Chad Hutson Of Dimensional Innovations On Designing Experiences With Digital

August 31, 2022 by Dave Haynes

Experience is one of those terms that’s being heavily used and sometimes abused these days, as companies in the digital signage ecosystem talk about what they can do for end-user customers.

Everything, it seems, is somehow experiential or immersive. But what does that really mean and how does it manifest itself in projects that use display technology?

I had a really good chat with Chad Hutson, who very much qualifies as an experience design expert and has the project portfolio behind him to back that up.

He ran a well-respected agency in Chicago called Leviathan, stuck around for a few years after it was acquired, but this past year hooked up with a company that would have been a competitor in the past – Dimensional Innovations.

He’s now DI’s Chief Strategy Officer, and spends his time working with the DI team and with customers – working a process to understand needs and then develop solutions that deliver on those needs, and realize an experience that can be everything from simple to elaborate.

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Chad, thank you for joining me. Can you give me a rundown on what Dimensional Innovations is all about and what your role is there? 

Chad Hutson: Yeah, you bet. We’ll call it DI for short, to make it easier for both of us. DI is an experience design and build firm, based in the US, down in Kansas city, and they are really robust at not only designing and building the physical experiences but all the fixtures that can be built out with the wood shop, metal shop, paint and a giant two-story, high 3d printer, which is pretty amazing, we also use, but also on the digital side, we have deep roots in technology, both in being able to figure out what’s the right technology for the experience and then creating the content and the interaction that goes within those experiences as well. 

So I’m the new Chief Strategy Officer, it’s a new role at DI, I started about eight months ago with the organization and that role just organically evolved. They were kind enough to say you’re making a positive impact and we’d like for you to do a bit more. It’s good stuff so far. 

So it sounds like the company bridges a few things like there’s some traditional AV integrations side to the business. There are some elements of a creative technology agency, but there’s also a fix-your-fabrication kind of company as well. So you’re into a whole bunch of things. 

Chad Hutson: Yeah, that’s a pretty good encapsulation and it’s a team of about 300 people, so they’re not messing around.

And you’re up in Chicago, right?

Chad Hutson: That’s correct. I’m in Chicago when I sleep at home. I travel around quite a bit, both down in Kansas City and wherever the clients are as well. 

And Kansas City is what, like an eight-hour drive or something like that?

Chad Hutson: From Chicago, that’s not too bad. I think like maybe six and a half, but I’m always flying though, always in the air.

You don’t wanna drive in the middle of the winter? 

Chad Hutson: No, flying in the middle of winter is already a challenge enough. 

So people are gonna wonder, people who know you that you came from a company that you founded called Leviathan in Chicago, much more of, I would say, a creative technology shop, at least that’s the term I use. 

I’m curious, as somebody who founded that company, what compelled you to leave? 

Chad Hutson: Yeah, that was an existential issue, I guess you could say, just trying to debate with myself, what can I do in the future? Yeah, Leviathan is still a great shop, although it’s going by a different name. My partners and I sold it to another digital agency called Envoy back in, I think, 2017 and I was happy to stick around for a while. I think it’s been close to five years since I decided to stay put and continue to run the organization. 

But I’d say where Levithan was just all about that hybrid of digital and physical experience, Envoy as a larger group, they are versed in everything from e-commerce to branding, and I don’t know, just felt like what I love was maybe not as front and centre as was what Leviathan did, so there is certainly no bad blood whatsoever, it was good to stick around and see it through a lot of great accomplishments there. But DI was always in my side view and they were always staying in touch and said, we’d love to talk about what the future could be. At some point, the stars aligned and that’s why I went over to DI. 

That’s a decent run anyways. When a founder sticks around, they might stick around for a year or something, so three to five years is pretty good. 

Chad Hutson: I agree, and the cool thing about the DI is, for me personally, it filled that missing gap BECAUSE whenever we were contacted about a digital experience, it could be like a lobby or experience for a theme park, it was always just limited to that digital scope, and it was later in the conversation. 

So with DI, because they are involved in the entire experience from even very early days what is the purpose of this space and what can it serve? Who’s gonna be there? What kind of experience do we want them to have, digital and analogue? That’s really the reason why I went over there, and I really love it over there. 

Yeah, I wanted to get into that. What is the whole process involved when you engage with a new customer? 

