Design Mind frogcast Ep. 21 – Immersive Places & Imaginary Worlds

Our guest: Zach Morgan, Senior Designer | Places + Experiences, frog

On this episode, we’re joined by Zach Morgan, a senior architectural designer based in frog’s Austin, Texas studio. In his time moving between the worlds of architecture, theme park design at Disney and Universal Studios, and now as part of frog’s Places & Experiences team, Zach has learned a lot about what it takes to make immersive environments that merge the best aspects of physical and digital. He’s here to share why this hybrid approach matters now more than ever for domains as diverse as healthcare, retail, hospitality and entertainment.

Listen to the podcast episode and find transcripts below. You can also find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotifyand anywhere you listen to podcasts.  

Episode Transcript:
Design Mind frogcast
Episode 21:  Immersive Places & Imaginary Worlds
Guest: Zach Morgan, Senior Designer | Places + Experiences, frog

[00:09]Welcome to the Design Mind frogcast. Each episode, we go behind the scenes to meet the people designing what’s next in the world of products, services and experiences, both here at frog and far, far outside the pond. I’m Elizabeth Wood. 

[00:24] Elizabeth Wood: Today on our show, we’re talking about designing for real and imaginary worlds. To do this, we’re joined by Zach Morgan, a senior architectural designer based in frog’s Austin, Texas studio. In his time moving between the worlds of architecture, theme park design at Disney and Universal Studios, and now as part of frog’s Places & Experiences team, Zach has learned a lot about what it takes to make immersive experiences that merge the best aspects of physical and digital. He’s here to share why this hybrid approach matters now more than ever for domains as diverse as healthcare, retail, hospitality and entertainment. Here’s Zach now.

[01:04] Zach Morgan: What I do and I live my life by this is just say ‘Yes.’ Figure it out later. And I think that’s gotten me into some trouble. But I think that professionally, just say ‘Yes.’ I mean, it’s a risk, but in the having to figure out how you get it done, when you didn’t actually have the means to get it done, you learn a lot about yourself. You learn new skills. You learn new approaches. That was my approach at Imagineering. That was my approach at Universal. That is my approach at frog. And that is my approach in life. I say ‘Yes’ because life has so much to offer when you’re open.

[01:41] Zach Morgan: Inspiration is about openness. It’s about openness to hearing what you weren’t trying to listen to. And I think that’s how I find inspiration. I literally just keep my eyes open and keep my ears open and listen to the world around me.

[01:57] Zach Morgan: My name is Zack Morgan and I’m a senior designer with the Places studio at frog. I design experiences for brands to help them build a better connection with their customer, to help them pivot their business.

[02:11] Elizabeth Wood: Zach is always up for a challenge, often in the form of design competitions. In fact, he and his design partner Sean Burke recently won a competition hosted by the Soho House, collaborating on a project that brings new value to the humble umbrella. We asked him what it was like to win.

[02:28] Zach Morgan: Oh man, it felt so good. It’s fantastic. It’s one of those things where like, you win this competition, and you just kind of feel like there’s a collective agreement that what you did here is something remarkable. It’s not about the validation or the recognition–I’d be kidding you if I said that that’s not great–but it’s actually about the acknowledgement that what you did is something that can make people’s lives better. That was the prompt: it was design whatever you want, but design something that can make people’s lives better, that is sustainable and that is innovative. Being that those are the parameters, and then to find out that we did it based on these very, very renowned designers’ opinions on our work, it was–it’s fantastic. It’s a great feeling. And you know, the prize doesn’t hurt, either.

[03:18] Zach Morgan: So, the Soho House Design Competition, it was the first inaugural design competition. And there was a call to entry from the Soho House to submit a project, whether physical or digital, to any one of the Houses. And for those who don’t know, Soho House is a members-only social club with about 30 locations around the world.

[03:42] Zach Morgan: The way that I choose competitions to enter is by making sure that it is something that my values align with, and that I’m interested in, and that gives me happiness to envision the end product and what it could be for the world. My partner in the competition–his name is Sean Burke–him and I both had that approach to this like you know what? Let’s do the best we can do. Let’s get this done. This is fun. We would meet and draw on whiteboards and have little work sessions and we had fun doing it. And we let go of all that expectation and just got our own joy out of it. And then the joy translated into the work and we won.

[04:17] Elizabeth Wood: For this competition, Zach found inspiration from the ordinary umbrella. While most of us think of umbrellas as only useful when protecting us from the elements, he wanted to find out what umbrellas can do when not in use.

