Business / Design

Experience economy and the future of design.

Recently, SCAD hosted a lecture with James H. Gilmore, co-author of The Experience Economy: Work is Theater and Every Business is a Stage. The premise of the book is understanding the basic history and future of Western business strategies. The idea is that as our society has progressed, the business market has shifted from the selling of commodities, goods, and services into an industry of selling experiences and transformation, as witnessed in the graph below:

Now, I don’t inherently disagree with this model. Especially as we’ve seen such small start-ups expand thanks to the dot-com boom, witnessed through companies like Spotify, Instagram, and Facebook. Only recently have other brick-and-mortar corporations sought to expand their business model into experiences. This is seen most predominantly in the tourism industry, where businesses place monetary value on a customer’s time. Gilmore suggested the best example of this is through Las Vegas, where the city’s highest source of revenue comes from investing in customers’ experiences in shows, casinos, and hotels. Why pay for an international flight to experience Venice when you could simply go to the lobby of your hotel to get almost the same experience, within a climate-controlled environment? Gilmore suggests that our products in the future will be less reliant on physical products and more on human experience.

Once again, I understand entirely that architecture relies heavily on human experience in order to be effective, and really, it’s the only thing architects have to measure effectiveness with. Like I mentioned in the last post, experience and phenomena dictate how we respond to a museum versus a hospital.

However, this theory falls apart  when we consider the design-oriented approach to problem solving today. At the beginning of his lecture, Gilmore suggested experience design will become the driving force for designers in the future. I could see how experience becomes the driving force for business in the future, but to say  experience design solves problems propagates a continued mindset of consumption, merely in a different fashion than through direct goods purchases.

When I asked Gilmore how we as designers solve issues of climate change, the end of oil, and global poverty through an experience economy, he suggested, “…In terms of the bigger global problems, I would encourage you, don’t go solve the big global problems.” Here’s a recording of my question and his response:

[audio ]

First of all, we as designers are tired of an industry built on a model of indefinite consumption. Sure, Gilmore makes some great points an experience economy’s ability to streamline the design and production process, but a design process built on the backs of a business model does not directly solve any problems. Why? Because the intention is an increased bottom line, not increased awareness of consumption by the consumer.

NY Times columnist Robert Walker explained in Gary Hustwit’s film Objectified, “Often the way that a product comes into being isn’t because a bunch of expert designers sat down and said ‘what are the 10 most important problems that we could solve?’ There is a company that’s writing a check and what the company wants is new SKU’s. They want more stuff and they want more people to buy it, and that’s the name of the game.”

The possibility that a business structure which says consumers in the future might have to pay to experience things like the Grand Canyon or swimming at the beach should empower us designers to keep such a thing from happening.

Second, I think this is a terrible point-of-view on the power of design. If anything, as designers, we have the biggest dreams and ambitions of anyone, that span infinitely farther than any business model. If faced with a challenge, we will solve it with diligence, and if we fail, our perseverance marks our desire to actually impact the world with our work. To suggest we focus less on big things is like suggesting we take a step back and let someone else call the shots. I’ve never heard of a successful designer who was willing to settle for mediocrity.



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