We, as users, experience design every day without any second thought. We communicate with our built environment by the means of perceptive, sensorial, and intellectual stimulation. A journey that prioritizes such human interaction within a space is called an experiential design. Based on the fundamentals of a human-centric approach, it uses customer engagement and emotional connection to form its basic foundation. 

“The human experience must be the driving force behind every element of a space––from the design of physical space to the qualities of interaction, expectation, and intention.”


Usually created by identifying some signature moments, this engagement and connection are accomplished by aligning the elements of the space with certain narratives. In the case of a restaurant, for example, a designer needs to detail out moments that a customer will remember. Can it be the moment when the customer receives his food? Or can it be a moment while he is ordering his food? Could it be the taste of the meals, or could it be the ambiance in which he is sitting? Everything from the layout of the spaces to the way the food is packaged can radically transform the experience of the customer. Identification of such moments leads the way towards designing experiential, immersive, and intellectually stimulating physical spaces.

“An atmosphere, like a mood, impresses itself on experience…”

-(Leatherbarrow, 2009, 64)

What is the difference between Theme and Experience?

Theme and experiential design are both loosely defined and are often seen as very similar. However, these two areas of design become very different in terms of user engagement and interaction. Case in point, the introduction of Hard Rock Café, also known as the ‘pioneer of themed restaurants’, (Beck, 1999) in 1971. Themed as a hard rock diner, the Hard Rock Café provides an atmosphere with items on display that are not ordinarily seen on an everyday basis, thus making it a destination for eating and viewing rock-n-roll memorabilia. However, besides the theme of the visual items on display and the overall decor, there is no other experience in the restaurant. 

Thematic restaurants are designed with a certain style of a motif in mind, which is then applied down to almost every last detail. They intentionally create either another time, space, place, atmosphere or environment, to engage and transcend the participant’s everyday experience within the dining spaces. Experiential entertainment spaces are a step above thematic ones. Experiential spaces are designed with a theme, yet they are also designed with a memorable experience in mind. This memorable experience is encouraged by the highest level of engagement possible within the environment by provoking all five senses. 

The Jewish Museum in Berlin, for example, was designed by Daniel Libeskind as a symbolic gesture to express the oppression of Jews during the second world war in Germany. The museum uses architecture as a means of storytelling, that conveys feelings of absence, emptiness, and invisibility to its visitors – an interpretation of the dissolution of an entire culture. One of the most emotional spaces in the museum – the Holocaust Tower – is a cold, dark, sixty-six feet high silo with bare concrete walls and 10,000 coarse iron faces covering the ground. Visitors often experience a feeling of uneasiness and anxiety due to the massive scale of the tower where the only light is penetrated through a narrow slit at the top, showcasing that ‘even in the darkest moments where you feel like you will never escape, a small trace of light restores hope’.

Another attraction of the museum – The Garden of Exile – makes the visitors feel lost and confused amongst its massive pillars covered with plants, where the only vegetation is placed completely out of reach. A slanted floor adds on to the feeling of unsteadiness and disorientation and symbolizes the experiences of the Jewish people during the war.

These examples portray that the core of the experiential design is taking a deep and thorough look at how people interact with and respond to a space and at how a connection is formed between the user and the design in a multi-layered dynamic. The design needs to work systematically and in coordination with its human-centric needs to give the users a memorable experience which will make them want to come back.

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The Hard Rock Café interiors ©www.khoslaassociates.com
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The Jewish Museum, Berlin ©www.archdaily.com
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The Jewish Museum, Berlin ©www.jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk

What makes a design experiential?

Experiential designs strategically use their design elements to create emotional connections of the user towards the brand and immerse the user in its narrative. Other attributes of experiential entertainment design are:

1. Attractant | Experiential Design

Experiential entertainment spaces contain an initial attractant to gain the attention of future participants as they pass by. Rumjungle, in Las Vegas, Nevada, contains an exterior metal firewall backdropped with a water wall as its façade. The flame flickers against the glass and metal surfaces, emitting a pattern that attracts the eye and persuades the user to wander closer. The main entrance is designed with a large enough opening to provide glimpses of the dining atmosphere for outside viewers.

2. Additional Spaces/Entertainment

Experiential spaces use additional programmed spaces, such as retail, bars, rides, and/or games, along with a restaurant, as experiential cultivators in attracting users for initial visits, keeping them within the space, and attracting them for return visits. These additionally programmed spaces are designed to quickly grab the attention to keep them interested as they wait for further entertainment from their primary destination. For example, in the Mercedes-Benz Museum of Stuttgart, the only way for a guest to visit the chronological exhibits of the museum is through an elevator ride near the entrance, that plays recorded sounds of different automobiles throughout history, immersing the visitor in an auditory narrative.

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Lifts leading upto Mercedes Benz museum ©www.arch2o.com

3. Environmental Ambiance | Experiential Design

Spaces with successful experiences have as much to do with the lighting, music, and other such add-ons as they do with the overall design. Lasting impressions stay with people when the smallest detail has impacted their experience. When considering materials, lighting, and finishes for such spaces, often it’s not about using something unique but about using a common material in a unique way such as finding new ways to use stone, wood, and other natural materials. 

When designing Texas Spice, a farm-to-table American restaurant at the Omni Dallas Hotel, the designers drew their inspiration from the brand story, which captures the true flavor of Texas with an emphasis on local ingredients and Southern-style that offers a twist on hometown classics. The design of the main dining room offers guests a space to feel connected to the history of Dallas while enjoying the comfort of a home-cooked meal. The dining room’s rustic interior was designed with repurposed materials that include red brick walls, “garage” doors, and wood details.

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Texas Spice in Dallas ©www.visitdallas.com

4. Sensory Stimulants

Experiential entertainment spaces trigger all five senses. They use luminaries, electrical and mechanical devices, water systems, sound systems, fog machines, and other forms of technology to increase the sensory experience of the participant and make them feel as if they were located in that particular setting.

Experiential design is now becoming mainstream as more and more designers and architects are in favor of building human-centric spaces. As the modern lifestyle is progressively becoming eventful, people have started to discover, socialize and engage in more global dynamics. The advancement of technology has also led to an evolution in human behavior. Design these days is not about what is trending anymore but is about meeting all kinds of human needs. If the user feels connected to a space, he will want to come back. 

Quality experiences within a space make the user more engaged which further translates into more customers and more productive staff. In the context of businesses, such narrated spaces result in customer loyalty, better brand reputation, and better profits. As stated by Ada Louise Huxtable, more people “prefer to seek entertainment and escape from the disturbing or humdrum aspects of urban and suburban life.” With the desire for amusement and experiences among the population, “theme” and “entertainment” design have become a dominant factor influencing design and real estate development decisions.


Yamini Kathuria is an architect who has recently graduated with a masters in interior design from CEPT University, Ahmedabad. A strong believer of the notion that built-spaces directly influence how people live, connect and perform, she approaches design as a multi-layered process which involves creativity, analytical research and contextual awareness.

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