How Experiential Design Can Help Tell Your Brand Story

Any branded environment tells a story and a big part of that story is visual. Today, we’re talking to Cybelle Jones, CEO of SEGD, a not-for-profit professional organization for designers from all over the world who focus on shaping content-rich experiential spaces. Trained as an architect, she’s worked on many projects that involve historical and cultural environments such as galleries and museums, as well as working with brands to create memorable, interactive experiences.


Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda, and you’re listening to Think Retail. Any branded environment tells a story and a big part of that story is visual. Today, we’re talking to Cybelle Jones, CEO of SEGD, a not-for-profit professional organization for designers from all over the world who focus on shaping content-rich experiential spaces. Trained as an architect, she’s worked on many projects that involve historical and cultural environments such as galleries and museums, as well as working with brands to create memorable, interactive experiences.

Cybelle, thanks so much for being with us today. Could you start us off by telling us a little bit about you and about SEGD?

Cybelle: Sure, sure. Thank you. I started out studying architecture and I ended up having an internship in Washington, D.C. at a design office that did museum exhibition design back in the ‘90s. I never even knew that that was an option, that’s a design career. And while I was at that first firm, I was working on contracts for the Chicago Art Institute and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I immediately knew that that’s what I wanted to do rather than architecture. So, I feel really fortunate to have kind of landed that internship so early in my career because it ended up really changing the trajectory of everything that I did from then on. And it’s such a small community of museum exhibition designers at the time, at least in the ‘90s, that it all became word of mouth and I ended up working at the Smithsonian and then ultimately, I was hired to redesign the gems hall at the Smithsonian, and that’s the Geology, Gems, and Minerals Hall, which was fabulous. I got to wear the Hope Diamond.

Melinda: That’s amazing.

Cybelle: I know. It’s a really great experience and I guess I’m not cursed because I didn’t own it. But from there, that led into my career path as a you know, design director of experience in exhibition design in Washington, D.C., and fortunately I was able to work all around the globe. I worked on the National World War II Museum, which then led me to a project to design the Normandy Visitors Center in France. But I also did a lot of really fun projects like the GRAMMY Museum in LA. I did the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. and brand experiences. So, I worked with companies like Google and Johnson & Johnson, and Cox Communications. So, it was really a wonderful journey as a career thinking about how you can impact your end user, you know, what do you do and create a museum that really inspires people to want to learn more, to want to explore more. And so, that’s really, I think, where that industry has been leading to. So, I saw the transformation of incorporating digital media and film, and then that became interactive media. And then the last project that I worked on was the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum, and it opened in July. So, during the pandemic, but the technology was all RFID technology. So, all of those personalized experiences, fortunately, for them just happen as a touchless experience. And so, they were really one of the first ones to open in the midst of the pandemic to see “How do you still create an interactive, personalized experience, but without all the touch that we worked so many years to build into museums?” And now, we’re saying, “No more touch.” So, yeah, that’s a little bit of how my career evolved through the years.

Melinda: And can you tell us about how you arrived at SEGD?

Cybelle: Yeah. So, SEGD, I ended up on the board about 14 or 15 years ago, and that was transformative for me because I had never met…you know, it’s a very small industry and so, being able to meet peers that were doing really interesting work in the intersection of kind of graphics and form and place and narrative, and I continued on as a member for 14 or 15 years, but I was just having the sense that I had done everything that I kind of wanted to do on my bucket list in the exhibition field and really understanding that what I believe in my heart of hearts is that this interdisciplinary design community has the opportunity to really evolve into the next important design field, right? Because it’s all about communication and design. It’s all about two-way conversations. And even before the pandemic, I was thinking that this is really kind of the future of our design influence.

Melinda: Right. So, a lot of our listeners are not necessarily designers. So, could you just give us a really clear definition between experiential graphic design and other types of design, or maybe not experiential graphic design, but experiential design?

Cybelle: Right. So, okay. It’s hard to describe it. I’ll make an attempt. Our work creates a sense of place. It helps people find their way. It communicates important information that fuels a dialogue between users and the spaces they inhabit. And we really are dedicated to this multidisciplinary and collaborative design process that puts the user or the visitor or the audience needs first. And so, we try to strive to create environments that improve the human experience. So, we’re in between architecture and graphics. We incorporate digital. We incorporate visual experiences. Does that make sense?

