Themed Design

The value of research

Sometimes we get too used to the work we do and take the creative process for granted. Sociocultural anthropologist and immersive spaces expert Scott A Lukas urges designers to get out and explore themed environments with an analytical eye


Read on turning pages | Download PDF | sign up to CLAD

When you hear the word ‘research’, excitement is not the first thing that comes to mind. Research, whether that taking place in a laboratory or that represented by an anonymous survey, is often labelled as something staid, mundane, boring.

I’d like to suggest quite the opposite and write of the true creativity – and excitement – that is a part of all research in which we engage. More importantly, I wish to suggest the real value that research represents for those who design, operate or study experiential spaces of theming and immersion.

In 2009, I had the opportunity to conduct a short research trip to Europa Park in Rust, Germany. Europa Park had long been on my list of exciting European theme parks, and I was happy to not only visit the park, but secure a short interview with one of the park’s architects who had designed the new Iceland-themed land. Over a coffee, we spoke about our mutual theme park experiences and discussed the complex processes of creating themelands from the ground up.

My informal interview was very insightful and I was able to see firsthand how architects and designers think about creating an exciting and immersive themeland for guests. But when I told the architect that I was a cultural anthropologist, he seemed surprised. When I asked him why, he said: “Well, the last time that cultural anthropologists came to our park, they said we were engaged in fakery. It was pretty condescending.”

I wasn’t surprised to hear his words. Unfortunately, many of the people who study theme parks, at least academically, fail to understand the complexities that go into their design and the pleasures they provide for guests. Instead, they apply misguided preconceptions that result in missing out on the nuances and complexities of these and many other such spaces.

What Is Research?
The etymology or meaning of research suggests that it is an act of seeking out, searching closely, traversing. In short, it’s an attempt to understand what’s happening, why it happened, or what might happen in the future.

Research, whether a quantitative type that involves numbers and statistical analysis or a qualitative type that is focused on detail, nuance and the subjective aspects of life and is often expressed in words or an interview, is aimed at getting more information to answer a question that you might have. How could we design a new dark ride that truly engages as many of the guest’s senses as possible? Why don’t guests like our classic wooden rollercoaster? What do we have to do to stay competitive in our market? These are a few of the things one might ask in regards to a themed or immersive space – and research provides an opportunity to get to the bottom of such questions.

It’s important to realise that every aspect of a themed or immersive space – from design to operation or marketing – may be connected to a relevant research question and an appropriate research method.

How to Research
It’s impossible to describe all the possible forms of research you could conduct.

The main methods include interviews, surveys, participant observation and background and archival work. Then there are social media studies, audiovisual interactions, experimental and active research and a number of styles of collaborative approach (such as charrettes), among others.

As a cultural anthropologist, I tend to focus on ethnography, which is a form of intense ‘listening in on’, sometimes participating in, the site that I’m studying. I once worked as a Six Flags AstroWorld employee trainer, so my understandings of the day-to-day operations of theme parks provide me the opportunity to know, ahead of time, what to look for.

Anthropologists often strive to experience the ‘insider’s perspective’ of a culture and this fact matches quite nicely with my training experiences, especially my understandings of the major goal of theme parks in terms of focusing on the needs of the guest. The benefit of such research is that you get to immerse yourself in the very spaces that you are designing, operating or studying. The downside is that you may not always have the ability to study what you wish to study.

We should not forget that research often relates to access – what you can see, interpret and relate – later – to others who were not in the field with you.

Whatever forms of research you engage in, you might find that research involves four main elements:

• Looking, in which you try to see the space or look at the issue with an open mind.

• Understanding, in which you begin to make sense of what you’re seeing and experiencing.

• Analysing and rearranging, in which you begin to direct the research, modify your findings and focus on some interpretations of the research.

• Presenting, in which you offer your research data or information to the public, your board, a marketing committee or the general public. You might think about how you will present your data or findings, such as through charts, reports, videos and so on.

Informal Research
We should never assume that research is something that only takes place inside the dusty archives of prestigious universities. In fact, research that is informal is of particular value.

A good portion of the research I conduct is informal, meaning I often show up at the space of study with only my cameras, notebook and pencil. One of the reasons for this is practicality – I often have less time than I would like. On one such occasion, while visiting the most immersive airport in the world, Changi Airport in Singapore, I was forced to visit as many of the amazing spaces as possible in the airport in under an hour. The reason? I had a short layover before my flight: research is often about limitations and setting priorities.

If you want to be prepared for taking fieldnotes, it’s a good idea to create an on-site analytic that allows you to quickly, efficiently and accurately document the things that you’re studying at your research site. This is a shorthand that allows you to meet your research goals and even compare the site of study with others. An analytic or rubric that I often employ is that I create a chart in my field notebook that lists the key qualities of the site that I’m studying: spatial features, demographic observations, mood and the senses that are experienced in the space are just some examples of what I’d be looking for. In this way, I’m able to document quickly what I’m observing. This is especially useful while conducting informal research.

