In few other fields is so much reliance placed on first-hand, insider accounts as a source of knowledge, as in the various fields of experience design. The one exception, historically, has been the built environment, including architecture and landscape architecture. Otherwise, most of what we learn we learn from design practitioners, even if they have no personal agenda, is subject to their biases that inherently come with the job: idiosyncratic points of view, client pressures, career aspirations, ego, and so forth. We lack an objective perspective to measure the success of our work and commentaries to improve upon it. We need theories of experience design.
This realization came to me during an intense luncheon discussion with museum and exhibition designer Barry Howard, who practices in Marina del Rey, a suburb of Los Angeles. Barry is my ideal of an experience design. His self-effacing demeanor belies an incredible lifetime of accomplishment. Barry's career dates back to the highly regarded Coca-Cola Pavilion at the 1964 Worlds Fair (where Pepsi-Cola competed with “it's a small world,” now immortalized as a Disneyland attraction). Since then he's created attractions with a cumulative value of over $500 million. Barry is notably rare among experience designers in that he applies a reflective perspective to his work. (He calls it “academic,” although his training was as a fine artist.) I'll be doing a future interview with Barry, in which I'll get deeper into his experiences and insights. But one of lunchtime topics was worth separate mention: the lack of formal criticism in our field.
I was sharing with Barry my plans for a forthcoming book on experience design. In it, I'll be highlighting best practices drawn from case studies in a variety of experience-design disciplines. My goal is to extract certain overarching principles and methodologies that can be synthesized as theories of experience design. Theories are important: they're tested short-cuts to knowledge that can be shared widely within the experience design community, including with new designers just setting out. If you think about it, it's pretty difficult to state a theory of experience design. Theories are rare in every design discipline, but in those where theories exist -- like the theory of taxonomical structure in information design or wayfinding theory in environmental design -- they're reliable guides to practice. Experience design is still considered mainly an art, because (in my opinion) of a radical disconnect between those who study experience (cognitive scientists, environmental psychologists, etc.) and the designers who create experiences. Sometimes I think that designers' ignorance of the pertinent science is almost willful, because science imposes constraints that require more than shoot-from-the-hip creativity to succeed. On the other hand, it may just be that designers are practicing remarkable heuristic feats, doing the science in their heads. (All of this goes for the ancillary professions marshalled to support designers, too, like ethnographers and market researchers.)
In any case, Barry made the astute observation that if I lined up these case studies side by side and compared them, what would be most interesting would be, not what was common practice, but what wasn't common practice -- that is, the designs that didn't get done because Designer A didn't consider, or perhaps even know about, the experiences of Designers B or C; and vice versa. Everyone is so heads down pondering solutions and cranking out work -- strictly within disciplinary silos -- that whatever synthesis might take place or transcendent solutions found, doesn't take place or aren't found. Experience designers need a broader, interdisciplinary knowledge, but they haven't time or resources to gain it. This isn't news: I wrote about it in an unpublished article for the AIGA Advance for Design magazine, in 1999, when the now-defunct Advance was striving to become an experience design community. The article wasn't published because, I think, it was critical -- and because I really had no answers for providing that broader point of view, at the time. Now I think I do. Our field needs outside observers, formally trained critics who can remark on what we do without the burden of being a practitioner per se.
I know, it sound pointy-headed to advocate formal criticism. Mark Hurst, in an email exchange, argued that first-person accounts by “do-ers” are inevitably more informative than critiques by non-practitioners. To a certain extent, he's right: if you want to practice as an experience designer, you need to learn how to hold your pencil from someone who knows. But if you want to practice highly effectively, you need to see things kaleidoscopically, including from the perspective of individual “experiencers” and society collectively. Formal critics provide this context for films, TV shows, product reviews, Web experiences, theater, architecture, advertising, musical performances and recordings, and innumerable other outcomes of cognate activities; and they're better for it. Why not experience design?
Barry said that his exhibition designs are his art. Never do we want to give up the power of personal expression. But if we can alloy it with a deeper understanding of what experiences are and how they are invoked, how much smarter experience design will be. It's still not a popular cause. No one's getting hired by experience design firms to criticize their work. But one day, they will be. And that's when experience design will fully come into its own.