[04:31] Zach Morgan: What I did is took a look at what is the kind of object that you’ll find in any Soho House. Him and I looked at umbrellas. If you have outdoor hospitality, you have umbrellas. And the idea of an umbrella is such an afterthought. We’ve been using them for 3500 years in their current form. They were invented in China, but we’ve needed protection from weather as long as humans have been humans. The idea of an umbrella today, when it closes, it’s kind of just that saggy thing. It’s just kind of an afterthought. It doesn’t do anything, it doesn’t have any function when it’s closed. And so we wanted to look at umbrellas and say, Okay, well, what could this be when it’s closed to give it a multifunctional aspect?

[05:14] Zach Morgan: What we did is we put solar panels into the fabric. Then, in between those fixed solar panels, there’s a fabric that is foldable. And what it does is when it closes, the edges of the solar panels can touch so that it creates this lantern form, and that lantern form is lit at night. It creates an amazing aesthetic that is not in an umbrella today.

[05:37] Zach Morgan: This competition was unique because once they announced the finalists, there were 10 of us, they assigned each finalist to a judge that became your mentor for the rest of the competition. So what we did is we met with our mentor to discuss their design practice. And then we also discussed our design and our approach and what we want out of our own design practice, and then incorporated all of that input. Most competitions you win, you get some money and that’s it, But this competition is about  fostering and developing the talent and taking it to the next, you know, that extra 20% that is needed in conjunction with a successful mentor.

[06:17] Elizabeth Wood: As someone who has learned from mentors of his own over the years, Zach’s passionate about the role of the mentor in shaping the design workforce of the future.

[06:27] Zach Morgan: In ancient times, there was no such thing as a design degree. There was apprenticeship, and that is how you became the designer you were going to be and so on and so forth. And so I think that we now have the luxury of going to school for design, but mentorship can teach you those things that school just never could–the real life experiences of people who have been there, been in the trenches. I think that mentorship is so important to building on the existing knowledge of what we have and growing the design profession.

[07:00] Zach Morgan: What mentorship does is it exposes you to a different approach that is different than your own. Because every single one of us have a different approach. That’s the key about mentorship: it’s not one individual, little gem of information. It’s about understanding an approach that is different from your own and incorporating what works for you–and then paying it forward and mentoring younger people.

[07:22] Elizabeth Wood: Zach found his path to design first through his fascination with building things–and later through observing the built world around him.

[07:30] Zach Morgan: As a kid, I was always into building with Legos and Knex and all that stuff. But also my grandpa was a woodworker, and it fascinated me since I was four years old. So I always kind of had a propensity towards it. And then as I got older, I just found interest in architecture. As I would drive through cities and see places, whether it was like old unique architecture or really cool crazy spacey looking architecture, I kind of fell in love with the idea of it because I didn’t know what it really was yet. But I fell in love with the idea of it and it just drew me to design.

[08:05] Zach Morgan: So after I graduated from college,  I went to work in traditional architecture firms. I was committed to going and working in contemporary architecture and doing what architects do. So I worked on airports, retail, single-family residential, multifamily residential–kind of the whole gamut of typologies. And I felt really creatively stifled. I felt like architecture wasn’t doing enough to put the user at the forefront of the design process.

[08:34] Zach Morgan: And so I was really interested in theme parks because theme parks are all about the guests. At the end of the day, it’s about the families and everybody running through the parks and experiencing all these different immersive worlds. so I reached out to Imagineering, And I worked there for about four years. And so I worked in Los Angeles. I worked on Star Wars, Marvel, Frozen and then other smaller side projects. I worked with R&D as well. Any Disney project period–really any themed entertainment project period–there’s about 140+ disciplines that touch the project throughout the lifecycle of that project. And so knowing that, I knew that there was a lot to learn from my colleagues on every single project. So I would pick the brains of the ride designers and the show set designers, all the researchers, all the R&D people–which is actually how I ended up working with them for a good chunk of time there–and really just trying to expand my skill set, expand my knowledge, and understand everything that goes into these very, very complex projects.

[09:35] Elizabeth Wood: Zach’s time at Disney inspired him to think about the role of storytelling in his work. And it’s something he carries with him to this day.

[09:43] Zach Morgan: The approach that Disney takes to design is a narrative approach. What is the story we’re trying to tell? Who are the people that are coming to this place? Are they spectators? Are they involved? What are the different scales of experience?