With any form of research in immersive spaces, there’s no guarantee you’ll see everything, but with an open mind and a thick notebook, you might be surprised at the inspirations you’ll discover. So, get out there and have a look!

The Three Ds of Research

✔ Determine the nature of your research, your goals and the methods you wish to employ

✔ Document or focus on how you will capture or collect your research, whether it be through fieldnotes, video, photography or other means

✔ Detail your findings so that others may appreciate what you have discovered

Fieldnote

Visit to Starbucks Roastery

Today, in June 2017, I am visiting the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Seattle, Washington. This site has long been on my list of exciting immersive spaces. Due to practical reasons, I am limited to two hours. I need to focus on maximising my time in the space. My two goals are to observe and understand the roastery and to document it – photos, video and audio recordings – for my YouTube channel.

I found that it was useful to separate these two goals. I began with informal interviews with the greeters and employees. They were quite friendly and more than happy to explain the space’s concept to me and to also detail the new Starbucks Reserve brand. This was very useful as I hadn’t been aware of this new upscale version of the Starbucks brand.

With this information in hand, I continued through the space and began to write major topics in my fieldnotes – “luxury brand,” “the retail looks like a museum store,” “amazing color and wood tones.” I knew that I could come back to these topics later and fill them in with more detailed writing on my laptop. I began the task of documenting the space, first through photos, a second time with my GoPro and audio recorder (for my video channel), and a third with my Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, which creates a more cinematic look in my videos. Following this work, I realise that I have many hours in front of me to reflect and expand on my fieldnotes, research more about the roastery on the Internet and organise and create my research videos. All in a day’s work!

Lukas found the Starbucks Reserve Roastery felt like a luxury offer
Lukas found the Starbucks Reserve Roastery felt like a luxury offer
Coffee craft and rare coffee are the focus of the Starbucks Reserve 
in Seattle, Washington
Coffee craft and rare coffee are the focus of the Starbucks Reserve in Seattle, Washington

Fieldnote

Visit to IKEA store

null,For some time, I have been fascinated with IKEA. IKEA is synonymous with low-cost, fun and attractive furniture and home décor. I recall a sign at an IKEA in Sacramento, California, that spoke of “democratic design” and it reminded me of the fact that the Swedish/Dutch design company has been very successful in connecting with the desires of the guest.

While I have visited many IKEA stores, on one occasion in 2017 I visited the IKEA near the Portland, Oregon airport. I was in the city for a few days of immersive research and I decided to take advantage of a short layover at the airport. Because I was limited by time, I was forced to take a very practical – if not somewhat superficial – approach to my research.

While enjoying some Swedish meatballs inside the store, I created a working list of themes and issues to focus on. Having these themes or topics in mind, I knew that I could seek out some experiences within the store and then write more detailed notes about my observations as well as collect some video recordings of those experiences.

In addition, I wrote a list of more specific issues in the middle of the entry. These amounted to reminders of larger issues or topics that I wanted to focus on during the research, perhaps even extending them beyond this one research visit. My time in the store was brief, but due to some on-site organising of my notebook and the use of video I was able to begin some preliminary research.

We should never forget that research is a process.

 / shutterstock
shutterstock

When doing your research ...

* Draw a map of the space

* List any actions, events and happenings you observe

* Note down your general observations of the environment

* Did you spot any overarching themes?

* Diagrams can illustrate activities or events

* Remember to take pictures, videos, audio recordings

* Collect any materials (brochures, maps, literature)

Helpful tips

As we consider the ways that we may employ research to our advantage, we can focus on this advice

• View research as a dialogue between the people, spaces and ideas in your sites of study

• Approach your research with an open mind

• Document more, rather than less, detail ... just in case you need it later. As an example, my Flickr site of themed and immersive space images has over 44,000 images, and while it may seem excessive, I never know when I might need one of these images

• As much as is possible, share and collaborate your findings such that more communities of researchers may be created

•Consider the best ways to apply your findings, such that your research results in practical or applied outcomes

About the author

Scott A Lukas
Scott A Lukas

Scott A Lukas is a cultural anthropologist, and author who has taught research methods at the graduate level. Lukas has written a number of books on themed design, including The Immersive Worlds Handbook: Designing Theme Parks and Consumer Spaces and A Reader In Themed and Immersive Spaces. He is currently working on a new project about the anthropology of popular culture.

