Design Week: What is an experience designer?
Chloé Morris: It involves full creative direction and bringing brands and stories to life, letting people really live and experience them.
My most recent job was a freelance for a company called Global Bartending run by Dan Dove. The client was London Essence, a tonic and soda drinks company. With them, we had this really rich perfume background, because it used to be perfume houses that developed the essences originally in the 1980s, so we kept that in mind in the development of the event. Throughout the design process, I was looking into all the key words and aspects of the brand. Things like perfume, science, laboratories, carbonation, and we settled on this immersive experience called The Essence House, where people can get hands-on with the environment and brand itself.
DW: What is your educational background?
CM: I’ve got a BA in interior architecture and product design, and then I’ve got an MA from UAL in something called narrative environments – which lends itself perfectly to what I do now.
My [narrative environments] course was set up more for the spatial design industry – how you make your way around exhibitions, for example. But I wanted to get away from that a little bit and luckily within the masters we were able to develop our own projects. That’s how I developed Edible Stories, which was all about spatial design and food. I was lucky enough that there was room for error on the course, because I just wanted to mix everything together and see how it turned out.
DW: What’s your career journey so far?
CM: I went straight to university to running my business. I did a full year of pop-ups; every two months for two days I’d put one on in a different place in London. Each one had a different story and was an immersive experience.
I did that for a year to get our target market and refine the concept further. It was great and we sold out every one of the events, but money-wise it was difficult. So then I transitioned into the corporate events world – I’ve moved away from food a little bit and I’m doing more creative direction for multi-sensory experiences for brands.
This way, I was able to work with upfront budgets, and would create things based on that budget rather than taking the gamble with ticket sales. I’ve since moved away from Edible Stories and set myself up as a freelancer. This allows for much more flexibility and to work within the teams of a range of different companies and exciting brands.
DW: What got you interested in experience design?
CM: In terms of food, space and storytelling, I think it was my course that really opened my interest into it. I just felt I could pick up on specific details within a story, so I would look at the narrative as a way of introducing the feel of the event. Then you can consider the food and the environment and how to incorporate the smells, the colours and the characters and through a process of trial and error, bring them to life.
DW: What does a typical job look like for you?
CM: For my latest project we had a six or seven month lead up time, which you don’t always get, so we were really lucky! It’s normally a much quicker turnaround – but then whatever the time frame you get to the end and you feel like you had no time at all.
It all starts off with a concept base. Sometimes we get a narrative from the client – something specific they’re launching or want to focus on. We obviously get the brand guidelines, but that doesn’t really help us much with the actual concept, more just give us certain things to keep in mind, like materials, colours or fonts. So we start out with some really visual mood boards, and we refine it down and refine it down and we finally get to a concept we like. It’s a lot of back and forth, but a crucial stage of the project that requires everyone’s input.
Then it gets to the exciting stage where you get to sign off with the client and brief suppliers in order to make the concept a reality. I’ve been in the industry for a number of years now so I tend to only go with suppliers I get on with. It can get to stressful and I’ve worked with a lot of people in the past who have come recommended by clients and things just haven’t gone to plan. So I’m very specific now, it’s just so important to just so important to have a good relationship with your suppliers.
Then it’s a good week of extremely intense building. It’s 6am wake ups till about 1am when you hit the pillow. You don’t have time to stop, you just about have time to get a sandwich. But luckily we allocate crew food so it’s a case of grab and go.
DW: What are your main day-to-day tasks?
CM: The job that I’ll be working on, be it with Edible Stories or one of my freelance clients, is just constantly on my mind. Like when I’m scrolling through social media, I’m looking for things even when the concept has been signed off. My screenshot library on my phone is huge, but then when another client comes in and asks for something, a screenshot I took of something 4 months ago will fit perfectly with what they want. You have to keep your eye out. I’m constantly looking to be inspired. On most projects I end up making last minute changes becomes that element will bring the project together or fit slightly better than something we’d already agreed on.
DW: How creatively challenging is the job?
CM: It’s a constant development of where it goes, but it’s interesting. The key is to do a lot of research on what’s out there and what events have been done in that area in the past. The creative stage is the best, so it’s not challenging because it’s my favourite part of the whole process.
DW: How closely do you work with other designers?
