Designing The Feeling of Fast

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By David Schwarz, partner at HUSH, a New York–based design agency known for its experience design

The experience design industry developed out of a need to convey a brand, product or community message. The built spaces and places in which we interact can be motivational, intelligent, subversive, or luxurious. For example, the environment of a high-end restaurant creates a fixation on its food, its preparation, ingredients, origins, and presentation. The same food can be created and served in a small suburban kitchen, but the design of a high-touch environment itself hyperbolizes the act of cooking and eating, and elevates it to Olympian status.

For brands whose products offer the unique benefit of speed and performance—from Equinox’s data-driven group fitness experience The Pursuit, to Tesla’s shockingly fast acceleration times, to Uber’s efficiency optimization algorithms, and even TInder’s own UX-redefining interface, designed for fast decision-making (and perhaps fast hookups)—these brand experiences seek to deliver the same hyperbolized level of fixation. Every detail speaks to the particular brand’s approach to designing speed, be it through engineering, technology, community, competition or training.

Everyone wants to be faster at something—and for good reason. In most contexts, “fast” is attractive, as in intelligence, efficiency, “go getters” and athletes. For sports brands, “fast” implies that you are strong, in shape and optimized, and the products you wear are lighter, stronger and more aerodynamic. But even outside of sports, “fast” is aspirational. As our attraction to designing “fast” extends from the physical products we use to the less tangible digital brand experiences we desire, the perception of high speed begins to sit at the center of a brand’s core strategy.

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Creating the “Fast” Experience

The design of speed has been studied for decades. Over this time, it’s become more refined in depth, moving deeper in scale, to the atomic level of materials and human physiology. This focus has led to the creation of full brand experiences dedicated to communicating the feeling of “fast.”

The “streamlining” era began at the turn of the previous century. In the early 1900s, engineers took cues from the shapes of natural elements and bodies that move quickly and gracefully—sea life, birds and graceful animals—and integrated this curvature into large mechanized structures and transportation. (See Buckminster Fuller’s “Dymaxion Car” and the Burlington Zephyr train, as well as industrial design products at the human scale.) This movement was led in part by the industrial designer Raymond Loewy, often called the “Father of Streamlining,” who took on everything from refrigerators and cars, to interiors and cooking pans with his illustrative, fashion-inspired, streamlined designs.

Modern design firms, architects and artists have continued to take some of these cues to develop physical spaces that feel fast simply in their visual design. The result is spaces that are extra-long, incredibly organic, or have a forced perspective to appear even more extreme in their movement, angles and lean.

More relevantly, many techniques have evolved to include the use of elements such as light and sound to inform the perceived “speed” of an experience, integrating content in the form of digital graphics, video, animation and light, as well as distributed, multi-channel sound, music or tonalities. This approach spotlights not only the infinite visual or aural depictions of speed, but an inherent movement for audiences—they might be quickly drawn to bright areas, might seek out the source of a sound effect or converge where all of the above unite.

The result of this physical and digital innovation has been increasingly diverse ways of representing “speed” and creating “fast” experiences. Designers have moved light and sound down long tunnels as a proxy for audiences to experience Olympic running speed, aggregated the data of speed to demonstrate the collective output of fast running, and visualized the speed of serves for top United States Tennis Association players. We’ve developed fast experiences to represent the future of consumer technology, engaging the world’s best creative technologists and developers in games of speed.

Most interestingly, however, is how these elements have converged to create the feeling of “fast” via interactivity. Whereas designers can design “speed” into physical forms and control digital outputs to behave in fast ways (fast-moving imagery, fast-moving sound effects), they can also ask the audience (customer, user, member or participant) to become the stimulus for “speed.”

This has led to interactive games that pit 1:1 runners in a sprint to their personal bests and group cycling experiences that seek to control the physiological and psychological effects of maintaining speed for a top-tier workout. As such, we’ve moved past the “streamline” era that focused on physical and visual form. We must now begin to see speed through the lens of the invisible—real-time data, human interaction and dynamic content. Brands must leverage these assets to form closer connections with their audiences that deliver on their own versions of “fast.”

When “Fast” Is Too Fast

Speed and sports have obviously shared a long history, not only in building better athletes but also when it comes to marketing and branding.

However, the dirty secret of our speed-obsessed culture is that many of us aren’t truly interested in speed at all. Most customers know they aren’t going to approach the speed of a Usain Bolt or be otherwise satisfied by their current speed. According to NPD Group’s Consumer Tracking Service, only 25% of fitness-based footwear is actually used for its intended use.

So, if three out of four people are wearing sneakers as fashion, and 99.9% of customers will never play sports at a professional level, designing experiences that seek to accentuate speed as a sales or branding tool means brands might be missing the bell curve of their audiences.

Yet, the nuance around “fast” or “speed” comes in terms of how brands position themselves around this shared attribute. All brands think about speed in some way—not just sport and footwear brands. In the gross majority of cases, speed is a shared value for everything from sports to e-commerce to digital applications. With a few exceptions, like fine dining or health and wellness, speed transcends industry category.

Speed remains an access point to many other brand attributes that will always matter to customers: lightness, efficiency, endurance and innovation. These all share an aspect of delivering a form of speed for their customers, and that’s why designing “fast” remains an important challenge.

You don’t design to win awards.

But being able to say Aaron Draplin, Jessica Hische, Pum Lefebure, Ellen Lupton, Eddie Opara and Paula Scher think your work is the best in the country is a hell of a nice feeling.

Enter the PRINT Regional Design Awards by the April 3 deadline.

Draplin image: Leah Nash. Hische: Helena Price. Lupton: Michelle Qureshi. Scher: Ian Roberts.

Draplin image: Leah Nash. Hische: Helena Price. Lupton: Michelle Qureshi. Scher: Ian Roberts.