Today, most of our touch points with the world occur via computer screens, apps and devices. How then, do we convey authenticity and capture the essence of what we are trying to say about who we are when we are creating these digital experiences for others? Especially if we are not an individual but instead an organization, a brand, or a physical place?
For many of the clients I’ve worked with over the past 25 years, capturing the essence of a place was critical. My clients have largely been colleges and universities, museums, cultural organizations and “spaces” where people seek to engage in order to have certain experiences.
When I worked with Yale University*, our primary objective was to convey an authentic sense of place. Yale takes great pride in gathering, preserving and sharing significant cultural and historical items. Wandering the campus, you see and feel this generosity everywhere, from the items displayed in The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library to the dynamic collaborative living and learning environments. Conveying these aspects of the environment required developing strategies that were uniquely Yale and would empower their internal teams throughout their communications efforts.
One of our brainstorming sessions with the Yale team led us to the concept of the Cabinet of Curiosities.
Cabinets of curiosities also known as wonder-rooms were encyclopedic collections of objects whose categorical boundaries were, in Renaissance Europe, yet to be defined. Although more rudimentary collections had preceded them, the classic cabinets of curiosities emerged in the sixteenth century. The term cabinetoriginally described a room rather than a piece of furniture. Modern terminology would categorize the objects included as belonging to natural history (sometimes faked), geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics, works of art (including cabinet paintings), and antiquities.
This initial idea was developed into a website feature which allowed Yale to present an endless flow of new acquisitions (which it always makes available to the community), collection highlights, interesting discoveries and deeper dives into all the unique aspects of Yale. Users can explore or choose to randomly shuffle the curiosities, further conveying the sense of exploration, learning and engagement that Yale is known for. This feature was one of my favorite parts of the site, and still is today.
Overall design and usability is important in any interactive digital production, and the overall user experience must be engaging and welcoming, ensuring that it validates assumptions while also offering new points of connection and meaning.
In a recent study from 2022, “Impact of website visual design on user experience and website evaluation: the sequential mediating roles of usability and pleasure,” researchers found a consistent positive effect of website visual design on website evaluation variables through a sequential mediation of usability and pleasure. The results identify a serial causal path from visual design to website evaluation through a ‘usability-to-pleasure’ sequence as an underlying mechanism. Moreover, usability only affects website evaluation outcomes through the mediation of pleasure without its own direct effect.
Feeling a sense of pleasure from a website is similar to what we feel when we are engaging in anything positive, exciting or connecting. For the purposes of establishing, or re-establishing a bond between an individual and a organization or place, the website and all communications that are offered in any format must reinforce the positive qualities and values that are inherent in that organization’s brand or identity.
Determining the characteristics and elements that define and convey an identity, a brand, or a place and then creating innovative and engaging ways for viewers to interact with those elements is a wonderful challenge, with endless opportunities for exploration, creativity and impact.
Having an understanding about how these goals can be achieved, or should be pursued strategically, is derived in large part from my experience as an artist.
In painting, I’m tapping into something completely unique to my own experience — using pigment, solvents, brushes and canvas to create a connection with others. Some elemental yet indescribable feeling is transferred from me, to the canvas, and then to the viewer.
I’m conveying what it feels like to be me as I’m experiencing the subject of the painting. This is most evident in plein-air painting, where the viewer experiences what the artist was seeing and feeling while they were in the act of looking, reacting and creating.
It is hard to explain why paintings created from photographs don’t convey the same way as plein-air works do, but I suspect the secrets have more to do with the way we record things in the present moment versus after the fact, and from our direct experiences versus abstracted representations of those experiences.
This is where my art practice informs my client services practice. I will not work with a client if they aren’t aligned on the importance of spending time within their organization or at their location, if our objectives are to capture, translate and communicate these essential components to their audiences.
