Experience City

Words for BLAD aimed at potential publishers

<About Experience City>

With the majority of the world’s population living in cities, there’s never been a more pertinent time for understanding what it is that people want of the city. Less an object, a cultural entity to be consumed as if on safari, the city – wherever it is – is what it says on the tin: our biggest human-made home. It is not chief metaphor for all that is dark, congested, and squalid. Nor is it the high-functioning and slightly psychotic networked economy of the Smart City. Rather, it is a place that people ought to enjoy, a memory-making place, a place designed to be experienced. Enter the experience architect.

As a cursory glance at any age in history shows, there’s nothing new about the experience architect. Any powerful body – monarchical, religious, Masonic, military etc – worth its self-promoting salt has long understood the power of designing for experience. What’s different, however, is today’s level and diversity of demand for the story-led, multi-sensory/dimensional ‘designed experience’, and the impact this demand has on the way brands, institutions and urban planners design in respect of the existential autonomy of their customers, audiences, citizens and service users. Experience City is a first attempt to document this phenomenon.


As with many of the exemplar designed experiences featured in Experience City, the book itself tells a story. Divided into 5 main chapters – Collision, Curiosity, Connection, Collaboration, Celebration – it journeys through the key stages of designing for urban experiences, building a picture of urban experience design as it stands today, the overview of which is outlined in the introduction. Having made the case, it concludes with a call-to-action for further and more ubiquitous use of experience design everywhere, the workplace very much included.


In opposition to the rise of the dry, emotionless efficiency of the Smart City, welcome to Experience City, as informed by the idea of the experience economy and the examples of the likes of Roger Madelin’s King’s Cross. Here we introduce the concept, championing figures as diverse as McKee, Wynn and Disney.

Let their be collision

Like a great short story, the start of any experience is designed in such a way as to hook, surprise and draw us in. Secret, unknown, incongruous, the beginnings of really well-designed experiences are marked by the joys of the unusual, by happy confusion, a jolt to the senses. Beginning with an exemplary quote, this chapter examines through short texts the pioneering works of the likes of Mark Fisher, Wynn etc.

Curiosity kills no-one

Having attracted through the incongruity of the strange, the unexpected, it’s essential that any designed experience keeps us hooked, its initial promise compounded by elements designed to pique our curiosity. Beginning with exemplary quotes / thinking from Roger Black (Pegasus), this chapter highlights the good curiosity-making practice by the likes of Prada, Nvidia, Heineken, the commissioner’s of Michelangelo’s David etc.

The permanence of connection

Engagement requires more than the spectacle of incongruity, the curious delights of the half-expected. It’s about relating, making a connection, having an intellectual / emotional impact. All great experience designers, whatever the age, are past masters in the art of turning crowds into individuals and individuals into crowds, of ensuring memory-making connections. Introduced by a Michael Wolff quote, this chapter features everyone from Titus to the Tudors to Salvation Mountain.

High-wire collaboration

Once a connection is made, so the spectator collaborates in the making of the experience. H/she is at once spectator and spectacle. It is this – the necessarily live and therefore inherently unknown aspect of public, collaborative engagement – that marks experience design apart from the likes of architecture and art. With a lead quote from Fabian Riggall (Secret Cinema), this chapter examines the mastery with which Punchdrunk, Nike, Burberry et al design for collaborative experiences.

The making of cults

Having been drawn in, appetites whetted, connections made, collaborations experienced, the most successful designed experiences finish in celebration. The nature of that celebration – contemplative, happy, euphoric – will depend on the type of experience, but each will share the joy of the wedded, the individual transformed, the cult made. Introduced by a quote from Dave Hyatt (The Do Lectures), this chapter celebrates the generosity of Burning Man, Tower of Faile, Moment Factory etc.


Experience design is in its nascent phase. Traditionally the dark art of the propagandist, the evocative power of priest or king, the preserve of a specific type of theatre, it is today spearhead for a new way of advertising, the experience broadcasted effortlessly by the ‘experiencers’ via myriad digital platforms. However, as some of the above examples show, it has much more to offer us, especially in terms of how we design for everyday urban living. The future of the designed experience is not necessarily a special night out, a festival, a branded pop-up store, a time and place away from our day-to-day lives. Rather, when thinking of designing for cities, it is the emotional quality of the everyday multisensory experience – of travel, of being at work, of house dwelling, of the institutions we use – that will come to preoccupy our designers of the future.