When I have done consulting in the past, the first thing I say to a new client, or even just in the early stages when we’re having our first conversation is okay, why do you wanna even be talking and looking at digital? And I suspect these days when people start talking about wanting something experientially designed into our new space, experiential is such a huge catchall and somewhat abused term that you really have to enforce some kind of discipline to figure out what’s gonna work here.

Chad Hutson: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. The process is really, I don’t wanna say it’s not much different than any other firms, but we’re very curious people, and so we want to ask our clients, what do you envision for the space, who is going to be there? What kind of assets do you already have from a content perspective? What’s your technology infrastructure for the rest of the space? We don’t want to build something just in a bubble from tech and IT standpoint. So really getting the lay of the land and asking a ton of questions, not just logistic or technology-wise, but more just thematic and just really trying to figure out what they know, and more importantly, what they don’t know, so we can help discover what that is. So thinking about that space, we want to have the right purpose and the right functionality. 

So then we get into high-level ideas of what it could be more like rough sketches along with even rough buckets of what budget could look like for those experiences, and they may say that’s perfect or, that’s a bit rich for us. And then from there, we start to refine those ideas and also refine the pricing and what the technology solutions might be and what the narratives might be from a visual and oral content standpoint, and then we start building it and we never leave our clients high and dry. After we build, we always like to be involved when we can in content refreshes, in support of that experience and yeah, hopefully, continue those relationships for years to come. 

There’s a business reason why you wanna stick with the customer and do the content refreshes and so on, but I suspect some of that is just simply that you wanna stick with it because it’s your team’s baby, so to speak, and you’re enrolled in it.

Chad Hutson: That’s right, and since 16:9 has a touch of snark to it, I’ll say that we would definitely want to keep the good children but for those who are grown up and ready to leave the nest, we welcome them leaving the nest. So we do try to nurture the right relationships in the right ways.

When you’re engaging with new customers, I’m curious, about how often they really know what they want to do. 

Chad Hutson: That is a great question because when we speak with clients, we know that they know their brand better than anyone else. We can’t come into that conversation with the assumption that we know them inside and out, that’s absolutely not true, but from a guest or user experience standpoint, I feel like we can balance out what they know about themselves. For example, sometimes the conversation leads with technology. “Oh, we absolutely want to use VR here”, or “we want an immersive experience” and as much as we get excited about all those conversations, we also have to say, why do you think you need that? And we want to make sure that is the right solution from a narrative or technology standpoint. So yeah, that’s what I have to say about that.

I was curious how often you have customers who are saying, “Yeah, we want a big LED video wall in the lobby”, or we want this particular type of technology and they’re just thinking in terms of the wow factor as opposed to what this will actually do.

Chad Hutson: Oh, every time, and I’ll also pick on architects a little bit. I think some of the larger architecture firms are definitely getting better, they have their own experience design teams.

The Gensler and so on, they’ve got people who know that stuff now. 

Chad Hutson: Exactly, but otherwise, depending on who’s making the decisions, it is truly based on grandeur, so having the largest screen, “I went to our competitor’s lobby and they had a giant screen, and I want ours to be bigger.” 

So sometimes it can be down to that, but I think what is thought of just so little is content strategy, meaning, some folks think about content, what can we put on the screen, but okay, that’s great, now what’s going to be there tomorrow and the next day, and that can become prohibitively expensive if it’s not thought of the right way and how to get the right content there. Some of it can be big and beautiful. I know that what used to be Obscure Digital and now they’re I think they’ve been folded into another organization, but people talk about the Salesforce lobby and still talk about it even now, and it is a beautiful experience, but it is that exact same experience over and over again. So how can that be more dynamic? We’ll have those ooh-ah moments, but we need something else to fill the space and not just be a pretty screensaver.

Yeah, I’ve seen some projects and the narrative is describing the projects after they’ve been lit up where they’re talking about how this changes the whole experience of travel or whatever it may be in a rail station or an airport, and a vast screen or a set of screens with all this very expensive content and so on and I’m thinking if I’m a traveller, what would be a great experience for me is something that says, “Track 14 is this way” because that is what really matters to me, not being uplifted by this amazing content and all that, just show me where the hell the train is. 

Chad Hutson: Yeah, it has to be practical as well as transformative. I feel like if people are travelling, yes, let’s get them excited about their destinations, let’s give them a moment of surprise and delight but let’s be practical about it too, and use elements of wayfinding. Not everything has to be wow, and flutter and fluff on these large screens.

And I suspect it’s difficult at times to convey to the client that there’s a technology investment here and so on, but you have to keep this refreshed and, you can’t just have your quarter-million dollar data visualization piece from some artist and just run that thing forever?