Conveying a sense of place through a digital experience requires a particular level of consideration and strategy around how we move through the engagement. If we want to encourage people to form a pleasurable and motivating connection we must consider the past, present and future states of the what the audiences are seeking, and there is no substitute for the real thing. We should try our best to put ourselves in as many of those seats as possible.
As trust and confidence builds, so does the depth of the experience and connection. We often default to efforts at simulation to capture the atmosphere or ambiance of a location. How many websites have you seen that start with grand aerial drone videos only to be flanked by lots of words that speak more to the internal transactional structures of the organization than to making deeper connections with visitors?
Every house has a front door, but every house feels unique depending on who lives there, what objects adorn the spaces, what spices are in the kitchen, what the auditory experiences are — a sensory soup that compiles into a record of what that home feels like. That feeling becomes the reality recorded in an individual’s mind.
Places help define us, and they are the canvases we paint our personal stories upon. They are more than buildings that house people and things, or pretty courtyards and quads within which humans gather. When we experience places that have an impact on us, we often look for ways to retain that connection and carry a little bit of that encounter with us on our individual journeys.
Whether to show affiliation or belonging, convey pride or enthusiasm, or act as our own charms or amulets we carry with us to keep us on the course we’ve set out upon — we have a human need to deepen and solidify our connections with places. This explains why we see so many shops in airports carrying trinkets and t-shirts promoting that location’s highlights, offering the departing visitor one last chance to take a physical keepsake with them.
Beyond the airport souvenir shops, location based branding for merchandise, or bumper stickers to announce our affiliations to the other drivers on the road, we find our own ways to tap into and retain certain aspects of a moment.
When I went to view the Joan Mitchell exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I made a point of going two times (and I wish I could have gone many more!) The first time, I listened to the accompanying audio experience they provided on their app (which was fantastic and helped to transport me into the world of Mitchell’s creative and painterly brilliance.)
Then I went back a second time, and listened to my own soundtrack, a compilation of pieces by Miles Davis and John Coltrane, which I often listen to when I am painting in my studio. I did this to create a connection for myself that I could hopefully tap back into, where the music conjured up the feelings I was experiencing when I was looking at her jaw-droppingly beautiful and powerful paintings. This was my attempt to capture and carry with me some essence of what I was feeling as I was looking at her paintings.
I think humans do this subconsciously all the time, like picking up a rock on a hike to take back home and set on your window ledge. A memento to try to preserve that connection to the experience and feeling of the place. But that rock has a story for you to tell someone else, a story about your experience of the place, and stories of other’s experiences are a powerful way to communicate a feeling more so than pictures, videos or generalized descriptions.
Interestingly, when we create a painting, a poem, a digital experience or website, we are also creating a new unique place that has meaning and importance. This recent study from November, 2023 “From Digital Media to Empathic Spaces” refers to German philosopher Heidegger’s magnum opus “Being and Time”:
“In the process of understanding empathy, we analyze context through the lens of spatiality. Being and Time by Heidegger is one of the foundational works on spatial existence. In this book, Heidegger claims human existence is first and foremost understood through the process of taking and making space. The fundamental nature of space for human existence can be seen in the spatiality of human language, memory, and experiences”.
The spaces we create for ourselves, and others to experience, is a deeply held human need.
Solving the challenge of conveying a sense of place is an endless field for creative exploration and experimentation, and I believe it attracts the unique creative minds of those who seek these complex endeavors in part due to their own desires to design and develop unique experiences of reality…to create new spaces. So far nothing can mimic all that we experience in our physical lives, but I love seeing and experiencing the ways artists (from musicians to writers to designers) find ways to translate and interpret these experiences into so many wonderful new ways to engage.
I’ll be digging into this topic and others in the coming months with Yianni Mathioudakis and Monica Sanchez of DEEO, long time colleagues, collaborators and friends, and fellow travelers on the creative’s journey. Keep your eyes out for that — and until then, keep exploring, stay curious and be brave.
My work with Yale University was conducted while I was leading my prior agency, Fastspot, and included contributions from team members at both Fastspot and Yale.