A class on personal branding with Debbie Millman shed light on the role of intentional contradictions in design. Pairing seemingly opposing ideas creates tension that can be intriguing, while also establishing a sense of balance. For example, bringing a playful tone to a brand that is perceived as dependable adds another dimension to your brand’s personality.
Creating Dimension in my Design Process
I have since found this push-and-pull between contrasting ideas in the blueprint of many processes and examples of delightful design. My experience as a brand and UI designer for a virtual reality (VR) startup is a testament to this.
I joined IrisVR one year ago. The company makes (VR) software that allows the building industry to visualise their 3D designs in a true-to-scale fashion. Through the process of rebranding and now working closely with the product team to implement these design systems, I am seeing the same patterns of intentional contradiction that I first encountered in that branding class.
(Note: IrisVR is not into content generation; we focus on improving design workflows for architects, engineers and construction professionals. The observations here might not be directly applicable to immersive entertainment using emerging technology – games, movies, etc.).
How to Design for Virtual Reality: A combination of familiarity + magic
When designing VR software, my process begins with understanding what my audience is used to. What are they going to connect with and how can their VR experience build on that?
Start with the familiar
Skeuomorphism is dead; long live skeuomorphism. The learning curve with respect to any new technology is steep; do not add to it!
Although we have moved to flat design from the very literal icon designs of the old iPhone, it cannot be denied that skeuomorphism did a great job introducing digital actions by creating a correlation to their analogous counterparts.
In VR, your immediate physical environment is completely replaced by a digital environment. This can be jarring! Unless your intention is to shock and awe your users, start from a place of familiarity which encourages them to explore and interact with their new world.
At IrisVR, we strive to detangle the communication and visualisation bottlenecks that often occur within the building industry. The vision of the architects is often not shared by their clients or is misinterpreted by the engineers and construction teams, leading to some very costly (and comical) mistakes.
To solve this, we convert 3D models to fully navigable VR experiences where the stakeholders can interact with their model, inhabit it before it gets built, and hold meetings with multiple people in VR to review the designs. But instead of transporting them right into the model, the first experience greeting the user is that of a scale model. Architects have been carefully constructing physical models to visualise and communicate their design concepts throughout history. This familiar setting helps ground new users and sets the expectations for the kind of tasks they can accomplish in this virtual environment.
And then comes the magic
As our director of UX, Ana Garcia Puyol loves to say, take inspirations from real world workflows and add a touch of magic! Tap into VR’s ability to push the envelope with respect to interactivity and accomplish things that weren’t possible before. In our case, the user can not only zoom in and out of and rotate the scale model, they can section it without the fear of damaging it – taking users just a bit outside of what they’re used to but adding something valuable. Not to mention how cost effective and sustainable this practice ends up being.
How to Communicate for Virtual Reality: A mix of confirming + challenging
It can be difficult to figure out exactly how people will understand and interact with such a new idea. When IrisVR first began producing VR software, VR was just starting to gain popularity – most headsets hadn’t even been released yet. We had to find a way to relay the use-cases and potential value of this technology before it hit headlines.
Curb the urge to reinvent the wheel
The challenge of communicating a new technology comes with the itch to create a new language befitting its potential. But given the cognitive fatigue resulting from information overload these days, know where to use existing patterns of communication, be it within the product or for marketing.
Thanks to desktop and mobile apps, there’s a plethora of tried and tested interactions and behaviors. Make use of the free libraries and resources wherever possible
Differentiate with intention
While it’s imperative to address industry pain points and expectations in an accessible manner, it is not a cookie cutter solution. While we are not a hardware company, we couldn’t avoid showing people with headsets in our marketing material as it was necessary to drive home the point that this is an immersive experience that needs dedicated hardware.
To avoid the design death trap of showing excited faces pointing at vacant spaces or mystical elements, we took inspiration from the spaces and materials that resonate with our users.
We combined that with the feeling of being in VR: a sense of literally being cut out of your immediate environment and pasted into a virtual world. This paved the path for a borderline-brutlalist-collage style imagery that is both descriptive and unique to our brand.
There is obviously no roadmap to success when it comes to designing for emerging technology. It is a constant tug-of-war between flights of imagination and conventions; joyful experiences and efficient workflows. But to create something that is not just a gimmick, a good starting point is solving for a human need and then experimenting in increments to find the right balance between the new and the familiar in your field of work – make it both useful and memorable.