Creative Director Dennis Cohen on the secret sauce of designing experiences
10 min read / Interview Rosanna Vitiello and Tracey Taylor, Photography Vanessa Marisak
Designing with Dennis Cohen is an explosion of ideas, creative agility and on-point intuition. There’s no down time. In his run as a creative director and experience designer, he’s flexed his storytelling skills working in New York City — 10+ years with ESI Design, over 20 with museum designers Ralph Appelbaum Associates, and now independent. From music, to sport to movies, Dennis elevates popular cultures’ ability to motivate us and aims high. “You watch Lebron James,” says Dennis, “The guy is a 6.9 freight train with the skills of a ballet dancer and the mind of a warrior. Let’s face it — Lebron is not the guy next door.” His work has brought the best of popular storytelling into immersive destinations that make a difference — the complex world of science centres, learning institutions, and visitor attractions. So what’s the awesome sauce of experience design? We meet at Eisenberg’s sandwich shop to raise our game — and our cholesterol — and learn more.
You reference a lot of pop culture: from movies and music to sport. How can more formal cultural institutions learn from the way pop culture moves people?
Each is different. As far as music, the biggest cliche about music is that it brings people together. It's also true. The other day I was listening to Eminem’s Lose Yourself. There’s at least five references to science in that song: Snap back to reality, oh, there goes gravity, ‘Back to the lab again, yo.’
Think about it. You have a rap artist, a genius, an iconoclast — brilliant, and reckless. Underneath he’s saying he needs to live life down to a science. He had one shot, got on stage and choked — and the words wouldn't come out. He had one shot and he blew it. It’s about coming back. Give up finding yourself — maybe it’s better to just lose yourself in the moment!
To have the courage to lose yourself is difficult in today’s world. The point is you learn from those mistakes.
And there are huge parallels to science and experimentation. But it’s almost as if the intellectual world puts a boundary around itself and won’t allow certain elements of the popular world in.
Why do you think popular culture resonates with people so profoundly?
All forms of popular culture — sports music, film — are all baby steps to take you on a journey to a place you need to be. But you’re not going to be able to get there unless we (i.e. the experience designer) come out and meet you there. Because those things have to be familiar and pleasurable to start before that journey begins bringing more people into the fold this way.
The idea of escape as being fundamental to storytelling is an interesting one.
What do you think the role of escape is in creating an experience?
If you're part of this heroic journey where you meet a mentor, make friends, allies and foes and you meet a guide, a shaman, who gives you some insight. The whole idea is that at some point you cross this threshold and have this turning point where you become someone else and you're transformed; and at the end of the Hero’s Journey you go back home, share what you have learned with the people back home. That's why I love The Wizard of Oz. It’s the most popular Hero's Journey ever created for film. Dorothy goes back home and wakes up to realise that everything she was searching for was all right there. But she needed to experience Oz, to meet the wizard and go behind the curtain, dance with munchkins and melt the wicked witch with water before she clicked her ruby slippers and flew back to Kansas to learn that there’s no place like home!
Talk about losing yourself!
Does that idea of getting away from the real world come into it?
On the flipside, I hear a lot of talk about gamification. Clumsy term, don’t you think? I got to this point where I thought that social media and how we live on our phones could be something really dark. It won’t be as dark as cigarettes. But could be as dark as rewiring how we think or how we learn. My hope is that language will drive experience: Ralph Appelbaum says that RAA’s projects “are born of language”. Language is dynamic and changing as we pass on knowledge from one generation to another. We are now creating new language for learning – media platforms to match the different ways people like to learn – sim games, on-line courses, pop-up classes, deep dive boot camps and there will be many more.
Google and Apple are creating every kind of seduction through game dynamics – many techniques I used when designing multi-player games at ESI Design. Like roleplay – becoming someone else. The importance of rewards – earning points, receiving recognition like trophies, or gaining special powers that advance your position or status in the game. Game dynamics are now embedded into our apps, our apps are embedded into our lives and we are increasingly dependent on them in our everyday lives.
The pulse and pace of the pinging is changing how we live. There's a dopamine effect. There’s a hormone release. It’s addictive. You feel anxious. The only way to relieve the anxiety is to pick the phone up.
What do you think works in designing an experience in this era where we’re constantly pinged and everything’s vying for attention?
I think no-one knows. Designing an experience and being in a space is sort of like learning science – it needs to happen at a slower pace to better understand what’s going on. We live in a world where we need to get instant gratification every second. Placemaking and experience making has the dilemma of having to deliver the experience at a faster pace because of this guy (the phone). Yet you’re in a space that wants you to slow down and absorb everything around you; all of your senses are working and you’re trying to process what the space is all about.
Space has that power doesn't it?
It does. But how it evolves with distraction of social media? We don't know.
The biggest challenge for placemakers and experience designers is planning for the digital transformation.
Are museums going to build in i-beacons to create smart spaces that can recognise each person – who they are, where they live and what they might be interested in learning? Yes. It's all very experimental and expensive. My guess is there will be a lot of tests, many failures, some successes and a few breakthroughs that will blaze a trail.
