We have all experienced the mental labor of choosing just the right font to portray a feeling or message that the words alone can’t. And for good reason - the way the words appear can have as much or more impact than the text itself (imagine getting a bereavement notice in comic-sans, for example).
Like fonts, materials also project a mood or mindset onto the structures they are a part of. The same booth rendered in different materials can bring vastly different associations to the space and the brand. And like much in design, these associations often mirror changing cultural trends and conditions.
Sleek, modernist materials evoke a sort of tech-enabled ‘future is now’ feel that can be impressive, but can also come off as cold. As more of our lives become integrated with hi-tech gadgets, the allure of futuristic minimalism starts to lose its charm. To tone down our complex, digital selves, many are moving toward the simple joys of a more ‘analog’ lifestyle. This doesn’t mean people want to run off and live in the woods, but are connecting with a desire to find a momentary respite from the technology that saturates our lives, and a return to the natural, tactile materials that comfort us and connect us with the outdoors.
One of the first things that comes to mind as being ‘natural’ are trees, so it is no surprise that wood seems to be having a moment right now. And we’re not talking about high-priced hardwoods, either. Low-tech materials like MDF, plywood and inexpensive wood grain vinyl flooring are cropping up more and more at trade shows, conferences and events, as a decidedly dressed-down alternative to the more clinical glossy white exhibit environments of the recent past.
This was really visible at the 2015 I/O developer’s conference, where colorful exhibitor booths were reimagined as freestanding blond wood pods that, when combined, created a communal “Sandbox” for attendees to explore. In 2016, Google continued the trend with an indoor-outdoor I/O experience that leveraged natural plywoods, MDF, and woven fabrics to create a more rustic feel for attendees.
Natural materials have been trending in sampling and retail experiences, too. From Chobani’s experiential test kitchen in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood to Verizon’s flagship experience store at the Mall of America, reclaimed wood, natural finishes and industrial metal accents are becoming the new standards of experience design and fabrication.
Other natural materials, like plants are also becoming more visible. Green walls and other garden-like installations add a hint of the outdoors to what can feel like stuffy, indoor corporate environments. Motorola recently activated an event at New York City’s Highline park that successfully utilized a living plant wall, as well as plants that were cleverly landscaped to feature the Motorola logo.
From a logistics and cost perspective, there are a few upsides to natural materials as well. Wood is more forgiving to work with than other frequently used materials, which can offer more design flexibility. It also travels well, and can be easier to retouch on-site than laminates and powder-coated or painted materials. Wood does tend to be a little pricier. Even a simple clear coat on wood or clear tint on metal can cost more in manufacturing time than a finished piece of plastic. But for many brands, the au naturale effect is well worth it.