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David Schwarz

What is experience design? It depends on where you are and who you ask. According to David Schwarz, experience design is about creating an immersive, three-dimensional, sensory experience in the real world.

What is experience design?
What is experience design?

What is experience design?

Ep
157
Oct
06
With
David Schwarz
Or Listen On:

Where the real world and the digital world meet

David Schwarz is an award-winning creative leader and one of the founding partners of acclaimed experience design agency, Hush.

He’s spent his career designing brand experiences that integrate content, interactivity, architecture and technology.

But what is experience design? It depends on where you are and who you ask.

From where David stands experience design is about creating an immersive, three-dimensional, sensory experience in the real world. And affecting how you and I feel as we move through it.

In this episode, David shares how his agency approaches designing these unique experiences and the impending blur between the physical world and the digital world.

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edited by
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Episode Transcript

David:

Here's like a classic thing might be like, "Yeah, we want to do something super cool... And somebody mentioned holograms and that would be so cool." And you're just like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Okay. We got to help everyone understand what that means." I can tell you we've helped many clients choose older technology, dumber tech than cutting edge tech because it just aligned better with what they want to create as an experience.

Chris:

So for people who don't know who you are, can you introduce yourself please?

David:

Sure. I'm David Schwarz, one of the founding partners of HUSH, which is an experience design agency based in New York, but working all over the world.

Chris:

And people don't know that word, experience design. Can you explain what that means?

David:

Absolutely, it's a terrible word. I don't know why I use it, but it's the word that seems to be an industry term. What's interesting is it's different strokes for different folks. I would say a lot of people out west or in the Bay Area, where a digital product is maybe the hero, experiences design actually refers to like what's in the rectangle, right? Like interface and product experience, even on job postings on LinkedIn. That is not what we do. We do three dimensional experiences. Meaning experiences you walk into, around interact with, they're physical, they have digital integrated into them. They are at the scale of human beings, rooms, architecture, and even urban centers, neighborhoods. So it is highly digital, it's highly designed, it's highly visual, highly sonic. But it's really like a sensory three dimensional experience we're looking to create on behalf of companies who have something to say to the world and want to have their vision and mission expressed in a certain way.

Chris:

Wonderful. A lot of things to unpack there in terms of experience design. I think you described exactly the way I feel it. And so just let me see if I get this right, multisensory, physical, tangible things and you experience it in real life. This is not a virtual thing. And it's across multiple design thinking, a lot of design skills. There's architecture, product, motion graphics, lighting design, sound design. What am I forgetting here?

David:

You have most of it, probably just like the material design. So you could call it architectural design or environmental design, everything in the real world has to be built. So there's the element of material scale, how you assemble things, so that's in there too.

Chris:

Okay, so this is a audio only experience. Can you tell us of something that people might know of, that they've walked in prior to the pandemic, that they weren't aware that an experience design firm created a space?

David:

Yes. I mean, I would say you could argue that anything you walk into, experience designers, whether they have that on their business card or not, have thought about, right? So the earliest experience designers were probably the earliest kind of architects and builders. They were thinking about, well, do you walk through a small door or a big door? Is it shaped like a pyramid or a rectangle? I mean, think about temples, cathedrals, all of that was using the same kind of thought process of how we, as humans, perceive our world and how it relates to the senses. So the material of walking into a church as you stand on a marble floor and your feet echo through the space, that's the sound of an entity that is far bigger than ourselves. I mean, I'm not religious, but I'm projecting.
And so that's always been there. But as you know, we work and design kind of fractures into all these little nuanced design fields and subsets of subsets. I think experience came out of it as a layer that exists between the big moves of architecture and the human being. So it's like the interface between the human being and the big moves of the architecture. And I mean, look, any airport you've ever walked into, any transportation center, any retail store you've walked into, where you think about the layer of storytelling that happens on the street level facade before you even walk in, to product merchandising, to information, content, all the way to point of sale. That is all experience. And so it's pretty easy to find an example. It's pretty hard to not find an example, actually, unless someone's intentionally trying to be so brutalist and primitive, for a reason. But I digress.

Chris:

I guess then you could also argue that, that's also an experience to just a different intentionality, right?

David:

I, 1,000% agree. I guess because experience is such a broad word and so blurry, we like to call it at HUSH, everyone can interpret that in different ways. I think we have some, you mentioned the ingredients that make up a HUSH kind of experience. And I think that's kind of the differentiator and I mean, there's other firms that are great at doing it. But I think we have to include a real thought around physical form and those kind of big moves, a real lean into what you termed as like motion graphic or digital content.
And that could be super low resolution, almost at the edge of lighting, all the way to high fidelity, full res content. And then the third part is kind of creative technology. It's like the interactive part, right? It's not about just watching, it's not about a gaze. It's about participating in the space in a way. And that could be as abstract as through your body movement and position in space, all the way to various levels of high, high touch interaction that you might engage in.

Chris:

Okay, so if I'm understanding this correctly, before we go to the future, I want to go back to the past. So at the beginning of time, when a person created a space to be inhabited by more than themselves, I guess you could even argue that the people who did the paintings in Lascaux, by painting something on the walls, they now are shaping the experience as you enter the cave. So this has been predominantly the discipline of architects and probably interior designers.

David:

Yes.

Chris:

Okay, those two people and everybody, I think, can understand what that is. But we're not talking about that because if you go and look at the work that you've done, we're now into the 21st century, we're integrating so many different things. And then as we said, it was like multisensory, and you were talking about participation. Are we talking about a responsive environment to the human? And is it changing to meet you? Or are we talking about something different?

