Ten Things We’ve Learned About Immersive Design

by Uriah Findley and Anthony Rocco of Foma Labs

Immersive design is often a very tricky thing to define or articulate, especially since creations of this vein can take on many alternate names like Experiential Design, Situational Design, etc. But when we came across Alex McDowell’s description of Immersive Design we stopped and said, “That’s it! That’s what we do!” This led us, along with inspiration from Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles for Good Design, to sit down and ask the question, “What are the principles for good IMMERSIVE design?”

Exploring the subject further, we realized early on that a lot of our fellow creators were also having a difficult time describing what, exactly, they did. Furthermore, we found that during our discussions we were talking about the same challenges in the immersive design process as many of our fellows. Now when constructing this list, we were adamant that we wanted to define things that applied to immersive design both with and without technology, in both real and virtual spaces. Immersive Design spans the spectrum, from technology surrogating sensory reality to simply just imaginary play. We also did our best to create an extensive list of distinct things we have learned through doing, trial and error, and sheer serendipity; this is by no means the end all be all. As with any craft, we look forward to learning more as we continue to explore and help discover this field together. So without further ado, here’s what we’ve learned in our collective experience with immersive design.

1. The Principles of Good Design Still Apply

Though immersive design creates experiences rather than things, it is still fundamentally a design practice. Dieter Rams identified a set of principles by which any design can be described as “good.” Certain artistic embellishments beyond raw design are often applied when designing immersive experiences in order to enrich the world being evoked. This practice is expected and advantageous, but if those embellishments detract from principles of good design, the overall creation suffers.

2. The Removal of the Fourth Wall Raises Emotional Stakes

Books, movies, television, and video games often effectively conjure strong emotional responses in their viewers and players. Deliberately eliciting such responses can either be effective storytelling or cliche shlock. Either way, in traditional mediums, the fourth wall provides a layer of emotional safety for the participant by its very nature; the audience knows that what happens in the story is not actually happening. The participant can always halt the experience and opt out if they so choose. Now by contrast, in immersive experiences the fourth wall is often ambiguous or removed entirely. It must then be acknowledged that the emotional stakes are higher in those situations, and considerably more care is required when intentionally evoking emotional responses. We feel strongly about the responsibility of creators, which brings us to lesson number 3…

3. Consent is Essential at Every Step

Because of the increased responsibility due to the heightened emotional vulnerability, immersion requires a more extensive system of consent. What does this look like? The answer to that question is unique to each design. It can be clear and marked opportunities to withdraw and ‘touch base’ with reality before perhaps diving in again. It can be actions the participant takes that demonstrate an understanding of the breadth of experience they are likely to encounter and the intention to move forward in it. It can also take many other forms, and what it looks like in the context of your own design will likely be very specific to that piece. Whatever it is, consent must be clearly visible, understandable, and easy to utilize.

4. Exhaustively Design for Variables

What if they don’t go down the slide? What if they get lost along the way? What if they get in the actor’s way? What if the door is locked, even though it’s not supposed to be? What if the pay phone doesn’t work, even though you check it that morning? At every moment, there are numerous questions one can ask about how an interaction may occur. Good immersive design must attempt to understand, consider, and predict, all of the possible interactions it may create during a moment of the experience. It is not better or worse to try to limit the number of possibilities — what is important is merely being aware of them and designing for them. Additionally, conditions can change in drastic ways without warning, completely independent from the actions of the creator or participant. These possibilities should also be taken into consideration. Still, with all these things considered, and Plans A, B, C, D, etc. in place and ready…

5. Accept that there are Unknown Unknowns.

There’s really no getting around this one. Good immersive design knows that no two people are the same. It is true that patterns can be observed over time, but from first-hand experience, we can attest to the fact that there will always be someone who engages with the design in a way that you did not imagine was logical or even possible. Also, the world around an experience changes constantly, in a near infinite cascade of variables, even in virtual spaces. (Browser and OS updates can break ANYTHING.) Because it is impossible for us to fully account for the unknown unknowns, the design must be flexible enough to bend and adapt significantly without breaking. One way to limit these variables within reason is to TEST, TEST, TEST. If an experience is not tested, assume it WILL break. If it has been tested extensively, assume it still will likely break somehow.

