Experiential design as a tool for creating opportunities

by Helena Morgan
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Motivated to craft emotionally memorable and safe public spaces, head of experiential design at TURNER Aniss Adler shares how facility managers can elevate a space through experiential design.

Like many creatives, the head of experiential design at TURNER, Aniss Adler, is driven by fascination and curiosity and sports interest in numerous design fields – a state of mind that has seen her specialise in visual communication, fashion, graphic and product design. 

However, she ultimately credits this fascination with interrelated design disciplines, alongside a reverence for places dripping in memory and emotion, as responsible for her dive into experiential design.

“Design principles that I learned through my career in fashion and graphic design are the foundation of what I do,” she says. 

“I learned through my career that design principles are translatable, no matter fashion, lighting or graphics – a strong design language can evolve and shape in so many ways.”

“Coming from a fine arts background, I look at things a little differently.”

Alder has a tertiary education background in visual communication and graphic design, which exposed her to a vast array of study areas – photography, sculpting, painting – and crafted a “holistic” approach to design education and practice. 

Adler oversaw the branding for the Western Sydney Conference Centre.

Fashion and architecture are kissing cousins

As the fine arts faculty was adjacent to the architectural faculty at her university, Adler was introduced to various architectural concepts – a learning process further bolstered by the fact that many of her friends were architects. 

“Architecture has been a continual theme in whatever I have designed,” she says. Adler found certain guidelines, structures and methodologies in fashion design mirrored those in architecture. 

“Fashion is very structural, and like architecture, it relies on a modern use of material industrial design approaches, rather than traditional textile work,” she says.

Adler moved from Iran to Australia 15 years ago, with her appreciation for the structure in graphic design and qualifications as a milliner in tow. She founded high-end hat supplier StudioANISS in 2012 and was delighted to contribute to a quintessentially Melbourne area of fashion – designing fascinators for the Melbourne Cup. 

Initially specifying in wayfinding and graphic design as an associate creative designer, Adler has clocked six years at TURNER – a leading practice specialising in designing spaces that ‘energise communities’. After her initial stint at the practice, she moved to associate director of graphics and now leads the experiential design department.

Giving in to emotional intuition 

What exactly is experiential design, and why should facilities and building managers incorporate elements of the practice into a space?

“Experiential design utilises design processes that are human-experience centric, and it works a lot with memory and how people feel in a space – transforming a space into a place,” she says. 

When telling Facility Management how she came to specialise in experiential design, she draws on her proclivity to visit the same place over and over again – likening it to a “pilgrimage”. 

“I have a certain nostalgia about places, especially being a migrant and having left my country,” she says. 

“Every time I go back to my home country, it doesn’t matter if I’ve been somewhere 200 times, I have to go back to the same places.” She acutely knows what emotional responses will be stirred in these places and how certain human-centric design elements will instruct her to feel a certain way and undergo a process similar to mindfulness.

Adler hypothesises this connection to place as responsible for piquing her interest in experiential design, as it relies on certain design features to evoke emotions and memories in users of the space. 

The powers of experiential design are evident via TURNER’s design of Santa Sophia Catholic College in Box Hill, Sydney.

Allowing emotion to sing even in an expansive space

Around four years ago, motivated by this irrepressible love for the memories and history tangled within the built environment, Adler started considering how to craft a memorable user experience in large-scale developments at TURNER. However, it was not as easy as turning to the principles of experiential design – she had not yet encountered the concept in tertiary education or her design career. 

When working on these large-scale developments at TURNER, Adler was determined not to let size and scale be a barrier. 

She instead went about strategising achievable and ingenious ways to consider the philosophy and psychology of user experience, and how to meaningfully plant elements such as public art, colours and graphic design into a large space. 

Unlocking memory through shape-shifting design 

Adler continued digging further and stumbled across the concept of experiential design, which confirmed her belief that design could be harnessed to evoke lasting emotional responses. “What I found somewhat validated everything that I was doing,” she says.

Experiential design has gained particular traction in the United States, most notably in San Francisco, with entire practices devoted to the specialty. 

The description of experiential design that most resonates with Adler is “shape-shifting”, in that it can be successful in many different ways, including place branding, theatrical lighting and environmental graphic. 

Santa Sophia Catholic College

It is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and instead functions to provide whatever the space needs to evoke memories and emotions.

Adler says although some clients were initially wary towards investing time and money in experiential design, the rewards of incorporating such elements into a space are beneficial for the user, client and designer. 

“A challenge is making clients understand that there is value in experiential design,” she says. 

Clients occasionally require time to envisage how it will be useful to their space. 

Adler also reports that encouraging clients to jump on board increases in difficulty due to the value of experiential design becoming apparent over time as people engage with the space, therefore instant gratification with the approach is not always ascertained.

Western Sydney Conference Centre

Embraced by the community

Adler brims with gratitude and fulfilment when recalling public engagement with an experiential design space for the first time, as people have been using the space exactly as she intended for it to be used. 

“On the opening day of every experiential design project I have done, everybody wants to hang out and congregate in the areas that we’ve designed for public gathering and socialising,” says Adler.

Despite the aforementioned wariness from some clients, she feels supported by architects in the community championing her visions. “I am now brought to the table to meet with a client in the early stages of a project,” says Adler.

TURNER has been eager to rely on Adler for her expertise in experiential design. “The team has been wonderful in terms of their openness, and allowing for these explorations,” she says.

Creating spaces that are crying out to be visited 

Adler is inspired by experimental design’s power to elevate a quotidian and much-frequented space – injecting fun, delight, serenity or bliss into a shopping centre, a performing arts theatre or even a school. “It’s about using experiential design to make a space somewhere that people want to visit all the time,” she says. 

