The Changing Nature of Entertainment Design

By Marty Borko

Designing entertainment development differs from the design of more conventional buildings and settings. According to Bob Ward, the creative force behind Universal Studios' theme parks, "It's driven by the desire to tell stories." Storytelling requires "a premise, a location, and a cast of characters." To be effective as entertainment designers, he argues, architects and interior designers have to "throw off their usual constraints and focus on the place itself - not just as a set of buildings or settings, but as a destination."

As the word "storytelling" suggests, entertainment designers seek to engage people's imaginations. In the past, this interest led them to separate entertainment development from the rest of life. Theme parks like Disney World in Orlando are examples of this effort to create a separate realm - an impulse that found its counterpart in the immense, inward-focused suburban malls of the '60s, '70s, and '80s.

In 1995, the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable launched an attack on this kind of development, which she dismissed as so many "surrogate environments." Within a year, virtual reality and the World Wide Web were upon us. When Sony began designing its new Metreon urban entertainment centers in this period, their research suggested that "home" was their real competition. What would it take, they asked, to get people out of their houses? They weren't the only ones asking. As the '90s ended, many pundits were predicting the demise of bricks-and-mortar entertainment (and retail) development.

Entertainment as Placemaking
It didn't happen, though. Huxtable was on to something with her "surrogate environments," because people have turned to be hungry for "real experience." That means that authenticity and a sense of community are two of the most important elements today in entertainment design. There has been a corresponding shift from "entertainment in isolation" to seeing entertainment as an integral part of the urban setting. That it's "urban" reflects the renewed interest in cities as entertainment/retail venues. It's no accident that the most recent theme environments-in Anaheim, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Tokyo-emulate urban forms and densities. That's what's on people's minds when they think "entertainment."

When Disney joined forces with the City of New York to revive Manhattan's Theater District, they didn't try to impose their brand on the setting. They understood that when people come to Times Square, they still want that flash and grit. If you lose that, you've lost everything. Instead of trying to separate entertainment development from its context, designers are using the city fabric as their canvas. They are also combining entertainment with retail and other uses to give their projects an urban scale and vitality.

What It Means to Be an Entertainment Designer
For design professionals involved in entertainment development, the "acid test" is to be involved in the front end, working hand-in-hand with creative directors and their concept teams. Creative directors are "the keepers of the vision," in Bob Ward's memorable phrase. They "understand and can bridge between client expectations and the creative and financial aspects" of their projects. Successful entertainment designers have to bridge, too. Entertainment design is highly collaborative, bringing together every kind of discipline and breaking down their usual boundaries. To be useful at this early stage, designers have to look beyond their usual ways of working on projects. In the search for the "story," they have to match the creativity of their clients. Yet they also have to use their professional skills to help bring this shared vision of the project into reality. That means thinking about implementation from the outset, asking how all these wonderful, creative ideas will get built-on time and on budget-as the process unfolds.

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