Is all design becoming experience design?

The Zeitgeist Project in Berlin last week challenged us to consider the role of all our senses in the way we design products - and services.

I was back in Berlin last week, as a guest of The Zeitgeist Project, an evening event designed to act as a thought-provoking session on design in the shadow of the giant IFA consumer electronics show. It was as much an experience as an event, from the giant rhino model that greeted us in the foyer, to the lighting and acoustics that converted an atmosphere of both thoughtfulness and challenge.

And that got me thinking about the role of experience, and sensory experience in particular, when you’re designing services. The Zeitgeist Project was very much an event focused on product design, rather than service design. But plenty of the ideas were just as applicable to both areas.

For example, journalist Bobbie Johnson’s pick of Makie dolls, which appeared at NEXT Berlin earlier in the year, is a good example of a physical product – the 3D printed doll – that has a service expression in the website you use to design, name and create a story for your doll.

Professor Charles Spence’s talk on synesthetic design was both revealing and inspiring. His counter-intuitive examples of how changing the impact on one sense can dramatically change another’s perception of a product – like putting taste and odour free red food colouring in white wine making it taste like red wine to people – underline how important thinking about people’s perceptions of people’s point of service contacts are. How do things sound? Look? Smell?  All those are going to dramatically alter how people perceive a product.

This point was reinforced by an audio-based talk by renowned designer Michael Wolff who underlines how important sound is to many familiar products.

Richard Seymour also challenged our thinking, by giving us the example of a photo of a typewriter. The audience – all adults – immediately knew what it was. A class of seven year olds perceive it in a completely different way, though. They thought it was a laptop that printed and which didn’t need to be plugged in… If your frame of reference is very different from that of the people you’re designing for, you going to make some fundamental errors in how your service is perceived.

That’s message I came away with. Fundamentally, the best pieces of design are around experiences, not just products and services. And the more the line between those two blurs – and as the internet of things developed, the line between product and digital service is very thin indeed – We’re designing experiences that meet people’s needs – and all aspects of that experience need to be considered.