David:

Yeah. I mean, it's hard to change millwork or concrete, but it's easy to change digital things that are inherently mutable. So I would think about it as spaces that are designed to tell a story, to inspire and motivate. And they do that by responding to what I'm interested in or what I may give to them in a common response sort of method. So a space might feel and behave in one way for me, but feel and behave in a different way for you. And it's not about some magic, robotic, sentient understanding of you or me. It's just more like, if you want it that way, Chris, maybe it becomes that way for you. And if I want it this way, it becomes this way for me. So I love that idea, that we deal with physical constraints that are very hard to change. So we have to work really hard on a specific kind of design, to make sure it can accommodate a lot of things we're doing.
And then we can think about the digital pieces as this sort of evergreen, iterative, responsive, changing set of layers that can grow over time. And I think if you think about like architecture, architecture is a super waterfall profession. It's like you design it, you detail it, you go through a bunch of crazy phases in construction. Everything is really rigorous and specific because it has to be, it has to stand up, has to be a code. No one is talking about Agile development or iterations. They're all talking about landing the plane on time and budget as perfectly close to those drawings or renders as they started with. What's weird in our world, is that you want to make something that you vision as beautiful and powerful, but you always leave that space at the end to say, "Well, design has to be responsive to what people do with it, and what's working, and what's not." So how do we evolve it?

Chris:

Yeah, okay. So many things to think about here. I remember seeing someone sharing a video online where it was a museum exhibition and as you use the hashtag on Twitter, it would pull the hashtag out of the cloud and it would project your thoughts, whatever it is that you wrote. And it would cascade down a wall, and hit objects, and it was really cool. So you were, in essence, participating in the space and the design of the experience yourself. So if you write something that's optimistic, that's welcoming, it's going to show that. And if you write something that's coming from a place of anger or hatred, it's going to show that too. And it didn't just sit there, it moved and hit objects. And there was some physics to it, in the way that it was programmed. And that's one thing, right?

David:

Yeah.

Chris:

And we've seen installations at airports where it's like a cloud of information above you, quite literally. And it responds to environmental factors, temperature, whatever. I've been in a beautiful home. One of our clients are architects and designed this beautiful home where it's all RGB lighting and it responds to what's happening outside. It's programmed to do certain things, depending on the time of day and the temperature. So it sets you in different mood or mental states, just by using washes of color. And the experience is radically different, just by changing it from a cool blue hue and moving into the deeper, warmer colors, the reds, just color alone. And you have so many other things to work with.

David:

Well, I love that you start with color because color shifts are like the ultimate motion graphics. It's like one pixel, one pixel shifts and it's like, "Okay, cool. I have a sequence over time that changes, potentially, an entire room or building." It's the most low resource, but powerful kind of idea of motion and change. You mentioned a few awesome examples there as kind of like typologies or archetypes for this stuff. Big difference is though, right? One, in your museum example, you're talking about me being the driver, me having agency in the control of my environment and participating in it. And so I have the ability to sculpt the world around me, a little bit, maybe even as a group.
And that's cool, because in real time you're sort of, there's a feedback loop that's happening in real time and you can feel your effort is rewarded with a response, that's cool. And then the airport one you were talking about, third party information that you have no control over, but just being used to then change what I feel within a space, which has a lot of value, right? Like maybe in an airport when it's the high time of traffic and there's the most people in the airport, maybe you actually want the digital media around you to slow things down, right? To kind of be a counterbalance to the frenzy that happens and the emotional ramp up that happens if you're late to a plane or if everyone's coming into going. Or maybe you want to incentivize that speed, so you keep people moving through and you keep things optimized. Don't know, that's strategy.
But that's the cool part, there's a godlike control that can happen too, to help people optimize their experience. There's other versions where you're subject to what's happening out in the world, like your Twitter example. Like I could feel what the political discourse is on Twitter at any given time. And I could know what's happening or the level of positivity or negativity, just through the five senses. And I don't know, this stuff is fun. What we're also getting at, and I really love, and since we both went to Art Center, the rigor of that experience and having to really think about design, and iteration, and permutation, and perfection, really get into something that has value. There's a sort of liberation in some of the examples that you said, which is like, you're creating systems and rules, but then you're taking your hands off the wheel. And it's a much different flavor of design or experience design in general, where you're kind of setting boundaries, but you're letting other information sort of dictate how things might go. That's fascinating to me.

Chris:

That's fascinating to me too. And before we geek out and lose our whole audience, I did want to say one thing though, if I can, before I go back to your origin story and how does somebody even do get into this kind of business. Before we get to that, I want to know, where is this all going? As the technology is getting more powerful, more affordable, and you can buy all kinds of crazy cool lights and have them reprogrammed. Let me just state it this different way. When car manufacturers started using LED lighting, it changed the way they designed headlights and taillights and the interior cabin lighting. They could do so many different things.
Whereas, traditionally, with halogen bulbs or whatever other technologies they were using before, the shape of the bulb sort of dictated what they could do. And now you're seeing what, I guess, they call like the eyelash or Thor's hammer. There's all kinds of different things that are happening. So just that technology is an unlock for industrial design and allows designers to think in different ways. We see LiDAR, we see depth camera maps, we see all kinds of motion sensors being available. So where does this all go, in a highly at bespoke, incredibly designed space, in the retail experience of the future? What does that look like? Be a futurist for a second and kind of paint that picture for us.

