the facility had to recruit new believers and explain to them what they would be creating and why investors should buy in—while also displaying the metrics of team progress. HOK became the de facto brand authors and default communications designers for these companies.

We learned then that making cultural DNA visible is valuable and marketable. These clients used the workplace to beta test culture in the same way they iterated product. They leveraged our work to explain themselves to the marketplace, to the venture capitalists and to the people they were recruiting. The even used it to explain the newly launched enterprise to themselves. We found ourselves applying retailing concepts to knowledge work itself.

Conventional enterprises soon followed, adding layers of amenities for us to name and brand in the experience-enhanced workplace. Nearly every conventional entity being disrupted by new technology needed to communicate messages about change, acceleration and right angle turns in strategy. The entire workplace became a potential stage set for thematic environments—weaving together 3-D tapestries with the same type of storytelling embedded in our ancestral precedents of cave, castle and cathedral. An enterprise that wanted to live like a startup sought a visually activated, creative workplace. Game rooms, coffee bars and company stores all expanded the scope for graphic designers working inside architectural firms.

Our clients need us to translate what used to be called corporate identity into branded environments. For clients without retail spaces, this is the first expansion of their brand from 2-D to 3-D. The “brandwagon” also affects our documents and deliverables. Programming documents need to read like client branded magazines. Presentations need to be packaged to sync with client style guides. And those spatial designs now talk of media displays, exhibitry and messaging master plans tied to experiential tour routes mapped across the floor plate. What we are offering is environment design that supports any number of scripted and strategized experiences that result in visitors downloading specific and overall on-brand knowledge about a commercial culture. The takeaway message of your facilities will be dimensionally scripted to support marketing, sales, recruitment, retention and partnering initiatives.

Almost no space is sacred or safe from a monitor seeking your attention. Media has become entire spatial planes supporting the cultural shift away from word-based messages to imagery-based communications. Screens that once broadcasted and informed now interact and perform. Today the ubiquitous screen grows ever-bigger and becomes the enclosure rather than the monitor being mounted. Scale has exploded with media cladding external facades as was prophesized in every decade of sci-fi cinema. And the shape for screens has left the rectangle far behind. There are huge opportunities in the arena of content creation.

Digital media is changing the way we process perception and experience architectural space. The actual audience for spatial experiences may now be the phone in hand rather than the person holding it. The ways we interact with each other and the spaces we inhabit have been profoundly affected by the supercomputer we hold so dear. We engage spatial environments remotely before we choose to visit them. We record our visit so we can post it digitally and revisit that experience. It’s not farfetched to now consider the smartphone as the primary conduit connecting the building’s presence with the persona of the phone’s owner.

A preview of designed experience is now offered to us in the next impactful technology: virtual reality. Have a virtual walkabout and experience the unbuilt space at your leisure. Record your critique and leave notes for other VR visitors inside the digital environment. Some people will only ever experience your space via virtual reality. Goggle-fests will be an expected deliverable for all experience design.

Experience design requires more than empathy for the individual. Digital media challenges us to think in terms of group experiences. Space that speaks to one individual may need to be simultaneously engaging a community. The building becomes the vehicle for shared experiences and facilitates collective consumption, conversation, critique and contribution.

Our Experience Design group relies on proven tools used within a repeatable process that recognizes and interprets recurring concepts and incorporates our experience with common themes and topics. Inherent in that is verbalizing, writing, picturing and diagramming the desired experience—and optimizing this content and formatting it for spatial presentation in the 3-D media vehicle we occupy: facilities. We design experiences for both transient and embedded users of the space, with each audience developed as a storyline to play out in dimensional settings long known to architectural practitioners.