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


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


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

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.

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Company profile: Willmott Dixon
Willmott Dixon delivers the social infrastructure that people depend on in their daily lives. We partner with our customers to focus on the services they want to provide, not just the building we construct, and we are committed to achieving a higher social purpose through our work.
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