[10:00] Zach Morgan: Sometimes the way that I start a project is I’ll write a paragraph or two on whatever comes to me. I’ll go to sleep, and then in the morning I’ll wake up, and I’ll edit that paragraph. And then I will use that as a framework that then drives my design decisions. Because that’s how it started. That was the origin of the idea, so I can go back to that. And it is not a static document, either. It is a working document. And I will change it and edit it and add to it as needed so that the physical design that I’m creating is kind of in lockstep with the narrative and they can both grow together. When you have narratives driving design, that’s how the process should work.

[10:39] Zach Morgan: All imaginary worlds are based in some form of a real aspect of places that we know like the original Star Wars was designed around areas in Morocco and Turkey. And it was these kind of monolithic forms that drew inspiration from these places. But then added blinky tech and lights to give it that kind of spacey feel. What I took away honestly from Disney the most is that it’s not about creating fantasy imaginary worlds. It’s about creating something that is relatable. And the more you can expand on the experience and make these crazy out-there worlds, the better. But if we as humans cannot relate with the place that we are visiting, then it just feels detached. And it doesn’t bring us any level of comfort, it actually can be slightly off putting, if you go to a place that’s totally alien to you and you can’t orient yourself.

[11:33] Elizabeth Wood: While his emphasis is always on the user at the center of a design, Zach’s own personal story has often informed his point of view and inspired his approach.

[11:43] Zach Morgan: What I do is at the intersection of architecture, storytelling and interactive design. So physical space becomes the sandbox for interactivity. Any design should be designed for the end user. The interactivity of a place should be in service of the way that we work, the way that we live, the way that we play. And if it isn’t, then you can’t call it interactive and adaptable. Then it’s just an object. And to be honest, if it’s not interactive and adaptable to the people that are using it, then it’s kind of just dying the day that it’s born, you know what I mean?

[12:20] Zach Morgan: I’ve just wrapped up a really fantastic project designing the cancer center of the future. The task was to start with researching and understanding what the approach today is to cancer treatment and what that journey is for patients, caregivers, as well as providers. Then, find the pain points in that experience and make them better so that at the end of the day, the overall patient journey is better and can provide a better experience to make things easier for patients and caregivers.

[12:57] Zach Morgan: And I had a personal connection to that actually because I lost my dad six years ago to cancer. I found out I was going to be on this project the six-year anniversary of his passing so there was also a very personal connection for me for this project and to be able to make life easier in a situation where literally everything is harder. It’s harder to make a piece of toast when you’re dealing with a loved one with cancer or when you have cancer yourself. So really, really like digging into how to make this experience a better experience was the task. And we did it by really creating these overarching principles that should drive any experience along the patient journey. And then using those to actually design physical spaces, like the consult room, the patient room–weaving in this fabric of storytelling that was meant to be relatable, so that people can find stories of success, and be able to relate to those stories of success in their own experience where it’s hard sometimes to find hope. And so yeah, it was a really, really powerful, powerful project.

[11:33] Elizabeth Wood: We’re going to take a short break. When we return, Zach will share more about how his focus on interactive, adaptable spaces is informing frog’s perspective on the future of the workplace.


[12:50] Hi, I’m Jeff Sharpe, Global Lead of frog’s Architecture and Places practice. The pandemic has changed our ways of working forever. Not since the integration of the personal computer have companies needed to reinvent their ways of working so completely. But by putting employee empowerment, well-being and creativity at the center, we can create a new model of work that truly drives innovation. Check today’s show notes to download our new report ‘Reshaping the Workplace.’ Learn the four key pillars forming the future of work and start defining a vision for the future of your workplace.

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[14:53] Elizabeth Wood: Now back to Zach Morgan, Senior Architectural Designer at frog.

[14:58] Zach Morgan: So today, trust is not the same as it was, you know, 40, 50 years ago. There aren’t pensions. There aren’t these ways that people felt loyal to a company and the reason that they would stay. So now, it’s important for employers to build trust in other ways.

[15:20] Zach Morgan: A lot of times, it’s said that millennials, you know, they’re just chasing money, and that’s why we go from job to job every two to three years or whatever. I don’t actually think it’s about money at all. I think it’s about fulfillment. And I think it’s about purpose. That trust comes down to giving your employees the fulfillment that they need to feel like they’re bringing something amazing into the world, and that they can be their best selves in the world.