David:

Yeah. I mean big questions, right? And predicting the future is always dangerous. But I think, well to start, right, there's always been this push-pull relationship between the technology and the design form that it lends itself to, right? So I mean, just in if we even zoomed into like motion graphics, right? It's like a new plugin is released and then everything looks like this for a reason. And then people realize, "Well I can actually use that tool in this other way." And it generates this whole other kind of freedom to do this and then the aesthetic shifts again. And then another release is released and so on. So I think you could look at any kind of technological innovation or advancement as this, it's a little bit of what's pushing, what's the catalyst and what's the response at any given time. So technologically, everything's getting much more high fidelity, right? It's like there's a race to this photo realistic infinite plane, right?
And you're like, "Do I want that? Do I care about that? Do I need that?" And I think the answer is probably no. So on one sense, like the display technology and things you see, it's like, everything's just like hyper, hyper, hyper real. It's like what happened in film and video, it's like everything got so crisp, it became too crisp almost. And then you have the film buffs thinking about what it was like on Super 16 and the throwback. So there's that same threshold achievement when it seems like you couldn't do more or more high power, there's another high power. So I think taking that generality, I think the future of those spaces are going to be a lot more about balance than about like super high tech, almost like dystopian technological future, right? I mean, think of any of those contexts you mentioned, retail, or transportation, or a home, do you want to walk into the most technologically advanced space? No.
It's probably not a human preference. It's probably not related to... Most brands in the ecosystem don't put themselves at the utmost threshold of technology in their positioning. So ultimately, human always wins. I think what happens though, is as technology advances, it starts to become more invisible and that invisible stuff is what's really interesting to me. And that's where I think it'll become more of a focus, right? So imagine spaces, not where you walk in and it's like, "Oh, there's the big screen on the wall, there's the interactive doodad. There's the place where you take out your phone, and play with this tablet, and look at this augmented reality gag." It'll just be a space that feels almost natural, but those technology pieces will come alive in ways that feel incredibly blurred between what is real and physical and what is technological. Let's call it the disappearance of the rectangle, or the frame, or the edge. I think that's kind of where we'll get.

Chris:

Okay. Let me see if I understand that concept, the frame, is it a device? And then it starts to like, we think of a computer as something that lives on our mobile or on our desktop, on a screen. But are we talking about, when you say the disappearance of the frame, is that everything is like the computer or is it we're talking about something totally different?

David:

No, like where the edge of your screen frame is and where like the world of physical built environment begins, I think, will become a blur. It'll be like a gradient. And here's why I think that. We talk about this all the time at HUSH, we call it like de-resing. Okay, so you could start from the most high fidelity, beautiful piece of video and you can start de-resing that down. At some point, that thing will just become a rectangle of light, it'll just be colored pixels emanating light. And that is exactly what lighting is. That's exactly what you walk into an architectural space with beautiful lighting or your friend's house you mentioned, that's that.
So that means that there's every minuscule increment between the highest res Hollywood film and the least res point of LED light in a home. And in between is where things get really interesting, where it's sort of content, it's sort of lighting, it's sort of interface, but it's sort of material, right? And I think, frankly, that's like our most interesting place to design, where we're defining where the frame is or isn't, and the content that may go inside of it or around. That's kind of like the hypothetical proof that we work with at HUSH, to see what we can do.

Chris:

Wonderful. Every time I think I have a question for you, in your answer, I have more questions on the answers, not the question I wanted to ask. So I'll stay here, we're going to stay in the pocket. You had asked this question, you said, "Who wants all of that?" Maybe I'm the weirdo, maybe I'm the one who's like, "Actually I do want that." The idea of a smart home, where my Nest thermostat knows when I wake up, when I want it to be warm, when I want it to be cold. So it's learning. And when I talk to my Siri and I'd say, "Hey, Siri." Whatever it is I want to tell her. She's like, "Oh, you prefer this news outlet versus that news outlet." And that's now how I'm getting stuff filtered for me. A while back, Google was reading our emails and trying to help you.
I know some people are like, "Whoa, whoa." But when I'm going to the airport, it's like, "Chris, I just want to remind you, you have a flight, or that flight's been delayed, so you don't need to rush to the gate and kill yourself." So those kinds of things, I like. So when technology intercedes in our life in ways that anticipate our needs, I'm all for that. I want it to be the smartest home possible, turn off all these devices, we're not here, or only water the lawn when it's not raining, whatever that might be. And so I think of like, if there's a smart home, what is a smart public space? What is the smart retail version of that? Where I don't feel it's invasive, but it's really like bespoke and tailored to each person and what their needs and wants are.

David:

So let me play that back, because I actually agree with everything you said. But I think it's different than a little bit what we were talking about. I think Nest and Siri are perfect examples of what I'm talking about, where they don't scream technology. They're actually quite... Well, Siri is a piece of software, but Nest or Google Home is a product, I think, designed with a lot of material consideration that it sits on your kitchen counter with as much grace as a beautiful water pitcher, right? And so that is actually what I was meaning when I said the interface is blurred into the object or the material. It's like, it is high tech, but it feels almost analog and low tech because right, Google could have designed that product to be like whiz-bang, future tech looking.
The whole thing could have been an interface. It could have moving with data and blah, blah, blah, blah, and lights flashing. That's totally possible. But it was chosen to actually be more core to what we, I think as humans, naturally feel comfortable with, that's 200,000 years of life on a planet, right? It sets that up in our DNA. And then you also so talked about this idea that an environment can predict our needs. And I think that's also well within what I think we are talking about. And that goes into the sort of circadian lighting that you mentioned earlier in the conversation. So I'm like plus one on all of it.
I think just HUSH's angle in that, or like our sliver in that, our area of focus and interest in that, is really more about how that takes form in the shape of space, around you and less particular like tech and product. Although, for a project recently, for HBO, we levered all sorts of voice control and Google APIs to kind of make that interface of the room really special, and really invisible, and really magical, and really predictive. And so yeah, I mean, I think it's a Venn diagram of stuff. But I think as a mood and a direction, you and I are on the same page. Because you want Nest as an object to do that functionally and feel and look like it does. And I want entire buildings to be designed that way and perform in that way.

