Ian Dooley

5 Secrets to Designing Unforgettable Experiences

This week, I had the pleasure of getting to spend a day in Baltimore talking about joy with a group of event planners. Event planning is hard work — so many complex logistics, needs, and situations to work through — but it’s also profoundly joyful work. Everyone I met was passionate about creating experiences for other people that would inspire them, celebrate their achievements, connect them to others, and help them do what they do even better.

My talk for this group was about how we can take the aesthetics of joy and use them to create more joyful live events, but the principles don’t just apply to big festivals and conferences like the ones these planners are creating. You can also use them to shape any kind of in-person experience, from a museum tour to a concert, a company offsite to a weekend picnic.

1. Moments become memories

When we’re creating experiences, it’s natural to think about every single aspect of it as equally important. We want things to flow smoothly and to make the experience seamless for people. But while seamlessness is convenient, it isn’t exactly memorable.

Joy happens in moments, and it turns out that this is how our memories work too. Our brains don’t take in an experience and file away the whole thing. Instead, they tend to focus on specific moments that really make an impact, while the rest falls away. This principle is important because when research shows that we tend to judge the experience as a whole based on just a few key moments. Researchers have even developed a theory that can tell us which moments in an experience are most impactful. It’s called the peak-end rule, and it says that we’ll tend to pay more attention to things that happen at the peak of an experience (the most emotionally intense moment, whether positive or negative), and at the end of an experience.

Joy happens in moments.

A fascinating example of this: friends of ours recently went to London with their two young daughters. When we saw them after the trip, they talked a bit about sights they had seen and restaurants visited, but there was one thing they couldn’t stop talking about: the plane ride. Norwegian Airlines Dreamliner has a colorful light show that illuminates the cabin in a rainbow gradient just before dimming the cabin lights for sleep, and again on wake-up. (Check out the video below.) It’s almost unimaginable that someone would name the plane ride as a highlight of their trip, but by focusing on a single joyful moment, Norwegian Air made it happen.

So if you’re creating an experience, this should be liberating! Instead of sweating the small stuff, you can create more joy by focusing in on 2-3 moments and working to make these as powerful as possible. And this is doubly true if you’re on a budget. Don’t spread your resources too thin, sprinkling a little joy here and there. Instead, go all in on a couple of moments that no one will forget.

2. Take people out of the everyday

Recently, I was invited to speak at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and shortly after I arrived, I began to notice that the experience felt different from most conferences I’ve attended. People seemed more present, less distracted by the other things happening in their lives. And they were also more open to connecting. Though most people don’t believe me, I can often suffer from some social anxiety, especially when I’m alone in groups of new people. But here people seemed less guarded and more excited about conversing with total strangers, and I felt much more at ease.

Now of course, it’s possible that these behaviors are based on the self-selection that comes from the people who choose to visit an “ideas festival,” and I’m sure that’s part of it. But I’ve been to lots of events with a similar framing, and while I’ve come away from many feeling inspired and excited, there was something about the energy at Aspen that felt different.

As I thought about it, it occurred to me that one factor might be the setting. Aspen Ideas takes place at the Aspen Institute’s campus outside the town, nestled among snow-capped peaks and tall trees. Events take place in tents open to the mountain air. Even the giant amphitheater is open to the breeze. It feels a world away from the everyday, which encourages us to leave behind our day-to-day concerns and focus more on what’s happening in front of us.

This is pure transcendence aesthetic! While writing Joyful, I learned that one of the best ways to take people out of the everyday is with scale. Things that are vast (especially in the vertical dimension) stimulate a feeling of awe. Mountains, tall trees, canyons, and cathedrals: these things tend to make us feel small by comparison, and shift our focus away from ourselves toward our connections with others, both social and spiritual. Awe also has been shown to expand our sense of time, making it easier to be present and to give our attention to others.

Of course, if you can’t set your experience high up in the mountains or in a grove of redwoods, there are other ways to take advantage of the power of scale to take us out of the everyday. You’ll notice that most celebrations around the world include at least one element that is over-scaled, whether that’s the parade floats during a holiday procession or the giant man that is the namesake of Burning Man. At smaller events, the over-scaled element might simply be the large tiered cake at a wedding, a bonfire, or a magnum of champagne. Disproportionately large objects provide a subtle signal that something unusual is happening, and provide an anchor that draws people together.

You can also create scale through abundance. The Mass Ascension, a cornerstone of the Albuquerque hot air balloon festival, is so arresting because it’s not just a few balloons, but 500 launching all at once. Similarly, the balloon sculptures made by Jihan Zencirli, also known as Geronimo, use abundance to take an ordinary thing and make it extraordinary. Above is an installation that Zencirli made for Oh Happy Day! for their tenth birthday. I love what Oh Happy Day! founder Jordan Ferney had to say about it:

One thing I love about Jihan’s installations is she only makes them in public spaces so the community can interact with it. It was really beautiful to see everyone stop and take pictures and be blown away by the balloons. Everyone was so happy! It was like a gift to our neighborhood.

So when you’re creating an experience, think BIG! Something larger than life can change behavior and open up possibilities for new kinds of interactions.

