Many architects and their clients share a common lament: “The building didn't turn out the way we hoped.” While the usual list of suspects—budget, time frame, operational requirements, regulations, team dynamics, and (my personal favorite) impracticality—are trotted out to explain it, there is no denying the palpable disappointment felt on both sides as another rare opportunity to do something new and wonderful is missed. Even award-winning projects, such as those that frequently grace these pages, all too often are damned with faint praise: “It's beautiful, but….” Because this happens with such regularity, it is fair to conclude that something other than unmet expectations or unfulfilled functional requirements must be to blame.

In fact, there is something bigger going on. The entire basis of the economy is changing, and people's expectations of their buildings are changing right along with it. We are moving from an economy largely based on making goods and providing services to one increasingly based on staging experiences (see my partner Joe Pine's book The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage [by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, Harvard Business School Press, 1999] for more on this important development). It is no longer enough for our buildings to more beautifully or more efficiently house something old; they must more meaningfully and memorably enable something new. And if our buildings are to be the new stages upon which the new experience offerings are performed, then it follows that the tried-and-true wisdom of “form follows function” must be expanded. In fact, form follows function and function must follow experience.

It makes sense, then, that with the explosion in construction of new healthcare facilities, the most important field of study needed for them to fulfill their promise lies outside healthcare. This article, and several more in this series, will take you to the front lines of the Experience Economy. There we will glean the five most important lessons for your work in experience-oriented design [for a preview, see the sidebar called “The Five Lessons”]. We will focus not on implementing best practices, which relate more to performing a procedure more successfully, but rather on “best principles,” which allow more leeway for creative expression.

While all five lessons are important and will be discussed at length in future articles in this series, there is none more foundational than Lesson 1: Harness the power of a theme. As will be discussed here, the theme will direct all subsequent aspects of the experience from which function and form will follow.

An Experience Expedition

Before we start on our mini-Experience Expedition to discover the transforming power of a theme, think back on the last five or six times you've stayed in a hotel. What was it like? How about the lobby? The room? The amenities? The restaurants and shops? The staff? The wake-up call? If you are like most people, the similarities in your experience of these far outweigh the differences: rectangular lobbies, rectangular elevators, rectangular rooms, and predictable staff functions and wardrobe. Some are fancy, some are spartan, but all are essentially similar. That's because hotels have been designed on the basic proposition that they provide housing and service needed for an overnight stay. But what if, instead of providing a service, everything were built around the idea of staging a unique and themed experience? Let's go to the hotels in Las Vegas….

Just the names “Caesars Palace” and “The Forum Shops,” “The Venetian,” “Paris,” and “New York-New York” promise something different. You see and experience the power of their referential themes: Be ancient Rome. Be Venice. Be Paris. Be New York. The theme informs the building, but it also informs the “performance” that takes place inside. Staff hiring, training, and costuming; propping; facility features; and signature moments—all take their cue from the theme and, thus, comprise an engaging whole. At its best, no themed detail is too small to pay attention to. (For example, in addition to replicas of the New York skyline façade and a Coney Island–roller coaster, when New York-New York opened, the door handles were Statue of Liberty torches, the change carts were New York Yellow Cabs, and the wake-up calls played music from Broadway shows and comedy bits by comedian Rita Rudner.) Decisions about everything are based on the theme. The theme directs operations and, because performance and place are conceived together, something distinctive emerges.

That distinction, more than anything else, explains the striking financial performance of these new venues. Remember, conventional Las Vegas wisdom had said that everything except the gambling had to be dirt cheap. How, then, to explain the new and substantial room rates and restaurant prices, and the fact that The Forum Shops is the number one mall in the world based on sales per square foot? It all lies in the power of the themed experience.

