Spatially-Literate Design

Thoughts on designing site-specific digital experiences, merging spatial awareness for engaging, unique installations.

When we are asked what Stimulant does, one simple answer is that we design and develop software. But that software is either the engine for, or connective tissue of, site-specific digital experiences for people. And those experiences, in turn, connect people to ideas, brands, and each other. Value is created for our clients by the strength and impact of those connections.

But across the creative, technical, and business aspects of our work, two words in the preceding paragraph makes our work different, and defines both our true specialty and our greatest challenge: “Site-specific.” We strive to reach people literally where they live, work, play, and visit, rather than online. Even if our experiences sometimes have online components, they’re formatted, sculpted, and designed to be delivered in specific places, usually beyond the boundaries of home or the workplace.

That’s why it’s incredibly important for Stimulant, and other firms of our ilk, to strive to produce concepts, designs, and experiences that are spatially literate: they leverage patterns of past use, user expectations, cultural norms, and architecture in order to be true and appropriate to their physical context.

In his seminal book Digital Ground (2004, MIT Press), Malcolm McCullough gives an example of a real estate developer producing and placing homes that are based on traditional designs. But when the housing development is built without understanding the original context and rationale behind their construction, all the homes are sited incorrectly. Rather than having sloped roofs angled towards prevailing winds and the windows facing south for warmth, the roofs are placed facing south. This is not only spatially illterate, it is historically and culturally ignorant.

Similar examples can be seen across America as well. Micro-cafés have recently sprouted up inside of supermarkets. These small coffee shops often feel dissonantbecause the lighting, flooring, sounds, temperature, and nearby materials being anathema to most consumers’ assumptions and expectations of what cafés should be like. One would never design a cozy café with bright linoleum flooring and fluorescent strip lights. This is therefore spatially illiterate, an attempt to co-locate an existing place with rich social meaning in a mismatched environment, turning a place of gathering and relationship-focused commerce into a place of task completion and efficiency-focused commerce. Even with comfortable chairs, I’ve not seen anyone seated at these places except store staff...turning it more into a publicly visible breakroom for store staff. Is that what retail store designers intended to be seen by prospective customers?

Designing spatially literate digital installations requires re-examining everything when producing digital installations, in order to maintain congruity with user intent, context of use, content, environment, and brand. What plays well on the Web or in a mobile app not only maps poorly to the different physical scale of real spaces (and the different input and output methods that make the most sense there), but the very essence of a digital experience needs to be specifically mapped to the needs of the inhabitants of that space. This is true for design, content, and technology alike.

Deploying experiences intended for the Web in a public space is contextually incongruous. Instead, we need to understand the unique intersection of a place’s character and the needs and goals of its inhabitants to instead design things that are contextually congruent.

For example, rich visuals that explicitly emphasize visual branding are vital online: Your computer will never change shape regardless of what website you visit, nor will your room adjust itself based on the aesthetics of a website. The website itself must exude a strong, overt branding of its virtual space. However, when a person enters a building, they usually know where the are. They’ve probably planned this visit in their head, or been there before, and they’ve been met by a whole system of symbols on their way (or in order to find their way) there. They may have seen the name of the entity, brand, or institution on or in the structure. They may have been exposed to wayfinding systems beforehand. They may have been given a badge that is, itself, labeled and branded. They know where they are already. If one were to be heavy-handed and hyper explicit in layering logotypes, taglines, and other types of identity collateral on a digital experience in such a space, overbranding the initial user experience is a very real risk. This is where greater risks and more impactful results can be realized than simply animating a logo at an oversized scale.

Information needs are also very different. In the case of permanent corporate installations or tradeshows, it’s almost guaranteed that visitors will have already seen that entity’s or brand’s website before visiting  — indeed, it’s how most people figure out how to get there, anyway. Repurposing online content risks duplication for such installations, which damages credibility, suggests a lack of attention to detail, and cheapens the experience. For years, research has shown that online users don’t read that much, they skim and skip constantly, and that assumes that they are seated comfortably. What about standing on a hard floor? Information and content strategy must be uniquely aligned with the context of use within the physical environment.

Technologies used in place-based experiences can be uniquely specified for the space and messages to be conveyed. High performance 2D and 3D are possible at resolutions or complexity levels that are simply infeasible on the Web or on a mobile device. Input and interaction paradigms that would be fatiguing in daily work use might be perfectly rational for hundreds of short-duration usage sessions throughout a day. Displays might be extremely low resolution, but physically massive and seen from far away — or just the opposite. Some technologies are sensitive to, or don’t function at all in, intense natural light. All of these considerations must be factored into the content to be delivered, how users will affect the system, and how the system will respond to those inputs.

When done elegantly, digital experiences that exhibit high spatial literacy just “feel right.” They are authentic extensions of the physical space and the brand of the institution or entity that commissioned it. They recede into the background for daily visitors, but respectfully request attention from new visitors. They employ activities and content that are appropriate for the intent of their visitors.

Finally, digital experience installations are aligned with the mental models of visitors to the space, appropriate in terms of attention and input needed and balanced in terms of the output and/or information conveyed.

The rich, presence-driven installation that Obscura Digital produced for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission uses a hand-drawn, approachable style in a dark amphitheater-like environment to instill consumer confidence and help them appreciate the complexity of public utilities. This might not play as well on their website, from which the public needs clear, direct information...and whatever computers the public may be using to access the site may not be able to power large, rich animations. While not interactive, the Niles Creative Group’s media installation in the Comcast Center in Philadelphia uses clever trompe l’oeil video to play off the repeated architectural elements of their vast lobby, a trick that only plays well in that specific environment...and its strictly linear, non-interactive media is appropriate for a video content provider. It requires the scale and position within this massive space to make sense and be relevant, and the scale itself says something about Comcast's reach and abilities. It’s nothing you could experience on a standard 16:9 screen, at any scale.

If that sounds like a lot of work, it is. Hard, too. But we believe that all of our users are smart, curious, and generally do know where they are at any given time, both in the banal sense and the socio-cultural sense: One never wants to insult the cultural, institutional, and spatial literacy of one’s own users.

These are the kinds of rich opportunities that the Web doesn’t offer. These are the kinds of impressions that create shareable stories that users tell through word-of-mouth and social media. These are the kinds of things we love designing and building at Stimulant. And whether you are a prospective client, a future employee, or partner, we’d love to take this journey with you.