3. Create an unexpected welcome

This principle comes from the celebrated Dutch designer Marcel Wanders. When I asked him how he creates things that are so consistently surprising and whimsical, he said that he keeps the idea of an “unexpected welcome” in mind. It’s about creating something familiar, something you know, but adding an element that is a little bit strange or quirky. In his case, he makes chairs and lamps and other decorative objects that are recognizable. But they all have a little twist. Like the Knotted Chair, a chair made of rope like a hammock that is then dipped in epoxy to make it stand up. Or the Skygarden pendant light that has what look like decorations from a plaster ceiling inside the lamp.

One of my favorite unexpected welcomes in recent memory was the gospel choir at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. Seeing that choir and hearing their beautiful voices, surrounded by all the trappings (and hats!) of a traditional royal wedding, made me immediately aware that this was not an ordinary experience. (Just got goosebumps watching it again!) The power of subtle surprises like this is that they catch our attention and focus it, priming us to be on the lookout for other things that might not be so typical. This brings us into the present and enables us to experience what’s happening with a fresh perspective.

An example of this phenomenon in physical space is the merry-go-round-inspired coat check designed by Weiki Sommers at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam. (Yes, Dutch designers tend to have a knack for this kind of surprising design!) The coat check is generally one of the least joyful parts of a museum visit. Seeing this one tells us that this is probably not going to be an ordinary museum, and puts us on the lookout for joy.

4. Stimulate all the senses

If I’ve learned anything from my research, it’s that joy begins with the senses. And the more diverse and rich a sensory experience is, the more likely those sensations are to get encoded into our memory. Of course, the power of live experiences is that we can engage with them with all of our senses. Yet because we are such visual creatures, often our other senses get left out of the equation.

I find a lot of inspiration in what Color Factory has done with the senses. Though color is a visual medium, they’ve incorporated elements of sound, taste, and touch into their installations. I particularly loved the room in New York entitled Sing Me High / Sing Me Low / Bring Me Back / Let Me Go designed by Lakwena Maciver and Abimaro, which explores connections between harmony in color and in sound. There’s of course also the ball pit, which brings a tactile element to the experience.

But not only do they try to branch out beyond the visual in their space, they’ve also created a map that leads to a range of experiences out in the city at large. For example, in San Francisco, one stop on the map led to an alleyway with a specially designed jukebox that linked sounds and colors. Pressing the yellow button might play Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” while the purple one brings up Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Other destinations include a dim sum restaurant with a special, colorful menu, and a vending machine at a children’s museum that contains packets of jelly beans that lead you on a color scavenger hunt, bridging flavor and color.

These installations bring an abundance of sensation into the experience, while also playing with the connections between sensory modalities in novel, and memorable, ways.

5. Create collective effervescence

Joy is contagious, and if there’s one thing we know, it’s that a lot of the joy we find in live experiences comes from being with other people who are also in a state of joy at the same time. And one of the most powerful effects of this togetherness is a rare phenomenon that the French sociologist Emile Durkheim called collective effervescence. It’s been described as a feeling of “euphoric oneness,” and it brings about a kind of self-transcendence, where people seem to care less about their own individual needs and attend more to the needs of a group. They can become more generous in the process, and often feel a heightened sense of belonging.

Collective effervescence can fight loneliness and help a group of people who don’t know each other that well to cohere. And one of the best ways to bring it about is to do something in synchrony, like singing or dancing together, or chanting, or even breathing in harmony. Synchronizing our bodily rhythms seems to synchronize our mindsets, helping us feel like more than the sum of our parts.

This is why I sometimes like to start my talks with a happy dance. When there’s no judgment or pressure around it, getting to move together to a common rhythm creates a physical experience of togetherness that changes the energy of the room — and the people in it.

It’s important to note that collective effervescence isn’t always appropriate, and can sometimes even be dangerous. Forcing people at a corporate retreat to sing or chant might create a cult-like atmosphere. And Hitler was said to use salutes and marching to tap into this phenomenon at his rallies, which encouraged people to put aside their own individual values in service of his hateful ideology. You can see both sides of this coin in politics when looking at the way songs and chants unify protesters at a peaceful demonstration, and comparing that with the way chants can amplify vitriol to a frenzied pitch at a rally.

As I look out at the world right now, it seems increasingly clear that belonging is something many people are craving, and yet are struggling to find. So I think there is real value in applying this principle, but if you’re going to do it, do it thoughtfully, and in service of joy.

Whether you’re creating an experience for three people or 300, I hope that these principles help you set the stage for experiences that your audience won’t soon forget.

Images: Hot air balloons, Ian Dooley via Unsplash. Weiki Sommers Coatrack, by the author. Norwegian Air video, Plane Spotting Berlin, and photo, The Points Guy. Aspen Ideas, by the author. Geronimo Balloons, Paul Ferney and Sabrina Bot for Oh Happy Day! Marcel Wanders images, via Marcel Wanders. Color Factory images by @bigntoasty, Holly Garner, the author, and via Color Factory.

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The Aesthetics of Joy is now a book! Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness is now available.

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