But lest you think themed experiences are possible only with Las Vegas–size budgets, let's go to the real New York City and a remodeled boutique hotel. A confined floor plan was the old hotel's biggest drawback, but the down-the-street New York Public Library location was its biggest asset. If you knew nothing else but the new name of the property, The Library Hotel, and the fact that its operating theme is the Dewey decimal system, could you describe it? I'll bet you could get pretty close (figure 1). Such is the power and clarity of a theme that determines what's put in and what's left out.

Each of the ten floors of The Library Hotel is themed after one of the ten major categories of the Dewey decimal system, with each of the six rooms on that floor themed and adorned with a collection of books and art exploring a distinctive topic within that category. For example, the seventh floor is The Arts floor: room 700.001 is themed after Architecture, 700.002 Paintings, 700.003 Sculpture, 700.004 Photography, 700.005 Music, and 700.006 Theatre. With this theme, you could stay in the hotel 60 times and never have the same experience twice. Moreover, the breakfast area is a reading room, and the hotel hosts tie-in events when famous authors visit New York for book signings. Within the rooms (figure 2), inspirational bookmarks are placed on your pillow at night. Not surprisingly, literacy programs are the focus of the hotel's charitable giving.

Industry articles about the uniqueness of this property have continued to appear long after its opening in August 2000, and the guest return rate is so high that The Library Hotel is often sold out, even though it does no advertising. And, in a stroke of good fortune, the city of New York has renamed the street on which the hotel is located Library Way, and has just finished installing permanent banners (figure 3) and sidewalk markers (figure 4) celebrating the importance of libraries.

Ah, the power of a theme.

Imagining Healthcare

Now let's have you try something in your own bailiwick. Imagine there is a hospital built around this operating theme: “Not just a place of recovery, but of discovery.” Knowing only this theme and nothing else, write down your description of a hospital conceptualized around the theme of discovery (space is provided for your notes in the sidebar called “My Thoughts”). What would the hospital, this place of discovery, look like? What about the main entrance? The elevator lobbies? The patient rooms? What unique functions would the building offer, and what unique functions would the staff perform?

It is indeed a powerful theme and, in fact, a real one. It is the theme of The Children's Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx, New York. Scientist/author Carl Sagan's estate helped fund the vision of a hospital as “a place of discovery.” It is featured in the May 2002 issue of the magazine Fast Company. From the fabulous “discovery”-themed architecture and interior design, to the invention of the wonderful new role of “Explainers”—teenagers hired to answer (or get answers to) young patients' questions about everything from their medical condition and procedures to how to download music from the in-room computers—Fast Company thought this facility deserved the moniker of “the most inspiring hospital in the world,” with lessons that extended far beyond healthcare. (If you would like a copy of the article, drop me an e-mail at

Best Principle

So what is the underlying principle that we can extract from the theme work done by these “experience businesses?” It can best be summarized using this simple mnemonic:

Theme the experience.

Harmonize impressions with positive cues.

Eliminate negative cues.

Mix in memorabilia.

Engage all five senses.

Keep your theme short; three-word themes are best. Use your theme to design and manage both the physical place and the performance conducted within. The theme will help you achieve six important goals for the building: (1) to communicate what's intended; (2) to establish a unique sense of place; (3) to begin the personalization process; (4) to orchestrate events and activities and the space in which they occur; (5) to captivate the customer; and (6) to turn the mundane into the memorable.

The theme is at the heart of experience creation by design. Harness it now. And watch for four more articles exploring four more lessons from the exciting new developments in the Experience Economy. HD

Gary Adamson is Chief Experience Officer of Starizon, an Experience Design center in Keystone, Colorado


The Five Lessons

Lesson 1: Harness the power of a theme.

Lesson 2: Make the experience personal.

Lesson 3: Design onstage and offstage.

Lesson 4: Cast and rehearse the actors

Lesson 5: Build it on the inside.


The Experience Discovery Award

As part of the forthcoming HEALTHCARE DESIGN.05 Conference on November 6–9, Starizon is announcing the new Experience Discovery Award. This award will be given to the project that most embodies The Five Lessons From the Experience Economy. Further information to come.