Austin Design Week Recap: Designing for Experience

From left, Matt DeMartino (Handsome), Tim League, Adam Deutsch (Handsome) and yours truly

As many of you know, we hosted a few unique events during Austin Design Week earlier this month in partnership with Handsome, an Austin-based digital design agency. We were so honored to be part of this city-wide spotlight on design, and particularly, to have the opportunity to speak with and learn from the leaders behind some of Austin’s most influential brands and experience makers. A few commonalities surfaced over the course of our events, and we found them so inspiring that we wanted to share it all in a little recap!

First, what does “designing for experience” mean? For any company or service-based business, every interaction is a reflection of the brand. For us, specifically, it’s a prospective client’s first touchpoint: website, social media, recommendation from a friend, the initial phone call/email exchange, first in-person meeting, etc. that sets the tone and every touchpoint that follows through the life of the project. How we handle problems and bumps along the way, how we communicate both in written and digital/presentation form as we design, plan, purchase, oversee, and coordinate to get to the end result. After a project ends, the experience continues:  staying in touch and top of mind with clients, having a retrospective to get feedback about what went well and what we can improve on, understanding how our clients’ friends and families—or in the case of commercial work—employees and patrons interact with and feel about the spaces we’ve designed.

Given our take on designing for experience, it was great fun learning about how some of our favorite local businesses have done it successfully. Our goal for the events was to facilitate actual conversations between our host/featured guest and the participants. We wanted the events to be small enough to encourage a dialogue. Have a question? Ask it as it comes to you and let’s see how that influences or redirects the conversation. We limited our two main events to 20-30 people and were successfully able to make it truly conversational.

Tim League Talks Movies & Preservation, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema- South Lamar

We organized a lively Sunday evening talk with Alamo Drafthouse founder and CEO Tim League, including  a slideshow of photos showing the early days of starting the theatre and delving deep into uncovering how he reimagined the movie-going experience. Tim told wonderful stories about where and how he and his wife got started.  (Note: the first iteration of Alamo was actually in Bakersfield, CA under the name Tejon!)

Tejon, precursor to Alamo, based in Bakersfield, CA., depicted in a quick slideshow with photos League provided

Tim is a fascinating person; he has long-held interests and hobbies and has brought together so many of them through his various endeavors. He’s managed to weave together his respect and love for preservation (including cinematic, architectural, board games, and a bevy of other platforms) that decidedly make one “look back” while simultaneously “looking forward” by embracing new technology that advances the film-going experience and streamlines digital processes so the physical processes are seamless.

Tim League telling one of his many captivating stories.

Some of Tim’s pioneering innovations include:

  • Introducing a strict no talk/no text policy during films, featuring celebrities and public figures to drive the message home (the message being pretty clear: you talk or text, you get booted out without a refund)
  • Being the first to offer reserved seating and bring table service to theater seats (which is becoming more seamless through the use of technology for order placement and payment)
  • Tailoring previews in lieu of ads and, often, menus to the movie attendees are about to watch
  • Creating off-shoot events related to specific movies and genres

After the discussion, we moved the party to the adjacent Highball where Tim led a hands-on demo of a 1938 Vandercook letterpress, which he acquired along with a full archive of posters and press plates that will be featured in his soon-to-open Manhattan bar The Press Room, where customers will be able to choose a plate off a wall and create a souvenir poster on the press while sipping cocktails—how cool is that?! Creating a memorable experience in the truest sense.

Handsome designed a poster specifically for our event and attendees were able to print their own souvenirs to commemorate the evening.

Top: The plate for our custom poster that guests printed on the 1938 Vandercook letterpress; Bottom: Guests had a blast running the press and making their own posters

Since founding Alamo Drafthouse, Tim has been successful because he’s authentic and true to his ideas. He’s capitalized on the fact that his seemingly niche interests and points of view are actually not so niche—they’re shared by masses of now-loyal fans, and he’s delivered an energized movie-going experience that is continuing to grow across the country.

