Integrating Digital and Tactile Design Elements to Create Immersive Experiences

News & Insights

As designers focused on the way places and spaces communicate with people, we are increasingly asked by clients whether it makes sense to include digital media within their physical environments. Do people now expect to find digital experiences everywhere they go? How much technology does a space need to have in order to make a meaningful impression? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this kind of question, but to me it’s still rather straightforward:

The design of an organization’s physical space must be relevant to that organization’s brand, culture and purpose.

Once we understand what matters to the client and to their customers, employees and other end users – the “why” behind the project – then we can determine what design elements and communication tools will have the most impact. And digital media is just one of those tools. Last month, I attended SEGD’s Branded Environments and Xlab conference, appropriately held at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. It’s exciting to be working in an era when there are so many tools available. Leveraging technology, the signage, wayfinding, exhibits and experiential graphics that we’ve designed for decades can now feature an endless array of colors, materials, sounds, smells and visual effects, and spaces can truly be multisensory and immersive.

At one end of the digital spectrum, small touches like the electronic shelf labels seen in Amazon Fresh grocery stores can ease shopping experiences for customers and significantly improve training, stocking and inventory management practices for companies and employees – a direct tie to Amazon’s customer-centric culture and commitment to operational excellence.

Virtual reality is another option in the toolkit, increasingly integrated into cultural experiences and museum exhibits. For example, using artificial intelligence and augmented reality, visitors can now be transported into the world of the Spanish architect and designer, Antoni Gaudí, at the Casa Batlló in Barcelona – again relevant to Gaudí’s own reputation for innovation, and to the museum’s setting in one of the most culturally rich and cosmopolitan cities in the world.

And then of course there are examples at the other end of the digital spectrum like The Sphere, which is redefining the way we experience shows, concerts and events, just as Las Vegas always has. These examples, and many more, came up throughout our SEGD conversations.

Still, it’s clear that technology is not always the best, most relevant solution. In healthcare environments, for example, signage and wayfinding needs to be clear and concise in order to ease navigation through spaces and experiences that can often feel tense and emotional. Digital signage can improve the way information is shared quickly and seamlessly; it also empowers flexibility and enables medical facilities (which can take years to build or renovate) to keep up with frequent updates. But it’s important that it’s not just tech for tech’s sake.

Just like all components of design, technology must be purposeful in order to be successful.

Understanding what a project’s stakeholders need and want is critical to defining this purpose. Many prioritize time and seek convenience. Connections to community, charity and sustainability are often valued as well. And more than ever, younger generations – accustomed to user-generated content and crowdsourcing – want to see themselves within the experiences they choose. They want to feel relevant to the company or organization and be a participant in, even the hero of their own stories. They’ve grown up playing video games like Minecraft and Roblox, where the lines between the physical and virtual worlds are blurred, brand connections are made, expectations are set, and habits are formed. These immersive experiences are more interactive than traditional storytelling: two-way rather than one-way communication, active rather than passive, and a dialogue rather than monologue. Our goal has always been to help our clients communicate a sense of meaning and understanding. Technology is one component among many – another texture in the layers of sensory experiences that we have always considered, and another tool that helps users define their own meaning in places and spaces. To find the right balance, user testing and prototyping is a critical part of the design process. Consider, too, what the space will look and feel like if the technology fails or the power goes out, even briefly. By integrating technology with tactile experiences, we ensure that places and spaces can engage all the senses and communicate clearly and thoughtfully for a long time to come.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A project director and senior designer at Altitude, Evelyn Lai is an expert at melding client vision with creative and technical expertise to develop unique and memorable experiential graphics programs. With twenty years of professional practice, Evelyn has broad experience in the design, planning and execution of small and large-scale graphics and wayfinding programs for a wide array of clients ranging from expansive healthcare systems to intimate hospitality spaces. Trained in environmental design, Evelyn brings a holistic approach to projects that considers utilization of the total environment to communicate an idea or story. She excels in addressing every detail, including meticulous material selection and application, delivering sound client solutions on time and on budget.