Melinda: Yes, it does. I mean, it’s one of those things that I think once people start to get an idea of what it means, or they get an example, it makes perfect sense, but sometimes hearing it out of context, it can be confusing.

So, 2020 and, you know, the pandemic, it’s impacted built environments and how brands are able to interact with consumers. What role do you see visual communications playing in terms of getting people comfortable with coming into physical locations?

Cybelle: I think it’s actually critical. And I feel like our design community really is at the forefront of that because in order to get consumers going back and doing things that they love and that they want to do in their daily lives, we really have to ensure that we’re communicating in clear, concise, and I think most importantly, empathetic ways because design right now is so much about social psychology. People have so much anxiety and there are so many pain points around everything they do, right? Planning ahead, is this a safe place? Can I go with my kids? What’s the environment going to be? How long am I going to have to wait? And so, our work really needs to take into account all of that so that we can welcome people back into spaces in a manner that not only tries to bring some normalcy but interestingly, we’ve been talking a lot about as designers, we can bring some joy and actually, you know, allow people to enjoy something because we’ve been so isolated, we’re social creatures. We really want to get back into the community.

It was interesting because just last week, SEGD, we held a two-day symposium on wayfinding and placemaking with designers from around the globe, Peru, India, Korea. And it was interesting what we had in common and what we were, you know, very different environments. So, I think that we’re all highly conscious that as designers in this intersection of communication in place, that it’s really important to begin to have a safe space and welcoming space to invite people back.

Melinda: You mentioned joy, and I love that because you know, it’s one thing to be able to accomplish something like go and purchase something that you need to purchase or pick up a book from the library or whatever, but how can brands create joyful or meaningful experiences when things like social distancing and mask wearing and maybe limited numbers of people is still part of the equation?

Cybelle: I think this was actually a long time coming and COVID has just accelerated this, but I think that people really, and I know this from the museum world, but consumers are looking for authenticity. And as we have things beyond even COVID, right, with, you know, the other pandemics that we’re facing, what people are looking to their brands for is, “Are you authentic? Do you understand me? Do you understand what matters to me, right, what’s important to my culture or to my family?”

And so, I really think that brands need to turn an obstacle into an opportunity. And one of the designers that I was talking to, she always said, you know, we’re starting to turn this into performance art. Like if I go somewhere, do I see that people are really cleaning, that they’re paying attention, that they’ve designed all of the interfaces that I have with this experience, whether it’s retail, whether it’s a restaurant, whether it’s a service place, but they’re indicating to me that they’ve taken the time and effort and care to make me comfortable?

And then I think the other thing is this two-way engagement because too often brands, I think, believe that it was their job is, to push out who they were and now they realize we care who they are behind the story, right? So, what can I know about your ethical choices as a brand? What do I understand about your intentions? What do I understand about you know, what you do beyond just selling to me? And so, now this journey that we have together, I think it becomes critically important for the brand. It’s my first interaction with them. If I’m physically going, it’s what happens there, and then it’s that post piece, right? So, in the museum world, we call that the narrative arc. But I think that retailers are beginning to realize that I may need a different way to engage with you than another consumer. So, say you’re a parent, you may have different ways that you want to engage. An elderly person may want to just have something delivered where a younger person, they want that retail experience or they want that brand experience, but it kind of has to be on their terms. So, I think it’s a really interesting shift, but I also feel like it was inevitable whether COVID was coming or not.

Melinda: Yeah. I mean, I think in the retail world, we call it omni-channel. And I think people have been using that word a lot, but I don’t think that a lot of brands have truly, really embraced how interconnected and how much of a network it is as opposed to this…like, it’s not a circle, it’s like a web. And I think it definitely is accelerating that in the retail industry.

Have you personally seen any examples of anyone who you think is doing this well that you would call a leader in this regard?

