TOTAL EXPERIENCE explores designing for experience: its theory, its practice, and how designing for experiences affects us socially and in our personal lives.


  • Bob Jacobson
  • Paula Thornton
  • BOB JACOBSON is fascinated by the experience of experience. A planner and technologist, Bob has a Ph.D. in Urban Planning & Design from UCLA. He's been a policy researcher, technology CEO, science writer, and consultant. As a Fulbright Scholar, he studied cellular telephony's impacts on transborder communities in the Nordic Arctic Circle. Bob edited Information Design (MIT Press 2000) and is now writing a book on the theory and practice of creating edifying, transformative experiences.
    ( Archive | Contact Bob )
    CORANTE PAULA THORNTON says, "Understanding human behavior (economics), optimizing interactions (design) and facilitating conversations (markets), are the means to achieve strategic differentiation. This is the focus of our discipline. It is not a 'nice to have'‚ and is not, like documentation once was, an afterthought. It is the means by which to start a strategic discussion and the means by which to drive a tactical initiative. All design should be evidence-based."
    ( Archive | Contact Paula ) >

    (Courtesy of Mark Vanderbeeken, Experientia SpA, Torino)

    Experience Design Websites
    Core 77 Website & Forum
    Business Week|Innovate
    InfoD: Understsanding by Design
    The Wayfinding Place
    Wayfinding Focus
    Design Addict
    L-ARCH (Landscape Architecture Mailing List)
    DUX 2007 Conference
    Digital Thread
    Enmeshed, Digital Arts & New Media
    Ludology (Game Playing Theory)
    Captology, Persuasive Computing
    Space and Culture
    Raskin Center for Humane Interfaces
    timet (acoustical design)
    Steve Portigal, Ethnographer
    Jane McGonigal's Avant Game
    Ted Wells' living : simple
    PingMag (Japan)

    Experience Design Blogs
    Adam Greenfield's Speedbird
    Experience Designer Network (Brian Alger)
    SmartSpace: Annotated Environments (Scott Smith)
    Don Norman
    Doors of Perception (John Thackara)
    Karl Long's Experience Curve
    Work•Play•Experience (Adam Lawrence)
    The David Report (David Carlson)
    Design & Emotion (Marco van Hout)
    Museum 2.0 (Nina Simon)
    B J Fogg
    Lorenzo Brusci (acoustics)
    Cool Town Studios
    Steve Portigal
    Debbie Millman
    MIT Culture Convergence Consortium
    Luke Wroblewski, Functioning Form|Interface Design
    Adam Richardson
    Putting People First (Paul Vanderbeeken/Experientia
    Laws of Simplicity (John Maeda)
    Challis Hodge's UX Blog
    Anne Galloways's Purse Lips Square Jaw
    Bruno Giussani's Lunch over IP
    Jane McGonigal's Avant-Game The Future of Work

    Experience Design Podcasts
    Ted Wells' living : simple Podcast
    Design Matters Podcast, Debbie Millman
    Icon-o-Cast Podcast, Lunar Design

    Experience Design Firms and ED-Oriented Manufacturers
    Barry Howard Limited
    Hilary Cottam
    LRA Worldwide, Inc.
    BRC Imagination Arts
    Stone Mantel
    Experientia s.r.l
    Herman Miller
    Cooper Interactive Design
    Doblin Group
    Fit Associates
    Strategic Horizons LLC (Joe Pine & Jim Gilmore)
    Cheskin Fresh Perspectives

    Education and Advocacy
    Centre for Design Research, Northumbria University (UK)
    Center for Design Research, Stanford University
    International Institute of Information Design (IIID)
    Design Management Institute
    Interaction Institute IVREA
    Design Research Institute (UK)
    UC Berkeley Center for Environmental Design Research
    History of Consciousness, UCSC
    Design News Magazine
    Society for Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD)
    Design Museum London
    Center for Sustainable Design
    Horizon Zero, Digital Arts+Culture in Canada
    Design Council UK
    First Monday

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    January 22, 2006

    January 18, 2006

    Rediscovering the Information Environment

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    It was Marshall McLuhan who first observed that we live in a media milieu, an information environment. He tried repeatedly to enunciate metrics with which to survey this virtual landscape.

    He was the first and the last. Except for a dwindling cadre of McLunan disciples, there have been no convincing studies of the "physics" and "chemistry" of media as they affect our perception and cognition.

    We travel through information space, through presentation-modality fields, nebular clusters of data, and other informational features -- unique to this domain, as smell and touch are to the physical world -- that determine how we know the worlds in which we live, locally and globally. Notwithstanding lame efforts to invent a science of “information ecology” (whatever that means), the information environment is taken for granted.

    In fact, if we can rely on a Google search to represent the general state of public awareness, we don't even know it's there.

    During the New Year holiday, I tried to collect data that would characterize the information environment, data that would accurately describe the current confluences, interactions, and synergies among media. By smooshing together various random quantitative indicators, I thought I could determine the various media to which we're exposed to and in which we participate.

    I knew it wasn't possible, without a lot more work, to develop interior knowledge, let alone a workable theory, of what then goes on our minds. My resources consisted exclusively of quantitative data: industry sales, attendance at events, investment in and performance by companies -- market research reports. As a former advertising creative director and observer of market research, I have a low regard for market research. Market researchers take scads of numbers -- all that they have to work with, given their field's epistemological emptiness -- and throw them at the reader. This data, whose sole virtue is that it has a common metric (dollars), covers for an absence of testable knowledge about the phenomenon in question: in this case, the information environment.

    Anyway....what did I find out?

    • Video game sales are modestly down.

    • TV viewing (including cable and satellite systems) is up, but viewer audiences per show and channel were down.

    • Movie attendance is way down.

    • Sales of giant TVs are very up.

