SELLING THE ZEN OF BRANDED 'EXPERIENCE DESIGN'

Brian Hords Offers Sensual Contact With Consumers

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Who: Brian Hords, founder and creative director of o2 Creative Solutions, a Detroit-based company specializing in using multiple forms of media and technology to create experience design projects for clients including the W Hotel in Westwood, Calif., carmaker Lexus, Sirius Satellite Radio and Santa Monica’s Ambrose Hotel. “We define experience
Brian Hords, head of the design experience firm o2.

design as the creation of immersive communications through a variety of shared disciplines that appeal to the senses,” he said. “I have always been a fan of TV advertising from the storytelling standpoint, but I began to think that there had to be something more we could do as communicators to tap into the consumer in a more relevant and effective way.”

Credentials: Mr. Hords spent several years as a producer at ad agency Leo Burnett, then worked as a freelance creative director and producer, spending seven years designing product launches, media, film and other types of communications. In 1996, he became vice president and creative director for display firm Exhibit Works, where he designed communications for physical environments for clients including Volkswagen and Ford Motor Co. “This is where I began to develop interactive experiences that went beyond media screens and print,” Mr. Hords said. “From there I felt strongly about pioneering the concept of experience design and taking it beyond what was commonly considered to be a Web-based term” and founded o2.

What are some experience design projects that o2 has recently done? For the W Hotel in Westwood, o2 created a system called “Blink,” which was installed inside and outside of the hotel's elevators after the elevators were perceived to be slow-moving and frustrating for the customers. “Blink” involved an “Interactive Vanity Mirror,” which the hotel aligned with its “Welcome to Wonderland” campaign. The "mirror" captures an image of each participant and displays the imagery in photo-booth-type strips in and out of the elevators as guests waited. The interactive experience includes branded text and animation that welcomes guests to Wonderland and integrates them into the environment. O2 also developed several interactive elements titled “Digital Zen” for the Ambrose Hotel in Santa Monica, Calif., that reflected the property’s “modern/Asian-based” identity. The project included an interactive wall mural that mirrors the movement, color and forms of a participant's activity; an “Interactive Zen Garden,” which offers guests an opportunity to manipulate patterns cast upon sand by dragging a rake across the surface; and a constantly changing "wallscape" projected onto hotel elevator doors filled with organic geometric patterns.

How is experience design the same as branded entertainment? “Experience design has similar properties of branded entertainment in that both of these experiences are developed to entertain and treat consumers to a memorable moment. This experience is then translated and cultivated into a positive brand impression through association.”

What can experience design do for a brand? “Experience design can break through the clutter of typical communications, connect with the senses and create a talked about experience that is thought of in a positive way. Tied into a PR effort, experiential communications can create positive, lasting impressions. Experience design delivers entertaining experiences. It’s a personality builder.”

What kind of experience design works best? “I use the example of Halloween. You design your home for the festivities. You add the special effects. If you feel in the mood, you may dress the part. You choose the candy. If your house is the scariest, if there is some type of theatrical performance and you hand out the best treats, chances are that the kids will all be talking and you will become the most popular house on the block. This is also true for business. Create the perfect combined communications that appeal to the consumer and you should have yourself a success.”

What doesn't work? “What doesn’t work when designing an experience is anything that doesn’t tie back to some sort of communication. It’s not just about creating something that is interesting. We need to factor in how it will function from the user’s perspective. We take a zero learning curve approach in regards to this. We map out the events that the consumer will go through to get an outcome. What doesn’t work is when the consumer has to take extended amounts of time to figure something out prior to experiencing the desired result.”

What are some challenges you face in getting brands to agree to commit to your types of projects? “The term 'experience design' is really new to a lot of people. Some of the challenges: How do you ask for something that you’re not sure what it is? How do you categorize it? How do you price it? What is the ROI [return on investment]? The turning point happens when they have the opportunity to experience something first hand. They realize how it impacts them and creates a strong impression. Typically, there’s no turning back after this.”

What kind of cost are we talking about? “We have developed experience-based print pieces that range in the typical pricing structure. We have also been involved in large-scale theater and installations with budgets in the millions. We have gone to a retainer-based approach with most of our clients so that we can partner together on an extended strategy to inject experience design into their brands throughout time. We also work on a per project basis depending on the needs and objectives of the challenge.”

What keeps you up at night? “Making music and re-adjusting to the correct time zones.”

What do you do on your downtime? “Learn about experiences from my kids. They are truly the best resource. I also like anything with wheels. Wheels are good! In the resume format, my interests are competitive cycling, song writing, playing guitar, piano, snowboarding, motorcycles, photography and anything else outdoors.”