6. Tell a Good Story, And Tell it Well

Immersive design is a form of storytelling, including an external narrative to the participants’ experience and a meta-narrative about the participants experience over time. And so much like principles of good design, the principles of good writing and storytelling apply. Show don’t tell? Of course. Hero’s Journey? Sure. The four traditional conflicts? Maybe. Deus ex Machina? What is that Macguffin?

7. Clear Boundaries = No Limits

Creating a design in which the boundary of where the design ends and the “real world” begins can be a wonderful and effective way to create what feels like a truly immersive experience. It can also, however, introduce new challenges and potential pitfalls. In a video game, having an impassible wall around the town makes it clear where the action is to take place, but hardly enhances the sense that this town exists in a real world. But if you remove the wall and let players roam the countryside as well, you create a situation where you must decide where to stop creating the world, since it cannot be infinite. A boundary must still be created. Perhaps a river? A mountain range? A chasm? Even when creating an immersive experience with an ambiguous “edge”, participants still need a way to know, for sure, where the experience truly ends.

8. Be Clear with Yourself

This should probably go without saying, but we’re going to say it anyway. If you don’t feel clear about any part of your design itself, no one else is going to either. That is not to say that having a complete understanding of it yourself means that anyone else will also understand it, but if you do not, others definitely will not. If you, the creator, are not sure how participants will understand when and how to move from point A to B correctly, they will NOT understand how to do it. If they make it there in that circumstance, it will be by sheer luck rather than any design on your part. Any possible question you can think of in regards to your design, you should have a clear answer for, even if that answer is not explicitly given to the participant for some reason. Any question any of your testers have in regard to your design should also have a clear and understandable answer. (You did test it, right?)

9. Intentions Manifest in Mysterious Ways

This one can seem a bit “Law of Attraction” but the truth is — it happens. Now don’t worry yourself too much that the entire endeavor is an evil genie that, no matter what you wish, will find some way of twisting it out of favor. But know that what you intend will manifest in ways you may not have expected, and that is okay. Say, for instance, you want participants to feel they are a part of a secret society. When the project ends, don’t be surprised that a society exists secretly.

10. Err on the Side of Legitimacy (Exceptions Apply)

This one is almost always a balancing game, and there are different schools of thought on this matter. There are those who would say to be completely “above board” all the time. There are also those who delight, and even think it’s essential that their particular designs be of an underground and/or illicit nature. Both are valid in certain circumstances. We would say though, given all of these considerations, the best way to guarantee viability, functionality, and sustainability of an immersive design, is to gain legitimacy whenever possible. If a step of your experience involves people going into a building and visiting a balcony that is technically private property, and you don’t have official permission from the property owner, that step can break at any time with little or no notice. How you want to gauge the risk of this versus the likelihood of gaining permission is up to you, but getting permission is always the stronger design. You will likely find yourself surprised who will be on board with participating in your design, especially if it offers them some possible commercial benefit, or even just a bit of fun on their part. Also, if you don’t get permission, and what you are doing could be considered “illicit” activity, a calculated risk is being taken on the part of the participants, and the previously mentioned principles of consent become very important.

Surely many of these seem obvious. Much of what we’ve written here are principles and ideals that we ourselves have already been applying to much of what we have been creating, albeit without direct consideration. Now that we have spent some time looking back and rethinking the lessons that have led us to these ideas, we hope this list we have come up with can help both us and others to look at our future creations more comprehensively, and with more thoughtfulness.

In the near future, we will be writing more extensively about the things on this list. Expanding them out into their own examinations, citing specific case examples, and perhaps even getting some thoughts from other creators on these matters. If you have something to say about any of these, please do let us know!

We hope that this inspires some conversations about how these principles can be applied to various scenarios. We also hope this list even leads to discussion about what we didn’t cover here. Either way, they are a list of principles that we will be consulting closely in all our future designs in a very deliberate way, and we invite you to do so too.

Foma Labs is dedicated to the art and science of experience.

We are Uriah Findley and Anthony Rocco.



Article editing by Eleanor Thibeaux and Kat Meler