Chad Hutson: You’re exactly right. I think I might know the data visualization artist you might be speaking of, whose work I do love, don’t get me wrong, but you’re absolutely right. 

If a client’s investing upwards of half a million or more on a display and they automatically assume, I need $25k to $50k for a video or I’ll just use stock footage, that is just a bad investment. There’s so much more you can do.  The reason why you have a screen in the first place is to show content, it’s not just to have a static piece of wall art hung up. 

Is it now a case when you and your team, as you’re Chief Strategy Officer, I’m sure if there’s a whale client, they pull you into it? You mentioned you’re travelling a lot, so that’s probably why. You immediately start thinking about how digital fits in here or do you try to kind of park that and listen to the client and then think digital would be good here, but maybe not? 

Chad Hutson: Oh, great question. Certainly from my previous roots, thinking through a digital lens has been instinctual somewhat, but since going to DI, it is definitely starting with more of the basics and leaving digital and analogue out of it.

It’s more about fact-finding and learning more about who they are and what they want to accomplish, and then the solutions fall from that. So that’s been actually a welcome shift that not everything has to be tech-savvy, but I’m a techie at heart, I can still remember coding on a radio shack color computer using BASIC way back in the 80s. So yeah, I’m a geek and I like technology. It’s front and centre of my mind a lot of times. 

When you think in terms of experience design, how do you define experience? And I realize that’s a big question. 

Chad Hutson: Yeah, that is. So not intended to be a shameless plug, but the thing about DI is that they work across not only pro and collegiate sports organizations, but also larger brands, museums, retail, and entertainment, so theme parks and such, so the experience is different across all those, but I think consistently people want the experience to be intuitive.

I guess some brands don’t have a clean brand, but in our opinion, we want the environment to be clean and welcoming and not intimidating. Perhaps if you’re going through a frightening exhibit at a Disney park, maybe we do want that to be more thematic and scary, but a good experience just makes you feel something, and I know that some people might roll their eyes and go, oh my gosh, if we’re walking through a company’s headquarters, do they really want their guests to feel something?

And I would argue, yes, whether it wants someone to buy something, or want them to have moments of surprise and delight, even in a museum, you want them to learn and take that piece of information with you. So the experience, I think initially, no matter what you do or how pretty it is, if you don’t feel something that you’re not gonna remember that experience and I think that’s ultimately what these destinations are about. Do you want folks to remember it, remember you as an organization or tell your friends about the amazing experience you had? So I would say that it is really front and centre, the emotional component. 

But the emotion isn’t necessarily “wow” or being bowled over by the scale of a screen or the 3d anamorphic illusion on a screen or whatever, it can be as simple as, “I’m feeling calmer about being in here” because now I know where I’m going” or “I feel better about the meeting I’m about to have with this company” because I’m seeing the company’s history on this video wall, it’s explaining everything that they do and I’m thinking, holy shit, these guys are amazing. 

Chad Hutson: Oh, a hundred percent, Dave. I’d say there’s a sliding scale of what you want people to feel and we don’t always crank that to 11. I think y might need certain degrees of it, like a moment of surprise and delight, in a customer’s customer sales centre or in a museum like, oh, wow, I wasn’t expecting that, and that’s nice, but not everything has to be “whoa” and gigantic and expensive. 

It’s adjustable depending on what we need people to take away from that experience. 

Yeah. I just wrote about a project the other day that was in a residential lobby of a building in Boston and it was a pretty small kind of corner wrapped LED that was only 10 feet square or something and I was thinking, okay, that makes sense in that kind of setting, that it’s not enough where the residents are thinking well, now I understand why my condo fees are so high, but it’s just something that helps give the lobby a bit of a lift, but also has information on there that’s useful. 

Chad Hutson: Yeah, isn’t that the beauty of display technology? It is dynamic. So it can be so many different things. Sometimes it could be too many things, and so we want to pick the right bitsto have in that space, but it’s dynamic and it can be evergreen . 

What about budgets? I imagine, as you were saying in your kind of project scoping and everything, that you’re trying to get a sense of what their budget restrictions are, whether they’re bottomless or tight, and is it possible to deliver an experience on a pretty modest budget? 

Chad Hutson: Yes, I would say so. There are some simple tips and tricks that can be used. I would say that much like with an artist of any sort or any kind of designer, sometimes working with constraints yields some of the best results, whether you’re out of time, you’re out of money and you just really have to become inventive on how to make that work out.

