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Designing Experiential Value of a Place

“I’m in a festive mood today, I should go to that community center. I feel so excited when I’m there”, says one. Another says, “ I feel distressed; some peace and calm will be nice. I should go to that park”. Wouldn’t it be great to have places designed to encourage specific emotion, feeling or attitude. As designers how can we ensure that the places we design will exhibit an anticipated character? By designing the Experiential Value.


Why do we need to design Experiential Value


The experiential value of a place is the qualitative character that influences the experiences of people present there. When building a place, architects design the physical objects in that space that conflates to form the tangible environment for the people. When people interact with it, they behave in a certain manner, thereby creating an experience for themselves and at the same time attributing the place with the review they had. When enough reviews point to a similar character, that is the experiential value of that place. So essentially, the only thing designers can explicitly influence is the physical environment, through which they implicitly shape the experiential value and the experiences for people present there. In order to ensure a good experience for the user, being able to consciously affect the experiential value is hence of paramount importance.


While designing for a project, designers can either project from what they know of human behavior now, catering to what it will be in the future, or they can decide what they choose it to be in the future and then do all in their power to attain these goals through social and physical engineering ( Lee et al., 1971). In the former case, designers are merely acting as means to prepare for what will be the scenario in the future, without any judgment for whether it should happen or not. There is no sense of discernment for the experiential value. The emphasis is on ensuring that the future, that has to be attained, is realized obstacle-free. In the latter approach, however, the designer realizes that, using their intellect and experience, they can determine the kind of experiential value the place should have for a better future, and plan the execution accordingly. Before getting into the physical design of the space, they consciously design the way of life they think should prevail.


Challenges


There are two major issues in designing the experiential value of a place prior to its physical design. Firstly, the user may not behave in a manner as envisioned by the architect owing to their personal predilection based on their unique past. Secondly, there is no firm process or theory to propose design interventions corresponding to the desired experiential value, and the architects have to primarily rely on their acumen and rationale, which might not always be correct. Consider this example from the previous article where the placement of benches in a park encourages interaction.


John is sitting on a bench in a park while Will is jogging around. Will halts when he is tired and looks around to find an empty bench. The benches in the park are placed at a considerable distance, and the nearest one is the one where John is sitting. Unable to walk any longer, Will goes to John and politely asks if he can sit and takes a seat there. This mere exchange of sentences triggers a conversation between them, and they both have a memorable time at the park.


Here, the assertion that if the seats in the park are positioned far away, it will encourage interaction among people, holds true only if the park is big enough with an adequate population. Otherwise, it may have an adverse effect on the users. For instance, if the park is small, then there are no distances that can be considered ‘far’ for a person to walk. Also, if it is extremely populous, the number of seats required will be more. If the seats are placed far away, then the number might not conform to the requirement. As a result, the seats will be fully occupied, so rather than creating an opportunity for interaction, it will create distress among people. Hence, it all comes down to the discretion of the architect, whether or not the proposed intervention will work as intended and what restraints can occur in its functioning.


Status Quo


To check the feasibility of the design, designers visualize the space before actually building it, sketches and models being the most common medium. While these techniques give an accurate insight into the tangible character of the space, they fail to depict the intangible characteristics of a space. Today, through the use of computer-aided tools and the emergence of techniques like visual and augmented reality, simulations of non-existent environments have become even more real. (Morello et al., 2015) Yet, however accurate these are, the techniques are limited to appeal to the visual and auditory human senses when in fact, all five human senses along with the cognitive abilities are involved while interacting with an environment. Therefore, the simulation techniques are insufficient to envisage the qualitative characteristics of a place.


Even if we do have a technique that could visualize the intangibles of a place prompted by the configuration of the surroundings, one can never precisely determine the experience of a person as human predilection is not taken into account, which is almost always impossible to know. Therefore, we are still in a dearth of a process, theory, or philosophy that could assist the architects in modulating the intangible characteristics and thus the experiential value of a place.



How To design Experiential Value of a Place


The attempt is to construct a process to consciously design experiential value with regard to all the factors affecting it. The process is just a guide to help designers identify the experiential value and then translate it into actual physical space. These steps are not an answer but questions to ask, the answers to which will allow them to reach a solution.



Step One: Determining the Experiential Value


To determine the nature of a non-existent environment, questioning the motives of today can be a start. To explain this better, consider the example from “A Patterned Language” (C. Alexander et al.,1977), Shopfront School. The author presents the case for designing a school. He suggests that children around the age of 6 or 7 develop a need to learn by doing rather than just reading. He claims, ‘if the setting is right, these needs lead the children directly to basic skills and habit of learning. With a beautifully presented example, he explains how the students learn about trees, their diameter and discover ‘pi’ by physically exploring the trees on a lunch trip to the city park. The analysis for the situation, as explained by the author, is as follows.


A few children in a bus, visiting a city park with a teacher. That works because there are only a few children and one teacher. Any public school can provide the teacher and the bus. But they cannot provide the low student-teacher ratio, because the sheer size of the school eats up all the money in administrative costs and overheads - which end up making higher student ratios economically essential. So even though everyone knows that the secret of good teaching lies in low student-teacher ratios, the schools make this one central thing impossible to get, because they waste their money being large.

