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David Rockwell: Why Great Customer Experiences Start with Great Design

David Rockwell: Why Great Customer Experiences Start with Great Design

David Rockwell is president of the Rockwell Group, one of Manhattan's most prominent architecture firms. David's passion for new design challenges and creative collaborations has led to a broad range of innovative thinking in theaters, casinos, and stadiums. Here is a rough transcript of his remarks:

It's intimidating to be a part of any conference as an architect. Has anyone here renovated a home? Being at a conference with the word "fast" in it is odd for an architect. I'm going to try to talk about the ideas that we embody in our work. We don't have an interest in repeating value. We have an almost obsessive need for newness and creativity. I was trying to think about where that might have come from, and I think about my first week at Syracuse University. The first assignment given by this strict Bauhaus professor was to go out and draw something in nature. A fellow student drew this sprawling M.C. Escher-like panorama of the campus. And I drew my sandal at the base of a tree.

That night the professor invited us to hear Buckminster Fuller speak. 10 minutes in I had no idea what Buckminster was talking about. The next morning I went into my professor in tears saying that architecture might not be the career for me. And my professor said that even though we come in not knowing what architecture is, that means that we have less to unlearn. That's very important to me.

I'm going to start with personal passion. Thank god I maintained my personal passion for theater through all these year. I think about how theater affects us and try to apply it to our architecture. We did the sets for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Having been brought up in Mexico, I had never seen the movie. What are people talking about? This has got to be the stupidest thing I've ever seen! The director told me that it was about recreating yourself in your own image. The next set we did was Hairspray. It was such an incredible challenge because it was in 18 different places and it didn't use any of the skills I'd learned in architecture. Architecture is all about building things that stand still. These were dancing sets.

The next point I want to talk about is emotional connection. The most valuable thing about pa lace, events, or a building is the way it puts the viewer in the center of the experience. When we first started working for Cirque du Soleil, it was very interesting. They have a very closed, protective culture. They wanted to tell the story about their evolution from a touring company to a permanent company. Their roots were the tent. And for this building, this white castle, everyone who walks in has to walk underneath a tent. The inside of the auditorium very much keeps the audience in contact with the performers. Elevating the lobby to the second level and having people enter through the tent gives the building a public face.

We're repositioning Meijer in terms of graphic image and the products they offer. Everyone has Target envy. And they're the style leader. Most people also have Wal-Mart envy because they're the price leader. When we started working with Meijer, we said, forget about style. What's your emotional connection with your customers? Meijer grew out of grocery stores, so we're focusing on trust and ingredients. For the Kodak Theatre, all of the technology had to be totally invisible.

The next point I want to talk about is lateral thinking. In terms of an airport, when you get done with the logisitics -- security and baggage claim -- there's very, very little time to think about what feels like a place. An airport in Singapore might as well be in Las Vegas. When working on the new Vegas airport, we decided to put a broadcast facility in the center of the airport. The airport is the hub. Everyone comes in there. But the performers also come in there. We're repositioning what an airport does.

The next category I want to talk about is collaboration. I don't mean getting people to sit in a room and agree with you. I mean get enough voices in a room that are dissimilar, create some friction, and use that friction to make a decision you wouldn't have made otherwise. That's one reason why I like working in theater. This is an incubator project we're working on in Manhattan. We were part of the team that came in second for the Ground Zero project. At a grassroots level, you can get four or five arts groups together and get something done faster than anything the government is involved in. This is a new kind of public facility to reenergize activity downtown.

We recently hired a studio leader. For the first time in 18 years, we brought in someone from outside. He brought in four or five years of Robin Hood Library experience, which we've now inherited. They're recreating the library experience in New York. It's about reading skills, but we're taking the Internet center and the library center and rubbing them against each other. Architects can change the dialogue and change the conversation.

Best Cellars radically rethinks what it means to be a wine store historically. When we researched wine selling, we realized that you had to either get on your knees, climb on something, or ask for help. This leads to the next idea, which is experimentation. We wanted to back light wine, and everyone said that we couldn't back light wine because we'd change the wine. Well, here's how it works. After 911, we went to the city and said that there's a problem with people having an unmediated experience of Ground Zero. So we worked with the city to build a platform.

I also want to talk about narrative. Working on the Mohegan Sun, I decided that most casinos are terrible. The tribe gave us a document about their history, and it was irresistible. We really pushed the conversation. With the Children's Hospital of Montefiore, we were interested in taking the hospital and Carl Sagan's missions to see if hospitals could help break the cycle of fear. Even the curtain that comes around the bed, the sound it makes is terrifying. We spent a lot of time researching that.

The last point I want to talk about is unfamiliarity. The biggest challenge we face as we get more successful is staying true to our mission. People think in terms of categories. If you've done one project, you get another like it. We try to find projects that keep us creatively unbalanced. We look for things that are completely unlike what we've done. The Hall of Risk was a risky project for us to do.

I wake up every day thrilled and terrified about the things I get to do. But if you love the people you work with, it's all worthwhile.

Polly LaBarre: You just surfaced so many great things in terms of how you constantly look at the world with fresh eyes. In some ways, this is all about creating customer-centric experiences. Tell me a little more about where you start when tapping into really engaging with people.

David: We try to find something very specific. I think "specific" is the important word because there's nothing less engaging than generic. We're not interested in polite, generic design. We're interested in the story. We start with idea, story, and layout. With Meijer, they were trying to differentiate themselves based on what their competitors were doing, and we took them back to their roots.

Polly: Talk about the Children's Hospital of Montefiore. It's an experience of surprise and delight.

David: We spent several weeks with the hospital. And then we spent several weeks with the different user groups. We understood the hospital from the perspective of the doctors, the nurses, and the kids. Everyone has stories about hospitals. You've got these kids at a very terrifying time of their lives. Hospitals by and large are opaque. We went way out there in the world of ideas and looked at kids as explorers on a journey to healing. That tied into the Carl Sagan vision. We created a story strong enough for people to join on.

Polly: Once you have that idea, everything you do tracks back to that idea. In a hospital, you wheel around the hospital on your back. So you built wonderful details into the ceilings.

David: Good design doesn't cost any more than bad design. We developed custom acoustic tiles that had an interesting and hopeful messages on the ceiling. Hopefully, it helps the child absorb more.

Polly: Talk a little more about process. When we start anything new, our instinct is to start with what you know. You say you start from a different place. How do you do that?

David: Find three or four ideas around the problem that are quite dissimilar and see where they overlap. For Coca-Cola, we're working on a delivery vehicle. We're looking at what appeals to teenage boys, what appeals to teenage girls, and what makes a rewarding delivery experience. For the Motown project, we had an advisory board that we called the Brain Trust. You need to stop talking about the problem in a linear way or you'll go straight to solution. You need to take some time to research.

Polly: Who do you bring to bear on a project?

David: For the airport in Vegas, we're bringing in a choreographer. Your experience of an airport is how you move through it. We're quite open to different perspectives. We've even worked with Paul Reubens and Gary Panter. He's an X-rated cartoonist.

Polly: What you're talking about ties into all sorts of experiences. When you think about designing something for people, how do you keep it dynamic?

David: One of the challenges all of us have is that there's the initial plan or model -- and then what animates that model. For the Motown project, we came up with an awards program, some TV show ideas. You can't just put standard packages of retail together. We're bringing together the Food Network and bringing together chefs. It's design, but it's also operations, events planning, and other stuff.

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