If any clients are listening, I would never want to encourage purposely limiting the budget just to see what kind of brilliance can come from that. But yeah, I’ve certainly seen some very impactful experiences. It Doesn’t necessarily cost a ton, but you can be inventive in how you use those lower cost solutions and make it effective. I think about the analogy of the giant lobby screen, instead of having one giant screen, can we break that up into different sections and pieces so it has an interesting footprint and ne minute, we have content on individual screens and the next we have this larger canvas that is, even though it’s broken in pieces, everything works in concert with each other. So value engineering is the mother of invention sometimes. 

I’m thinking of the project in Denver at a Wells Fargo office tower where there was obviously some nod to budget limitations where they did these five or six vertical slats that made it kinda look like you’re seeing out through fence slots, and that was a way to have big LED strips that wouldn’t cost the same kind of money, and they didn’t have to be particularly high rez because you were seeing them at a distance, but that was a way to create visual impact, but not have something like the scoreboard at the Dallas Cowboys stadium.

Chad Hutson: Yes, and I think I know exactly the one you’re talking about. They’re really tall and narrow as well. But yeah, they are certainly impactful, I would agree.

Do you also have products now at DI? I was looking on the website and it said like you had some package products as opposed to everything just being custom to the client.

Chad Hutson: Yeah. Good eye there, Dave. So there are some products that we have developed and clients say, oh, we really like what you did for this client, could you do something similar? So after doing that a number of times, we just realized we can take some of the best parts of some of these projects and not necessarily repurpose them. But clients oftentimes are saying our budget is limited. What can we do? Can you repurpose this? 

So that is in essence what we have done with a few different things. There’s something we call it, coloring wall, which essentially we use gesture sensing technology to let people, oftentimes kids, let’s have a low touch, very simple and intuitive experience where they can stand in front of what looks like a giant coloring book page, it’s just a white page with black outlines and waving our arms or running past it, and it fills in the color in a very painterly fashion. Once we figured out that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time, let’s take some of these ideas and repurpose them. We can do them, we can replicate them and we always improve upon them, I think every time we do that. 

And you can also reduce some of the cost too because you’ve already written and everything, right? 

Chad Hutson: I guess we could say we’re trying to be benevolent and generous to clients, but we’re also trying to make money off of what we have, IP we have created in the past. 

The gestures that you’re describing, kids are naturals to interact with those sorts of things and have fun and all that, but I’ve seen a number of cases where that same sort of gesture technology is designed for brand advertising or experiential. activation, so to speak, and I’ve wondered, do these really work with adults? 

Chad Hutson: I remember when the Kinect first came out, I think that was around 2011 or so. My team at the previous firm were actually hacking it before there was even an SDK or software developer kit available and I think we were all just amazed by it and assumed this was going to transform how everyone interacts. 

But what we figured out along the way, I know the DI team has this figured out also is that there’s no international language, if you will, for gestures. You can wave and say, hello, you can flip a bird, if you’re really upset, you can use a right turn or left turn, but I think that with these sorts of gestures, particularly with adults, they’re not gonna wave their arms around like a crazy person. 

I can’t imagine many CEOs doing that willingly. So we’ve figured out that we have to keep those gestures very simple. It’s more about standing in a place and it triggering content, or as I mentioned with kids that can run and be silly and that can fill that coloring book page very easily, but for the rest, it has to be super intuitive. If you are having someone raise their right hand or raise their left hand to advance an icon or a cursor, then those instructions have to be given in, I don’t know, 15 seconds or less and have it figured out instantly. 

It’s been my experience that with experience design, that the ones that really work are those where the architect or person who designs the space, the physical look of a space is involved early, so that the screen technology doesn’t look like it was added on, it’s built in, like it’s part of the original design. Is that a fair assessment? 

Chad Hutson: Oh, so fair. Otherwise it’s just just another giant rectangle, sitting in a lobby. It stands out, but more like a sore thumb than it does something that’s integrated into the architecture. So I’m a big fan of all the involved parties talking as early as possible. 

An architect’s thinking we can integrate a screen here, but speak to the technology partner and think about what’s the right pixel pitch, viewing angles could be an issue or ambient light. So I feel like the more that all the right people can talk early on, it can be beautifully integrated and it can be the right technology and the right content.