CM: It’s used to be a bit of a one-woman show when I was with Edible Stories. But now that I’m freelance , I’m working for various clients so need to fit nicely into their team. Currently I have a great dynamic with the director of the company I’m working with. We are constantly bouncing ideas off of each other. He’s in charge of the operations side of things but he’s still very creative, and I take on the concept, the design and production.
It’s great to have someone there to take some of the weight and be able to run ideas by. We also bring on stylists, builders, graphic designers, artists, audio and lighting teams to make it all come to life. All of which I’ve worked with before and can trust them to get the job done as we designed it. It’s good to be able to delegate and get on with what you need to do.
DW: What strengths do you need to be a experience designer?
CM: You really just need to capture people’s attention. For example, Instagram really wasn’t that much of thing when I was first starting off. It existed, but it certainly wasn’t as popular as it is now, but now it’s something we always have to keep in mind. Not only does the whole event need to be visual, but it needs to be that thing that someone hasn’t seen before and wants to take a picture of. Sometimes things look amazing when you see them in person, but you take a picture of it and you lose it completely. Most of the events we do end up having a press night, and when those images go out, you need people to want to buy tickets.
You also need to be able to remain flexible. The reason the clients have booked you is because they believe your judgement is going to be right, and sometimes making last-minute calls pushes it that much further into life. You may have signed off on elements with renders but run the space may need to move things around because actually the room seems smaller, or the flow doesn’t quite work.
DW: What are the best parts of your job?
CM: The creative stage is my favourite stage, as well as the actual bringing it to life. It’s so intense, but the reward at the end is amazing. You get a rush of adrenaline when you put the final touches on a project and it’s about to go live to the general public or specific audience members. When you’ve spent so long in the planning stages and you finally build it and it looks exactly the way you had it on renders, that’s incredible.
DW: What are the worst parts of your job?
CM: The worst part of the job, which is also probably one of the most important, is the budgeting. You can imagine that for a job that’s going to be up for a week with really high production values, the amount of money to pull that off and the number of things you need to consider is just a lot.
You have to keep on track, especially when you’re working with a client and they only have a certain amount of money to spend on something and you have very ambitious ideas. You’ve got to be good at juggling numbers around and being able to allocate things. If you like numbers and excel spreadsheets then it’s fantastic, but if you’re more of a visual person who likes coming up with ideas and getting something back, like me, then it ends up being the element of the project that doesn’t blow you away.
DW: If you were interviewing for a junior experience designer, what would you be looking for?
CM: It’s so important to be able to work with other people. It’s good for them to be able to troubleshoot and find solutions without me having to think about it for them. And of course, someone who is going to surprise me with their ideas. It’s always good to give potential candidates a project at the interview stage so you can gauge whether they’re coming out with a standard Pinterest board, or if they’ve turned that inspiration into original ideas.
DW: What advice could you offer people considering experience design?
CM: I would say that you just need to keep going. Don’t give up on your dreams because there have been a couple hurdles along the way.
Dynamics can be so difficult, it’s great the dynamic I’ve got at the moment, but it hasn’t always been the case with past employers or collaborators. You need to find people that you enjoy working with and who lift you up if you’re going to collaborate with anyone.
It’s also important to know your value. As creatives, we don’t know how much our time is worth, and so it’s difficult to gauge the value of what we do because we love what we do. We’ll say: “oh I’ll do another three hours” or “I’ll work for a week instead of the three days I’m being paid for, because it’s such a good project and I love it.” Which is great but you have to be paid for your work! Anyone else would be charging for it, so you should too.
I still find myself doing the extra hours and the extra days because I love the job but then I turn around to myself and think “no one else in any other field would do this”! But it’s just because you’re so passionate about it, and you end up forgetting about your value. So I would say you need to find out how much you think you’re worth, and make sure you don’t get taken for a ride because of your passion.
DW: What’s the job market like?
CM: The freelance side of things you can get gigs here and there. And once you’re in the industry people will recommend you. And from there, there’s loads of industries that you can go into. Obviously, I work with F&B brands a lot because it’s an industry where they’ve really understood the importance of a immersive experiences. I mean the fashion industry has been doing this for years, everyone else is just starting to catch on. But no industry is a no-go, you just need the ideas to make it work.
To start your journey to becoming an experience designer, try checking out roles like this – salary expectations based on Design Week Jobs:
Junior 3D designer: £20,000 – £30,000
Exhibition designer: £25,000 – £30,000
3D Events designer: £30,000 – £32,000