Designing better experiences
Leah Ferguson chose to pursue design because it allowed her to apply her artistic abilities in a practical way. But when Ferguson interned at a package design company midway through her degree studies in the former York/Sheridan Program in Design (YSDN), she felt something was missing.
"Package design frustrated me because you're ultimately creating something temporary that ends up going in the garbage," says Ferguson. "Yes, you might be able to design in temptation or information or a brand experience, but it wasn't the type of difference in design I wanted to make.”
The opportunity to make a major difference in people's everyday lives does exist in a different area of design, however: experiential design, a rapidly growing field in which designers create multi-sensory physical environments that communicate. Ferguson was first introduced to the concept of experiential design by a Sheridan class project that required her to design for an urban environment. "It was just a small project, a 'one and done'," she recalls. "But I got a taste of it, and I was hooked."
Ferguson hasn't looked back since, first working for six years as a wayfinding specialist at Entro Communications in Toronto, then spending three years in San Francisco as a brand designer for global architecture, design and planning firm Gensler. Highlights of her career include developing the masterplan and information architecture for Entro’s project 'Jewel', a major public attraction with shopping and dining experiences at the core of Singapore Changi International Airport that features a five-storey waterfall coming down from a glass ceiling into a central garden, and as lead wayfinding designer for Harvey Milk Terminal 1 Center, culminating in designing the façade of the terminal honouring LGBTQ-rights icon Harvey Milk at San Francisco International Airport.
"Being able to bring such prominent recognition to Harvey Milk in San Francisco, that experience will be hard to top," Ferguson says of the tribute to California's first openly gay individual to be elected to public office.
Addressing a training gap in industry
Sheridan's new Experiential Design degree — the first undergraduate program of its kind in Canada — provides job-specific training Ferguson didn't have the opportunity to receive in school.
"A targeted program like this will give a leg up for students as well as the industry. Much of what I know about experiential design, I learned on my first job working with architects and designers," she says. "Some of the professors in YSDN taught things from a three-dimensional perspective, and the program also prepared me for critical thinking and visual design. But materiality, accessibility and operational considerations were things I had to learn on the job."
"Every time we hire a designer, we look at their portfolio to determine whether we can coach them, because there hasn't yet been a school that has prepared designers specifically for work in this field." - Cynthia Damar-Schnobb, partner at Entro Communications
Cynthia Damar-Schnobb can relate, although she took a different path into the field. A graduate of Carleton University's Industrial Design degree program, Damar-Schnobb acquired most of her graphic design skills in the user experience (UX) industry, then refined those skills while working as a designer at Entro before eventually working her way up to partner.
"In this industry, everybody comes from different backgrounds. You could have studied architecture, graphic design, urban planning or industrial design, but when you work for us, you essentially come to 'Entro University' where you round out the skillset that will allow you to be a successful experiential designer," says Damar-Schnobb, who was part of the inaugural Professional Advisory Council that informed development of Sheridan's Experiential Design degree.
"Every time we hire a designer, we look at their portfolio to determine whether we can coach them, because there hasn't yet been a school that has prepared designers specifically for work in this field. We’re always more inclined to hire somebody who can already hit the ground running to some degree."
'A truly global community'
Although experiential designers possess a niche skillset, the opportunities to apply those skills are boundless. In addition to helping people navigate their way through physical spaces such as airports, experiential designers also connect people to space through holistic approaches to public installations, placemaking, exhibition design, themed environments and event design.
"Our world has changed, and how we interact with the world has changed." - Leah Ferguson
Ferguson is currently pursuing her Masters in Design for Health at the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD U) with hopes of applying her strategic expertise towards addressing issues that have emerged during the pandemic. "Six feet suddenly means a lot more than it did a year ago. Our world has changed, and how we interact with the world has changed," she says. "How do we adapt to the way things have changed, and how do we prepare ourselves for the next crisis? COVID-19 will shape how we approach space, and I think we'll see a rise in the use of experiential and digital tools."
It's just one example of how technological advancements and shifting needs throughout the world make experiential design a constantly evolving industry that relies on a communal approach. "It's a truly global community," says Damar-Schnobb, a former chair of the Toronto chapter of the Society for Experiential Graphic Design. "You're constantly learning about each other's projects, sharing knowledge about new products and new technologies, and creating new benchmarks through lessons learned. We also network and collaborate on opportunities. People can be competitors in this industry but still be friends."