Emotional sensational: a new design brief?

Films, books, plays, TV and music have been inspiring emotional responses since their beginnings. It is time for the same principles to be applied to high street shop design.

photgrapherDo you recall the classic scene in Bladerunner when Rutger Hauer is perched on top of a crumbling tower block with Harrison Ford: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Watched moonbeams dancing off the shoulder of Orion”? The final line is “all these memories will be lost like tears in rain… time to die.” How about the haunting and beautiful use of Barber’s Adagio for Strings in Platoon as the hero is left to die? Or the Phil Collins drum break from In The Air Tonight currently used in Cadbury’s campaign?All of these are goose bump moments; the parts people talk about when they leave the cinema; the chorus that makes you cry. They are emotional moments and have been specifically designed to be so. Why? Because we love them. It’s why phrases like “hitting the right note” or “striking a chord” exist.

What is an emotion? It’s still being debated, but broadly its when our body produces a physiological response. We weep, we dance, we applaud, we get a knot in our stomach, we sweat – all are signs that we are engaged with whatever is going on at an emotional level. Playwrights, directors and composers have always known this. They write scripts and compose music designed with slow build-ups and moments of fear and tension so they can inspire emotional responses, with a good bang at the end so the audience knows when to clap. The gaming industry does it too. They plot over 20 hours or so of game play with sections that are exhilarating, rewarding or calming. It basically stops it being boring.

Positive isn’t always best

People have 47 emotional responses and brands tend to think they want to provoke all the positive ones like passion, affection, hope and so on. But the negative emotions can be just as useful. Look at horror films – people love having the life frightened out of them.

emotionDon’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we create experiences with people laughing and crying everywhere like some kind of entertainment arcade. These responses can be very simple and subtle. Serenity, for instance, is a good example, as is limerance (my favourite emotion) – the feeling a parent gets when their child is enjoying themself or achieves something.

In the UK there are some fine examples of “emotional sensational design” already. The best, in my view, is Daniel Libeskind’s Imperial War Museum North. Every 20 minutes or so the lights dim and a sound and projection show creates a vision of what it was like in the World War I trenches, for instance. It is a powerful technique and the contrast to when the lights come back up, even after only five minutes, is remarkable. I felt literally shaken.

Codes of behaviour

drumsAccording to a consultant physiologist I discussed this with on a project for BP, there are “codes to behaviour” in our environments that allow certain emotions to take place. For example, when lights go down in a cinema, grown men can blubber like a child. How rarely do you witness such emotional behaviour in the high street? Retailers, I’m sure, would say our stores are full of excitement and emotion. We all know this is not created by the store designs, but the general pleasure of leisure shopping – it is exciting just going into Selfridges.

So why do you rarely see emotional responses taking place in our shops or exhibition stands? Because we don’t design them to achieve such responses in the first place, and yet for retailers and brands we know word of mouth is so important in this fragmented media era.

Last year I was working with Peter Knapp at Landor to create a brand experience for Diageo. We created a diagram of the emotional journey we wanted to achieve, based on the brand strategy, and made it the basis of the design development process. When I presented this to the global marketing director, Rob Malcolm, he responded: “After all, Disney is the best brand experience.” It struck me that Disney would know: after all, Bambi’s mum had to die for there to be a sense of loss that could be returned to create the tears of joy.

Not all of this is for every brand and every retailer. I don’t think we should start having “comedy store” events in Woolworths or “tearjerker space” in Mothercare. Some brands, especially global ones, do need impact in their bigger stores and some stores just need some “life” injecting in to them. Big pictures of happy kids, flock wallpaper and 1970s light shades are not going to deliver the high-street retail experience of the future that customers are demanding.

A break from training

This is not easy work for most environmental designers because they have not been trained to deliver this kind of design, but it is falling into their camp. A good starting point is defining the emotional responses you want to create first. You need to think of the store over a timeline, not as a static image. You also need to seriously consider the staff engagement with the vision. Another good starting point is detailed descriptions of the sounds your visitors should create (shouts of support, warm ripples of applause, laughter and so on).

postboxThis technique takes a little time for designers to get their heads round. It is a new design brief and thinking this way will take some getting used to, but the fruit you will grow is so succulent. Honestly, after 15 years of environmental design with some of the best agencies in the world, this approach to design has really re-invigorated my love of my work.

The word “experience”, I would suggest, is clouding many clients’ and designers’ minds and has become a catch-all for events, promos and brand experiences. We need to replace it with original, more accurate descriptors – exciting, interesting, useful, meaningful, entertaining, dramatic, theatrical, relaxing, joyous, scary, calm, moving and sensual.

Emotional sensational design will be the foundation stone of the future of the brand environment agency design process as the high street becomes more experiential. When this is coupled with consumers being psycho-graphically grouped, rather than demographically, it will finally make our ability to connect brand and their products/services with customers in a truly meaningful and memorable way.

To finish, my best friend is a fishmonger at Salford Precinct Market. He’s a natural comedian. He entertains his customers and regularly has many of them in stitches. He never advertises and all his trade comes via recommendation. When he goes on holiday the takings drop on average by 30%. Like the Apple store, when people are enjoying themselves they stay longer and when they stay longer they spend more.

In a nutshell, stop thinking of what you want the person to see and start thinking of what you want them to fell – a new design brief.

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