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Competition in the ‘experience economy’ combined with the circumstances of the pandemic mean it’s time for the cultural sector to think harder about the experiences that audiences would like to have – and are prepared to pay for, says Patrick Towell.

two children at dusk on a beach holding hands and looking at what looks like a jellyfish in the sky

For the audience, visitor, participant or user, the subjective physical, sensory and emotional experience of a creative work would appear to be the source of most of the value in that work.

Economic value comes into play when selling a print, buying a ticket for a performance, or renting a film, because creative expression can result in an economic good as well as a cultural artefact. But a work’s value is seldom entirely divorced from the experience of it – only if it is made of gold, for example, or is so closely associated with someone famous that its market value becomes detached from its experiential value. The world of film memorabilia, priceless paintings or irreplaceable archaeology provide examples.

Welcome to the experience economy

The centrality of the value of experience isn’t limited to art though. In their seminal article Welcome to the Experience Economy, Joseph Pine II and James Gilmore describe the evolution of economies from the extraction of commodities (e.g. wheat), making of goods (bread) and delivery of services (buying in cakes) to the staging of experiences (producing a party with cake thrown in). Two decades on, many industries outside the arts and entertainment have moved to value propositions around subjective experience. The ‘economy’ segments of leisure, hospitality, travel and tourism have long competed on quality and uniqueness of experience, but they are now joined by most retail brands from Apple to fashion, manufacturers and even banks.

This ubiquity of ‘experiences’ provides challenges as well as opportunities for the arts, culture and heritage. A gathering of 70 cultural leaders discussing the topic of ‘resilience’ in January 2019 saw the ‘experience economy’ as one of the 8 top disruptors for these sectors. With all these other categories of product or service now being positioned and reformulated as experiences, then what is better or different about an artistic or cultural experience?

Experience design

Experience design’ is the design sector’s take on this. Design is an iterative process through which goals are defined and then achieved. This process can be applied equally to experiences as much as graphics and brands.

Fashion and digital design work, for example, have functional goals – this coat has to keep me warm and fit a person of defined size and shape; this app has to let me edit a picture in my cloud account and share it on social media. They also have another category of goal – which I broadly call psychological gratifications. These can be:

  • Emotional – I’m excited.
  • Physical – I experience a strong G force (for very physical theatre head to Rogue Play and Upswing).
  • Sensory – Wow! that smell of freshly baked bread (for more on smell in experiences see Odette Toilette).

Or higher up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

The second group aren’t really experiential, per se. They’re intellectual ¬– towards self-actualisation and even taking action. And that’s where experience design crosses over with behavioural economics – and in the cultural world, arts-led activism.

In a creative process you can include goals that are experiential or higher order gratifications. If you include some experience design alongside your artistic and creative practice, then you can purposefully try to create experiences that achieve these goals. As with most design processes, you can take a number of potential creative responses to the original brief and test which achieve that best with which types of customer.

In a time of crisis

Whatever artistic or creative work you make, other people’s experience of it is subjectively theirs and in that they have agency. So if your ‘theory of authorship’ in the past has been “we make what the artistic director wants to make”, it’s worth reconsidering at this point. Giving people the kinds of experiences they want and are prepared to pay for will be a priority in the circumstances of the pandemic.

Experience design finds a natural home in built environment and digital/immersive design in museums and the visual arts. The key is to find how to merge the sensibilities and working practices of expert curators, experience/digital designers and artists/performers. With Covid-19 restrictions in place for the long haul, there is an urgent need to find new ways of creating experiences that combine in-person with digital, and that make use of outdoor urban and natural spaces. I’m admiring the range of ‘online experiences’ that Airbnb have launched to complement their in-person ones. If you want to see an efficient experience design process, try registering to run one.

There may be opportunities for artists and creatives in ‘experiential marketing’. Agencies like Splendid have made their names and fortunes from creating unique experiences for people. Their producing teams are not much different from their arts or music counterparts. They just have a different business model – a brand commissions the events or experiences rather than a broadcaster commissioning a programme or developer commissioning a piece of public art.

More broadly, non-creative businesses need all the creative help they can get in these trying times. Artists and creatives who naturally think in terms of experience and emotions may find their expertise more highly valued by those who know that there is no bouncing back to what was before, and whatever people will be prepared to pay for in the future will need to engage them emotionally and be meaningful.

Imitation is not the same as innovation

Given the race to deliver ever more engaging and emotional content in social media and mainstream entertainment, arts, culture and heritage could be more experiential in the marketing of their own experiences. In a decade when the visual – particularly moving image – is so dominant with generation Y and beyond, it’s time to give them a taste of the experience of art or culture rather than assume a literacy in a specific kind of cultural product that they may not have.

There’s so much for them to discover and enjoy in movement and immersion that is not video or games – and so much flexibility for artists (as opposed to commercial producers) to look beyond the grammar of current forms. We can be so playful with digital technologies, in person, in buildings, in a field – socially distanced!

Consciously designing an experience stops a raft of assumptions being dragged along into new ‘digital’ products. Whether, under Covid-19 restrictions, you’re currently trying to fulfil your mission or prevent insolvency, the last thing you should do is blindly convert your existing creative and artistic offerings into digital versions of themselves. This unthinking rush to put everything online as video is the antithesis of both experience design and experiential art. As these media professionals put it, “simply recreating an event virtually won’t cut it”.

An inclusive approach

In this month in which we witness and are part of transnational activism campaigning for a permanent shift in institutional racism, the moral imperative to understand and design for others’ lived experience seems clear. The National Health Service has found ways to change how they work to incorporate the lived experience of those with mental health and other challenges in their service design. Higher Education recognises the importance of lived experience in leading practice of public engagement with research. Purposefully designing for the experience of those different from ourselves is core to inclusion.

So, if you accept the challenge, think about an experience you would like people to have:

  • Socially – the other people they can interact with or be aware of.
  • Physically – if they’re not in your space, do they have to be at home, or is it the park, beach or high street?
  • Emotionally – their own emotions, and empathy with others.
  • Intellectually – meanings, associations, learning – knowledge and capability.
  • Action – what are they going to do as a result of the experience?

Then work with artists, creatives, performers, designers, digital folk – your natural collaborators or perhaps some new faces – and use all your experiential art, experiential design and experience marketing wiles and see what you can come up with. Their future enjoyment, livelihoods and wellbeing may rely on it. So may yours.

Patrick Towell is Innovation Director of The Audience Agency

This article, sponsored and contributed by The Audience Agency, is part of a series sharing insights into the audiences for arts and culture.

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Photo of Patrick Towell