Thinking About User Experience In Clubland
Alexander Grünsteidl, director of user experience at Method, London and owner of maverick digital think tank, Digital Wellbeing Labs, is a man on a mission. Passionate music lover and vastly knowledgeable in the power of a seamless digital and physical hybrid world, Grünsteidl recently brought his experience to bear in order to rethink the way we interact with our nightlife.
Not for the first time Grünsteidl left the safety of the studio behind—the Post-it notes and wireframes—and stepped out into the night to produce a club night at the Village Underground, a performance space in the East End of London. The night, austerely called No Admittance After Eight, or NAA8 for short, was billed as “a multi-sensory musical journey through the night"—but it was more than digital hyperbole. Behind the—admittedly difficult—PR was a promise to prototype a new way in which we relate to clubland and the music industry at large.
Five DJs formed the backbone of the narrative—a concept that Grünsteidl pays particular interest to. The moods entitled Walk, Pulse, Bounce, Shine, and Breathe were played by Duncan Brown (sound engineer for Basement Jaxx), Felix Buxton (Basement Jaxx), Mira Calix, SuperTanker and Koggi. The lighting atmosphere was provided by Satore Studio’s Tupac Martir and Grünsteidl became mixologist for the night, producing five different cocktails to round off the multi-sensory experience.
The NAA8 project, in many ways, is not dissimilar in ambition to The AppLounge, a prototype retail space that Grünsteidl initiated during the London Design Festival in 2011. There, Grünsteidl pondered on the relationship between online and offline consumer retail—could you feasibly buy an app from a physical store? For Grünsteidl it was about anticipating rapidly changing retail requirements. And the motivation for involvement in the music industry? Much the same, as he explains, “What we've learnt from some of the projects we've been doing recently [is] most people consume, or enjoy music these days only through their headphones. Many people don't even have a stereo system anymore, perhaps a block where they can plug their iPhone in, but that's about as far as it gets”.
So is this penance for his day job? (Grünsteidl is a former interaction designer for Apple).
“When I grew up you had the mods, the rockers, the punks—they were all segmented because people had only limited spending power, they could afford to own about 10 LPs” he explains, “now the kids actually listening through Last.fm or Spotify have access to an enormous amount of music, so music styles and appreciation are becoming more eclectic and nobody is catering to that. So imagine taking an audience on a musical journey through genres and styles throughout one evening. It's about encountering a narrative.”
Mira Calix explains her view of where Grünsteidl may be heading. “There may be an overall aesthetic, but there is much more differentiation between acts. Alexander's approach was much more holistic than the norm. It was very important to him to create a narrative through the night as well as control the overall atmosphere. I think there is room to take this further. Furniture and product design are things that springs to mind—a more custom made lounge space and, knowing him, he's probably thinking in this direction.”
Intriguing to say the least, but it may be some time before we see the fruits of his labor, as Grünsteidl states: “My interest is in creating these moments and learning from them and letting them inspire opportunities. We are still creating opportunities on stuff we've worked on in the past. I've just come back from Vienna and I saw that over there McDonald’s have installed Bouncepad [the iPad kiosk] which was an outcome of the prototype we built at The AppLounge back in 2011. So it might take a while, I might not be involved with the final product, but I like to initiate these kinds of things.”
The music industry, and in particular the world of nightclubs and promotions, are a shaky business and Grünsteidl admits to a certain naivety about it all. Questioning him on narrative and creative direction, I ask him whether this may not just be simply perceived as theatrical performance, along the lines of English group Punchdrunk, for example. He agrees that there are similarities and that it's sometimes difficult to communicate the full agenda and scope of thinking. When asked about her own experience of uniting music, art, and design in live performance Mira Calix picks up the thread and summarises for Grünsteidl instead. “I think they always converge, even in an old warehouse rave all those elements are present. But of course in this case, all areas were considered equal from the off. This was the difference, he tried to transform the space.”
Lending a wider context to his work Grünstei stops for a moment and then makes his own, almost shamanic, assessment. “I think tribes are vanishing, we live in a very eclectic, post-genre world. There are so many variations out there it's hard to keep track. Even naming conventions in metal music are becoming close to ridiculous, so I think we are getting to a point where we are going to listen in a different way, we are going to promote in a different way, we are going to engage in a different way, especially in a public, live setting.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I ask whether people enjoyed the event. Grünsteidl grins and opens his arms wide, “In the Shine element of the night we blasted the place out with light, to the level where you have to wear sunglasses”. Thus blowing away the final former requisite of a nightclub: the dark.
Photos courtesy of Alexandre Marc