March 24, 2020 by Kirsten Nelson

Big Architecture Invests in the Future of Experience Design
The CREATE Cube © Virginia Polytechnic Institute

In the audiovisual design and integration business, it’s often said that architects and interior designers want to make technology disappear. This has led to plenty of arguments about paint finishes on loudspeaker cabinets, costly scrims, last-minute cuts into drywall, extreme versions of recessed display mounts, and all sorts of construction conflagration.

But as the experience era fully takes hold, the architectural perspective on seamless technology integration is producing a new collaborative approach, with all parties working together to create immersive multisensory designs across a wide variety of environments. Now the audiovisual, lighting and control elements of a facility are seen not as add-ons, but as integral components that must be considered as early and often as any other architectural material.

These conversations are starting even earlier now that major architectural and engineering firms are enhancing their in-house experience design practices through acquisitions and the creation of new teams that join formerly separate media practices for a fresh, holistic approach to technologically enhanced design.

Most recently, the global architectural studio NBBJ acquired ESI Design, considered by many to be the progenitor of the experience design built environment practice. Before that, the global engineering firm Arup fostered new connections among its various design practices by bringing in Gideon D’Arcangelo, with his 24 years of experience with ESI, to lead its experience design efforts. And all the while, the world’s largest architectural firm, Gensler, has been steadily growing its Digital Experience Design studio.

These moves illustrate how technology, as the backbone of the built environment, is also rapidly evolving into an outward expression of a design aesthetic. And often, those backbone elements — communications infrastructure and environmental technologies — are harnessed in differentiating must-haves like data-driven media architecture elements and building- and campus-wide multisensory experiences.

The built environment is telling new stories today, and those require the thoughtful integration of AV, lighting and control technology. So, more integrators and consultants should expect to be collaborating on a multitude of new levels with these large architecture and engineering practices, as demand expands from traditional commercial real estate and museum spaces into transportation, healthcare, education, civic and scientific facilities.


Arup created an emotive soundscape for this socially immersive AR experience, “Rewild Our Planet” which featured the “Our Planet” Netflix series narrated by Sir David Attenborough. © Arup 

Weaving Technology Throughout a Space

Upon founding what would become a global engineering firm back in 1946, Ove Arup built the ethos of his company around “total design.” This holistic approach sought to unite technique, design and aesthetics to produce great architecture. Building from that approach in an era where technology is a vital material throughout structures, Arup’s various lighting, interiors, acoustics and audiovisual practices have striven to consider the human factors in relation to design decisions.

So, it was only natural that the firm would make a strategic move into the emerging field of immersive and interactive learning environments and experience design, observes  D’Arcangelo, who is now Associate Principal, Experience Design, with Arup. Now the idea of total design expands from user-centric considerations throughout the physical space into new realms with digital media. As the vision for what digital can bring to the built environment, those increasingly common large-scale statement-making digital landmarks in lobbies may evolve into a storytelling element that permeates an entire building, campus or even section of a city.

“A new goal for experience design is that you really never learn where the boundary is when the experience design starts,” he says. “It really is ubiquitous, and with Arup that happens with all the different disciplines working together. And I imagine this is what architecture firms are thinking as well — that it can be something that just becomes part of the architecture, part of the space.”

Digital as One Element of Experience

A similar merging of human-centric design ideals took place when NBBJ acquired one of its collaborators in the experience design space. Now the eighteenth studio in the global conglomerate’s collection of category-leading practices, ESI Design had worked with NBBJ on immersive and engaging designs for commercial real estate projects in Boston and New York City.

ESI Design, a pioneer in media architecture as an element of experience design, has been helping buildings become more human centric by giving a visualized voice to the various tasks of the occupants and infrastructure within it. By tapping into energy-saving LEED elements, for example, and sharing that data visually via a large-scale immersive display, the building starts to have a conversation with passersby about what the structure is doing in the landscape.

Designs for these interactive and generative digital landmark features require specialized integration of AV technologies, and the need for same will continue to grow. “Providing a way for a space to have this flexible layer that really allows the building to evolve and change over time, and respond to visitors and their behaviors, is something that is becoming very important quality for a building to have,” notes Emily Webster, Principal, Creative with ESI Design, an NBBJ studio.


The “Beyond Perception: Seeing the Unseen” interactive experience designed by Arup at Melbourne Museums’ Scienceworks,  © Arup 

The possibilities for these interactive activations take many forms, including simulation and multiperson games and other experiential expressions of a brand or location’s goals and ideals. “For us, using the digital layer as a tool is part of our palette, but we really like to think about what our client needs to be able to reach their audience, and not limiting that just to the digital toolset. We describe that as experience design, and that's why we were able to feel really confident in joining with NBBJ, because they appreciated that kind of thinking and wanted it folded into their work.”

Responsive Branding Expands

A client-centric practice is also a core principle at Gensler, which by revenue is the largest architectural firm in the world. And it was in the 1980s that the firm recognized that its clients were seeking physical spaces that reflected their individual brands. Thus, a robust brand practice evolved, giving the firm a thorough understanding of how to express unique traits of companies through the built environment.

It was out of its brand practice that Gensler got into digital elements of expression and wayfinding, and with increased demand for new innovations in this area, the practice became substantial enough to become its own entity: Digital Experience Design (DXD).

Gensler’s investment in this sector has prompted DXD to more than double in size within each of its three years of existence. Now with 90 DXD team members working out of offices across the U.S. and globally, Gensler is experimenting with a multitude of new ways that brands can express themselves through technological means.

But here too the emphasis isn’t on the technology itself, but its subtle integration into the built environment. “If the identity that's communicated with that one big installation is also expressed throughout the digital signage and graphics and wayfinding, then the power of the ‘one big cool thing’ becomes triple-fold,” says Michael Schneider, Director of Media Architecture with Gensler.

Weaving those digital design elements throughout a space and tapping into data to create outward visual depictions of a building’s purpose and role in a community will continue to be a growing practice, particularly as the idea of “smart buildings” takes off. This is a moment of opportunity for AV integrators who start connecting with IT and data elements and expand into whole-building design and branding efforts. 

“We are at the cusp of the next revolution of the built environment,” Schneider says, comparing the moment to the internet’s leap from passive browsing into responsive Web 2.0. A similar shift toward dynamism, analytics-driven personalization, and flexibility across different platforms is about to change buildings, campuses and cities.

As these mega firms shift toward a more comprehensive use of media architecture across the built environment, they are looking to AV designers to realize the vision. It’s time to start talking about how audiovisual elements can help to “surface” data on displays, to help envision how lighting and acoustics influence a space’s story and feeling, and to prepare for the imminent arrival of augmented reality. Talking about the future is going to be a lot more fun when the whole environment is speaking our language.

About Kirsten Nelson

Kirsten Nelson has written about audio, video and experience design in all its permutations for more than 20 years. As a writer and content developer for AVIXA, Kirsten connects stories, people and technology through a variety of media. She also directs program content for the TIDE Conference and Technology Innovation Stage at InfoComm. For three years, she also created conversations around emerging media and experiential design at InfoComm's Center Stage. Prior to that, Kirsten was the editor of SCN magazine for 17 years.