Chris:

Yeah. I don't know if I got this part right, but when they designed the Apple's flying saucer building in Cupertino, I think the building breathes and allows ventilation to move through. So hopefully, reducing electricity consumption and like it's reacting, but you don't know it. You don't need to know anything. All you know is, is it cool or is it hot in here today, right?

David:

Yeah.

Chris:

Something like that. That's what we're talking about, right?

David:

Yeah, and so that was a good segue. One of my favorite projects to date was for this biotech company called United Therapeutics, led by a CEO named Martine Rothblatt. She's a super, super duper moonshot, star shot, galaxy shot, I don't know, whatever. She has an amazing TED Talk that everyone should watch. But they built a net zero building. So it's a smart building, much like you mentioned about the Foster And Partners Apple Ring. So a smart building just means it has hundreds of thousands of sensors in it, hundreds of thousands of robotic servers and control systems. And like anything smart, it's constantly looking at the data and responding in physical changes to make something more optimized from an energy standpoint, producing its own solar, et cetera.
So one of my favorite projects was this. We did all the experience design for that building. So we brought like all that energy storytelling to life, where people could see the things that were invisible to the naked eye because happening behind the walls, and in server rooms, and operational rooms that no one knows about. And we show how that's behaving in a human way. So I can look at something and say, "Oh I should put on that sweater instead of turning up the heat because the building's working overtime to make enough energy right now. So let's play my part, so that's that kind of same idea. You can take it right up to the scale of a building or even a smart city. As we know, are being developed all over the world from Neom in Saudi Arabia to Toronto Waterfront, or maybe that's not happening anymore, but you know. So we're on the same page. It's a scalable concept.

Greg Gunn:

Time for a quick break, but we'll be right back.

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Speaker 5:

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Greg Gunn:

Welcome back to our conversation.

Chris:

Take me through the high level conversations you're having with a client. Let's say I'm HBO and maybe I'm not so familiar with the things that you do and how you think and work. How do you guide me through the process of like, "David, we want all the whizz-bang stuff. Like we want to be in Tron 2025 or whatever it is." And you're, "Whoa, whoa, whoa." How do you help them make smart decisions that ultimately give them what they want, without them, like the nouveau riche, who go out and buy a gold plated Bentley or something like that. And you're like, "Oh, you wouldn't want to do that." How do you guide them through that process? And what are you asking, so that you can get a good sense of where they're at, so that you can meet them there and deliver the creative of genius that you do.

David:

Amazing and complicated question. Let's do piece by piece.

Chris:

Okay.

David:

So we work in a very niche industry. I love it, but it's niche. When you look at the broad landscape of what design can be, which means few clients stumble and fall on us and say, "Oh, what is that? We want that," right? You kind of probably have seen something or have created a value prop internally, that justifies why you would want to do experience design in the way that HUSH does it. So very few clients come with zero knowledge, right? They may have enough knowledge to hurt themselves, but we're very rarely in a dialogue where we're educating them from zero to 100% of what we do doing. We're doing a lot of refining and showing what we do, how we fit in. So it's more about like qualifying and sculpting exactly what our purpose is, our mission is, and what we do better than anyone else.
So let's start there. Let's carve off all the folks who Google HUSH, and experience design, and are asking baseline questions. We have six design principles at the company and one of them is, use technology, but with restraint. And here's why. At this point in the history of HUSH, we kind of did our like rockstar, new kid thing. Everyone has that sort of studio moment, where everyone's just like, "Oh, that's new, cool. Can you do you something with that? And we heard about this, can you try that?" And you're like, "Okay." And we're at a place now where it's much more about like enterprise thinking, right? Where the companies coming to us, who are large companies, like Uber, and Facebook, and LinkedIn, and financial companies like Barclays, and whatever.
These are companies that are, they're not about like the latest, greatest, shiniest, cutting edge, risk at all kind of technology. They have innovation in R and D, as part of the company that does that. But if they're going to build out spaces, spend many, many, many months and many, many, many millions of dollars to build things that are going to be with us on this planet for a long time. They're probably not willing to bet the farm on some like hotshot new untested tech. So the conversation becomes, "Yes, our R and D team is playing with all the stuff, playing with sensors, playing with interactive models, playing with AI machine learning, playing with big database knowledge, playing with generative, blah, blah, blah, playing with gestural interface, all of that."
But we're also filtering it through the lens of value and longevity and something that's more enduring. And then we're helping them make smart decisions. So here's like a classic thing might be like, Yeah, we want to do something super cool... And somebody mentioned holograms and that would be so cool." And you're just like, that's when all the bells go off. And on Slack, we're like Slacking each other on a call because you're like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Okay, we got to help everyone understand what that means." And 'holograms' is like a stand in for something cool. I don't know how to describe it. It might not even be a hologram, but it looks like one, we need help. And we need to understand the value proposition for any of this technology and why.
And so, at the end of the day, it just becomes about helping them know that we know the latest, greatest, but that might not be the choice. In fact, I can tell you, we've helped many clients choose older technology, dumber tech than cutting edge tech because it just aligned better with what they want to create as an experience. And they were happy and we were happy. I mean, back to that biotech company, the project is on our website. We did a 60 foot diameter lighting sculpture that we was in the big atrium of the building. And the only complicated tech in that was some backend software to do some data viz. But the front end was a bunch of stainless steel fins and lighting that's been around for 20 years. So it did the job better than any higher tech solution could do. And it was really powerful. So anyway, I think it's like an honesty with it. We're not just pushing to push.

