The Art of Immersion: Designing a Destination at the Mark and Paula Hurd Welcome Center
October 19, 2023 / Shawn Sanem
It is an amazing feeling to immerse oneself in something. We do this often without realizing it — deserting reality for a moment to listen to a favorite song or devour a book we can’t put down. Small reprieves from our current environment allow us the space to think freely and connect with something more abstract than our current reality. It is in these escapes from the mundane and expected that we find something uniquely human: a connection to the essence, or soul of our space.
Through extensive behavioral research, we have learned that people want opportunities for immersion in the places they visit. This is an expectation at a movie theater, but what about at a university campus, airport or sporting venue? How could we change the ways we design a space to allow for more than one cohesive theme, giving individuals a new way to view their typical surroundings?
Experiential design is a multidisciplinary approach to design that focuses on the user’s sensory experience within a space. Although all spatial design — like architectural and interior design — is inherently focused on the human experience within a space, experiential design often goes beyond traditional mediums and finishes, using digital media, artistic installations or environmental graphics to interact more purposefully with people within a space.
Our global experience designing spaces for people to connect with one another has shown us that there is a growing demand for experiential design — especially as technology continues to evolve the ways we connect.
Our latest project in experiential design — the Mark and Paula Hurd Welcome Center at Baylor University (Baylor) in Waco, Texas — pushes the boundaries of design to create a space worth immersing oneself in.
For the Hurd Welcome Center, we partnered with experts in fabrication, AV integration and interactive media development to streamline the design process and understand what technologies, infrastructure and materials would work best for this series of unique experiences.
Design With Recruitment in Mind
The Hurd Welcome Center is the first impression that new and prospective students have when they visit the Baylor campus. Our driver for the design was to create an emotional connection for students to form with Baylor when interacting with the space.
The idea of illumination and “giving light” are core tenets to the university. We used the concept of light, and the metaphorical light within each student, as a design tool to reinforce the story of Baylor and create a unifying theme.
To get to the heart of what Baylor needed to boost recruitment and reach its alumni community, we conducted a workshop. We mapped out the journey individuals would have leading up to and upon arrival to the space, based on personalities and demographics, design-style polling, brand strategy questions and other exercises. Through this session, we gathered that Baylor was looking for something that would truly set it apart from other universities.
We found that young people are looking for more emotional and fun experiences, rather than something content laden. This drove us to design an experience that allowed individuals to find an emotional connection with Baylor without being told why. With the concept of light as our main driver, we came up with four elements of the university to highlight throughout: reflect, connect, aspire and amplify.
These elements of design are both used as artistic representations of Baylor values as well as a tangible experience one can interact with. When entering the new Hurd Welcome Center, individuals are met with the four 96-foot-tall light columns extending from ceiling to floor. Projecting light through the ceiling, these columns are visible from outside the welcome center, serving as a literal beacon of light for prospective students. By designing every aspect of the welcome center in-house and in tandem, the story of the architecture and immersive experience are crafted seamlessly, resulting in a venue with unmatched depth and authenticity.
The light columns each house a design theme — reflect, connect, aspire or amplify — that visitors can interact with. The lower portion of the columns are clad with reflective colored glass that follows the angle of the architectural column structure. Each column features a brass icon on its exterior, with an artistic expression of what the experience will entail.
The Reflect column encourages you to see yourself as part of Baylor. Upon entrance, individuals will find themselves in an optical illusion, as it features six fully reflective surfaces that create a 360-degree mirror effect — an infinity room. A rear projected media surface projects imagery onto the ceiling of the space, giving the illusion of infinite pattern.
This space offers individuals endless photo opportunities as the AV and lighting constantly loops. The Reflect column encapsulates the value of finding yourself and inner light through self-reflection and noticing the beauty of Baylor in your surroundings.
The Connect column allows people to discover the community within Baylor. Individuals enter Connect and are met with a nearly 360-degree media screen that activates based on proximity. The media screen plays a highly-produced and audio-rich first-person hype reel featuring key moments in Baylor student life, from timeless Baylor traditions to electric showcases of Baylor athletics. The ceiling of the Connect column contains a custom light feature of the connect icon — a series of interconnected hexagons — on its exterior.
Aspire encourages users to prosper academically and spiritually. As users enter this column, they are greeted with an LED track spiraling up into the space. This LED spiral, while incredibly visually engaging, is also the first of its kind, again driving home the element of aspiring for greatness. The interior walls of the Aspire column are clad with perforated gold metal, which are internally illuminated with pulsing light, encircling the room in Baylor branding and colors. This effect can also be changed for certain events; for example, on game days, you may see the words for the Baylor fight song spiraling up.
The central focus of Amplify, the fourth and final column, is in magnifying and shining your light around the world. It uses powerful alumni messaging to tell this story. A high resolution media display in the shape of a globe sits high in the column. Fully produced media that includes motion graphics, video and audio loops on the globe, and features sound bites from notable Baylor alumni. The center of the column contains a table with an illuminated Baylor logo and captioning screen. The Amplify column wraps up the experience with an optimistic tone, allowing visitors to be inspired by the endless ways they can make a difference through Baylor, and the countless connections they will have with alumni globally.
Designing experiential spaces is what makes us thrive. It’s fun, creative and requires a high level of coordination. Working at the intersection of creativity and technical complexity is unique and allows for an equally unique creative process.
Creating something for one to experience, become immersed in and feel an emotional connection to is no small feat. Our designs always start with a centralized story. Telling an immersive story that everyone can find themselves in requires intentionality, empathy and a deep understanding of the community you are communicating with.
Our goal in experiential design is to leave those who interact with it something lasting and meaningful. The Hurd Welcome Center is a culmination of everything we hold dear in that it melds emotional storytelling, innovative design and state-of-the-art technology.