Cybelle: I think, you know, it’s harder on the physical side because it’s just taking time for people to catch up. But I do think that as far as brand messaging, a lot of brands have been doing a really…you know, a standout job like Nike when they did their “Play for the World,” like I saw my 20-year-old daughter just totally embrace that. And so, I think this storytelling of the brand is critical. Like, you know, show your ethic, show who you are. I also feel like…so a local restaurateur to D.C. is Jose Andres, and he’s feeding the world. And so, if you’re going to go out to a restaurant in person, even though it has nothing to do with, you know, his feeding the world efforts, you want to go and spend your money at a place where you know that that person is doing good deeds.

So, I think particularly in this climate, it’s important for brands to share their stories. It’s important for them to be honest. So, if they’re struggling with how they tell their story of equity and equality with regards to race, I think people, the consumers appreciate honesty over perfection. So, I think the brands that really come out and utilize that as a narrative or an experience are succeeding, right?

It’s not a time to not experiment. And I think that experiential is really top right now because we want that warm, caring feeling. If that’s a personal, if that’s the way you’re training your staff to evoke the brand and the way that they interact, or whether that’s the physical environment that you create. I mean, even brands like Chick-fil-A where they’re doing like you can do everything in advance. They have employed so many young people that are all prepared to help and make that experience as easy as possible, I think that they’re the ones that are succeeding. And then you have something like, you know, the new Apple Store that opened in Shanghai and it feels very airy, it feels open, it feels safe. So, there’s subtle clues that we can give of our brand that aren’t even messaging, right? It’s just in the design and the way in which I don’t feel like I’m, you know, in this kind of cattle prodding through, a linear way to move through this space, but I actually feel that there’s air and it’s healthy and it’s enlightening and it’s happy. So, I think that’s really kind of critical to how we think about welcoming guests back to our brand.

Melinda: You’ve worked with so many really amazing institutions and museums, and retailers have been for a while now really taking cues from art galleries and museums. Who’s doing a great job of this and where do you see this trend going?

Cybelle: I think the trend was already happening. And I think it’s about personalization and two-way dialogue. And so, you know, in the museum world, we were realizing that we really had to adapt our designs to a lot of different kinds of users. You know, we have small children, parents with toddlers, we have the retirees that really don’t want to be in the midst of a school group. And so, how do we create experiences that allow either like deep thinkers who want to read a lot of text or they want to do a deep dive and people that are just in to cruise? So, all of those are lessons to be learned I think for branded experiences is kind of knowing your audience and being able to tailor to those audiences. So, now, we’re seeing a lot more of that upfront experience where I can kind of virtually try things on or experiment with something or even a concierge experience because…and I believe this will even happen with the museums as we have limitations on how many people can be in a space, guess who wins? The consumer wins because I used to go into these crowded places and have to fight to get a salesperson or someone to help me or to get in front of an artifact. And now, I actually can take my time. But it also means that the consumer’s going to be more picky. We’re going to pick and choose where we want to spend our time and money. And so, I think, you know, if you think about museums all being about what is the quality of the experience, how does it make me feel, am I inspired, am I challenged, there’s a lot for the retail and brand community to take from that of really focusing, not on kind of mass consumer, but how we can undulate and create journeys and experiences that allow that particular person to feel like they’ve been acknowledged.

Melinda: Yes, absolutely. I mean, personalization has been such a buzzword for a while, but I think we’re only really seeing the tip of the iceberg and what that can actually mean.

If you were going to give a couple of pieces of advice to retailers, your most important pieces of advice about how to create an experience in the built environment given today’s circumstances, what would you tell them?

Cybelle: First of all, I would say take advantage of this opportunity to rethink and reimagine yourself and your brand. You know, you’re not going to get this many times, to explain to your board or whatever that it’s worth experimenting. So, as challenging as this time is it’s also incredibly exciting. It’s why I came to SEGD because I felt like we’re on the precipice of this new challenge, but out of challenges can really create innovation and better experiences and more equity of experiences for everyone. So, first of all, I would say, definitely take the opportunity to innovate and re-imagine yourself and your work. Why are you doing it? Why does it matter? Because if you can’t answer that to yourself, you’re not going to be able to answer that to that end consumer, right? So, now is the time to show up and show your value. I also think that the right content, you know, highly targeted, personalized stories that can be adaptable and immersive, and that’s really where you have to separate yourself from the noise. So, there’s so much content out there, right? And everyone is in a Zoom or on Netflix. You know, we’re on this digital realm. And so, it’s the time to stand out. Well, maybe stand out means doing something that nobody else is doing, right? We all kind of fell into this safe place.