Chris:

Right, there's a lot of restraint. Otherwise, it's not going to do its job, I think. And probably won't age well for the client, and that reflects poorly on you if they rip out what's there, because people are like, "Oh, this is the disaster. Because we went with the gold Bentley and you didn't talk us out of it, Dave, how could you?" Right?

David:

Yeah. I mean, look around your studio or my room here. It's like every piece of technology that I thought was amazing, and designed, and the Bentley is now a brick on a shelf or a wearable fitness tracker that is added to the pile, or it's like, it's stunning how fast we devour this stuff. And so when you're building at architectural scale, you have to think of that technological permanence, not just in the hardware side, but also the software side, right?

Chris:

I have this question for you, which might throw you off a little bit. Are you in your home office right now?

David:

I am in my home office right now.

Chris:

Okay, here's the question-

David:

But which doubles as a guest bedroom.

Chris:

Okay, I always wonder this because I just looked at the thing you did for Uber, the lights racing around. Beautiful, that's what got me like, I'm not thinking about my office the right way. Of course, I don't have the money, the time, and the creativity to do all that stuff. But it set a very high benchmark for me. I've always wondered this about architects and then you, how come architect's office always look like the dumpiest places they've ever designed. And then I wonder what it's like for them at home.
And is it always that you're so busy crafting spaces for other people, that you don't want to go back home to something like that. I look at your office, it looks like a traditional home with crown molding, paneled wood doors, and a gold mirror, and a surfboard in the back. This is not how I imagine a 21st century experience designer, a guy who runs a firm talking about these things. I imagined this as your crazy Batman cave with all kinds of experiments running around in the background.

David:

That's an interesting and very personal observation. I think well, there's a couple of phenomena, right? One is, the cobbler's kids have no shoes problem, right? Which is, you do spend a lot more time intensely focusing on the things that occupy the bulk of your day, which is clients, and work, and things like that. And you expand a lot of energy doing that. I mean, I find that because I love what I do, I spend a lot of energy outwards in the business. Not because it's necessarily always demanded of me, but because it's like, it's where I would love to put the energy. And I don't often have enough left to come back and restart giant projects here.
The other thing though is if you ask me like what would be a perfect place to live or a perfect space to be in, it would be empty, and it would be material, and maybe the only digital thing in it would be lighting and sound. It wouldn't have screens, it wouldn't have interfaces. And that's not to say those things are bad or not valuable. Obviously, our whole business runs on that. But the context that I want to be in, as an offset for the things I think about all day is, really antithesis to that. It's almost like a more meditative space. So yeah, that's an easy one. I would never design a home space or even a home office in the way that we design spaces for our large clients.

Chris:

Fascinating. So for you, because you're immersed in this stuff all the time, it's almost like your mental floss or your ginger, a palate cleanser. So it's a very neutral space, so that your brain can be free to think of new ideas. It's like your blank canvas, so it's not overstimulating you, right?

David:

Yeah. Well, what's interesting, Chris, too is, like a year before the pandemic, we redesigned our studio, which was bad timing. But it's still there and we're still there on and off. And it'll be there when everything is normal again. But you used the word palate cleanser and ginger, which is great. But the palate cleanser was the formal move we made in the studio. And the studio is similarly minimalist and material, except for a very specific area of a gallery where we set up a lot of the prototypes and the kind tests we did, so people could see and touch the kind of elemental aspects of what we do at a much larger scale. That's all digital and cool. But everything else is very minimal.
And what we did was we created with the architects in [inaudible 00:38:36], we created this volume when you walk in, that I think it's like a 60 foot white extruded box, okay? And concrete floor, white, white, white, that's it. And it's got a single line of light running overhead and it's got these stainless steel fins on the ceiling, that we custom designed and fabricated. So these really beautifully reflected sort of fins that ripple on the ceiling. And all you can do in that first 60 feet, if you're an employee, or a guest, or a client, or a delivery person, is be incredibly self conscious around yourself as a human being and the very minimal gestures we made. And so you're conscious of your steps and the sound ricocheting off the wall. You're conscious of your image and reflection flickering above you, as you kind of progress. And all you see in front of you is a box, which goes out to the windows that overlook the East River.
So it's really self conscious design, intended to be a palate cleanser for everybody who walks in there. There were ideas early on, "Oh, it'll be cool if you put your work up, it'll be beautiful. It'll be like a gallery for the work." And I was like, "No, man." I was like, "I want every designer, every employee who walks in here to forget what they did last night, forget what they're working on and just start fresh every day with just their senses being ready to think about the new problem." And that sort of maybe connects back to like, how would you design your own home? We spend a lot of time in the studio, so that's our home. It's about being conscious of that. And then when we do the work, the work then integrates all the technology pieces, and the flash, and the other stuff that we really put the effort into the work. So the backdrop is this more minimalist canvas studio space, where the work can be seen as differentiated.

