Room For Innovation

POSTED BY Jamie Monberg on Mar 30, 2012

In our industry, success is measured as much in “wows” as it is in dollars. The projects that are borderline dangerous, but unassailably cool are what prime the pump that keeps great clients and colleagues flowing through our doors – but greatness courts failure almost by definition.

Agencies love to talk about innovation, but we usually have a hard time justifying R&D the way product companies do. Dead-end ideas wreak havoc on the balance sheet when you’re selling time by the hour. As a result, innovation in the agency model typically has to happen on the client’s dime, and our clients’ tolerance for failed experiments is understandably low.

So what’s the solution? We decided to put our money where our mouth was and create an Experience Lab, and that investment has paid off in spades. The following will outline how you can learn from our mistakes and hopefully share in our success.


We opened the doors to HAX (the Hornall Anderson Experience Lab) in 2009, but the seed was planted many years earlier on top of Seattle’s Space Needle. After designing and building an exciting blend of digital and analog interactive experiences for the Needle, we knew we had found a calling, but having to learn and prototype in real time had created serious headaches and expenses.

We floated the idea of a lab space, where we could work outside a specific client mandate and get beyond the (necessary) constraints of agency process. It took courage on the part of our leadership and parent company to invest in this idea in 2008, but while the timing was tough from an economic standpoint, it couldn’t have been more right from an industry one. The proliferation of low cost/high fidelity sensor technology, the exploding trend of mobile computing and the ubiquity of our access to data and media were evolving consumer behavior in dramatic ways. These were trends we needed to be ahead of in order to offer value to our clients.

We opened HAX to do more crazy-sexy-cool work, but we believed that if we did it right we could achieve a new level of business success. Culturally, we wanted a space for pure innovation, but at the core of HAX is a belief that for any brand – our clients’ or our own – to thrive in this new consumer landscape, we had to pursue a more complex endgame than just return on investment.


If ROI gauges how effectively a project achieves a business’s goals, ROE (return on experience) measures the extent to which a brand experience helps consumers achieve theirs. Consumers wield power over brands in a way unimaginable 10 years ago. All-powerful word of mouth marketing can be digitized, amplified and sent around the world with the push of a button on a phone. When asked, “What does your brand do for me?” you need an answer, or consumers will find their own. There is not much future for agencies that are digital only, or anything only.

With HAX, we wanted to prove that focusing on experience, on ROE, could actually deliver better business outcomes. We believed we would learn things that would enable us to offer clients what our competitors couldn’t. We wanted to create an environment where we could fail more successfully and more frequently so that when we worked with clients, we could succeed more wildly. 


Completely inclusive

Everyone in our organization is encouraged to participate and we offer fellowships enabling us to include members of the broader community. HAX is about being a vehicle for cultural change.

Before HAX, we were talking a big game about being truly ‘borderless’ in our blending of disciplines, but the Lab truly enabled us to break down the barriers between our traditional skillsets and collaborate more effectively.

The cross-pollination of hardcore technologists with artists, environmentalists and traditional designers has led to some of our greatest successes.

For Earth Day 2011 we threw a fundraiser (Shake the Sound) with a dance floor that generated electricity from the moves you bust on it. An architecturally mapped video projection changed based on the floor’s output, and a hacked Xbox Kinect created a 3D visualization of the dance floor. This “digital” idea came from a print designer interested in energy conservation. When she got in a room with a software developer, an electrical engineer and a motion artist, this community event exploded into existence.

Consumer and business viability

Projects begin with a proposal. A group of three people reviews it, offers feedback, and helps build out the team and allocate resources.

 For a green light you only need to satisfy four criteria:  

  • A new idea. 
  • Deliverable in a realistic time on minimal budget.
  • Meeting a specific user need. 
  • With a potential (if indirect) business application.

This insistence on addressing brand and consumer needs is a discipline that encourages people to be more than role players and think of themselves as problem solvers.

Part time only

HAX has no dedicated staff. Everyone there divides their time between HAX projects and client work. This prevents the Lab from becoming a sideshow of inventions from mad scientists, and ensures we incorporate a spirit of inventiveness and willingness to ignore boundaries into our client work as well.

