Behind the Mirror 

Advertising is adapting to you. The head of VCU Brandcenter’s new experiential design track explains how things are shifting.

click to enlarge Andrew LeVasseur, at the VCU Brandcenter, says the school is helping students understand how to connect with “the Internet of things,” incorporate user-focused designs into campaigns and build experiences around brands.

Scott Elmquist

Andrew LeVasseur, at the VCU Brandcenter, says the school is helping students understand how to connect with “the Internet of things,” incorporate user-focused designs into campaigns and build experiences around brands.

Whoever called it the information age wasn’t kidding. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the brave new world of social media, it’s that people love cats. And emoticons. And happy, furry things.

They post them, share them, tweet and chat endlessly about them. Full-grown adults will happily give away their requested personal information so they can post a selfie with their lunch plate, peruse adult entertainment, or play the latest candy crap game.

None of this is lost on the advertising industry.

At Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandcenter, one of the most prominent advertising schools in the country, the buzz words are experiential design. Essentially, what’s at the heart of this ongoing strategic movement is how to take the ample information that businesses already collect about you and market it back to you in way you’ll use and enjoy — and maybe, hopefully, share with your 3,000 friends or followers.

Advertisers have known for a long time that people are the most effective form of media, and it’s never been easier to reach them.

The chairman of the new experience design, or XD, program is industry veteran Andrew LeVasseur, former head of the creative technology track. He oversees a two-year graduate course offered within the School of Business that features classes with such names as “user-centered design,” “information architecture” and “creating gravitational pull” (which apparently is not an old R.E.M. song).

The school is excited about a new classroom that’s all about physical computing — what’s called the Internet of things — which allows students to enable physical objects through Internet connectivity. If all this sounds a little frightening in a “Weird Science” way, you might feel better after hearing from LeVasseur.

Style: Tell us about the shift from brand communication to brand experience.

LeVasseur: It’s been happening for a long time. We’re at a pronounced point in its evolution. One of the big things that is happening is that brands are looking at the totality that define a user’s experience with brands — the company, and people, its products and services and communications — and recognizing that these things need to be working in concert with each other to create positive experiences. Ad agencies are expanding their capabilities and skill sets to deal with some of these emerging platforms. As more and more are being driven by technology and new media, there’s a lot of innovation happening there. We’re needing to understand how to design for those spaces.

Was there a good example of this trend from the most recent Super Bowl Sunday commercials?

Well, brands are making $4.5 million investments in 30-second spots. And what has happened in the last few years to justify that investment is they’ve had to advertise their advertisements, creating mini campaigns around them — pregame, during game and postgame. They’re trying to own the buzz and conversation around those TV spots. The one that is being declared an early victor is McDonald’s because they created a campaign spot that really was a participatory concept: They’re inviting users to share the love, after a lot of different acts of kindness. Those are happening in the retail environment and through social media, and it’s pretty contagious.

What are you most excited about with this new XD tract?

The experience design tract is one where we get to bring our ideas to life in expression and form. We are concepting, designing, prototyping and ultimately building things that represent expressions of brands and new ways for people to engage with brands. And we’re doing a lot to push the envelope in terms of what is technologically possible. So in that sense we’re innovating and embracing new technology and new media opportunities.

The stuff I’m excited about now is the Internet of things. There are really phenomenal innovations happening now that are sort of precursors to what is coming down the road. [An example is] the movie “Minority Report,” where Tom Cruise is walking through the environment and it recognizes him, responds to him and gives him a personalized experience. More recently I think we’re looking at wearables like the Apple Watch, how does brand work there to provide value and utility? Augmented reality experience — it was Google Glass, now Microsoft HoloLens, virtual reality [headsets] like Occulus Rift — and we’re looking at those really as entertainment or utilitarian platforms.

So how does this work for the student in the classroom?

We’re excited because we just opened a physical computing lab, a dedicated work space here with 3-D printers and laser cutters, which will actually not only design form but function, enabling toolkits like Arduino, Raspberry Pi, all tool kits that allow you to create function within physical objects by embracing sensors and triggers. Some of the things we’re making here are small-scale robots and interactive objects.

Part of our curriculum is designed to teach foundational theory and approach and skills, and the philosophy that we teach at the beginning is human-centered design which is really about embracing empathy as a value in design and creating things that ultimately matter to people. That’s a great North Star for everything that we do, and very leveling. Suddenly it becomes about design for something greater than ourselves. And we start to frame the opportunity in terms of solving real people problems.

So we really want to tackle bigger, bolder opportunities and issues. That’s why I think we’re not making ads anymore — we’re creating experiences that play a role in people’s lives. Sometimes that’s entertainment, of course.

What is the research saying about users’ experience?

With users being so involved with digital media and things that are trackable and measurable, we’re getting a much richer and deeper profile not only of the user and consumer attitudes but also their behaviors. From that we can create a much more representational view of the user when we’re designing, or we can more specifically address what people want. We’re creating more insight and adaptive experiences that can change with the user in time and over time.

For example, you might go to a website and have a completely different experience than the person sitting two seats away from you — because the computer recognizes and has designed it for you. There are risks in that too, privacy issues, that sense of Big Brother. But those are the kinds of design issues and opportunities being created that we’re looking at and grappling with and trying to evolve our thinking toward.

What are your personal hopes for the future of advertising?

I am fascinated by the opportunity of tech and new media if managed appropriately. I think as an industry, design has a huge opportunity to resolve bigger problems. I would want to say that we aspire to do that. We’ve never had more universal access to info, never been able to provide some of these utilities at the cost we can now, and that potential to do some important work gets me excited. One thing we are is at the intersection of business or brand and user. And we’re mediating those relationships, we’ve got businesses’ ear and we’re deeply concerned with how our user experiences design. And we’re looking at the role of technology in that relationship. I think we’re in a unique position to make some things happen.

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