In this example, the author is trying to shape the education system instead of following the current norms for the school. His design for the experiential value of the school is to encourage a practical approach to education, rather than the existing theoretical approach. He aspires the students to gain the experience of learning by doing.


In the mass of various problems, we need to identify what the core issues are and what other problems are created by solving existing issues. Often, we are so busy solving problems of today, that we forget to understand the root cause for the problems. Consider the following example about transportation and cars (Fischer et al., 2015).


Those with an interest in promoting cars succeeded in casting transportation problems not as a problem of moving people but rather as a problem of accommodating cars everywhere. Like any useful tool, the car has purposes to which it is ideally suited. It is particularly well suited to low-density areas; it can also be very useful in dense cities as a taxi. But those with an interest in promoting cars succeeded in casting transportation problems not as a problem of moving people but rather as a problem of accommodating cars everywhere—even to the point of rebuilding cities for cars, thereby diminishing alternative transportation choices.

By providing more parking spaces, the designer will only solve the issue that persists today, If the number of cars in future increases, the problem of accommodating cars gets restored. By questioning if cars are the best mode of transport today, the author is reshaping the experience he would want the users to get tomorrow. In a similar manner, we can design the experiential value for a place by critically analyzing the root cause and cognitively assessing the best possible solution for it.


Step Two: Inferring the Intangibles


Various intangibles together form the experiential value of a place. Instead of going forward, we are tracing our steps backward, and after having defined the experiential value, we need to identify intangible characteristics leading to it. In the example of the school, the author realizes that having a smaller student-teacher ratio enables practical learning for students within the community, a character impossible to achieve in the current design of large schools. Therefore, a low student-teacher ratio is one of the intangible characteristics of a practically oriented education system.


An intangible characteristic can correspond to different types of experiences. A low student-teacher ratio enables practical learning but does not necessitate it. Having lesser students in a school compared to the other schools can also indicate low literacy rates in the area. Thus, identifying one intangible characteristic is not sufficient to define the experiential value. We must identify multiple intangible characteristics, each individually corresponding to the envisioned experiential value, which together will provide the user with the desired experience.


Unfortunately, there is no established technique to recognize the intangible characteristics correlated with the required experiential value. However, we can attempt to comprehend the relationship between experiential value and intangible features by analyzing the relationship between experiences of people and their respective behavioral patterns in an existing place. This will give us an idea about what sort of behavior can lead to what kind of experience for the user. We can then implement our learnings in the imminent designs.


Step Three: Translating the Intangible Characteristics into Physical Design Interventions


People directly interact with their physical surroundings; thus, it is essential to break down the intangible characteristics into physical design interventions. This step directly corresponds to the claim that human behavior is shaped by the surroundings, also called determinism ( Lee et al., 1971). Continuing the example of Shopfront school, after comprehending that the economic cost of the school needs to be decreased to facilitate a lower student-teacher ratio, the author attempts to find a workable, practical solution. He analyses other schools, to find out the exact ratio suitable for the new education system, and concludes,

Instead of building large public schools for children 7 to 12, set up tiny independent schools, one school at a time. Keep the school small, so that its overheads are low and a teacher-student ratio of 1:10 can be maintained. Locate it in a public part of the community, with a shopfront and three or four rooms.​

Here, we are trying to identify the spatial configuration that might lead to the asserted human behavior corresponding to the desired intangible characteristics. As stated by Terrence Lee, we should ideally have a theoretical model where the input is the spatial configuration, and the output is the human behavioral pattern. However, a lack of knowledge of all the socio-psychological parameters necessitates that we make some assumptions about the spatial configuration that can lead to desirous results. This has to be an observational and implementational loop where we learn by analyzing the current environment and applying the learnings to a new design to repeat the process. This process will still be ambiguous even after numerous loops, and with personal predilection of users in place, we still need a method to get the desired result evidently.


Coming back to the example of the park, we inferred that by placing benches far away, we might be able to stimulate interaction in some cases. Here, our intent or the desired intangible is to make the park interactive. By placing benches far away, we are targeting some users. To target others, we can propose additional interventions. For instance, it is seen that when people see someone regularly, they begin to recognize them. If different walking paths with multiple intersection points are designed, people will come across more often. When people regularly run through each other, they might also start interacting. Thus, by having multiple design interventions corresponding to each intangible characteristic, we can prompt people with different choices to behave in a similar way and also eliminate ambiguity to some extent.



Conclusion


Beyond the design of the physical space, designers have to deal with the intangible outcomes of projects, which include allowance for the future experience of people in time and space (Morello et al., 2015). Thus, explicitly targeting the experiences of people is a sensible approach to design. With these ideas, the intention is to stimulate the perception of design in architecture systematically. The emphasis shall be more on people and their experiences rather than the physical features of the design. To summarize, firstly, the experiential value of space should be determined by analyzing the critical problems and questioning the current scenario. Secondly, various intangible characteristics corresponding to the envisaged experiential value should be recognized. These together will allow people to have a specific experience. Finally, physical design interventions leading to the individual intangible characteristics are to be proposed. Multiple interventions for each intangible characteristic will ensure that most of the users, irrespective of their personal preference, have similar experiences.


With this process to design experiential value, the approach to the problem of design will change, if not the entire framework. When the thought process changes, only then the design approach can change. We, as designers, have the knowledge and thus the power to change the present and future and must cautiously use it to affect society in the best possible way.



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