Chris:

I like that. In a way that you described that, I think it answered many of the questions and the ideas that you've brought up. In experience design, it starts with an intention, a feeling, you want people to be self reflective, to be almost meditative, so that when they come and see you, they're starting with a blank canvas. By walking through this, they're stripping away what is literally behind them and entering into something different, and that's experience design. And you're using then, the materials, the volume, the surfaces that you think are going to best shape and create that experience. And so perhaps that's what I'm guessing now, that you start off the conversation with whoever's leading a project on the client side, is what is the point of this? What is the feeling? How do you want people to behave? How do you want people to experience this thing? And then allow you then to come up with whatever it is that you think has to happen for them.

David:

That's right. So your palate cleanser, nomenclature is exactly what we use, and it goes back to the question you asked, which is, what do you do when a client say X or Y? And they want Tron or some dad minority report reference? By squeezing them through this tunnel, it reduces all the clutter that they came with, the baggage and it gets them to remember that, "Wow, you can create experiences with just a few moves that make you really conscious of what you're feeling, and seeing, and knowing." That starts at a baseline. And then we can build up from there. Do you really want that? Oh, you do? How would that work? Okay, cool. It's very hard to kind of like rewind from clutter and complexity. So if we start at a nice, simple baseline, we can show them how each additional move, each additional to design layer changes the game, changes the experience one by one. So yeah, it's all coming back. I mean, this was really good. This is where we started that conversation.

Chris:

Okay. I want to rewind a little bit. I'm thinking you and I, we have some crossover in our experience or education. And we both went to Art Center, although you went a few years after me, almost 10 years after me. And we both have a relationship with a gentleman named José [inaudible 00:43:05]. So I wanted to know, okay, you're a founder and a partner at HUSH here. With all the different disciplines that you're exercising, what did you study in school? What prepared you for this moment?

David:

So I think a lot of time prepared me for this moment, school accelerated it. It was like the gasoline on the fire. So a couple things, working backwards. I went to a graduate program called media design at the time, at Art Center. So I had had some time to realize what I didn't want to do and look at and study things I didn't want to do, and really come to the place where I knew what I wanted and I was ready to really push after. And that was a really amazing place at Art Center and a really amazing program. But going backwards, before that, I worked a little bit in San Francisco in interactive design in '99, 2000, 2001. This was a major moment, Hillman Curtis, Flash, Macromedia, the promise of broadband, the web with no bounds. And it was a play space with no UX, anything.
So it was a fun time to be involved there. Before of that, I got a much broader degree when I was in undergrad. I studied architectural history and drawing, but I also did economics and have an economics degree. So I was this like crazy, frenetic mix and mess of not knowing what I wanted and wanting everything simultaneously, which I think set up pretty good for what I ended up doing. So Art Center really kind of like demonstrated, to me, the interdisciplinary nature of design, which was reflected in know what we created at HUSH. I think it allowed me to see that yes, the industry has silos and there's particular companies, and marketplaces, and services, and things like that. But for certain types of design, it's a real melting pot of strategy, and visual design, and sonic design, and physical product.
And I was like, "Where can I do that again and get paid for it?" It was almost like Art Center was amazing, but you could bottle it up as like this thing that maybe only exists in academia. But I kind of just said, "It's interesting. We're solving some interesting problems, so let's see if we can make this into a business." I didn't say that proactively at the time, by the way. I only know this in retrospect. But it became kind of obvious that the way of thinking and the mix of disciplines is sort of what we pursue at HUSH. And by the way, it's not easy. The business model of multidisciplinary design is hard because you're constantly juggling a lot of factors and it's not as clean as a model around let's say identity, or branding, or web design, right? But we did it anyway. And that's how we got there, because we wanted to just be happy and to be able to like flex the muscles we thought we had.

Chris:

Yeah, there's this term that people like to use. And I always bristle, I'm like, "Really?" But I actually think you warrant it. People say they specialize in generalizing. That you just saying, "I'm not going to be committed." But earlier on you said, "I'm really in a niche industry. There's not that many people that do what we do. And the number of clients who are looking for this kind of stuff is actually very small." You're not getting a lot of uninformed buyers that are just randomly poking around on the internet and find you and say, "Oh, today I'll do this thing." But your firm is set up to be highly specialized in experience design, but requires you to have some level of mastery over multiple disciplines because you're the orchestrator. You have to bring it all together for it to work seamlessly. So maybe you're the first person I know that can actually truly claim that you specialize in generalizing. How do you respond to that?

David:

That makes me sound a lot more talented than I am. If you can be both I and T-shaped or you could specialize and generalize. I think I'm really good at pretending I know a lot about a lot. And I know enough about a lot to kind of weave things together. So you said the word mastery, I don't think that's it, right? I look at everyone at my company and I'm like, "Wow, they're so much better and capable in almost any single discipline, whether it be technical, in terms of like you can render, or you can animate." But even more than that, from a knowledge, and career path, and understanding of how production truly works, how technology development, R and D truly...
I mean, I rely on those people being incredibly smart. But maybe I am good at orchestrating how those minds come together in the right order, and sequence, and waiting to sort of deliver what we want to deliver, as all these forces interplay on each other, right? If every project really has so much to do with the built environment, technological innovation and possibility, and time and money, what do you lead with? What one's driving at any given time? And that's kind of where I really lean in. I can kind of know when to really push creatively, or really push into form, or really ask that we stretch the technological boundary, or really say, "This thing has got to generate a ton of profit right now."
And being able to steer in that way, I think, is good. And I have a great bunch of people who help, like once we kind of steer in a direction, like how are we going to keep going that way? So that's kind of a cop-out, but I enjoy learning from everybody. And I stay enough apprised that like, you could throw me in any boardroom for like an hour and I'll sound super smart. But if I have to stay there for like two hours or three hours, I'm going to start to get to the limits of what I know. But that's great because I can just punt it to, "Hey, smart person there, you told about that. Why don't you talk about that?"