[15:45] Elizabeth Wood: Employee experience is increasingly becoming a focus of Zach’s architectural design practice. He and his Places & Experiences colleagues recently wrote a report called ‘Reshaping the Workplace,’ all about tackling the new challenges and opportunities of hybrid work environments.

[16:02] Zach Morgan: So at the places studio at frog, we all have an architectural background. And we all, of course, have opinions. And we are all very interested in kind of the ‘future of.’ And so,combined with research and our own experience, we had a conversation and said, ‘You know what? let’s really take a look at the future of work.’ Because we were dead in the middle of one of the most massive, if not the most massive shifts in the way that we work globally. And so we felt that it was important for us to put forth a point of view on where we’re going with the future of work.

[16:36] Zach Morgan: So we organized all of our ideas, and then we distilled this all down into four main pillars. The pillars were the decentralization of the office. There isn’t just one central hub. You don’t just have to live in one place to work for a place. And now that people don’t live a half an hour from where they work, they might live three hours from where they work, they’re commuting less, and maybe that time in public transit or something, they’re actually able to be even more efficient when they’re on a train versus when they were in a car driving a half an hour. So it starts to unlock new opportunities around the way we work.

[17:13] Zach Morgan: Another aspect was wellbeing. So there’s wellnesswe wanted to really expand that and tackle the idea of well being which is kind of that the health of your mental and physical state as one, and really dive into how we create spaces in the hybrid world–so both digital and physicalthat can enhance the wellbeing of employees so that they can ultimately do their best work.

[17:35] Zach Morgan: Another pillar was culture. The way that you get the best work out of your employees is by making sure that their values align with your values and that instills a level of trust. I think that some of that happens over, you know, the water cooler talk. But we have digital water coolers now, whatever you want to call it. And so you don’t have those chance run ins in the hallway, or, you don’t have the person on the cubicle across from you that mentions something and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, you know, I saw this thing.’ That doesn’t happen, or it’s not as easy to happen anymore. So I think that creating the digital versions of that is so important. And we’re not there yet. And I think it’s going to take a lot more work. But bringing about chance encounters in a way that creates inspiration among staff, and doesn’t make staff that are remote feel less included than staff that are in the office. I think that is going to be the key to maintaining a strong company culture. And I actually think frog is doing a fantastic job at that. So it’s great to see that we practice what we publish, you know?

[18:42] Zach Morgan: The last pillar, the fourth pillar is technology. So, using technology to honestly be in service of those three other pillars. Every employee has a phone in their pocket, let alone a computer at their desk–possibly a tablet that they walk around with. Being able to attract data so that employers can make the workplace the most efficient and the best for employees, that’s one way to use technology.

[19:10] Zach Morgan: Another way to use technology is just the way that we use it now with with these hybrid meetings where there’ll be four people in a conference room, and then six more people on the screen. Where we’re not at yet, and where we’re going to need to get relatively quickly, is the recognition of social cues. So number one, I can’t make eye contact with you digitally. I wish I could, but like, I know, I’m looking at your eyes, and you’re looking at my eyes, but we’re not looking at each other’s eyes because that’s just how it works. Another thing is, you know, that split-second delay, where you go to speak, and then somebody goes to speak, and you’re like, ‘No, no, you go.’ ‘No, no, you go,’ and that type of stuff. Those can actually hinder efficiency in a way when you’re in collaborative spaces. And so I think that technology is going to get to a place that the social cues in typical everyday interactions are going to be built into the way that we collaborate digitally.

[20:00] Zach Morgan: I think that physical space is going to need to be enabled with more hardware and software that allows the quick and easy digital connection. I think that physical spaces will have to be in better service of enabling quick and easy digital interaction, but I think that digital spaces will start to replicate physical space. Because we are physical creatures, digital will have to be in service of what we know and relate to in the physical space. Once once we are able to do that, and just kind of create physical spaces that feel comfortable, I think then the question will be how can we start to take advantage of the fact that there’s no physics in digital space to start to build that into interactivity and build that into the way that we collaborate. I wish I had an answer on how that was gonna happen right now. I think we’re just at the very beginning of kind of web 3.0. and the metaverse, but that is going to be a huge part of collaboration. And I just want to clarify, it’s not going to be Meta. It isn’t going to be coming from this top-down view of controlling the space. It’s going to be a ground-up build where individuals are empowered to create and collaborate in their own spaces that they control, and that they have their own rules for.

[21:19] Elizabeth Wood: During our conversation, Zach shared with us some of the trends he sees on the horizon that are positioned to rapidly change the way we work, live, play and connect.

