Experience Design is an externally-facing tool in the Yoga of Becoming, Cultural Architecture, and Embodied Awakening. See those essays to explore why external engagement is central to any work you want to do.
👁 The Significance of Experience
Experience is at the core of your existence. You could say experience is primary. It is the primary qualia. The core feeling of "I Am"-ness is the experience. If you want to radically evolve yourself, radically evolve your experiences.
This is the domain of Experience Design. Applying Design Thinking and Somatic Techniques to experiential arcs. Given the multiplicity of experiences that are possible, you have an infinite canvas to play with. An opportunity to create experiential masterpieces.
This essay is an overview of the colours, brushes, and artistic techniques you have access to when creating your experiential masterpieces.
You'll also notice how interconnected experience design is to everything we've covered thus far. Cultural Architecture involves experience design on a grand, collective scale. Hedonic Engineering is the domain of individual evolutionary experience design. The process of Embodied Awakening is going through experiences that move intellectual knowledge into embodied wisdom. And of course, experience design is a fundamental component of the external aspect of your Yoga of Becoming.
Your relationship with your city, your country, your favourite brands — all of these relationships and your opinions of them are formed through the total experiences you have had with them.
Through exceptional experiences, you have the capacity to deliver wonderland on demand. For yourself, for your loved ones, and for the world at large.
The significance of experience can't be understand. If you're ready to seriously play the human game, you need to seriously design the human experience.
🎨 Core Components of Experience Design
There are several core components. You may not need to involve each one at the same level of intensity, but I will say that the truly best experiences have given deep consideration to all of these. Do with that information what you will.
- 👅 Sensory Immersion: Sensation is the body's portal to the world. Consider and involve as many senses in the experience as you can. What do they see when they enter? What is the visual identity? What does it smell like? Are they touching or holding anything? Is there music? If so, what kind, what BPM? There are other, less obvious senses you can involve. A sense of opportunity, a sense of justice, of possibility, of safety. The more sensory immersion in the experience, the richer the information, the more salient lessons become — the more powerful your experience.
- 🛠 Hedonic Engineering Levers: You have your core Hedonic Engineering levers available. The most potent individual mechanisms at your disposal: breathing, sexuality, embodiment, music, and substances. Given the nature and potency of experiences, some of these are more sensitive to work with. Start small, build up your competence and skill before introducing things like sexuality work or substances into your experiences. But when you're ready, the amplify everything.
- 📜 Narrative Arcs: Narrative arcs are one of the most overlooked but most powerful, components here. Why are they here? What are they doing? Where are they going? The image above (from the Flow Genome Lab) depicts the most potent narrative arc we see in modern stories: the 'Cinderella' arc. Start off rough, come into a good place, tragically lose everything, and then at the stroke of midnight, win it all back and rise to glory. Humans love this. There are other archetypal stories, the most obvious being the Hero's Journey. You see this in the Matrix, Harry Potter, nearly everything. It is the canonical meta-narrative. At Apotheosis, the plant medicine retreat series I help run, we base each day off a different phase of the Hero's Journey – this is how it comes to life. There are many story arcs. The exponential curve, of starting low and building into something magnificent, is used by a lot of the AI-techno-utopians right now. "Soon, very soon, we will reach new levels of glory never thought possible." Weave narrative arcs into the very fabric of your experiences.
- ⛳️ Desired Outcomes: What is the outcome you want for individuals to have in your experience? Is it cathartic releases and emotional healing? Feelings of community and connection? Challenge and resilience? Creative possibility? Depending on the desired outcome, the specifics of your experience will change. You can use the narrative arc that fits best, tailor the hedonic engineering activities that are best suited for that outcome, and weave in sensory immersion most helpful for that outcome. For example: if community and connection is a desired outcome, orient around vulnerable sharing, of overcoming shared challenges, group flow states, etc.
- 📍 Pre-/Peri-/Post- Experience: Your experience is not just the momentary fraction of time participants are in it. The experience is the anticipation and planning they have leading up, the moods and experiences they have within it, and the memories and reflections they have of it afterwards. Your experience (and all experiences) exist as this hyper-object: in the past, present, and future at once. Have you thought of how you can build anticipation, or feelings of safety before the experience starts? What about how they can remember it afterwards (giving participants a physical item/totem they can take home, for example)? The more these factors are considered, the more your experience becomes a pivotal moment in their lives instead of simply another nice story.
