Applying the ‘aesthetics of joy’ to your digital placemaking project


7 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Arts & Culture


The heritage sector in the UK faces many challenges. Hundreds of thousands of organisations are vying for the public’s attention, institutions across the country are struggling to pay for upkeep, and European funding for arts and culture – which has often plugged the gap left by national cuts – is at risk with Brexit fast approaching.

The pressures are most keenly felt at the bottom line, and that means heritage organisations are increasingly looking at financials before embarking on a new project. This is right, of course, return on investment has to be a consideration. But the focus on finance shouldn’t cloud the essential role of creative thought.

To encourage an audience, digital placemaking has to think about visitors first and foremost. And all those crucial financial goals benefit heavily from putting joy front and centre of the visitor experience. By creating magic, joyful moments will increase word of mouth, and will gain notoriety, great reviews, social media shares and PR. All this will drive footfall and participation.

So, what does joy look like? And how can you apply it to your digital placemaking project?

The aesthetics of joy

In her book, Joyful, author Ingrid Fetell Lee explores how the spaces and objects we interact with every day can have a profound effect on our mood. She also outlines 10 characteristics that evoke joy, most of which are crucial in creating successful placemaking experiences.

There’s the energy aesthetic, evoked by bright colours and warm, sunny light.

There’s surprise, which helps break the monotony of routines and prompts us to reexamine our preconceived notions of the world around us. This can be achieved by playing with placement, scale and proportions of objects in our surroundings.

There’s also magic – the kind evoked by natural mysteries like the Aurora Borealis, magnetism, wind, or twinkling fireflies. We can also make magic with iridescent colours that glimmer and shift, prismatic material and other optical illusions.

Then, there’s celebration. When we come together to share good news or a moving narrative, the result is a communal joy that is larger than the sum of its parts. Joy spreads like wildfire through laughter, music, dance and storytelling.

Other aesthetics of joy include abundance (quantity and variety), freedom (unobstructed movement), harmony (rhythm and symmetry), play (childlike wonder), transcendence (feeling uplifted) and renewal (moments of ebb and flow).

A strong app experience can focus on creating major impact through one aesthetic or combine the nuances of several. Hidden Stages, our project with the National Theatre, did the latter.

Incorporating the elements of surprise, celebration and playful exploration, this app invites visitors to create their own drama using the Theatre’s architectural space for inspiration. The app points out different architectural details, directing groups to pose for dramatic scenes together using the building as a storyboard for their photos.

Bringing these elements of joy into creative conversations at the start of a project can focus thinking, guide conversations and spark ideas. Rather than asking, ‘how can we get more visitors?’ think, ‘how can we bring harmony, play or surprise into our experience?’

Three thoughts on joy in digital placemaking

1. Joy means different things to different people – Some people will be drawn to mystery and excitement, while others will be inspired by calm stillness. Neither of these environments is more ‘joyful’ than the other.  

When creating your own digital experience, think about your visitors. Who are they and what kind of things bring them joy? How could you leverage your existing space to work these elements into your experience?

Perhaps your audience wants to learn through sharing. Historypin, for example, is a user-generated photo archive that allows people to pin historical photos, video and audio recordings to contemporary locations. This allows other users to overlay the archival content using Google Street View in order to learn more about the landmark’s history.

Wallame encourages similar joy through collaboration by allowing travellers to share “hidden messages” with each other. Via the app, users can create scribbled mottos, words of encouragement or even personal recommendations to other travellers all around the world.

For others, joy comes from spectacle – for instance, the Starry Night exhibit at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which allows visitors to literally walk through one of Van Gogh’s most famous works. None of these experiences are right or wrong, it simply means understanding your target audience and being sensitive to all of them to create magic for the many, not the few.

2. Joy can be found anywhere – You don’t have to be an expansive green space or a palatial historic landmark to build joyous elements into your digital placemaking experience. Take The Lost Palace – Calvium’s award-winning digital placemaking experience for Historic Royal Palaces. On this virtual adventure, visitors were able to experience a heritage site where no modern day traveller had ever been. Why? Because it burned to the ground 300 years ago. Using handheld devices outfitted with binaural 3D sound and haptic technology, visitors could hear, touch and feel the past, allowing them to get swept up in history in the very exact locations where it happened.

The result: 90% of The Lost Palace visitors said they felt more connected to the past, while 93% rated their experience as something special and unique.

Similarly, joy can come from the technology itself, not simply the experience. A focus on intuitive, simple, delightful user experience (UX) is part and parcel of delivering a joyful experience. From the family-friendly treasure hunts of our Tower Bridge app to the augmented reality discoveries of our Battersea Power Station tour, the flexibility and accessibility of app tech can be a joy in itself.

3. Innovative technology is always magical – The first time you see something that was once impossible is exhilarating – a true moment of joy.

An app like Pokémon Go is a great example of how to use innovation to surprise and delight players by letting them ‘see’ Pokémon characters in their own living rooms, using augmented reality.

But ‘new’ will only take you so far. While Pokémon Go garnered plenty of headlines and an impressive 130 million users when it first rolled out in July 2016, the excitement tapered off within a short year. By 2018, the number of Pokémon Go players dwindled to approximately 65 million monthly users.

If you are relying on the power of ‘new’ to drive traffic, you need to look for ways to keep content fresh – or at least understand that the shelf life of your mobile app will be much shorter than if creating a deeper and more meaningful experience.

Creating ‘Magic Moments’

Whether it’s pops of colour, larger than life scenery or snippets of history showing up in unexpected places, there are many creative ways to bring joy to your app experiences, while also breathing new life into spaces that might otherwise be overlooked or forgotten.

Digital placemaking joins the dots between people, place and technology – and within those three elements lie unlimited opportunities to place joy front and centre. Whether it’s surprise, magic, wonder, nature or freedom – the elements of joy can drive everything from visitor engagement through to the bottom line. A visitor may be worth an entry fee; a smiling, amazed and engaged visitor is worth much more.

Calvium creates digital placemaking experiences for all sorts of heritage organisations, managing the project from consultation to creation and beyond. Have a look at some of the projects we’ve worked on here.

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