[21:29] Zach Morgan: I think the future of design is inclusive. I think it’s inclusive in accessibility for those who may not have access to high design. I think that’s going to be a big one, and also making design more accessible to people who didn’t think they could otherwise design.

[21:45] Zach Morgan: Another trend is the digital and Web 3.0, metaverse aspect. I think that you’re going to find, and now with the medium of VR headsets and AR technology, I think that you’re going to find that these worlds that people can create, that were never able to be brought to every single person. While VR is amazing, and I think VR will have its uses, and it will be fantastic in the world, I think that AR is really where the digital realm is going to thrive. 

[22:15] Zach Morgan: And the last trend that I would say that I think is going to be a big one is multi-functionality, and also building in multiple lifecycles into an object. So this is not easy. This is not cheap. And many times it does not look good. The idea that you can design an object for multiple different lives, right? We have a massive waste problem on this planet. It is only getting bigger. Population is growing exponentially. I think that being able to design for many different lives of an object so that when use is done, it can go to someone else that you may use it for a different purpose. Or, multi-functionality that actually gives it more purpose. I don’t think any company is going to say, ‘Yeah, let me spend more money to figure out how this can be of use after this person’s done using it.’ I think that it’s going to take a collective agreement from the world that it’s worth it to invest in objects that have more functionality so that they have longer life cycles and create less waste.

[23:15] Elizabeth Wood: While Zach is a lifelong lover of all things design, he does warn that falling too in love with any one design is risky business–especially if it’s not in service of the real human story at the heart of an experience.

[23:28] Zach Morgan: I think that a lot of designers fall into the trap of falling in love with their designs. And I have to really clarify what I mean by this, because everyone should be in love with their designs, right? Otherwise, why are you doing it? But I think that, you know, I give 150% to everything that I design. I love design. I have a passion for it. But I’m very careful about falling in love with any design. Because when you do that, your ego takes hold. And sometimes you’re not able to hear the client or design what’s best for the user at the end because you’re so in love with this iteration of a design that you’ve created. And so it’s important to love every design you create, but it’s almost more important to not fall in love with a design so much that you’re not ready to change it when a need comes up.

[24:21] Zach Morgan: The design world is visual communication. The way that you communicate your design is important and the medium in which you communicate your design is important. Some designers draw. Some designers do 3D-modeling. Some, I would argue that many, creatives could write so well that you could have a perfect picture in your head of an object. So whatever your medium is, however you communicate your design, your creative process, it is extremely important to do it in a way that is appropriate for the design that you’ve created. Otherwise, you can lose the meat and the understanding of what you’ve created to the client. And honestly make more work for yourself trying to fix that.

[25:05] Elizabeth Wood: That’s our show. The Design Mind frogcast was brought to you by frog, a leading global creative consultancy that is part of Capgemini Invent. Check today’s show notes for transcripts and more from our conversation. You’ll also find a link to download frog’s new report ‘Reshaping the Workplace,’ authored by members of the Places & Experiences team. We want to sincerely thank Zach Morgan, Senior Architectural Designer at frog, for sharing his insights and advice for designing for real and imaginary worlds.

[25:30] Elizabeth Wood: We also want to thank you, dear listener. If you like what you heard, tell your friends. Rate and review to help others find us on Apple Podcasts and  Spotify . And be sure to follow us wherever you listen to podcasts. Find lots more to think about from our global frog team at frog.co/designmind. Follow frog on Twitter at @frogdesign and @frog_design on Instagram. And if you have any thoughts about the show, we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at frog.co/contact. Thanks for listening. Now go make your mark.  

Elizabeth Wood
Host, Design Mind frogcast & Editorial Director, frog Global Marketing
Elizabeth Wood
Elizabeth Wood
Host, Design Mind frogcast & Editorial Director, frog Global Marketing

Elizabeth tells design stories for frog. She first joined the New York studio in 2011, working on multidisciplinary teams to design award-winning products and services. Today, Elizabeth works out of the London studio on the global frog marketing team, leading editorial content.

She has written and edited hundreds of articles about design and technology, and has given talks on the role of content in a weird, digital world. Her work has been published in The Content Strategist, UNDO-Ordinary magazine and the book Alone Together: Tales of Sisterhood and Solitude in Latin America (Bogotá International Press).

Previously, Elizabeth was Communications Manager for UN OCHA’s Centre for Humanitarian Data in The Hague. She is a graduate of the Master’s Programme for Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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