- 🤩 Desired Emotional State: On the way to your desired outcome, along the arc of your narrative storyline, there may be many different emotional states or significant experiences that can help them. The opportunity to be courageous, the experience of being loved unconditionally, cathartic emotional release, ecstatic presence, tribal affiliation, belonging, planning their future, excitement, reflecting on their good fortune, unfiltered joy. What emotional states, what significant insights are most helpful throughout the pre/peri/post stages of the experience? With that answer, find the specific practices that best enable that experience.
To ground this, you can simply work backwards.
Start with desired outcome: what do you want people to get out this? From there, what narrative arc would best facilitate that? Along that journey, what significant feelings/experience should they have? What will you do before, during, and after the experience to make those happen? And in those actions, how can you get them as deeply involved (sensory immersion) and engaged (hedonic engineering levers) to make the experience as potent and powerful as possible?
Top-down experience design brings everything into alignment. Outcomes inform narrative. Narrative informs activities. Activities inform emotions and immersions.
🎩 Dark Side of Experience Design
Like any powerful technology, this can be used for benevolent or malevolent ends. You can unlock individuals in ecstatic rapture, or manipulate them into acting for your own benefit. There are many potential dark sides to experience design.
- 📈 Corporate Manipulation: One of the first books I ever had to read in my Commerce degree was 'Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy'. It was the first splinter that truly made me question the ethics and morality of business/marketing as a whole. Some examples of how experience design can manipulate you into consumerism: When Coke sponsored America's Got Talent, not only did they have the bottles displayed on the judges table (mere exposure effect), they actually made the judges chairs red and curvy, just like the bottles themselves. The reason bars and clubs are always dark and have loud music is that the loud, rhythmic music makes you drink faster and buy more. Stores like American Eagle and Subway know that the olfactory system (smell) is unbelievably powerful, and have specific scent combinations that they douse everything in to trigger buying behaviour. All food producers use the 'Bliss Point', a perfect combination of salt, sugars, and fats to addict you to their foods without tiring of consuming it. The reason every social media network has a blue logo is the colour psychology meant to build trust and connection. Make no mistake, there are teams, agencies, and industries solely focused on using experience design to addict you, to extract value from you, and to keep you coming back for more.
- 👃🏻 Olfactory System & Memories: Your sense of smell is unbelievably powerful, it has a direct path to your brain. Smells can trigger long-forgotten memories more powerfully than any other sense. The smell of packaged foods, that first pop of the lid, is so unbelievably manufactured that companies, organizations, and corporations try very specifically to associate themselves with sacred childhood memories from your past. This is nothing other than corporate manipulation of the population to hit bottom line goals. It's extremely manipulative, and hard to fight against, even if you know it's happening.
- 🛐 Cults & Transcendence: After significant experiences you are highly open and suggestible. Cults and religions love this fact. If you're in that open, vulnerable state — you're easy prey. So organizations will facilitate these experiences, they will create the vehicles for ecstasy and transcendence, so that you more readily buy into their systems, their beliefs, their power structures. The same levers that make Experience Design so powerful: connection, insight, ecstasy, community, are the same things that can be used against you.
- 🌿 Pseudoshamans & Power Dynamics: Facilitators, shamans, guides, organizing teams that host these events inevitably run into a perceived power dynamic. Malevolent actors all too easily abuse this. The pseudoshaman who sexually exploits participants in sensitive and open states. The retreat centers who upsell you in the middle of your transformational retreat (I'm looking at you, Rythmia). Being forced or coerced into participation in activities due to group social pressure, threat of consequence, or otherwise can be exploited.
- ⚡️ Information Saliency: A combination of these dark forces is what is used in brainwashing. In suggestible states, susceptible to power dynamics – you can be told what to do, what to think, how to feel, if you're right or wrong, where to go. It's easy to say that you won't fall victim to this, it's another thing entirely to be blown open after a breathwork journey, fresh off of healing trauma, and have someone in a position of trust and authority recommend things to you, or impart their metaphysics onto you. Information that is rich, clear, direct, and can be weaponized in Experience Design for the uninitiated.
Knowledge of the dark side allows you to avoid falling victim yourself, from perpetuating these cycles in your own experiences, and help others through their experiences if they have fallen victim.
😇 Light Side of Experience Design
For all the same reasons, with all the same mechanisms, Experience Design can be extremely significant, benevolent, and positive for groups/individuals.
- ⛑ Trauma Healing: Powerful experiences have the potential to be fundamentally life-changing. Healing corrosive behavioural patterns or addressing trauma is one of these areas.
- 🤗 Trust & Safety: Giving individuals the opportunity to be vulnerable, to open, to feel safe, to trust in Life/Others is something not facilitated by most of modern culture. Designing experiences that enable this is a sacred gift you can give.
