Several years ago I was summoned to meet with legendary Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn. He was building a new casino and had a wild idea he wanted to develop. Wynn wanted to put of all things, a car dealership opposite his gaming tables. I just couldn't imagine someone in a tux sparking a Dunhill uttering " Ford...Henry Ford". Of course, Wynn was out to turbocharge his own luxury resort by upping the ante with the ultimate brand, Ferrari. Of course, he's Steve Wynn, nothing he does is average. Now it made sense, you're at the tables throwing dice and a row of Ferrari's are lined up like plush teddy bears at the county fair. "C'mon Enzo!" How cool is that? Sounded like a great project.
Beforehand, Mr. Wynn's staff politely advised me that Steve suffers from a degenerative eye disease that compromises his peripheral and night vision. We would have to create our presentations to allow for his limited field of view and high contrast (think looking through a paper towel tube). How do you present an experiential design to someone who might not be able to even see it? My Sicilian paranoia set in.
A Day at the Opera
In our first meeting, I was prepared to explain our experiential design process, how first we determine what you want the emotional result to be, then design to deliver it. Basically, we come up with "the wow" and work backwards. No need, Steve was ahead of the class. He opens the session with "Now before we put pen to paper and talk design, let's discuss what Ferrari feels like". Anxious to hear more, I suddenly realized he was asking me. Ferrari is interesting in that it seems very primal as a visceral driving experience, yet sculpturally sensual at rest. Romantic and dangerous at once. A long beat passed. "Come with me" Steve said and led me out of the board room, leaving his conference table of execs behind (uhoh..what did I do now?). We stood before a media system outside his office. Without a word, he popped in a video, cranked the volume to something akin to PAIN, hit "play "and out came the quintessential whine of Ferrari racing engines. We stood there for quite some time, basking in those primal screams. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Steve staring into space as if he was enjoying an Aria at La Scala, loving every second of it. Finally, his finger tapped the stop button and the office corridor rang out into hollow silence. The hall of staffers resumed their work, not missing a beat. "That's it, Eddie, don't you love it?" I kinda did and we were both beaming. My ears were still ringing as we strode back to the conference room to brainstorm. A dream client who got it. To Wynn, form truly does follow feeling. No wonder he reinvented Las Vegas, which is about making you feel like a winner even though you may be losing. That's entertainment!
Berninis meet Berlinettas.
In developing the concept, the primal screams led us to those sensual curves. Steve wanted to display each Ferrari as the Galleria Borghese would show a priceless Bernini. Each a sculptural work of art, lit to kill. To pull out those legendary Ferrari colors, each "shadow box" had a contrasting drape, like black behind yellow, Ferrari red over black, etc. No Enzo had been displayed quite like this. Each set upon a rotating slab of black marble.
During this process, could Steve's optical weakness have caused him to overcompensate with an acute ability to visualize what he so desperately wanted to see more clearly? I'm no doctor, but it seemed to be a strength. At first I was concerned that he would not be able to appreciate our designs, but instead he dove into them with a focus that was uncanny. He visualized the peripheral experience in a heightened way. Wynn imagined the experiential things like the light level or the social energy of sitting in a given location. He wasn't visualizing so much as he was sensing. He began with where the guest enters, pausing to imagine, then remarking about how emotionally one area might be stronger than the other. Wynn's narrow field of view had given him a laser tight focus on minute details and little escaped him. Given his vast Casino experience , he could really predict how spaces would be used. When imagining, we draw upon own own mental library of past experiences to complete that picture of what we want something to feel like. I can't tell you how many fragments of my own childhood have landed in projects because they visualized warmly. As simple as a color, the intimate scale of a space, or a lost scent.
Start making sense.
The gift of sight while essential, can be an handicap in reviewing design if we only consider what we can see. Pushing ourselves to sense more could be an essential step in our ideation process. Is it not just as important to imagine and sense the result than to just review some plan analytically? Too often design reviews happen around spreadsheets or mood boards without really pushing ourselves to review things from inside the project. Experiences are gathered simultaneously in real time by our senses, and to that end, we need to imagine or sense how those elements come together to know what we're out to create. You can't describe music you've never heard. I will do anything that will teleport me into the idea and build on it. Be it food, music, candles, you name it. I have to take my imagination to what I love about it before fresh ideas flow. Even if you do not see yourself as creative, you are still testing the idea by asking what it feels like and filling in those sensory blanks. Pre-sensing the unseen product gives me solid conviction in presenting and defining the project to others, as I'm pitching it from the unique position of just having experienced it!
The "Wow" abides.
When the Wynn/Penske Ferrari Maserati dealership opened at the Wynn Resort, it was so popular that they had to charge 10 dollars admission just to keep the experience from being overcrowded. Who would pay to go to a car dealer? No one. However, as an "art gallery" the cars (some worth a million or more) are presented as such justifying it's admission. Steve knew and then mined the emotional value within the product, and then positioned it to take advantage of that appeal. The Ferrari store that adjoins it outperforms the dealership as it allows non owners to participate in the Ferrari experience with logo apparel and other licensed merchandise. It opened as the top selling dealership in the country and still is a smashing success. The other fact worth noting is that Steve collects Ferraris and is passionate about them. He shared his Ferrari "Koolaid" and I loved it. Thank you Steve and everyone at Wynn.
Your own Superpower.
Can you develop your own sense of visualization and make it a superpower? Artists observe our world, then reveal it to us in a way we have not seen before. Experiential designers should do the same, but presenting overlooked sensory cues in ways we respond to. The "smell of the grass" is part of what still brings people to ballparks when they could see it closer and better on TV. Can you find the sensory essence of your own projects? Even if it's tube of lipstick you are presenting, can you describe how creamy it feels, or the simple elegance of how the tube rotates to reveal a new striking color? Dig deeper, observe, be conscious, and find the experience in everything.
If nothing else, you might find that each day is that much richer!
Eddie Sotto heads SottoStudios/LA, an experiential design and marketing studio in Los Angeles.