Melinda: Yes. Definitely.

Cybelle: We were making enough money that we could. We didn’t want to take a risk, right? So, now’s the opportunity I think we can step out of the lines a bit. And I think that really, it’s important for brands to understand their culture and provide a meaningful experience. They can do it. I was just talking to Ed Schlossberg, who’s our 2020 SEGD Fellow this morning and he said, “You see museums are everywhere.” If you think about all of this experience you have as an opportunity to learn or an opportunity for a two-way dialogue, I think this is how we need to rethink brands.

So, we need to blur the lines. I mean, quite frankly, in our organization of SEGD, I’m trying to blur the lines between, we say some things, you know, this is a branded environment, this is placemaking, this is experiential design, quite frankly, it’s all to the consumer or the person on the other side of the experience, it’s all one thing, right? So, blur the lines and learn from these different well-curated experiences. And I think that’s going to be at curation, right? That will be the outstanding… That’s how you differentiate yourself, right? Not by a million messages, but by a very meaningful, authentic, directed, curated voice.

Melinda: Right. That is excellent advice. SEGD has a virtual conference coming up in November. What can attendees expect from Branded Environments 2020?

Cybelle: So, our overarching theme this year is Common Ground, which that theme came up last spring before COVID and all the other pandemics that we’re facing, but it seems so very relevant now. And so, we want to talk about bringing the future forward. How do we look at global cultures and inspiration to navigate branded environments now? We have a lot to learn from Asia because Asia is a bit ahead of us.

Melinda: Absolutely. Yes.

Cybelle: Right? So, this opportunity, let’s look and see how Asia is doing it. On my symposium last week, we were on with Latvia. Latvia is seeing more drive of tourism because, you know, once people can get out… They want to be out. They want to be doing things and they’ve been able to design and to adapt. So, I think that’s one thing about the branded environments, is learning from others. I think the other thing is that we’ll be even looking at experts in the fan experience realm, like how has that all changed, everything that we love? We love our…well, I know you’re in Canada, but we love our football. You know, we’re seeing this evolution of what a fan experience is and whether it’s COVID, I think we’re always going to have to design in the future for this kind of hybrid experience. And so, I think that’s really important. And then we’re going to just talk about building commonalities and bridging differences.

So, those are going to be a series of round table discussions where we can talk about best practices, kind of like we’re talking on trends and insights and the experiential design community. And I think, you know, the impact of 5G technology is going to be critical. How do we collaborate with our clients now? And then how do we market across cultures? Because the one thing that I’ve taken away and I’ve only been CEO since May is that with all the frustration of not being in person, we have the ability…I mean, we’re connecting, SEGD, our Global Design Awards, we had people connecting from all around the globe. And so, that to me is exciting. And so, this is what I hope to open up in this Branded Environments discussion is how do we, you know, as people that are driving brand awareness and experiences understand now that we’re not limited by our small community that we might be pushing the brand out, but really it all becomes a global platform.

Melinda: Excellent. Okay. I’m going to link to that event in the podcast descriptions so if people are interested they can find out more.

Well, thanks so much for chatting with us today. It’s been a pleasure.

Cybelle: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.

Melinda: Cybelle talked a lot about storytelling, which is one of my favorite things. She referred to it as the narrative arc, similar to what we would call the customer journey. She points out that not everyone takes the same journey, and this has never been so true and so complicated. Brands need to weave their story throughout all their channels in a rich and thoughtful way. And what she said that I most deeply connect with is how it’s time for experimentation right now. I think she’s so right on the money with that. There are retail brands testing new ways to engage consumers. And given that consumers are really open to try new things right now, it’s a perfect opportunity for them to learn. And when we do find ourselves on the other side of this pandemic, those brands will be in a better place to weather the other disruptions we know are going to hit us. Thanks again for listening.


Cybelle Jones is the CEO of SEGD, and responsible for strategic leadership that fosters excellence in every aspect of SEGD to ensure member value, raised visibility of the profession and financial stewardship.

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email