- ✨ Insight & Growth: Not only do experiences give individuals the opportunity to heal and move back into wholeness, they're inherently expansive. You push growth edges safely and powerfully, and make significant strides in your evolutionary journey. They accelerate and amplify everything else in a virtuous cycle.
- 🧘 Embodied Awakening: Experiences are an incredibly powerful way to ground the insights/lessons you learn in reality. Well thought-out experiences are among the most potent tools in the Embodied Awakening toolkit.
- 🫂 Community & Connection: Society has fundamentally lost true community and connection. Group experiences are a vital necessity at this point. Take the lead, curate group experiences, build communities of practice, and rebuild what has been so fundamentally lost in the past few centuries. Community is the glue that holds culture together.
- 😊 Joy & Engagement: Not everything in life needs to be work-focused. It doesn't all have to be hard work all the time. Sometimes you just need to play, to experience, to enjoy. Designing peak experiences is a beautiful gift to give individuals. Ecstatic dance, immersive theatre/art, ceremony, and sport are all wonderful examples of this. You can re-enchant existence for people, give them a reason to live, this by itself is reason enough to do this.
Through deliberate design, careful consideration, and good intentions, Experience Design is at the core of making any significant individual/collective change.
🌀 Fractal Experience Design
This has focused largely on group-level experience design, and for good reason. But there's a fractal, self-similar aspect to Experience Design. These principles ripple up and down the social stack.
- 👤 Individual: If you're deeply within your own Yoga of Becoming, you can design experiences using these principles for your own process. This is Hedonic Engineering in practice – individual awakening experience design. How to get the most bang for your buck. Blow yourself to Kingdom Come, and get back to work on Monday. These design principles allow you iterate, add depth and saliency, and weave your practices into a coherent narrative.
- 👨👨👦👦 Group: Humans are social creatures. Group work is innately generative to the individual. It's also a safe first step into external engagement, into acting in the world. The principles we've discussed here apply directly to designing group experiences. They can be digital workshops, conversations, masterminds, or physical events, retreats, festivals, or spaces.
- 🌐 Collective: Civilization is a massive collective experience. This is why governments do things like set up spikes on the ground to deter homeless people. Homeless people are unsightly (visual), and so they are trying to design an experience for the masses that avoids that reality. Collective experience design invites entirely new and wonderful design possibilities, like architectural principles, biophilic design, city/urban planning. All of this is experience design at its core. You'll notice we've moved away from human experience as a core consideration in collective experience design. Skyscrapers, grey concrete jungles, straight-line, right-angled architecture is repulsive. If you want to affect many, start designing collective experiences, or building the alternatives, through cultural architecture.
These are the mechanisms of experience design. Use them to unleash yourself, to steward group dynamics, and refine the experience of everyone, everywhere, everywhen.
🤝 Facilitating Transformational Experiences
Experience design is highly sensitive work. We've seen how it can be manipulated to work in favour of dark forces. If you're doing trauma work without adequate preparation and considerations, you can re-traumatize individuals. While it does have the capacity to change people's lives — it has the potential to change people's lives. Be careful when playing with fire.
A few core guidelines that are helpful to work with when facilitating and designing these transformational experiences.
- ❤️ Holding Space: Learn the art and science of holding space for individuals and their process. Not directing it, but allowing individuals to explore themselves in a safe container. It goes against many knee-jerk, caretaker archetypes. You're not supplying the answers or experiences, you're allowing individuals to find it themselves.
- 🌲 Emotionally Grounded: In highly sensitive individual practices, being deeply rooted is essential. There are projections, uncertainty, fear, anger, and other volatile emotions that surface. You have to hold the frequency clearly and directly. This requires a level of emotional maturity that challenges most individuals. Root yourself deeply, so you can be like a lighthouse in the emotional storms, guiding individuals through their experiences and back home safely.
- ❓ Socratic Questioning: You do no one any favours by giving them the answer. In fact, it doesn't work. An answer and experience is exponentially more impactful when an individual arrives at it by themselves. Instead, try Socratic Questioning — ask questions for the individuals to explore that lead them to the answer.
- 🎮 Inputs Over Outcomes: Outcomes are extremely important. You should ensure (through feedback and paying attention) that your experiences are achieving the desired outcomes. However, you cannot guarantee these outcomes. So focus on the inputs. Focus on what you can control — focus on how you can design this experience. Read this again, look at all the variables you can tweak, and use them in your experiential masterpieces.
Experience is the core of everyone's life. It can be malevolent or benevolent. Whether it's for your own individual process, or engaging deeply in the world, you have a canvas of consciousness and a palette of experiential mechanisms to work with. I can't wait to see the masterpieces you create.