Chris:

Or you do the disappearing act, the Clark Kent. It's like, "You know what? I have an emergency. I forgot, I got to leave, you guys. Thanks. I'll leave at a genius and I'll walk away at this point." Okay, I want to come back to this thing where for a person like me, who barely finished one degree highly focused on graphic design and packaging at that time, that's what it was called. It's hard for me to even put myself in your shoes. I mean, let's look at it, undergraduate degree, architecture history, what does one even do with something like that? Interested in economics.
Okay, what are you going to do? You going to give tours at the museum? What are we doing here with our lives? Right, David? And then you're like, "You know what, let me go back and get my master's degree." Finally, somebody's like, "All right, you're going to make an adult decision, you're going to do this thing." And then you pick media design? You pick the most abstract, weird things. I have to ask you this question. Did you know that all these pieces were going to come together to prime you to be in this position that you're in today?

David:

No, of course not. That's the folly of everybody in an audience watching a speaker speak or listening to a podcast for that matter, which is everyone had it all planned out and you're just punching the list of things you needed to do. And you had the Google Map directions to what you want to do. In retrospect, everything's a straight line. But in life, everything's really curvy, and stop and start, and steps forward and back. So your notes are good, but they leave out a little bit of nuance, in the sense that I was always making stuff, and designing stuff, and drawing buildings, and throwing pottery. And it was there, always.
But my father was an entrepreneur, had his own business. That was a model that I understood and probably was like, "Yeah, should I work for someone or do that?" And so it was understood to me, as a possibility. Like, "Oh, you can run your own business." So, that was there. So the economic stuff was just like, "Man, you probably have no basics of how things work from a small standpoint of like a business, to a marketplace, to a country, to the globe, it would be nice to have that language." I found it completely useless, frankly, it was academic at best. But I thought that was something interesting to explore. So it was always pulling on these like qualitative and quantitative characteristics.
So if you ping pong, them back and forth between that enough, maybe you end up at Art Center, at a program that posits that you can use those ingredients to make interesting design. So Art Center was a huge pivotal leap for me. I slept on that floor every night. I think I worked harder than I do now. And it was transformative. It was like I could not consume enough. I could not be more intimidated by looking through the glass of the labs and seeing stuff happen. And being like, "Who is doing that? What is that on their screen? I could never do that." So it was this feeling of just such, just intimidation that it motivated me to like, I don't know, do anything. And frankly, I wasn't amazing. So I was just trying to like fight my way through it, to try to learn and do as much as possible.
If you continue to draw lines between a few of the same things that you know you had a interest in and repeated enthusiasm, and you're just going to get a tighter circle over time. I also wanted to make sure the audience knows, you were pretty self deprecating about barely finishing undergrad. And you also barely finished undergrad fine, but you started an amazing company that was like, had this lore about it when I was in school, that was like, "Oh, blind [inaudible 00:53:12]." So you should give yourself a lot of credit there. It left a legacy of like, Holy shit, we want to do that. I want to do that." So you had a good influence.

Chris:

Well, I appreciate you saying that. Okay, I have more questions than time. So I'm going to ask you to do something, which I normally don't do. I want to do rapid fire. Can you do rapid fire with me?

David:

Absolutely.

Chris:

Okay, because there's like five or six burning questions and I want to get through this, so-

David:

Okay, I'll keep my response short.

Chris:

Sure, please. I wonder if you're unemployable, in that nothing was going to fit you. So you have to make your own thing. How do you respond to that?

David:

That is a very true statement. And it's also, to be very candid, a fear inducing statement. Whenever HUSH has had any bumps in our history, the idea that I would ever not have this vestige of myself and being, to optimize what I want to do in the world is incredibly fear inducing. And I've had to wrestle with that a couple times in our history. Not currently, so that's good, but yeah.

Chris:

Okay. So if I'm to take that one step further then, because you know your nature and what you want in life, did you burn, not purposely, but is the bridge behind you burnt? There's no retreat. It's like, you got to do this or there's no plan B for you? You got to make this work no matter what.

David:

Yeah. There's no plan B because it's optimizing all the things I like and think about naturally, and I'm genuinely interested in, and have longevity in themselves. So they're not finite. I'm not going to run out of desire to think about human beings, and the way we operate in this world, and how we perceive and feel based on design. I can die and if I do that from now until then I'll be happy. I think what I want to make sure I'm doing, personally, and this is part of HUSH and also addition to it, is that what HUSH is and what I do at HUSH, is constantly evolving, right? So HUSH, 10 years ago is not what HUSH was five years ago, is not what it is now. And my role in the company is changing over time. So as long as I can iterate within that framework and create tangential things, and add-ons, and side projects that all stew in the mix, I'm happy.

Chris:

I think Steve jobs said, at Stanford, during this commencement speech that you can't connect the dots looking forward, you can only see them looking backwards. So if I'm a young person and I hear that, "Look how it worked out for David, he's a creative unicorn." And I'm in high school and I'm listening to this and thinking, "It's all going to just work out." Or is it? Because you're the success, and maybe there's a couple other people, maybe the majority is, they had a hard time bringing all these disparate interests together.
What kind of advice or gem can you throw at them, where they're navigating these weird interests in different things that are not even connected, remotely, they're very divergent in their thinking, and they want to land where you landed? Not in the experience design, but finding and creating a life for themselves based on their superpower, their interests. What can you say to them to help them avoid crashing and dying? Not literally, but burning out and having success.

