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#16 Design the Time of Your Life

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes — at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Have you ever watched a time-lapse study of a flower blooming? Have you ever noticed the ever-shifting pattern of shadows created as the sun moves across the urban landscape? We don’t experience the world as a snapshot, as something static — we experience it across the expanse of time.

That’s how we need to think about the medium of live experience. It’s what Bruce means when he urges us to “Design the Time of Your Life;” he’s reminding us that things unfold in seconds, minutes and hours. Participants at a trade show don’t interact with exhibits and displays in a single instant, but over a prolonged sensory engagement. As professionals in the medium of brand experience, we need to shift how we approach our work and think about designing for time travelers, instead of simply creating an object (display, exhibit, booth) that is fixed in space.

“Experience is a time-based medium,” Bruce begins. “When we do our work, the real value we create is the time of our exhibitors and attendees…. and really making the most of that time is the design objective.”

The implication here is that we need to rethink a few givens that are manifest throughout the world of conferences and exhibitions. For example, we know from countless surveys that professionals value the time they have at conferences to exchange ideas, network with colleagues and learn what’s new.  Why, then, would we isolate them in front of a row of computers to earn education credits they could as easily earn from home? Why not let them interact with a live expert and benefit from their classmates’ questions? When we make attendees pay money to do something at our event that they could more easily do at home, we have failed to add value. We are wasting their time.

Conversely, we can design participants’ path across the overarching experience — plan the emotional and sensory course they will take over the time they have together. Bruce describes this as orchestration. “What we’re trying to develop as a methodology is really orchestration, which is having the shape of the time lead to something. …  to create a crescendo. The crescendo is a time-based event…. You have to be there to be part of it.  If we do that, what we’re really doing is designing the time and maximizing the value. At that moment, everyone is thinking, ‘I don’t care what I paid to be here, this is awesome.’”

Disney understands about designing the time you spend within its gates. As noted in Design Principle #14 — Design the New Normal — even standing in line becomes part of the planned experience. When we apply this approach to the brand experiences we create, we can imagine people wanting spaces to discuss, collaborate, rest their feet, and share what they’ve seen on social media. We start to think about how activity in the space changes over time, and how to keep the experience fresh, unexpected and inspiring.  And we start to think in terms of storyboards, like a film director, instead of in static snapshots.

This can be a big leap for event planners, especially when they are rewarded for selling space, not time. But here’s where the magic can happen. “If you start to think of yourself as being in the time-selling business, you can sell the space more than once,” Bruce explains. “That can change the economics of what we’re doing…. If your product is space, it’s fixed. If it’s time, it’s dynamic.”

That’s a game-changing thought. If we design our space to showcase an ever-changing series of experiences, and find sponsors for those experiences, we can generate new revenue and create an audience magnet on the tradeshow floor. If we think of ways to stretch time – the way 10-minutes in an intense VR experience can feel like an hour on the show floor – we change the value equation in profound ways.

In this sense, sponsorship becomes a tool to fund the design of time. And beyond that, it becomes a metric that helps prove out the value of our concepts.  If our idea for something doesn’t earn sponsors, that item may not add value. This brings us back to the core proposition, that what brands require out of any experience they sponsor is quality time with their audience —time to establish a relationship.

Time is the currency of brand experience. It’s our job to design brand experiences that make the most of the participants’ time and stop doing things that are a waste of time.  We need to think of the time that’s been invested by attendees, exhibitors, sponsors, and hosts as the ROI that matters most. This dovetails with the design principle that invites us to break through the noise by consolidating, thrifting and aligning our communication efforts.

When we learn to consider the medium of live experience as a time-based medium, it changes our understanding in fundamental ways. It touches everything we do.  It dimensionalizes our designs. It brings empathy to the equation. And it builds a basis of trust by respecting that people are giving us the thing they value most — their precious time – and hoping to watch it bloom.