This year, we headed over to Milan to experience the hundreds of design showcases in furniture and brand experience. Milan Design week is an international event where designers, artists and brands come together to showcase their work, investing in thousands to craft their own experience for all to enjoy. As an Executive Producer and Industrial Designer, we came to be inspired, learn from brands, see up and coming designers and take the best bits away with us. In just 3 days we visited many amazing digital installations, inspiring interior designs, and beautifully crafted galleries, all highlighting products, story and brand engagement. Read on below to see our findings, insights and standout experiences from our trip:
We saw a drop in product being displayed this year as brands moved towards the digital immersion bandwagon. Brand education and product showcasing were pushed towards the end as an afterthought, but should, and could have been integrated seamlessly within the experience itself.
The Lexus ‘Leading with Light’ exhibition was a prime example of this. They invested a huge amount in lighting technology, one of the stand out highlights from our trip, but let themselves down towards the end of the experience by shoehorning in education about their new headlight technology.
The experience started with an extremely exciting and impressive lighting show within a pitch black room, but as we made our way through the journey the lighting set up and space reduced. When we reached the final experience room, a Lexus ‘Tour Guide’ brand ambassador tried to hold our attention while talking about Lexus’ new vehicle lighting technology. However, no one could see or hear what they were referencing. Standing in a narrow room, shoulder to shoulder with the person next to you resulted in a sudden mass exit, as people walked out half way through the speech.
After a well-thought-out memorable, guided experience involving lighting technology, choreography and music, the ending was rushed and the product integration felt like an afterthought. I left not knowing what Lexus’s new technology was or did and felt it could have been integrated much better to provide a more rounded journey.
It seems like, at Milan Design week it’s enough to just execute a cool experience and have your brand name associated with design, rather than push your products first. All experiences (with an exception of a few) started with the story, and ended with the brand.
Getting the perfect experience flow right can be a hard thing to nail, and Milan definitely presented it’s fair share of badly programmed experiences. It’s not just about the flow, timing, presentation, space, lighting – it’s about the consumer’s understanding of the journey’s story too—from start to finish—to get a holistic experience.
Sony’s exhibition ‘Affinity in Autonomy’ started as soon as we stood in line; they did an amazing job setting the scene with information on their products and their brand story—being ‘ahead of the game in sensing for some time’. This educated us prior to actually experiencing the journey and provided a clear and concise reasoning for their exhibition.
Lighting and technology played leading roles in this journey, building the theme around sensors and robotics. Lighting created an atmosphere that not only deepened the senses but also naturally and intuitively guided people through the experience. The first room started off pitch black, and then gradually lightened room to room. As the lighting began to increase, so did the complexity of technology throughout, ending in a bright white room with cute little robotic dogs on display.
Walking through the experience, everything was seamless. The experience opened up visually, throughout, like an awakening of the future to come with robots. With so much to take in, in terms of messaging to read and conceptual rooms to experience, it was factors like the music and lighting that helped slow down the experience. This allowed us to connect with our senses, stop and take in each zone – fully understanding the brand and story.
The most memorable and enjoyable installations were those that knew how to keep things simple. An easy journey to navigate and a simple message that was relatable kept the experiences grounded and easily digestible.
Electric car brand Polestar presented ‘Into the Light’, a collaboration with Swedish audio and visual experts Teenage Engineering. Expecting to experience something complex and technical, we were surprised to see a simple slot car track installation in the center of the room.
This minimalism created a sense of calm. Knowing this was the whole exhibition, we took a moment to read and understand the concept description, look around and take in the atmosphere (all without the impulse to immediately pull out our phones and loads of pictures for fear of forgetting what we’d seen).
It was easy to understand the connection between the slot car installation and Polestar’s electric cars. The experience highlighted movement, music and gamification, showing how driving can be made fun again – all through a really simple execution.
With each brand and experience that tried to outdo each other using elaborate technology, lighting and product displays, we found ourselves further and further away from what’s real. Moments of madness consumed people as they rushed through experiences, trying to get the perfect Instagram picture before heading onto the next zone or exhibition, not really taking any of it in.
