I cringe when I hear the word “theme” in an entertainment design meeting. I begin the internal debate about whether I’ll need to correct its usage. Too often, I know, the discussion will result in blank stares. And yet, I can’t resist. A misunderstanding of how the basic elements of literature can be advantageously applied to designing experiences is too risky. It is, in my humble opinion, the reason many experiences rooted in narrative (or claiming to be) fall short of their potential. But when properly applied, these tools tease out imperative discussion points during the early exploration phase and empower a team to drive toward a common vision infinitely more quickly.
Perhaps I should curse the day I first heard Joe Rohde speak on the subject. After all, wouldn’t it be easier to avoid the debates and just give the client, partner, or investor exactly what they’re asking for? But that would be disingenuous. In reality, Joe opened my eyes that day – and on many occasions since – by putting into words what I already knew deep down.
I was sitting in a class called “Imagineering: The Art and Process of Entertainment Design” at UCLA. The course (my favorite of all the incredible courses I took while in graduate school at UCLA) was taught by Bruce Vaughn, who was then the head of the R&D group at Walt Disney Imagineering and later because the Chief Creative Executive at WDI. It blended lectures by Vaughn and guests from various fields of expertise within Imagineering with hands-on design work. Joe Rohde was the guest lecturer that day.
If you haven’t met Joe, add that to your bucket list. He is incredibly interesting and conveys a powerful mastery of the process of developing experiences that connect with guests on a deep emotional level. On this occasion, he was discussing the development of the Animal Kingdom concept, of which he was the lead designer.
Joe described sitting in a mobile office on the plot designated for the new park for more than a year, debating the foundation elements of the concept. What did the terms “Animal,” “Kingdom,” and “Animal Kingdom” actually mean in the context of an attraction. What was the park’s theme? Joe went on to describe a great misnomer in the entertainment design industry. He pointed out that most people would assume that the theme of Animal Kingdom was pretty straightforward – it’s about animals, right? And the theme must be “African prairie” or “safari” or something like that. And the “theming” is all of the decorations and props, isn’t it? Not quite.
So, a middle-school lesson in literature. What most people call a “theme” would be more appropriately labeled a “setting” or, at times, a “motif.” I grabbed my daughter’s 7th grade “Elements of Literature” textbook to find the following definitions of literary elements that play a significant role in entertainment design:
Atmosphere: The overall mood or emotion of a work of literature. A work’s atmosphere can often be described with one or two adjectives, such as scary, dreamy, happy, sad, or nostalgic. A writer creates atmosphere by using images, sounds, and descriptions that convey a particular feeling.
Setting: The time and place in which the events of a work of literature take place. Setting often contributes to the story’s emotional effect.
Theme: The truth about life revealed in a work of literature. A theme is not the same as a subject. The subject of a work can usually be expressed by a word or two: love, childhood, death. The theme is the idea that the writer wishes to convey about a particular subject. The theme must be expressed in at least one sentence. For instance: Prejudice is the fearful, unseen enemy within each of us.
A story can have several themes, but one will often stand out from the others. A work’s themes are usually not stated directly. You have to think about all the elements of the work and use them to make an inference, or educated guess, about what the themes are.
It is not likely that two readers will ever state a theme in exactly the same way. Sometimes readers even differ greatly in their interpretation of theme. A work of literature can mean different things to different people.
Why does it matter? I’ve heard Joe speak about this distinction on several occasions, and he always touches on three main benefits.
First, since themes tell “the truth about life,” they resonate with guests on a deep level. Imbuing an experience with such a truth makes people think. It makes them feel something. That’s the point of telling stories, right? Even stories that people experience in real dimension.
Second, a well-defined theme provides a unified vision for the design team and makes it easier for a lead designer to trust the team to deliver on the design intent. While the audience observes atmoshpere, setting, and storyline before it recognizes the theme, the storyteller develops the theme first and uses the the setting to create an atmoshpere in which a story can be told that conveys the theme. Of course, in practice the process is fuzzier than that, but the more a team can adhere to that approach, the easier small design decisions get.
From memory, Joe described the themes of Animal Kingdom as “the sanctity of nature” and “the struggle between man and nature.” This deeper meaning conjures more vivid images for designers than a simple “safari” setting. One now begins to imagine a structure that was built too close to a sapling and is now structurally questionable because the tree’s roots are cracking the building’s foundation and the trunk is pushing through the roof and wall.
The theme makes small design decisions easier as well. Consider, for example, a junior designer working on concepts for doors. In the case of the Animal Kingdom’s themes, what kind of materials will the door be made of? Will it look new or weathered? Will the knob’s shape be geometric or organic? What details are engraved on it? How much have those worn over time? Suddenly a senior designer can breathe a bit easier and trust that the details will at least approximate the right the original intent.
Third, staging experiences that are rooted in meaningful themes is more fulfilling for the design team. As Joe likes to say, a client is never going to ask you to infuse the experience with a deeper meaning. But doing so will make you feel like you are making a difference in society and in people’s lives. Now, I’m not advocating for hidden agendas that advance political views, etc. But dimensional experiences provide a powerful platform for connecting people, exploring “truths” that are meaningful to entire cultures, and helping people learn something about themselves. Doing so will make you more passionate about your projects and help you feel more connected to the intended audience.
Theme. Setting. Atmoshpere. Motif. Just words, right? Yes. And their definitions are certainly fluid. But the concept of letting a project’s deeper meaning dictate more of the concept development and design decisions is powerful, even though it may make some stakeholders nervous that it’s taking “too long to start the real design.”
But, you may ask, if it’s so challenging to get everyone aligned behind the right theme and the theme is so essential to a story-based approach to location-based entertainment, why not just avoid it altogether? Is story that meaningful? We’ll explore that question in the near future.