Adler’s tenure at the helm of experiential design for TURNER has seen her involved in school refurbishments, such as Santa Sophia Catholic College in Sydney’s Box Hill, the branding for the Western Sydney Conference Centre, wayfinding at the Landing Sanctuary and South Village retail centre and place branding at advantaged care facility Edensor Gardens, among many others. 

Timing of delivery is instrumental in experiential design, reports Adler, as the drive to include experiential design needs to be sustained throughout the whole project and not just as a last-minute plunk on. Experiential design elements need to be intentional and grounded in spirit and meaning.

“It’s really important that we do things at the right time when the process is still malleable, otherwise it will be added at the end with many compromises and won’t have a deeper impact,” says Adler. 

Wayfinding at the South Village retail centre.

Facilities management and experiential design 

Adler says there are numerous ways that facilities and operations managers can incorporate elements of experiential design into a facility and deliver a certain emotional experience for users of the space. She specifically emphasises the value of brand placement.

“For facilities, brand placement and implementation are very important and easy to do,” she says.

Adler points to brand placement such as that implemented at Western Sydney Conference Centre and Edensor Gardens as effective in communicating a facility’s values and purpose, whether the facility is an aged-care home, co-working space or even a car parking area. 

Brand placement can also be used to energise a space, and transform perhaps uninspiring and lifeless areas into vibrant congregating zones. 

However, she warns against incorporating insincere, thoughtless and baseless brand placement, as it reflects merely surface-level engagement with experiential design. 

“Experiential design needs to have cultural impact,” says Adler. 

“When we work with facilities who want to do place branding, we look at their values, visions and mission, and see how we can reflect these values into the built  environment such as collaboration spaces.”

Wayfinding at the South Village retail centre.

People-centric design in facilities management

Experiential design also has a life through colours and visual cues, as it can create cohesion, unity and symmetry within a space. Adler cites a case of colours and visual cues enhancing an aged-care facility she worked on, as the visual cues allow residents to feel dignified and capable, and ultimately exercise agency in a lively space. 

“As the residents age, they feel more anxious in environments that are difficult to navigate,” she says. 

“We identified each wing through colours and visual cues so people would be able to navigate confidently and independently through space.”

As experiential design is innately people-centric, Adler says emphasis is placed on the design of communal spaces intended for socialisation to ignite a sense of pride. “If the facility appreciates their people, then they can provide a space for people to come together,” she says. When people are proud of a place, they care for it and protect it, resulting in less vandalisation.

Cross-disciplinary collaboration is essential

To Adler, experiential design is the intersection of architecture, interior design, and graphic and product design to create a unique and transformative emotional experience for a user.  The specialty area is characterised by cross-disciplinary design collaboration and the sharing of expertise, ideas and possibilities.  

“Experiential design is the golden central point where architecture, interior design and graphic product design come together,” says Adler. 

Collaboration with architects and interior designers is imperative, and a non-negotiable in Adler’s eyes. “Experiential design cannot be successful if it does not closely collaborate with architects and work closely with interiors,” she confirms.

Experiential design contributing to women’s safety

Experiential design has the potential to improve the safety of urban spaces at night for vulnerable and frequently harassed and targeted communities, such as women. The recent Safe Spaces report released by Monash University implores urban design to move beyond merely implementing CCTV and lighting as methods in which to ensure the safety of a space – experiential design could emerge as the sought-after hero. 

Women surveyed in this report are eager to see the implementation of thoughtful fixtures such as real-time information for public transport at night, alongside intelligently designed wayfinding such as lighting, footpaths, landscaping and signage. 

When considering how experiential design can be employed to increase the safety and calmness of certain public spaces for women, Adler reflects on her involvement in a project with Liverpool City Council. 

Place branding for Edensor Gardens.

“As a woman, championing safety in design has always been a personal agenda,” she says.

“My scope with the Liverpool Council was to provide experiential design and public art strategy to enhance the connectivity of a back lane and link a park to the main street.” 

A core component of the project involved incorporating artistic illuminations into the back lane – which Adler says evolved into a complex and exciting process of “metamorphosing the laneway into the preferred thoroughfare”. 

The inclusion of visual cues and wayfinding aspects at key points along the ground-level circulations enabled ease and intuitive navigation.  

Adler confirms that higher activation contributes to a sense of safety, accessibility and user comfort. 

“We prioritised safety by designing a raised and wide pedestrian pathway to ensure safe foot traffic and maintain clear sight lines,” she says.

Place branding for Edensor Gardens.

Experiential design making a space sing 

Creating spaces that arouse positive emotional responses in users is a pleasure for Adler, particularly when the tenets of experiential design such as wayfinding and signage transform a formerly insipid space into one alive with energy and activity.

She witnessed a standard industrial complex in Marrickville, Sydney, emerge into a bustling and community-minded space in just a few months as owed to experiential design elements. 

“This seemingly simple application of wayfinding, signage, and bold environmental graphics raised awareness among tenants and artists and fostered collaboration,” says Adler. 

She underscores how this example demonstrates the power of experiential design to enrich client experience in a retail setting, subsequently increasing foot traffic and revenue. 

“The unsophisticated complex underwent a dramatic metamorphosis and attracted high-end designers, artisanal coffee roasters and enthusiastic backers,” says Adler. 

Experiential design is committed to creating possibilities and opportunities – whether it be securing revenue, ensuring safety and calmness, or reminding someone why they continue to return to a place.

Photography supplied by TURNER. 

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