Gallery
Click on an image to open the image gallery
company profile
Company profile: TVS Group
The TVS Group supply and install sports and fitness flooring to a wide range of facilities. We cater for every type of exercise and every level of competition, from recreational to elite level performance.
Try cladmag for free!
Sign up with CLAD to receive our regular ezine, instant news alerts, free digital subscriptions to CLADweek, CLADmag and CLADbook and to request a free sample of the next issue of CLADmag.
sign up
features
CLAD people: Jean Nouvel
Jean Nouvel Architect
"It has spaces inside that exist nowhere else"

On the National Museum of Qatar

The design of the Wellness Center was inspired by a local brick factory
"Our palette was pared down to basics"

The Vietnamese village being created using historic methods

Catalogue Gallery
Click on a catalogue to view it online
To advertise in our catalogue gallery: call +44(0)1462 431385
features
WeWork opened its first gym, Rise by We, in New York last year
Dror Benshetrit and Di-Ann Eisnor will head up the team
"We will work to fuse nature, design, technology, and community in our cities in order to measurably improve the lives of citizens"

High profile design hirings for the We Company

Marble and bronze create a “sense of masculinity,” said Fu
Fu has a masters in architecture from Cambridge University
"I wanted to go deeper than the stereotypical concept of lanterns, junks and temples"

Drawing on his childhood memories for the St Regis Hong Kong

The centre features an 12,800sq ft gym. The curves of the building are echoed in the interior
David Polzin is executive director of design at CannonDesign. He studied at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture
"We were able to create an ‘acoustic shadow’ cutting decibel levels nearly in half"

How to design the perfect community leisure centre 100 13th century pilgrimage The Vietnamese village being created using historic methods

features
Peter Cook
"Somehow we’d caught the imagination of people"

As a book about radical architecture collective Archigram is released, we speak to one of the founders about the need for fun

The Gallery in Mourad Mazouz's Sketch is one of London's most instagrammed spaces
After working for Christian Liaigre in Paris, Mahdavi launched her practice in 1999
"I never thought it was a talent. I just did it very naturally, without thinking"

The ‘queen of colour’ on her nomadic childhood, being fearless and choosing the exact right shade of pink for the Sketch Gallery restaurant

The fog sculpture at 140 West Plaza in Downtown Chapel Hill, US
Mikyoung Kim
"Nature isn’t rigid. It’s open-ended; that’s its beauty"

The Boston-based landscape architect on blending art and science to design creative spaces that bring communities closer

featured supplier
Featured Supplier: Crown overhaul changing rooms at Saunton Sands spa
Saunton Sands Hotel in Devon, UK, has completed a £2m expansion of its spa and wellness facilities.
cladkit product news
Alusid's Sequel collection combines craftsmanship and sustainability says founder
The Sequel collection is billed as the 'most waste-efficient and sustainable' on the market
Lauren Heath-Jones
Alusid, a creator of eco-friendly surfaces, has partnered with Parkside to launch the Sequel range, the brand's first collection of ...
Tom Dixon Studio to relaunch iconic Pylon chair
Pylon was first designed more than 20 years ago
Lauren Heath-Jones
Originally conceived in his metal workshop in the early 90's, the Pylon chair was Dixon's attempt to create the world's ...
Volvo partners with Reef Lab Designs to encourage ocean biodiversity
The tiles are made from marine-grade concrete and recycled plastic fibres
Lauren Heath-Jones
Car manufacturer Volvo has partnered with the Sydney Institute of Marine Science and Reef Design Lab to create an environmentally-friendly ...
cladkit product news
Mater partners with Ditzel family to create eco-friendly furniture using reclaimed plastic
The furniture uses plastic from recycled fishing nets
Lauren Heath-Jones
Mater, an ethical design brand based in Denmark, has launched a furniture collection made from plastic reclaimed from the ocean. ...
Baux creates plant-based acoustic panels
Baux has worked with scientists from the Royal Institute of Technology to create Baux Acoustic Pulp, a plant-derived acoustic solution
Lauren Heath-Jones
Baux, an acoustic products brand based in Sweden, has developed a line of biodegradable acoustic panels, using a plant-based material ...
Water inspires Zaha Hadid Design x Rosenthal collaboration
The collection consists of three smaller collections: Weave, Strip and Lapp. Weave was inspired by 'the fluid lines of Zaha Hadid's sketching hand'
Lauren Heath-Jones
Zaha Hadid Design has partnered with porcelain manufacturer Rosenthal to create a new collection of vases. Called the Lapp collection, ...
cladkit product news
Paul Kelley pushes 'technical boundaries' with modular furniture cube system
The system is designed to enable users to create multifunctional, adaptable pieces, where they are in complete control of the design and function of their furniture
Lauren Heath-Jones
British designer Paul Kelley has created a modular magnetic cube furniture system that enables users to create multifunctional, adaptable pieces, ...
BD Barcelona Design reveals Cristallo by the late Alessandro Mendini
Cristallo was the last design from acclaimed designer and architect Alessandro Mendini
Lauren Heath-Jones
Design Studio BD Barcelona Design has released Cristallo, a limited-edition cabinet designed by the late architect and designer Alessandro Mendini, ...
David Rockwell partners with Jim Thompson for dream-inspired fabric collection
Rockwell has designed 12 multi-use fabrics inspired by dreams with long-time collaborator Jim Thompson
Lauren Heath-Jones
Renowned architect David Rockwell has created a collection of fabrics with long-time collaborator Jim Thompson. Called Dreams, the collection was ...