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Teaching Spaces to Speak

A pre-pandemic brand experience project for the ExxonMobil Shanghai Technology Center still resonates today.

Our spaces hold untapped opportunities to connect people to purpose, to ideas and to each other. They can immerse a person in what drives an organization, educate them about its agency in the world, and persuade them to join the effort.

In 2017, while employed at Planning Design Research (PDR), an executive with ExxonMobil Global Real Estate and Facilities approached us with a challenge. He had the foresight to see that one of his projects was not on course to appeal to its intended audiences, and engaged us to redirect it. The effort was a renovation and extension of one of ExxonMobil's largest customer-facing technology centers located in Shanghai. An excellent team was already engaged before PDR joined: a global architecture firm and a stellar client-side communications team that is advised by several world-renowned brand agencies. Why wasn’t this space working? Why didn’t it have the WOW factor they were looking for?

Conceptually, it was failing to establish ExxonMobil as a major new presence in the region. It needed to convey reasons why potential customers, local chemicals businesses, should partner with them. The design ideas produced by the incumbent architecture team were attractive, but they lacked substance and purpose. The space they were creating could have been for any company.

Construction was already underway in areas of the project, so we immediately took action and traveled to Shanghai. As soon as we arrived, we interviewed local members of the facility’s Human Resources, Sales and Marketing teams to understand their communication needs. Then we engaged the local architectural design team in a multi-day workshop.

In the thick of the workshop (that's me on the right)

The solutions we developed directly impacted Shanghai Technology Center’s (STC's) top use cases: the visitor journeys of potential customers and prospective employees. The public spaces were re-designed to balance high tech sensibilities of a multinational chemical manufacturer with high-touch comforts of a five-star hospitality experience.

Voronoi Moon - a spherical sculpture I designed representing strength, efficiency and alignment

To communicate ExxonMobil's intent to commit to the region longterm we pitched the idea to create a series of monumental-scale art pieces with a timeless quality to them, giving the impression that they had been there forever. Each piece was designed to embody themes centered in collaboration, strength, alignment, and chemistry.

We also wrote training materials for STC's hosts that guide them through how to use the art pieces to spark meaningful conversations with their guests. From the building entrance to the back of the property, guests and hosts quickly get to know each other, and as they arrive at their destination, the Collaboration Center, they are primed to work together.

Common Bond - A wall-mounted, backlit sculpture I designed representing human chemistry

The common areas of the STC now function as an immersive communication tool. Our work bridged a narrative gap that was not being fulfilled by marketing collateral, or by architectural design alone. We leveraged ExxonMobil's enterprise-level brand ambitions and translated them to new site-specific applications in Shanghai. The result is original, authentic, adaptable and relatable, while also completely aligned with the ExxonMobil brand.

An executive visiting the project during its opening ceremony looked around and said, “This will win us new partnerships.”

The Constellation - A ceiling-mounted sculpture I designed representing large-scale collaboration

How can spaces become communication tools for organizations? Some call it Brand Experience, but in an effort to circumvent nebulous labels, it’s simply an effort to bridge a gap that traditional marketing and architecture cannot. This approach to brand activation borrows from the sensorial richness of hospitality design, the emotional gleam of retail, and the compelling hooks of good, old-fashioned storytelling to transform physical spaces into compelling platforms.

Highlights of the process:

Use-case research connected local employees to enterprise-level branded content.

A few interviews and group engagements helped us gain valuable insight into how we could enable the hosts to leverage their workplace as a communication tool. We discovered the vital work stories they might tell their guests and each other and organized them into larger themed categories.

Connecting landmarks along the user path created a strong procession from entry to exit.

Rather than assigning a few token areas for brand interventions, frequent paths of travel were mapped in their entirety. Storytelling moments were then identified and strung together to create a cohesive branded experience that would last for the duration of any given procession.

Delivering instructions, examples of use, and creative support ensures the stories will be told.

Clearly outlined talking points and anecdotes for each sculpture were given to the appropriate internal groups with encouragement to adapt them appropriately for their comfort levels and engagement goals.


Project Lead - brand experience designer; sculpture designer


ExxonMobil Global Real Estate & Facilities on behalf of ExxonMobil Chemicals


Drew Patton and Jenny Segsworth




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