That’s one of the ways you can reduce the cost, right? Because if you really think about it, then you can use like LED ribbon strips instead of a giant rectangle that you were describing to have the same kind of impact 

Chad Hutson: Yeah, absolutely, and getting creative with almost a sculptural version of a display. I think I know a lot of people in our industry who talked about the beautiful work for the AT&T Discovery District, and there were many groups that touched that, but there is a sculpture that was fashioned after AT&T logo that’s in that space, and it’s it’s also has embedded LED ribbons similar to what you described and yeah, it makes for an interesting experience and that brand touch is subtle. So kudos to that team on creating a pretty cool experience. 

Yeah, it’s like a halo sort of tunnel thing. 

Chad Hutson: That’s the one! 

Yeah, that is nice. 

With LED rapidly emerging and evolving, is that kind of the main go to thing now for DI when you’re thinking about digital or are you still looking at OLED and LCD and other technologies? 

Chad Hutson: Yeah. Direct view LED is in almost every conversation I feel like just because it is a great technology. This is not a slam on the AV industry, because I know technology can only advance as fast as it’s able to. The supply chain is an issue, the pandemic was an issue. So I feel like not that tech has stalled. It’s not the case at all, but I feel like advancement has slowed a little bit. 

Definitely LED ribbons, direct view LED, some things that we’ve been playing with more recently, there’s it’s more of a smaller format now, but I’m sure that the size is growing. Actually I’m certain, I’ve seen some larger versions of it, but displays like the looking glass factories, the display looks semi holographic. You can use other gesture sensors for that. So that is a more of a one-to-one experience versus a giant shared experience. But I’m excited about that. Even outside of display technology, seeing what is being done with AI and creating visuals, platforms like Dall-E and Mid Journey, where you can simply type in a prompt and boom multiple versions of what the computer thinks is the right image for you, and I think that’s also starting to step into video creation as well. It’s mostly static, but I’ve seen some early images of video. 

I think that talk about being able to have dynamic content. Data visualization is one thing, but constantly having even photo realistic or having what looks to be an artist creation being done on the fly is pretty amazing.

Yeah, my son is heavily into all that stuff and DALL-E and he was just asking me to give him a prompt and I gave him some crazy prompt, like squirrels playing croquet or something, and 30 seconds later, there it was!

Chad Hutson: It’s nuts. I’m gonna try that, squirrels playing croquet, wearing pink tutus in a desert and yeah, I bet it’ll give me exactly what we want. 

Yeah, and god knows why, but there you go. 

Is the kind of flexibility that we’re seeing now with LED important in that you actually have physically flexible modules, but you also have ribbons and you have LED on film, LED embedded in building glass and so on. Do those open up new opportunities? 

Chad Hutson: Absolutely, they do, Dave. If anything, the first question is: can we do it? And we get excited and then it’s a matter of pricing and availability and that’s sometimes because it is so new or brightness could be a factor, or the glass has already been specked out and it’s a matter of could we retrofit it, and it’s just not as feasible, but now that we know those technologies are available at least for future endeavors, we are absolutely thinking about that as often as we can. Maybe it’s a little bit of a gear list, but also it could be the right solution for a space.

Clients sometimes say at least, from a large scale perspective, we don’t want anything that’s going to obstruct views or have something where you can see wires or pieces or parts of the technology, and sometimes that’s unavoidable, but I think if we can have the slimmer format of some of these ribbons or the embedded LED into glass, that solves some of that. So we’re really excited about the future of those. 

Is there a particular lesson that you’ve learned through the years that you apply to a lot of work now? 

Chad Hutson: Honestly, if we’re talking about an experience that does have a digital component, it is really pretty much what you and I have been harping on a lot in this conversation, which is just bringing the topic of content upfront, before decisions are being made about technology. 

I’m a huge supporter of the AV industry and that beautiful content can’t be as inspiring sometimes if it’s not on the right kind of display or the right scale either. But I’m thankful for the integrators and other technology folks that I know that always ask the first question of: Yes, you wanna display but why, and what would go on a display and why do you want that, and yes, we’re an AV integrator, but you need to have conversations with the architect or your creative agency, whoever it may be, so that’s not falling flat because honestly, for, if there’s a lesson learned, it’s folks in the AV industry. They can be blamed if I spend a million dollars on this giant lobby screen and it doesn’t do shit, and that’s absolutely not true. If the right content solution is there and the experience that is intended is considered more heavily up front, then everyone looks good in the end. 

Absolutely. All right, Chad, thank you very much for spending some time with me. That was super interesting. 

Chad Hutson: Oh, thanks. It’s good to be back on 16:9 and hope to talk again soon.

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