    • Cellular phone sales are peaking, possibly plateauing.

    • Theme park attendance is modestly up, gambling is up, and record sales may be down or up, depending on how one aggregates the many legitimate and illegitimate ways in which music is sold and bartered.

    • Radio listenership likewise is up or down, depending on how one counts satellite radio listeners (which could be new listeners or AM/FM listeners moving over).

    • iPod sales are way up, but PC sales are down.

    • Internet use is up, especially in Asia. Women now constitute the majority of Internet users in the West, but their use is radically different from the use of the Internet made by men (including the interesting fact that men do business,collect information, and buy stuff online, whereas women use the net to nurture relationships).

    • Newspaper and book sales are way down, magazine sales are static, travel is off (but showing signs of rebounding), and blogs are beginning to diminish as the technology de jour.

    • Lastly, the experience of education, except for students able to afford the best, emits one big sucking sound.

    What does any of this tell us about the experience of media, of what, as a result of continuous, multiple, overlapping, interacting media exposures, goes on in the mind of the individual and the consciousness (or unconsciousness, as the case may be) of the collective?

    Very little or, more likely, nothing at all.

    When media critics, social scientists, and policy makers inveigh on what this has to do with human experience, they are merely opining. Or worse, they may invoke intellectual legerdemain -- circus magic that they believe actually works -- to bridge the chasm between meaningless data and questionable conclusions.

    I'm determined to do something about this. My first Ph.D. thesis, abandoned because it bewildered my faculty committee, was an attempt to characterize comparative information environments, to begin the process of applying science to understand media effects and outcomes. (I remember an English professor at UC Santa Cruz, the director of its avant-garde History of Consciousness Program, who, nose elevated, proclaimed this effort to be “merely advertising.” What a discerning fellow.) I won't get fooled again. This isn't academic work: it's independent scholarship that has to take place among practitioners, not apart from them.

    The “practitioners” I choose to study are experience designers. Experience design -- in the broadest sense, “all that we experience by design” (not the constricted “user experience” definition forced on the field by web-design interests) -- relies on, and highlights, a potentially useful theoretical framework.

    In the coming weeks and months, I'll be interviewing leading experience designers to find out how they identify and assess the challenges they're called on to overcome; how they solve problems; the outcomes of these solutions for their clients and audiences; and social and cultural issues like collective awareness of situations and crises -- and action or inaction -- as a result of designed experiences. My research is already in the works.

    I hope this makes for engaging blog reading and possibly a print-medium essay or two. Maybe even a PBS documentary. It's about time we came to grips with the most powerful forces present in our world, forces more powerful and determinative than fission or fusion, magnetism or gravity. It's time for a Lewis & Clark adventure fit for our 21st Century.

    Comments (2) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Theories of Experience

    January 11, 2006

    January 9, 2006

    January 5, 2006

    The American Experience of Death

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    REGULAR READERS OF TE may have noticed the recent pause, an absence of posts in December. The explanation's simple: Paula's launched into a new job and I've had to confront the death of my mother.

    I'm not morbid about dying and death. I consider them unavoidable consequences of living. More than that: they remind us that our universe is in balance. But hey: can't our institutions of "religion" and "remembrance" do a better job helping us to commemorate a passing?

    My mother, after many years of decline as an Alzheimer's patient, still maintained a good spirit to the day she died. I wanted to remember her as the vital woman she had been. Instead, she became a prettied-up cadaver in a dark wood casket in a somberly commercial mortuary setting. The fake candelabras, recorded organ music, and over-the-top, phony tone of deference by the morticians -- who had the chutzpah to present bills for my grieving father to pay -- was exceeded in grossness only by the noise of the leafblowers wielded by gardeners working the outside of the chapel while the ceremony began.


    The march afterward to the grave site at least provided sunshine and blue sky, which the chapel architects had done their best to obscure. The small crowd gathered under a canopy. We lowered the casket, it was laid in a concrete container (it's the law!), and we shoveled some dirt on top. There was a lot of sniffling and exchange of condolences, and then it was just a matter of scooping up the flowers and heading home.

    That's a typical American death. It might be enlarged, made grander, for people of means who can afford to pay tribute to themselves in this fashion. There might be more or less religious ritual, and cant. But all in all, it's a SIX FEET UNDER experience. (For more grisly detail, see Jessica Mitford's classic updated, THE AMERICAN WAY OF DEATH REVISITED [Knopf 1998].)

    It's not that there aren't alternative models for parting with the dead, more memorable or at least more edifying in the moment. The New Orleans jazz funeral, based on the Celtic wake, comes to mind.


    The Zoroastrians, dramatically mounting the bodies of their dead on giant towers extending into the sky, for the birds to feed and remove, certainly makes the case for ecology.

    Zor Tower 2

    Funeral pyres in India, the ululating wails of Arabic women in mourning, the putting out to sea in a burning ship of the dead king in the movie THE VIKINGS, taking drugs and going into trance to communicate with the parting spirit as it seeks its heavenly abode: any one of these is a hundred times more heartfelt and lasting way to experience death. ("Skyrockets blasting one's ashes across the night skies!"...well, each to his or her own.)

    Ultimately, from the standpoint of the deceased, none of this matters. The final adventure, if there is one, is his or hers alone. But for those of us who remain, wouldn't we like to get closer to the Source, whether we conceive it as universal energy, dynamic forces, or a holy pantheon in the sky? How does the experience of death, in typical American style, get us there? It doesn't. So, we fear death and in the name of that fear we do all sorts of bad things to ourselves and to others.


    How would thoughtful designers redesign the experience of death, besides merely coming up with nattier crematoriums?

    Okay, enough with that cheery topic. It's a new year. Onward!... -- Bob Jacobson

    Comments (7) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Commentary