Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Is Themed Entertainment Ready for Design Thinking?

Disney's Beauty and the Beast

If you've been following the media you've probably noticed that news coverage of Design Thinking has taken off. A recent search of Google News returned several stories mentioning organizations from Apple to Whirlpool and fields from Medical to Offshore Oil and Gas turning to Design Thinking to solve all types of "wicked" complex, ambiguous problems and open new markets.  With all that hot press, you'd think that the most uniquely American enterprise; Themed Entertainment would take to DT like a duck to water.

Design Thinkers at Innovation Powerhouse IDEO
Consider the requirements of an attraction like an E-Ticket dark ride or roller coaster; It is designed for an expected service life of 20 years. Accelerations can rival those of a dragster. Passengers can be twisted and turned, heaved, pitched, swung, rolled and yawed in any direction, synchronized to audio and video within the duration of a single image frame, all while carrying everyone from babes in arms to octogenarians, some weighing over 235 pounds, launching repeatedly, dozens of times per hour, 18 hours per day, 365 days per year, with only a few hours per night for maintenance and typically without injury beyond a sore throat from screaming too much. No other venture, public, or private, civilian or military, from deep sea to deep space has that demanding a set of requirements, and by the way, theming can be anything from a Screaming Dinosaur to a Baby Buggy.

Six Flags Justice League
And, relatively speaking, they do it on a shoestring. Not even the biggest Themed Entertainment in-house design staffs have even 1/10 the manpower or analytical resources of NASA or the DoD and don't forget, commercial aviation also has the FAA and DOT to support them domestically and IATA to represent them globally.

When the US Navy launches an F-18 fighter off an aircraft carrier, there are dozens of young men and women at the ready, making sure everything is good to go before launch. It's a precise dance, choreographed and triple checked to the last detail, which costs millions of dollars per hour. Maybe thats why so many seasoned ride system designers are also veteran aerospace engineers.

USS John C Stennis Flight Deck Operations
But its the Themed piece which really brings the challenge.  Classically trained electrical and mechanical designers and engineers aren't taught empathy or art appreciation along with physics, calculus and thermodynamics. They may laugh and cry at the movies, but typically don't have the "soft skills" to tell an emotionally loaded story. Trust me, their wives know this. Their men can fix a toaster or flat tire in three minutes flat, but are tongue tied on anniversaries.  Engineers make things out of stuff. Creating memorable experiences from dreams is something very different.

Which is all the more reason that Design Thinkers are perfectly suited for the Themed attraction industry. They have the analytical skills to build the ride and the emotional skills to know why a ride makes kids laugh and cry.

The good news is, over the past ten years, several colleges and universities have added classes in Design Thinking to their curriculum. Once the exclusive product of Stanford's d.school, classes in DT are now offered at MIT, Smith, Washington University, UVA (Darden) and the University of Minnesota.

Darden's Jeanne Liedtka

That being said, many of the courses are hosted by Business schools, but given DT's three point power stance, finding the viable intersection of Business, Humanity and Technology, it may not matter what major your next hire at Disney, Universal, 20th Century Fox, or one of the 150 other member companies of TEA, had as an undergraduate major. Asking what they know about Design Thinking might be a very good interview question.

Gatekeeper at Cedar Point

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