Creating digital projects for the physical world

A couple of months ago, under the guise of work, I spent several hours in a large shopping mall watching lost people trying to find their way around. It was amusing and tragic in equal measure.

Tom Gray

The centre was equipped with a digital directory and map system to help people find what they were looking for and direct them to it. But the system had been designed like a website, with scrollbars and banners and satellite-style maps.

You just knew that the person who made it had probably worked entirely in an office – perhaps never even looked at the design on the horizontal – which was how it was presented to the user.

The most damning part came when I tried the system out for myself. I asked a concierge for help, only to have her whip out a paper map and, using the screen as a surface to press on, draw the directions on to the paper before sending me on my way.

It was the perfect example of the failure of digital design for public spaces, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Those of us who grew up in a Web 1.0 world, cutting our teeth on websites and email campaigns, are at last living in more interesting times. Now, with the growth of the cloud, the fact that more than half of us now carry a smartphone, and with not just people but objects now being connected, we have reached the point where digital experiences are no longer confined to static locations like the home or the office.

And when we see digital as part of a holistic experience of being in a space, then the possibilities to complement and enhance our experience through what it does, how it looks and how it behaves, creates unique opportunities for users and for brands.

So back to my research in the mall – I wasn’t there solely for the pleasure of window shopping, I was fortunate enough to be working on a project to create an interactive digital kiosk for Pacific Place – a mixed-use shopping mall, newly redesigned by visionary British designer Thomas Heatherwick.

It was a dream commission, but one that we approached with trepidation. Heatherwick’s architecture has such a strong sense of place and spatial balance; his physical forms evoke movement while conveying serenity at the same time. We had to ensure that the digital tool not only reflected Heatherwick’s strong design ethos, but also took it forward into a digital dimension.

The project taught us a lot about how a digital design can complement not only the service ethos of a place, but how, through its design and behaviour, it can amplify the experience of the physical space in which it sits.

Pacific Place wayfinding
Pacific Place wayfinding

If I could distil digital design for public spaces into three crucial concepts, they would be:

Design for a location, not for a screen

Take the shopping mall example. Shopping malls are pretty brutal places – very little natural light, hordes of people and great swathes of glass and billboards competing for your attention. Designers need to understand what it feels like to be standing there; what your surroundings look like, what direction you are facing, how many people are around you, and how much time you have to complete your task. We wanted to create technology that simplified this situation rather than made it more baffling. The result was a self-orientating mapping system, one which displayed the map of the mall in a head-up display style – always oriented to the way that the user was facing, no matter which terminal they were using.

Be faithful to the spirit of place

Being user-centric is only half of the job. The point with designed spaces is that they are not neutral, they have a certain ethos, they are designed to be read and experienced in a certain way, and to feel a certain way. It might be luxurious, it could be contemporary or subversive. This character should be reflected in the look and feel of the digital tool.

In Heatherwick’s case, there’s a sense of constant motion, the flowing, organic shapes and forms that provide dynamism whilst remaining perfectly in balance. We had to take our cue from that and take it on through colour, texture and movement – taking the flow of people, the play of light and the physical forms and interpreting them through design and motion graphics to create a digital experience that felt like an extension of the physical reality.

Substance in important, but so is style

Great spaces, like great design, balance utility with beauty. As design and usability expert Don Norman said, ‘beautiful things work better’, so it’s important that the way that the tool works is aligned with the way that the physical space works. This can be as simple as using the same signage and iconography, through to crafting the tone of voice and affordances to fit with the customer service ethos of the space itself.

The project has now been delivered, and its great to not only see shoppers using the directories in the way that we had hoped and planned, but also how well they fit into their surroundings, contributing to the complete experience of Pacific Place.

To me, this is one of the most exciting areas to be working in. Whether in fixed kiosks or personalised mobile experiences, it’s at the overlap between UX design, service design and interactive design. It’s no co-incidence that in an increasingly digital world, we’re finding these skills becoming more in demand.

Because while there’s no denying that digital and interactivity have become an expected part of our public spaces, done badly they destroy the experience, working against the ethos that the physical space was designed to project.

Tom Gray is a senior creative strategist at Imagination. You can read the case study for this piece here

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