A Behind-the-scenes Look at the Food, History, and Holistic Experience, Swift’s Attic

Our little nook at the Swift’s Attic event with CK Chin

The next night, I moderated an intimate (about 25 people) dinner and discussion with Swift’s Attic founder, C.K. Chin, exploring how the history, location, and discoveries in the construction process influenced and helped solidify the concept, design, and menu for this busy downtown Austin restaurant. C.K. and his team served a selection of food and drinks, coursed out family-style in keeping with the Swift’s dining experience. C.K. shared with us why he chose those specific items, how they came to be, when they first debuted on the menu, and why some are still available after years of menu iterations.

C.K. is a truly dynamic individual: He worked his way up the restaurant food chain with no formal culinary education and now co-owns several of Austin’s most successful concepts. He’s also a dedicated philanthropist with a particular interest in getting underserved or overlooked youth involved in the arts. Additionally, he’s BIG into the music scene. All his interests influence his restaurants’ menus (including drink names and ingredients based on song lyrics) and the overall atmosphere. Swift’s was the first restaurant in Austin to pair fine dining with a backdrop of 90’s hip hop—foie gras and Tupac? Why not? Until then, restaurants played quiet, diluted versions of songs that no one would ever listen to at home or in their cars. C.K. brought it into the restaurant, making that experience feel more like home with its shared, family-style plates, knowledgeable but approachable staff, and his unique take on dishes. Every menu item, whether suggested by a chef, a bartender, or a dishwasher has to pass the “is it Swifty enough?” test, meaning does it use common ingredients in uncommon ways and uncommon ingredients in common ways, and is it unique but still accessible and approachable. For example, the popular (and long-served) Charred Edamame appetizer is spiced up with a sweet chili oil and pop rocks that explode in your mouth. Talk about memorable!

Our custom “Swifty” special tasting menu
Photo credit: Killy Scheer

C.K. also walked us through the story of how the renovation and build out turned into an archeological dig of sorts as the layers were peeled from the hundred-year-old interior to reveal history worth preserving. Decades-old carpet was ripped up to reveal plywood subfloor that, when ripped up to explore an area that showed signs of leaking, uncovered original long-leaf pine flooring in immaculate condition. Removing years of drywall and wallpaper uncovered a brick wall (formerly an exterior wall) featuring what was a billboard on Congress Avenue showing a map of local train stops from the late 1800s, before the space was home to Swift’s Premium Foods Co.  These finds were incorporated into the  decor of the restaurant, accenting the natural historic beauty and character and, of course, blending in modern elements.

C.K. has never been motivated by what would sell or keep his restaurant concepts current: his authenticity and willingness to take a risk and offer a different dining experience has driven his success—and longevity—in a VERY fickle Austin foodie market, where restaurants come and go in the blink of an eye. As with Tim League, his openness to feedback has kept his concepts fresh and flexible.

Closing Panel and Wrap Party at H-E-B Design Headquarters

At the end of the (long!) week, we again partnered with Handsome to host a well-attended closing event at the newly opened H-E-B Digital Headquarters with a panel discussion on how to create memorable, inclusive experiences and what “designing for experience” meant to each of us.

Adam Deutsch, Co-founder and Design Partner at Handsome, moderated a lively panel consisting of myself;  OJ Hornung, Director of Product Design, HEB; Amenity Applewhite, Product Manager, Austin Transportation; Jason Wilkins, Senior Designer, Page; and Jazz Mills, Event Producer, Pearl Music Fest.

Once again, what surfaced was that authenticity drives success, breaking molds, being fearless in one’s endeavors, seeking out and synthesizing feedback, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and yielding positive results, and memorable customer experiences.

How we define success and work to create memorable experiences for our clients at Scheer & Co. is a much longer discussion—stay tuned for insights in a future post!

Top: The panel; Center: Attendees during the panel discussion and Austin Design Week recap; Bottom: Guests enjoying drinks at HEB Digitals in-house bar

Photo credit for all events: Cambria Harkey