David:

So I think it's about being very self reflective and very self conscious and about being very demanding about what you want to do on this planet, what you feel you want to accomplish on this planet. And I mean that you should be constantly evaluating if what you're doing today is bringing you happiness, has enough room to explore, do you see enough runway ahead? Do you see people in the ecosystem around you that are who you would want to be in X number of years? Do you see how your role can evolve? Is it bringing your satisfaction? Do you have runway?
And if you constantly are asking yourself that, well then maybe what you're doing is just picking up an experience and adding it to your bucket. And at some point you might realize, "You know what? I understand this and there's more to pursue, but I might want to pursue something else because that also seems interesting." So do that, be self reflective, add that to your bucket. Hopefully, they're not totally disparate in opposite directions, right? Hopefully, they're somewhat in the world together. So you're constantly putting together what becomes this really massive and wonderful Venn diagram of your experiences in life, and professionally, and you're amassing skills.
And those skills relate to other skills, but not exactly the same and you're drawing lines between everything. And that's your professional life. I mean that's life, but that's your professional life. And I think at the end or let's say farther down the line, you become able to better frame out what you really enjoy and what you do best within all of those circles. And hopefully, you can find some place where that role and that sort of output is really valued. If you stop being self reflective at any point, that's when five years go by and you don't know what the heck happened. And now you're off on a trajectory way away from the thing that you loved. So I would say be ruthlessly self reflective, but also know that you're picking up a bunch of skills that take time. You just got to be in the game.

Chris:

That's probably a good point for us to wrap up our conversation. But I'm not going to let it go there, since it really so nicely tied together that tunnel you were talking about, physically being self reflective. And now you're saying, from a career, life point of view, be self reflective, so they mirror each other. But I wanted to just throw this out there. This may not be accurate, so feel free to change or answer this any which way you want. The experience design that you're doing now, as we see it, isn't like the cathedral or the church, from my point of view, that was built hundreds of years ago, because you're integrating so many different things and it's a fast evolving industry.
So just, I would say even a few years back, perhaps this thing called experience design, isn't even a thing. And then when you go to the Art Center, media design sounds like a pretty new thing to me too. And you're constantly jumping into new things without any certainty that any of this is ever going to work out. Maybe you don't even see it coming together just yet, at that point in time, I have to guess some sense of fear has to be overcome with some sense of faith that it's going to work. I don't mean religious faith, but just faith that, you know what? I'm smart, I'll figure it out. If the opportunity doesn't present itself, I'll either make it or I'll adapt and I'll change. How do you respond to that?

David:

Yeah, when you're trying to define what an industry or a marketplace may be, you have to place some bets. And I think we're always a little bit out over our skis with what we think is going to be buyable, viable, interesting, valuable. And some of that is faith or maybe better said, gut about what you think would be wonderful, beautiful, and valuable. And I don't think we're so far out that it's a win or lose sort of mentality. But we've definitely been out too far at times in our history. And then we've also been not to far enough, we flew a little bit not enough on the innovation curve, and that constant juggle is still present. Look to what just happened in the world.
You think that on March or February 1st, 2021, I was talking at a conference in Amsterdam about experience design and how important it is and how it can be the inspirational touchpoint for workplaces and places of commerce and culture. And how this kind of stuff is what draws people out and keeps people there. A month later, if I had said the same thing on any stage, I would've been laughed at. So I stood at the edge of that precipice, which was, is what we're doing here not viable in this world anymore? And I think, as a company, we had the faith to know that humanity, much I said before, we got thousands of years of DNA motivating us to be out in the world and to experience things. And so this is a blip on the radar and ultimately there's value in quality experiences that exist in the real world. So we had to have a lot of faith in that moment and now it's kind of coming back in the way that proves it.

Chris:

Wonderful, love it. Thank you very much, David, for being my guest today on our podcast, for sharing your story, your experience. And I think there's going to be a lot of people who are going to be able to jump into this, feel slightly reassured that what they're doing will add up and I love this thing, I think you said three Vs, but I couldn't make out the first or whatever, viable, valuable. What was the third V?

David:

I think it might have been inspirational or I don't know. I wish there was a third V, because three Vs are better than two Vs-

Chris:

I thought you were like just dropping rhymes on us with alliteration, everything. Okay, so make sure that what you're doing is viable, valuable, and that you have some runway and just be reflective of all that, wonderful. Thank you very much, David.

David:

Hey, great to talk to you too, Chris. Thanks. My name is David Schwarz and you're listening to The Futur.

Greg Gunn:

Thanks for joining us this time. If you haven't already, subscribe to our show on your favorite podcasting app and get a new insightful episode from us every week, The Futur Podcast is hosted by Chris Do and produced by me, Greg Gunn. Thank you to Anthony Barrow for editing and mixing this episode and thank you to Adam Sanborne for our intro music. If you enjoyed this episode, then do us a favor by rating and reviewing our show on Apple Podcasts.
It'll help us grow the show and make future episodes that much better. Have a question for Chris or me, head over to thefutur.com/heychris and ask away. We read every submission and we just might answer yours in a later episode. If you'd like to support the show and invest in yourself while you're at it, visit thefutur.com. You'll find video courses, digital products, and a bunch of helpful resources about design and creative business. Thanks again for listening and we'll see you next time.

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