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


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: Fabio Alemanno Design Ltd
Based on ancient knowledge – and confirmed by scientific research – warmth is one of the most important sources of healing and preventative therapy available.
videos
BluGalaxy a Division of Blu Spas
Blu Spas
This animation showcases the beautiful concept design of BluGalaxy Spa.
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
Interview: John McElgunn and Stephen Barrett
Stephen Barrett (left) 
and John McElgunn (right) were both made partners at RSHP in 2016
"Leisure space – public space – is at the very root of democracy, and architecture is about democracy"

As RSHP completes its latest cultural project, we speak to two of its partners about why Richard Rogers isn’t leaving his succession to chance

Former track and field athlete Phillip Mills is the founder and CEO of Les Mills
"We’ve designed the space so that the atmosphere is intimate"

Les Mills’ new studio spaces at its iconic Auckland City Gym showcase a trend away from masculine ‘grunty’ gyms to something altogether different

Profile: Daan Roosegaarde
"I want to demonstrate that creativity is our true capital as humans "

Rather than feeling fearful and helpless about the future, we must design a way out of the environmental problems we have created, argues the innovative Dutch designer, artist and inventor Daan Roosegaarde

Catalogue Gallery
Click on a catalogue to view it online
To advertise in our catalogue gallery: call +44(0)1462 431385
features
SHL’s Monroe Blocks mixed development in Detroit, US
"Most clients are very focused on how buildings are used and experienced as the primary design driver"

The MD of Schmidt Hammer Lassen and the CEO of PerkinsWill tell us why their merger will help create smarter buildings driven by human behaviour

Marianne Shillingford
"The technology involved in paint is extraordinary"

Used cleverly, colour has the power to influence how people use the spaces they inhabit, says the creative director of Dulux

The Center for Sustainable Landscapes in Pittsburgh, US
José Almiñana
"We are committed to designing evocative landscapes informed by the best environmental science"

The Andropogon principal on pushing the boundaries of landscape design for the benefit of humans and nature

The book was published in 2019 by RIBA Publishing
Elina Grigoriou
"Temperature, noise level and colour affect our stress levels. As designers we should be asking ourselves, how do these things match up?"

The London-based interior designer and wellness expert hopes her new book will help readers understand how to design with wellbeing in mind

cladkit product news
Móz Designs columns anchor the world’s largest indoor aquarium
The design of the columns was inspired by the sea
Magali Robathan
After a two-year renovation, Oakland-based metal experts Móz Designs have unveiled their inclusion in Georgia Aquarium’s new shark gallery. Located ...
Diamond balloon concept merges tourist attraction with advertising billboard
Magali Robathan
A group of Dutch engineers have presented a new attractions concept that combines a flying observation cabin with LED digital ...
Siminetti unveils first glimpses of Mother of Pearl decorative surfaces inspired by the four seasons
The new winter design is finished with naturally occurring hexagonal patterns found in snowflakes
Megan Whitby
Siminetti has collaborated with British designer Chrisanna London to create a luxury Mother of Pearl decorative surface range inspired by ...
cladkit product news
Atelier Alain Ellouz launches handcrafted precious stone lighting collection
LYRA has a sleek, cylindrical design complete with an elegant brass dimming switch
Megan Whitby
LYRA, GAMA, MONA and ATHENA are the first pieces from designer Atelier Alain Ellouz’s new.édition collection of handcrafted stone lighting ...
Cosm unveils Experience Centre with ‘one of a kind’ LED dome
The new Experience Centre houses a 20m LED dome
Magali Robathan
Cosm, a global technology company that builds end-to-end solutions for immersive experiences, has unveiled its Experience Centre which houses a ...
LianTronics’ glasses-free 3D Star Trek LED screen attracts attention
Magali Robathan
LianTronics’ giant curved LED wall with stunning glasses-less 3D spaceship display effect has attracted many on the street of Chengdu, ...
cladkit product news
Painting with Light pushes boundaries to create unforgettable visual concepts
The team combines lighting, video, sound and special effects, with scenic and architectural elements, to create unforgettable visual experiences
Megan Whitby
Belgium-based light and video design studio, Painting with Light, will translate the story of your location into a visual experience, ...
ASPA International launches handheld UV-C light disinfection lamp
The compact plug-in product can be used easily in a commercial spa or domestic setting to disinfect surfaces with UV-C light
Megan Whitby
For over 30 years, ASPA International has designed and built high-quality spas for the hotel, health and wellness sectors. During ...
Christie laser projectors power new Five Senses Bubble dome theatre
The dome aims to integrate technology with arts and culture
Magali Robathan
Christie® GS Series 1DLP® laser projectors are delivering vivid and lifelike visuals in a new dome theatre located in Xiong’an ...