A Moment of Silos

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-10-57-07-amCorn, wheat, missiles, architects, experience designers…none have much affect on the world around them when kept in silos.

It’s not until taken from the silos and mixed with other things that they become effective and able to fully realize potential.

Hence Collaboration.

The Destination Entertainment and Experience Design communities began to experience a learning curve long ago, beginning with a now-anecdotally legendary design for retail success but entertainment disaster with Horton Plaza  in San Diego in 1985.

The was the first example of Jon Jerde’s “Experience Architecture” experiment-that-became-an-industry; the five-level shopping mall that changed one industry and launched another. [Interestingly for we connoisseurs of SciFi, er, geeks, his concept was based an essay of Ray Bradbury, “The Aesthetics of Lostness.”]

Comprised of twists and turns, cul-de-sacs, ramps and walkways, colonnades, archways, sudden drop-offs and multicolored façades at odd angles with one another; it became a “must-see” magnet for creators and designers from all facets of the themed entertainment, retail and architectural design industries. It changed the world of retail in many ways and opened many-shaped doors to what have become vastly new practices and approaches to customer experience across many industries.

Horton Plaza was, financially, wildly successful and is credited with revitalizing downtown San Diego.

It was through the failings of this place, however, that the beginnings of a decades-long detente between architects-builders and Clients-Operators were born.

There were built-in “stages,” performance areas, entertainment-friendly plazas (not many, but some).

There were also no backstage areas or physical access to said stages; no power sources, dressing rooms nor places for them… There were walls that would make good projection surfaces but no camouflaged or otherwise designed-in audience gathering areas of any size or configuration…and, again, no power sources.

Any “entertainment” support had to be brought in and temporarily retrofitted into the space – expensive, ugly, and often hard on the space and façades.

How’d this happen?

Easy; the architects were working in a vacuum (or “silo”), assuming they knew what was needed to support all these “fun” things the more or less imagined would “activate” the spaces and attract audience-shopper-diners. These assumptions were made innocently enough; from the perspective of professionals who were in this context more audience than creator of anything experience other than static.

This is not meant to denigrate the architects. As a profession, they are amazing, visionary creators of building, façade, space. Without the knowledge of what is envisioned for within and around those building, though, the most beautiful structures can become unusable, inefficient, ineffective…falling short of vision only out of absence of information.

Remember Exploration of Assumption? We’ve talked of this, before, many times.

We all assume, all the time; what others think or need, what their motivations might be, what they might plan for a given space…all without actually engaging with them, because….we think we already know!

But. We don’t.

…and neither did the architects of Horton Plaza.

What this experience did, though, was get some people thinking; spurring the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA)  to initiate conversation with and bring further into the the active theming community these brilliant architects and structure designers: to lobby for ongoing conversation between and among all facets and factors involved in the end-use of these structures being designed, as they are being designed, so that what actually becomes designed evolves through the process to something even greater than was envisioned at the outset.

Collaboratively Designed Experience

It wasn’t easy: there was resistance. The architects tended to be protective of their work – and appreciably so, as we all so often experience the egregiously detrimental effects of input-by-ignorant-client. (You know who you are; no names being named, here…but we all remember you.)

Most all creative people tend toward protection of their work; as it is so often threatened by ignorance (oh, and budget). The exciting thing is that, with courageous, sensitive, inspirational leadership and teamwork, all are likely to come out the other end with an appreciation of an enlightened, collaborative process that has yielded an evolution in the way theme parks, shopping malls, retail experience is resonantly, compellingly designed.

There has been a lot going on during these decades of evolution. Not only the TEA and this one, cited group of insightful architects are responsible for how Experience Design can now work; but scores of organizations and hundreds if not thousands of creative and technical professionals have awakened to the immense value realized in quality of experience and actual dollars-and-cents yield of a well-organized, collaboratively-designed experience.

Joe Pine III & James H. Gilmore articulated what was up and launched worldwide conversations and conferences with their first book, “The Experience Economy;” Gregory Beck, founder of The Experience Architecture Forum at Harvard University (<ahem> where we have twice presented), has passionately and continues to contribute his vision and energy to this evolutionary collaboration.

Margaret J. King, Ph.D. and Jamie O’Boyle of The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis  have been instrumental in offering the cultural, psychological and sometimes physiological rationale contributing to refinement and focus of design process in the creation of destination experience.

The outdated, mid-century model of successive, departmental silos as steps to creation of a Destination Experience is Dead (or should be). Finally seen for the inefficient, excessively costly process that it is; one that yields experience that is less than envisioned and more expensive than projected…it is evolving out of existence.

In most parts of the Experience Design world, this outmoded method has been eschewed for something far better.

