What’s a WOW?

As designers, we get asked regularly to produce the ‘WOW’ factor for an attraction or school. But what does this mean?

Wow! The paster cast gallery at the V&A

According to the dictionary, WOW is not an adjective or a verb. Instead it is an interjection to express wonder, amazement or great pleasure. That we want to achieve a state of wonder and amazement should be inherent in our work.

The problem with this phrase is not the word per se but in marrying a client’s obvious expectation in using it with the raw materials at their, and therefore our, disposal.

In some ways it is easy to define WOW. We have all been moved to exclaim it at some time or other, so it is only a matter of recognising those moments and remembering what caused such amazement. So far, so good. Unfortunately, most of those moments probably involved something epic – the beauty of a landscape that took our breath away, a huge vaulted building that made us feel ant-like in scale, a sunset so vivid the sky could have been on fire, or the most amazing theatrical or cinematic experience that bludgeoned our every sense. All these have one thing in common – magnitude. And with the best will in the world there are only a few institutions that can boast such an attribute. I, myself, could immediately call to mind only a few instances of being WOW’ed: the memory of my first encounter with the plaster cast galleries at the V&A is one example that will stay with me forever. Such times are few and far between. So, if such moments are as rare as hen’s teeth, how can we capture and repeat that sense of awe on a regular basis in environments that are more likely to be intrinsically less overwhelming?

We can because we believe there exists a smaller sibling to the big WOW that, whilst being less grand, still has the capacity to move us. We call it the ‘Little Wow’. This is not, as it seems, an oxymoron, or in any way less significant than the BIG WOW, but a description of a moment that stirs us rather than dumbfounds us; that make us want to share the experience rather than being lost in it. It is the wow that encourages us to invite participation from others, such as ‘wow – come and look at this’, or ‘wow – I remember when…’. It has more to do with stirring up deeply embedded emotional memory than creating new memory. And, because of that, what was regarded as a potential block to creating the WOW factor – space, storyline, and historical material – actually become the means by which we deliver it.

Designing the WOW can be achieved by making the familiar extraordinary and unfamiliar ordinary. If we recognise a subject or object, our intellectual mindset takes a step back and instead we are able to access the interpretation on a more human, rather than academic level. We all cherish such enhanced connectivity with the past as it places us within an historical continuum, makes us ‘belong’ to history rather than being an individual in the here and now. This is why dressing up still remains one of the most popular interactive experiences in museums and heritage centres. Conversely, taking the unfamiliar and seeing it through more ordinary lenses helps make difficult narratives understandable.

We can illustrate both by looking at two displays we designed for Arundel Museum and Lincoln Aviation Heritage. In the first we created a very simple modeled display of food that would have been eaten during the rationing era of WWI. Such visual stimuli unlocked often intense emotional memories and it is not hard to understand why the exhibition was such a success. In the second we depicted the unimaginable stress and anxiety of being part of a WWII bomber crew through a simple game based around an air raid over Germany. The stress of spinning six chance dials along that journey, surviving to the end, and then doing the same again and again, could be easily felt. So too could the slim mathematical probability of surviving those chances 180 times in a typical tour of 30 missions. Such profound realisation brought the bravery of those crews into sharp focus and created a wow through the understanding of those facts.

Display structures can also be designed beyond the functional to become intrinsic interpretive objects in themselves, creating visual wows within a gallery space. Our animal jigsaw heads at the Weald and Downland Living Museum that were used to display horse furniture and oxen apparel certainly creates a memorable display.

Creating visually descriptive displays and interiors is especially important for the pedagogy of young children. Until secondary school such children, to a greater or lesser extent depending on their age, have an immature understanding of the real world and instead inhabit what is termed a ‘magical, or fantasy world’ that is governed by the breadth of their experiences. They are not particularly engaged either physically or mentally with adult surroundings. For this group it is both easy and hard to design a WOW factor. With their environmental perceptions still largely unmapped and their ‘unlearnt’ minds constantly open to new experiences, children are less encumbered by a sense of design and more accepting of unusual spatial experiences. Everything is a WOW to them. At the same time, constantly coming across new experiences floods brain function, so specific information runs the risk of not being assimilated. A careful path needs to be trod between the visual and intellectual complexity of a design.

Don’t be discouraged therefore, if your WOW is little rather than big. A little wow can be as significant as its larger sibling. The important thing is that a WOW exists so that your visitors, after leaving your attraction never leave the experience.

We hope this short essay goes some way to help those contemplating the need for WOW to understand how designers might regard the task of designing for it.

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