Incubator only

At any given time you’ll see projects at various stages of completion, but never a ‘finished product’. These projects are meant to be proof-of-concept only. By contrast with the work we do upstairs, Lab projects value speed and prototyping over polish and attention to detail.

One issue we faced was that of intellectual property. We realized we had the opportunity to create products from many of these prototypes. We debated the merits of ideological purity and authentic innovation versus revenue opportunities, but decided we’re not in the business of creating products or pursuing (and defending) patents. The way to make the Lab financially viable was to apply what we learned to what we knew we were good at, not spin off new businesses.

Try not to compromise

Lab projects are budgeted, forecasted and assigned resources like any other. The quickest way to kill the energy of any project is to pull resources off it and drag it out indefinitely. Deadlines make us innovate.

There have been times when client work has had to take priority and lab projects have been iced. But giving project owners the knowledge that they have authorization from the top to protect their Lab resources has been vital to actually seeing results.

Things we’ve built

Madison Square Garden, New York: We were building a Transformation Center in MSG to help sell their renovated suite and sponsorship opportunities. They had a mock suite in the sales center, but it was hard to capture the energy of the stadium or demonstrate a sponsorship opportunity in an underground room.

We used a curved screen and projector to recreate a stadium view, but wanted to push it further. In the Lab, we hacked an Xbox to receive a signal from a Wii controller, enabling users to pan around a virtual stadium, enabling them to see the view from any available suite.

Potential sponsors could click a button and see how their logo would appear in the arena during basketball or hockey games.

Unexpected learning: When we tested the experience at full size, we found rapidly panning around a life-size 3D model can cause vertigo, so we had to slow the movement programmatically.

Multi-touch Wall: As we grew our environmental design practice, we found that physical spaces present challenges for digital interactions, such  as correcting for ambient light, protecting valuable electronics, accommodating variable volumes, integrating hardware into an existing design language, and of course cost. The multi-touch wall gave us a canvas to explore a number of solutions: 

  • We used commercially available IR lasers to turn a piece of acrylic into a touch surface.  We experimented with vacuity film and rear projection to protect and hide hardware.
  • We created a wall that could accommodate as many users as it could fit. 
  • We mashed it up with a basic RFID reader to enable a user to quickly access their Outlook calendar and get directions to their next meeting.

Unexpected learning: Ergonomics matter. For technology such as multi-touch to be commercially viable, it has to take into account that standing in front of a screen waving your arms around is exhausting after a short time. While it may not be viable as a work surface, it can be allied to such things as information kiosks and wayfinding. Multitouch walls may be more successful at providing wayfinding information to multiple users than as Minority Report-esqe work surfaces.

Hocus Pocus: We did a quick internal project for Halloween involving some facial tracking software we got our hands on. We put an LCD screen behind a silvered mirror and created a ‘choose your own’ adventure game you could navigate by just moving your head or eyes. A 3D monster guided you through it, mimicking your expressions and gestures before transforming into one of several disgusting creatures based on your input. Fun? Yes. Immediate consumer application? Not really.

Unexpected learning: There are far reaching implications for this technology in the retail space, Imagine shelf-testing products and being able to track where people are looking and quantify when they’re smiling.


Technology is a means to an end: You don’t build a house by opening your toolbox and trying to find a use for what you have.  

Let it be messy: Duct tape and foam core are as effective as CAD in many cases. Perfection is slow. 

Engage your community: Great ideas come from unexpected places.

Irrelevant work shows relevant thinking: Clients can blur their eyes and see that it’s an approach and an ability we’re selling, not a solution. 

It’s a work space first: The Lab is a selling tool, but there’s a risk in spending too long showing the ponies rather than riding them. 

It’s a mentality, not just a place: Get your hands dirty; push ideas to breaking point; bring energy to all the work you do. We have a global snack and beverage client hosting design innovation boot camps in HAX, because the exploratory mindset transcends the technology or digital mediums we tend to work in. 

Commit: Lab projects marginalized or pushed  into ‘spare time status’ will not succeed.  It’s worth it: Fail fast, break stuff, have fun, rediscover why you got into this business.

WRITTEN BY Jamie Monberg

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