“Just tell them what you like and they’ll make it happen.”

This was the best compliment we’d received on our work yet. After we had completed a few successful pub designs with one of the founders of 10 Barrel Brewing Co., this was his advice to his colleague as we ventured to design their company’s new headquarters office building. We’d been in a meeting for a while when he made the announcement, poring over numbers and square footages (indeed pouring a beer or two as well). What he meant by this was, rather than continue discussing their functional needs—of which we had a solid understanding—they should simply let us know the feeling that they wanted to capture. The meeting immediately became more animated and we left with a clearer picture of not only who our client was but what sort of experience they wanted to have every day in their new workspace.

The idea of designing an experience within and around a space may seem obvious, but it often is overlooked in favor of more practical details. And what does it even mean to design an experience? How would one go about doing it? And why do we even care?

“Experiential design” is a sort of a buzz phrase that’s been around for a while. Looking up the phrase one finds descriptions of “multi-sensory spaces” that “create interaction” or “engage the user.” Many solutions advertised might include brand integration or the leveraging of technology. These can be useful approaches, but we suggest they are not the only features of a design that make it experiential.

 

What Experiential Design is (and isn’t) to us

For one, it’s not just putting a logo or paint color on the wall. That can of course be important, but simply branding a space does not create an experience. It’s also not relying exclusively on interactive elements. Having a large touch screen or virtual, even augmented reality options can be an exciting way to grab attention, but might not be successful without fully understanding what their messages are and how they relate to the space or its users. And experiential design is not necessarily obvious. As we dig deeper into the design, we often find ourselves looking in places or being inspired in ways that are different than what we had anticipated. In other words, good solutions aren’t always predictable.

Here are some things that we feel ought to be present in order for a design to be experiential in nature: One is the idea of meaning. The implemented design—let’s just call it the space, since that’s ultimately what we mean, right?—should have a purpose beyond a simple pragmatic one and actually communicate something to the people who will be using it. Another is story. The space should tell a little bit about those who make or provide it to those who use it, and vice versa. Third is a sense of connection. There has to be a real link that happens between the space and its inhabitants. Something that one can take away from the experience of being there. This is best exemplified when we say, “There was just something about that room that felt right.”

In that headquarters design meeting mentioned above, it wasn’t until we started looking at examples of clothing stores that the client liked that our conversation loosened up: “I like how they used this old wall with this giant logo to divide the space in this store,” and “What if the desks were like the display tables in that store and everyone’s work was like the merchandise, curated and constantly on rotation.” Having worked on their pubs for a few years, we knew the company’s external persona, but now we began to experience the internal workings of who they were and how they approached their own work. In many ways, we’ve learned that to design experientially, our approach itself has to be experiential in nature. We call this first step in our process “Discovery.” In getting to know our clients, we try to understand their whole story. Yes, this is their brand, but it’s really what’s behind their brand that interests us most. We want to find out all the bits and pieces that make up the people for whom this space will be a sort of extension. What is important to them? What are their values or beliefs? How did they get started? What, beyond square-footages and areas, can we understand about our client and their unique goals for the project?

“In many ways, we’ve learned that to design experientially, our approach itself has to be experiential in nature.”

Central work area in 10 Barrel’s headquarters. The wood slat wall is a nod to a common finish used in the company’s brewpubs.
Exterior view of headquarters building showing context with existing brewery. The glass windows on the right look into the central work area.

As another example, a different brewery client of ours on the East Coast, Blue Point Brewing Co., was moving to a larger facility that we were designing for them. We spent some time with them in their original location, where an unassuming asphalt service area had been informally converted into a game room/picnic area/tasting room. This leftover industrial lot had become an impromptu meeting place for all the locals and had developed inherent meaning in the community. We realized that this space and its nature actually embodied the spirit of the company, and we wanted to carry it forward in whatever we did next. This was an important discovery that became one of the project’s guiding principles.

Blue Point Brewing Co.’s original location and “community center.”

 

Putting the pieces together: just tell the story!

After gathering a few of these guiding principles, we then isolate what makes a particular story special and conceptualize specific, definable experiences that might come out of it. It’s incredibly important to describe these experiences thoroughly, to make them clear and unique, so that everyone on the team understands our target. The goal of our work is to develop real, buildable concepts that embody what we discovered about the client. These need to be rich and joyful, but must remain clear and strong. Only when this narrative is established can we proceed with the documentation and permitting of a project.

For Blue Point Brewing Co., which also included a pub, we ended up landing on the idea of a Gathering Hall, a central open area for their new building that would connect both directly to the outside and to the brewery, continuing the town-square-like atmosphere that had organically come to be part of their brand. From there, we could develop a design for the project that was informed by that central experience. This extended from the way we would deal with seating arrangements, to how the servers interacted with the patrons and the kitchen or bar, to even signage and wayfinding. We also worked with the organization “Billion Oyster Project” to create a custom “oyster reef” guardrail to educate customers about their reef restoration work as well as showcase one of the pub’s signature dishes.

The east coast brewery’s new gathering hall. Note the adirondack seating which, although not shown in the photo, looks out through an open window over a lake.
An outdoor gathering hall was built into the entrance. Live bands will stage here during summer months.
The bar at Blue Point Brewing overlooks the large stainless vessels in the brewery. Note the oyster railing in the foreground.
Another view of the oyster railing with a ledge across the top for convenient pint parking.

 

It’s important to note that this isn’t some unreachable (AKA expensive) goal. A lot of what we find during this discovery process is simply about being strategic in how to use the materials that might already be destined for the project. In one brewpub, after learning about an alleyway that was known for rotating, curated street art, we simply rotated the giant keg refrigerator—something that was going to be in the project anyway—and moved it to the back of the space where taps could be installed to provide frosty beverages in a fun way during these events.

Views of the wood-clad keg refrigerator and of the art-filled alleyway through roll-up doors. The casual seating area can be reserved for special events.
The temperature-controlled barrel room acts as a landing for the stairs up to the pub’s mezzanine.

 

Why should anyone do this? We could assert that any architectural endeavor should, by nature, include experience as one of its primary design considerations, so for us this is just part of a process we choose to follow. But being able to foster a meaningful connection with one’s brewery patrons, for example, can make their visits more engaging, and in turn more memorable, hopefully leading to repeat visits. Providing a unique experience for patrons can differentiate a pub, drawing more business or even justifying higher prices. The examples I give here are obviously commercial, but we’ve completed many successful projects using this approach across multiple markets. Looking back again to these brewery and headquarters projects, spending that time to experience who our clients were and what inspired them led to a much better end result.

“After more than a dozen projects together, we have come to trust and count on the team at S|EA for all of our needs regarding design and architecture. From taking the vision in our minds and turning them into a spot-on real life build, to starting from scratch and delivering a world class product from their vision, there is no one better for any project, but especially restaurant and retail development.”

Garrett Wales, President, Spin the Kitchen Enterprises (Former Owner at 10 Barrel Brewing Co.)

 

Recognition: The Central Oregon Association of Realtors recognized the project in 2018 as “Best Overall” for its community impact.