It’s an increasingly common scene on the jumbotron at major sporting events: a row of spectators, all staring enrapt—at their phones. It’s a sight that architect Bill Johnson, a design principal at HOK who works on large-scale sports and entertainment venues, struggles with constantly. “The reality is, you might be watching a replay or you might be watching the game on your phone,” he said, but acknowledged that the optics are not good: to most people, this looks like a group of people whose minds are far away from the action on the field.
During a recent panel at the annual Fast Company Innovation Festival entitled “Designing a Successful Sequel: Conversations with Top Creators,” Johnson discussed the pitfalls and opportunities he faces as he imagines the future of entertainment venues. Joining him was Brian Leonard, vice president of Design for Lenovo’s PCs and Smart Devices business group. A key takeaway for both: Whether designing stadiums or ThinkPads, the evolution of entertainment, enjoyed alone on a device or with thousands at an arena, is sure to be a gamechanger.
The two designers could have seen themselves at odds, one working on the devices that draws their attention away from the field of play, the other trying to persuade fans to attend a live event. But they saw theirs as a shared mission, which is how many fans would probably view it: one supporting the devices on which social media operates, the other providing the “social” which gives these networks their raison d’être.
“What is really driving architecture and design right now, especially in the entertainment and sports industry, is [that] fan expectations are changing about the introduction of technology and how that forms a comfortable or uncomfortable relationship with the live event,” Johnson said. “These sports structures have become backdrops for the social experience.”
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE
Much as Johnson remarked on the conflation of live events and technology, Leonard pointed out the increasingly blurred division between devices meant for work and play. “What we’ve done in the past—and I used to do it myself—was, ‘This is my work computer; this is my personal computer,’ and the two never crossed—right? But now we don’t have time to deal with that.” Now, he said, people want high-quality screens because they’re watching ball games and movies on their work phones and computers.
The lines between technology and live event, work and play, are intersecting across industries. Stadiums are built smaller and are designed to convert into workspaces during the off-season, while phones get bigger to support rich content experiences in the office or during off-hours. That transition has only just begun, however. Both agreed that the next frontier is the blurring between spectator and participant, as esports become an increasingly dominant cultural and economic force, influencing devices and live events both.
Before that brave new world emerges, however, there is plenty to learn about how we interact with our leisure spaces and devices today. Johnson pointed out that a recent study in which he participated showed that the number-one website visited during a major sporting event at a stadium was the home-goods site Wayfair, which did not fit with the beer-and-cars advertising strategy employed at many national sporting events.
“What we’re starting to understand is: Do we really understand the nature of our customers?” Johnson said. “Are we missing value? Or are we missing the point? Women [make up] the largest increasing fan base for the NFL. I think that we have to be able to use technology to understand what people really want when they’re going to these kinds of events.”