18 May 2020

Thinking beyond COVID-19 for experiences

Industry

by Julian Rad

I’ve been taking some space during this moment of pause to think about what’s next. This is not another missive about the state of the communications industry during this pandemic. For that, I highly recommend checking out any number of brilliant musings on the subject by strategists everywhere, and check out Tomas Pueyo’s excellent breakdown of how the world might come back.

My practice over the past few years has focused primarily on experience, and the experiential practice is one that is very attuned to the reality that surrounds us. While most advertisers are concerned about reaching their audiences and understanding how to get them to listen, my focus is on how my audience feels. Our audience entrusts their very bodies into our care, it makes perfect sense that responsibility requires us to work from a place of greater empathetic sensitivity.

When I design an experience, my approach to inclusion is to strive to make accessibility invisible. When it’s intuitive and infused into the design, its presence disappears and just “is”. You don’t have to think about how to go somewhere, of course you can we all can come right in. I hate “accessible seating” or “CARTT (Communication Access Real-Time Translation) sections”; our audiences should feel free to sit anywhere and have everything and anything they need available to them no matter how they exist and move in the world. Prayer room? Absolutely. Mother’s room? Of course, need you ask? ADA compliant bathrooms? We only have one kind of bathroom here, and of course they’re all big enough to accommodate a chair. Inclusion shouldn’t be performative, it must be a core design principle.

With the Corona virus literally shutting down travel and gatherings and events and outings, every single one of us is pivoting to our new reality. Through all the video calls and webinars and livestreams, I hear a lot of people talking with great longing for the day it all returns to “normal.” I don’t think that we’re ever going to go back to the kinds of experiences that I was designing back in December [2019], because post-pandemic, we are forever changed. 

A global pandemic really is an existential crisis, it’s natural that it feels abstract, and we need to make room for our audience’s reaction to future invitations to feel similarly difficult to define. In a post-COVID reality, there will be a greater percentage of our audience that will be uncomfortable with crowds, who feel less safe traveling. 

We already livestream a lot of our content for present-tense consumption as well as seeding a post-event strategy. In our new reality, we need to extend our definition of inclusion to design our experiences for the entire breadth of our distributed audience. We must create brand experiences that are as compelling at home as they are in an event space.

Meeting that challenge doesn’t require new technology or radical thinking or embracing a new paradigm of human behavior. Instead, what’s required is a return to basics: how does a brand show up in this situation? What is the tenor of a brand’s voice through this instrument? We need to place ourselves into the perspectives of our audience and ask that most important question: How do you create messaging impact in this reality?

There’s a necessity for humility as we unpack this problem because the facets of our practice that gave us success in past achievements are not applicable in these circumstances. But there’s also extraordinary opportunity in this situation: there is no longer a normal. There is no longer an expectation. I encourage all of us to approach this new challenge with curiosity and rigor; have conversations with your clients to make space for experimentation. Be vulnerable enough to admit that we don’t currently have “the answer” but instead we’re excited to go on this journey with them. And be empathetic to the point of view of our audience, because they are now forever changed; so too must we evolve.

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Julian Rad is a creative and a director who has realized experiences about cloud computing, built immersive environments about AI, unleashed theatrical stories about design, designed emotional journeys about products, made machines to explain search, captured flickering pictures about being human and manifested staged tableaux about whales and imaginary planets. Not necessarily in that order.