“Tell Me More” by Rapt Studio took it back to basics using simple tactics to ignite conversation through hand written questions and the encouragement of face to face communication. The two-part installation opened up to a room full of circular illuminated curtained “zones” where once inside you were asked to take a question left for you, write a question for the next person and contemplate your answer as you made your way to the next room. Entering the second installation, a warm amber lit room welcomed you with spot lights shining down on inviting furniture clusters and a large central area with question cards hanging down from the ceiling—encouraging you to read and ponder the answers.
Without any technology, connections were encouraged through the simple task of asking and responding to questions. Intimate moments within the experience also provided a break to take everything in – from stepping inside the private curtained zone and being alone, to sitting on the furniture surrounded by calming music and lighting with other people.
Technology isn’t always better. We spend a huge amount of our lives working on a computer or being on our mobile phones. As our world becomes more and more digitalized, this analogue experience connected us back to real life
Many exhibits explored human emotions and others opened the conversations of serious future matters. But one exhibit stood out by adding a surprising and delightful twist of humor. The De-Sinning installation brought in an experience we could all relate to by giving us a comical challenge: face our sins. They targeted individuals from the start by asking us our own personal “sin” that we have committed in design and then ushered us into a space of projected lighting filled with hundreds of hung strings. It was quite breathtaking. A confession room was even present in the space which made it even more comical. We left with a delightful present, a customized tote bag that we were able to design with our choice of phrases. Their skit was a fun change of pace and reminded us that wit and humor can be just as engaging when approached with a playful lens.
The majority of the installations this year aimed to provide an immersive digital experience. But Wallpaper proved that our experiences without tech can be just as impactful. With great curation, lighting, color and journey experience flow, Wallpaper was able to showcase their independent designs in a magical way that was free from digital influence. All the details of audio, lighting, flow, curation and color were perfectly executed. Wallpaper had designed the color tone perfectly and the audio was curated to compliment the mellow tone so that it wrapped the space together in a cohesive journey. The space was then amplified by the products, which were displayed in a simple manner that allowed us to really take the time to appreciate their design. Wallpaper was able to truly showcase a beautiful gallery that highlighted their work. This should be a reminder that sometimes we don’t need to pull out the 360 projector, lights and screens—because sometimes we can just let the product be the hero.
Keeping the story relevant and consistent for the brand keeps us in line with what we are experiencing. Adding in additional layers of touch points and consumer experiences can complicate the journey to where the messages and story do not relate. In some cases, several of the installations simply did not make sense because of the overly complicated journey flow and the forced messaging that had no relations to the brand story. Dai Nippon Printing and Noize’s Patterns as Time installation was able to offer a great example of brand messaging while staying relevant to their brand. They used the simple story of camouflage to highlight their high quality prints of tapestries and digital etching. They crafted an unbelievable visual experience.
We all appreciate minimal designs with simple lines and elegant forms, but attending the Furniture Fair opens your eyes to just how vastly saturated this market is. With thousands of brands displaying their products as simple shapes and forms, it was inevitable that every chair started looking like every other chair and all of the lights started looking similar. Yes, small details and finishes do matter and play a part in differentiating the styles but when you are walking through thousands and thousands of product booths, there are only so many ways you can make a pendant light look like a rod.
It’s beginning to become a challenge to create something original without copying another. Designers should be inspired and encouraged to pursue their own creative process whether it’s in expressive forms of art, personal style, curiosity, skill or craft. This creative process leads to new and unique results, creating an authentic and original design instead of another duplicity.
Trying to experience all the areas and events of Milan Design Week is a near impossible task; we only just touched the surface during our 3 day visit. Milan was overwhelming incredible, with inspiration in every corner – almost too much to take in. For most of the part, we saw that experiences had shifted largely towards the digital realm, utilizing up and coming technologies and hugely catering towards social media platforms. It was a novelty to see all the new and different digital experiences but we realised that it’s important for brands to remember the basic foundations of what builds a great experience – simplicity, authenticity, and originality – especially in an over saturated event like Milan Design Week and iSalone . A well engaged and meaningful story is definitely more memorable within that environment than an Instagrammable “moment”.