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How to design an immersive experience: Step one, put on a flight suit

To design a space that draws people into an experience, sometimes you have to take a walk in your client’s shoes… or skydive in their flight chamber.

In my career as a designer, I've had to wear a lot of hats, and sometimes even flight suits.

On my current project, I often find myself floating in a pristine glass cylinder wearing a skydiving suit, goggles, and a helmet as a column of air from jet-engine turbines lifts my body. I feel like I have just jumped out of a plane, but I'm actually in one of the facilities we've designed for iFLY, a company whose mission is to "deliver the dream of flight to everyone" with more than 60 indoor skydiving tunnel gyms located around the world.  Indoor skydiving (or body flying) has been an important part of my job because in order to design spaces that truly immerse people in an experience, I need to know first-hand what that experience feels like.

I’m part of a buildings team that focuses on designing commercial spaces that encourage people to engage with their surroundings and enjoy human interactions. In a time of online retail where people can order almost anything from their living room, our goal is to use interior, graphic, and environmental design to create spaces that inspire people to get out, gather, and feel connected to one another and their community. When people feel invigorated by their surroundings, we find that economic success for our clients follows: we always like to say “social success equals economic success.”

So how do you create a space where people feel emotionally connected to their environment? It’s simple. I put myself in the shoes of the people who will be using the space (hence the flight suit). I think of design as a never-ending research project, or a 007-style mission where I must dive in (sometimes literally) and get ready for discoveries along the way.

Here are three ways that you can design an experience by simply understanding what makes people tick:

  1. It’s all about emotion: An experience is shaped by what you feel when you are in a particular moment. When we start a project, we define what emotions our design needs to invoke. When our team was tasked with revamping the iFLY experience by creating multiple building prototypes to be deployed worldwide, we assessed what emotions their current building was creating and if that matched their brand promise. We asked ourselves, what does achieving the dream of flight feel like? We created a list of desired words such as safety, comfort, dream, fun, and exhilaration. We then made sure every aspect of our design complemented those ideas and emotions. In our line of work, we design for emotion first and practical elements second.
  2. Make the experience the focal point of the design: What is the real reason people are attracted to a space? For iFLY, it was obvious; they want to fly. They also want to connect with other people who share the same passion! That’s why we arranged the building interiors to revolve around the flight chamber—the pristine, highly engineered glass cylinder where the magic of flying takes place. The walls of the chamber are curved to react to the energy that emanates from within the chamber and to allow for a better viewing experience from every angle. The result is a theatrical experience where the flight chamber is the central focus of the space and everything else is toned down and acts as a background. 
  3. Be part of the community, be a place for community: Communities are built around neighborhood landmarks. Create a design that serves as gathering place. With iFLY, the building’s exterior is an interesting shape and has softly curved lines and a sophisticated color palette that creates a strong invitation to visitors. When you are inside, the building feels more like a social hub than an amusement ride. They are places for the indoor skydiving community to gather and come back to again and again.

The design industry is moving into an era where clients want to integrate design thinking into their company structure. More and more, our role as designers is to become trusted advisors and our business relations are shifting toward long-lasting relationships. The leadership at iFLY trusts us to make every design decision related to what people can see and touch for all their worldwide facilities. If they can't find a tile in Brazil or a certain wood floor in not available in Australia, we get a call. But in order to be trusted advisors, we need to know what their customers want and need from an experience, which means stepping outside our comfort zones … and inside their flight chamber.

Our next assignment is going to be helping a rugby team shape the vision of their future home. This time, I think I'll choose to walk in the shoes of the referee!

CarloMaria Ciampoli is a senior designer in Stantec’s buildings group. He has worked on projects from Hong Kong to Mexico City and has lectured on parametric design and digital fabrication at the New York Center for Architecture and at universities in the US, Europe, and Asia. 

When people feel invigorated by their surroundings, we find that economic success for our clients follows

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