Gesture, Movement, and Sound: The World of HUSH

Photography by HUSH

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Many of our social and professional interactions occur online, and the internet makes everyday tasks like shopping more convenient. But we still crave sensory engagement: We want to see, touch, hear, and smell before we buy. As online retail traffic increases, brands must innovate their approach to brick-and-mortar locations by leveraging technology to forge emotional connections. Founded by David Schwarz and Erik Karasyk in 2006, Brooklyn, New York–based interactive experience design company HUSH is at the forefront of crafting digital shopping experiences for well-known brands, including Google, Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, and Equinox, among many others. In an interview with Contract, Schwarz describes the company’s origin, design approach, and experimental nature, as well as the challenges it faces in the constantly evolving retail landscape.

Why the name HUSH?
When we founded the company, we did a deep audit of competing design firms and concluded that most of their visual language, naming, and services were fundamentally the same. HUSH was an ode to putting aside the verbiage and preaching to focus on doing great work.

Your team comes from a variety of backgrounds. How does this diversity enhance your practice?
Members of our team include a guitarist, an economist, a floral designer, a photographer, and a professional skater. With a multitude of talents from a range of industries, we aim to understand one another rather than impose our knowledge. For each project, we tweak and tune our process in relation to the client’s culture and our own team’s diverse point of view. It’s like cooking—you have to consider who you are serving and the ingredients at hand. HUSH’s clientele includes many major brands.

How do you approach working with a new client that is already well known to the public?
We work with household-name clients in the same way that we work with lesser-known brands: While there may be huge strategic differences, every company has a history, a vision, and its own unique challenges. A thorough understanding of a brand and its audience is a must for the work that we do. Each company’s brand strategy, aesthetic, and mission are constantly evolving. The benefit of working with large, known companies is that there is a legacy and a built-in audience. Sometimes it can be a disadvantage, but our strength is in looking at where they have come from, where they are going, and how we can be a catalyst to get them there faster.

Your studio functions as a lab: Tell us about some of your current experiments with design and technology.
As an iterative prototyping studio, we engineer mockups at a variety of scales. We are currently experimenting with low-resolution LED lighting arrays obfuscated through glass that will visualize a business’s real-time data. We are also playing with large multitouch canvases that control lighting effects through architectural glass. All of these experiments are iterated through a virtual reality pipeline in which we test the optics of digital interfaces, lighting, and environment as a cohesive experience.

Describe one of your recent projects.
Earlier this year we launched “Deep City,” a multipart installation at Google’s New York headquarters. Our goal was to conceive a holistic, executive-level experience that utilizes Google’s advanced technologies to record guests’ data related to gesture, movement, and voice and create a beautiful architectural experience that feels intuitive and inspiring. We integrated interesting physical materials with the digital surfaces, challenging guests’ expectations about what digital interactions should feel like.

How does data collection shape the firm’s design approach?
Although data has many clichés and pitfalls, it can prove an asset and a direct line to a brand’s identity. We leverage a company’s core data—ownable, active, real-time data streams that connect to the behavior of its customers, employees, and activities—and turn it into something highly designed, often revealing, and ultimately inspiring. Since data is inherently invisible, we provide the magical service of making the invisible visible.

How can technology be harnessed to emotionally appeal to the consumer?
We use technology to tell relatable stories, and we develop digital and physical experiences that tap into the innate aspects of our senses. While highly complex, many of the technologies that we use ultimately simplify and focus the experience for our audience. Much of our work leverages technology to mimic human traits, such as gesture tracking, voice control, and motion detection. Engaging a visitor’s senses typically results in a more emotional connection, which is the primary goal of most retail experiences—consumers rely on personal feelings rather than didactic information to inform their purchasing decisions.

How can companies adapt and engage customers in brick-and-mortar locations on a more personal level?
Economic forces mandate change, and commodity retail will move toward e-commerce. High-touch luxury goods will maintain brick-and-mortar locations, though, and so will experiential brands—companies that provide a place to gather, connect, and experience the value of being with like minds. Because experiential brands have a built-in participation ideology, customers expect engagement and interaction. And there is still no better place to do that than in a highly designed, real-world setting with compelling digital and physical elements to reward you for leaving the comfort of your couch.