What about classic experiences? A lot of the fundamentals of storytelling (like the heroes journey) haven’t changed for thousands of years. Each place is a classic experience, and nothing’s changed? Are there some common components that always work?
Look at this place (Eisenberg’s). They are defenders of history. How many people must have come through here and said, “wow, this place is so authentic”. If Eisenberg’s had the desire to leverage their brand they could. But why? It would be a struggle to capture the vibe of the people who are still here. Vibe doesn’t always transfer or scale up. Feelings are like that. Design can’t do everything. Knowing your limits and capability is important. For example, about 30 years ago The Exploratorium in San Francisco produced a set of “cook books” for hands-on science exhibits: “How-to” books. They were great – very focused on the different skills a visitor should learn. Each exhibit was a one-of-a-kind gadget and the Exploratorium gave the cookbooks away at first, then they sold them to science museums, and finally they created an in-house design consulting service. They knew their competency. The Exploratorium created a cookbook. There's no silver bullet for success. I think we need an “experiential cookbook” for placemaking.
How do you break down something so complex?
It would be cool to stop and identify what are the elements and the ingredients in that cookbook, and propose a few ‘dishes’ that you might serve as a result of these ingredients. And I’ll bet that they would all be different.
We’re in the era of juxta and mash up. It’s almost an art form. Where you can throw anything together and when it comes out the other end, you’ve crossed a boundary – and something new emerges.
It’s like the transdisciplinary approach. You bring all these people together and the outcome is more than the sum of its parts, because you learn things by bringing together a scientist who studies volcanoes on Mars, say, with a musician.
Play is your whole thing! You need to have play in the process as well as the experience. So if I say break down play for me Dennis, how do you do it?
Comedians have the hardest time talking about what’s funny. If I break down play it’s not playful anymore.
There is a secret sauce, though…
Play gets to the child-like wonder in us. Through play we forget who we think we are. The best learning happens when you forget that. And you allow yourself to be as innocent and vulnerable as a child. The best play is deep play – in deep play where you lose yourself and paradoxically rediscover yourself. As we become grown-ups we put on so much armour to protect ourselves and it ruins that wonder. As designers, we need to remain open and not get too caught up in being ‘the professional’.
The designer Ed Schlossberg who I worked with for years used to tell a story that has to do with that. He was good friends with Lorne Michaels who started and still is the producer of Saturday Night Live. Lorne Michaels would say “you don't want too many professionals in the room. Enlightened amateurs are often better. They’re happy and hungry. The secret to the success of Saturday Night Live, Lorne said was to hand the show over to these “enlightened amateurs’. The whole experiment would not have worked if the network had input. He kept the suits away. He went to NBC and said, “These people are incredible, you need to stay as far away as possible and I will take the heat.
Is there something about the ‘live’ nature of pop culture that can be brought into designing places?
The real-time nature of sport is important – it’s live and anything can happen at any moment. And sport has a super-hero mythology built into it. You can compare today’s and yesterday’s superheroes.
True, there’s the inspirational aspect of sport, like a kid grows up and they were inspired by this basketball player.
And sports has truth to it in a world where truth is under attack. When you watch Lebron James. You can't find much more truth than that. I mean this guy is a like a 6.9 freight train with the skills of a ballet dancer and the mind of a warrior. Let’s face it – Lebron is not the guy next door. In life, there are miracles and wonders – things that you can't explain. Genetics can't explain Michael Jordan. Just like sport – clients want the slam dunk, the home-run, the touchdown. Everyone wants the singular idea, the one wow, the quick knockout elevator pitch.
Making a place is more like chemistry – or alchemy – it’s the mix, the balance and the flow that makes the whole experience work. Because spatial experience is multi-dimensional, multi-sensory and temporal – it’s dynamic and the results are often surprising.
You compose and play out in your mind how all the pieces interact simultaneously. You imagine what it’s like to be the guests experiencing it. You run it through your mind over and over again so you can see the different possible outcomes.
If you were going to give a piece of advice to someone making a place as to how to build in story and experience, what would you tell them?
Well, you need to show them. I don’t think you can tell them anything. Yesterday, a client asked me what could we do that’s different? – I said let’s do something unexpected. So, we decided to embed a parkour course so people could climb the outside of the building and get some exercise; that’s unexpected, cost effective and adds value. We made it more than architecture – it’s a beautiful adventure, you can see it, live in it and climb on the outside of it
I would say take some risks. Challenge assumptions. Break some rules. I would also share a few quotes:
“Be simple, but not too simple"
– Albert Einstein
"In matters of style, swim with the trends; in matters of principle, stand firm like a rock"
– Thomas Jefferson. One more:
“Dare to be Naïve”
– Buckminster FulIer
I love that one. Get in touch with your inner child. Wonder more. Search for truth. Experience awe – it keeps you humble. Have the courage to be simple, but not too simple.
RV, are you eating that coleslaw?