Hub-and-spoke design, wherein architects design spaces without ongoing dialogue with those charged with creating experience within it, is cumbersome (which is expensive), time consuming (which is expensive), confusing (which is expensive)…and expensive. Handing off a “completed” space design to creatives responsible for filling it will do one or more of the following (expensive) things:

  • limit the possibilities for what can be created within the space due to the absence of specific resource, space, flexibilities,
  • call for the space to be re-designed when a great idea that requires specific support is presented to the Powers that Be,
  • call for the space to be redesigned due to the existence of emerging technologies and techniques of which the architects had been unaware.

…and so on. All expensive options in the face of effective collaboration from the outset and throughout the process.

For examples of the stunningly vast amounts of money that can be wasted and the additional months and years of time expended as direct result of the absence of collaborative information sharing; one need look no further than right here in <redacted>.

Being Fair to the Architects

Further, the absence of collaborative communication from the very start shortchanges the architects, themselves.

Sharing creative vision for the space being designed can profoundly affect the design itself even and and sometimes only through mere nuance: the simple placement of a door, the angle of a wall, and extra meter of space moved before design is complete can vastly improve design, audience appeal, flexibility and potential.

This stuff excites the architects; inspired by the options shared, they want their designs to function as much as they want to maintain the integrity of their designs.

People gotta talk about what they are doing and what they see taking place in these spaces before design is “locked”…as it is rarely if ever actually “locked” until the doors finally open. However, every change taking place after that first “locked” costs money (often, a lot of it).

Even the best architect-designers aren’t always aware of what’s going on in parallel industries or in other locations of their industry or practice. The Experience Designers, being by nature immersed in connection with audience, might possess information that can profoundly affect – even if only in nuance (which can in and of itself be exceptionally powerful) – the resultant design.


A few years ago, on behalf of the TEA, we partnered with Doug Barnes of The Season Pass podcast in a special presentation to Imagineers at Walt Disney Imagineering’s “ID8” conference. Entitled “Beyond the Berm,” we shared a collection of Destination Experiences currently (at the time) installed and running throughout the world beyond the Disney berms.

These men and women were blown away by some of the amazing theme park and expo experiences we shared with them that were bringing in audience of the tens of thousands each week. Most had not heard of Sentosa’s Crane Dance , The Big O Show in Yeotsu, Korea or any of the dozen or so Experiences we shared with them.

This benign ignorance makes sense, as they had had their noses close to their own drawing boards for great swaths of time, if not through entire careers. It’s easy to not know what’s happening outside one’s sphere when one is busy making one’s own magic (or Walt’s).

If you are responsible for creating a Destination, if enthralling an audience such that they are compelled to return again (and again?) to that Experience created under your purview is your goal; then getting everyone to the table at the outset and seeing that relationships are forged for collaborative magic, throughout your organization, is critical.

Rather than restricting pathways and hierarchies – barriers – between departments; encourage webs and networks, informal information sharing, exploration of vision… All your people will be more inspired and excited, and the end result will very likely exceed expectation, be designed (and delivered?) on time…and far less money will be wasted.

As the inarguably successful Tina Fey put it when asked how she achieved her success and has remained a Player for so long and so effectively, “In most cases, being a talented boss means hiring good people and getting out of their way.”

So. There it is.


“IMHO: Creating Compelling Experience” is a free downloadable eBook on the tenets and methodologies we use to…create compelling experience. Find it in the iBooks app on any Apple device or in iTunes at this link.


8 thoughts on “A Moment of Silos

  1. Kile,
    Wonderful insights. Developing great creative collaboration tools is certain a priority for our community of practice. I look forward to future posts on the subject.

  2. You nailed it Kile! The interrelationships between show systems and the facilities they inhabit are often so complex that collaboration between the architects and the experience designers/suppliers is the only way to keep projects from devolving into expensive and time consuming chaos. If this happens, the client often ends up with a less that spectacular facility and guest experience, even if the building is “iconic”. Many thanks for the comments about TEA as well!

    Take care,


    • Thanks, Monty…
      Working in the UAE, we are regularly reminded and confronted with aggressive remnants of the from-the-top-down “leadership” philosophy and practice…a remnant of the ’50’s that overlooks the disparate, valuable talent, skill and experience from all around the Table. (Actually, it’s probably a vestige of Colonialism, far as that goes…Cheerio! 😉 )

  3. Thanks Kile, cooperation and coordination between the different departments is so vital for the success of the project and not only for design aspects! We still have so much progress to do on that level, especially in the UAE…

  4. From our work with experience designers (and thanks for citing Cultural Studies), I would say that the art of experience demands an integrated approach, one that Imagineering always took–as filmmakers and animators, not builders. WDI knew in the 50s that was the direction 4D design was taking. But this demands agility from the team and the project manager that’s hard to achieve even at the highest levels. Collaboration is THE skill of the Century 21.

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