Sophia Chan tells us about her philosophy as an experience designer for brands like Disney, Under Armour, and Oreo, and for properties like Pacific Rim. To her, the secret of creating a memorable experience is beauty, wonder and excitement!
Sophia Chan is an illustrator and theme park designer who started her career at Disney Parks Live Entertainment, designing for shows, parades, meet & greets, and parties for Walt Disney World. After several years working for the Mouse, she has branched out to design theme park attractions around the world, most recently in Indonesia and China, as well as experiential marketing pop-ups around America.
In addition to her core skills of illustration, graphic design, and SketchUp modelling, she has also been fortunate to oversee many of her designs through the construction process to opening day. She’s a team player who is always excited to work on any phase of any exciting projects!
Tell us how you got into art direction and design. Did your experience with theme parks growing up influence your decision to do experience design?
Sophia: To be honest, I fell into this career path! I’d only been to Disneyland once when I was 4 years old, and after that the first time I went back to a Disney park was when I started my job with Disney as a designer with an illustration portfolio. However, I love travel & adventure so being able to design experiences for people, on top of being able to draw pictures all the time, has been such a great opportunity.
With all the factors you need to keep tabs on in your average project scope, what is your design philosophy?
Sophia: The most important thing is always what supports the story or message, and what gives guests a great & memorable experience.
A lot of your work involves “creating concept illustrations for presentation and design.” What have you found to be the most useful ways to communicate your ideas for a successful pitch?
Sophia: Beauty, wonder, or excitement – sometimes, it’s all about selling some key moments and illustrating what the feeling of the attraction is.
What genres or styles do you usually gravitate towards for your concept art/illustrations? Where do you draw your inspiration for concepts with no source material?
Sophia: Generally it depends based on the type of attraction – whether it’s for kids, or more of an adventure type experience, or if it’s a branded experience. I work with the creative directors and we determine what kind of style best communicates the story & feeling.
How do you customize your design process and/or philosophy to suit different audiences?
Sophia: Every project is unique! Also, I’ve found every team works differently and has a different dynamic, especially based on what phase the project is on (for example, concept phase vs something that’s getting built might have different types of team members). Sometimes I find it more useful to make sure I can keep my process & design styles versatile per project, so that we can focus on what’s most important – telling the story.
From immersive rides to theme park concepts, have you gained any interesting insights about human psychology?
Sophia: No matter how digital the world gets, people are always looking for shared experiences. Also, I think it’s cool how people are so willing to suspend disbelief to enjoy themed experiences with their friends & family.
How different is the on-site execution from the concepts you’ve designed with (digital) pen and paper?
Sophia: When we’re in the design phase, we do everything we can to plan as many design details & troubleshoot any potential problem areas for the scenic fabrication/construction teams that will eventually build the attraction. However, sometimes you get on-site and the situation is just different than what was anticipated, especially with so many disciplines building in one place! When we’re in the field, we’re trying to work with all our different partners to reach as close as possible to the creative intent possible. It can get crazy, but it’s fun & so exciting to see things get built full-scale.
Have you adapted your work for the VR/AR world? Any notable projects? If not, what do you think of the medium?
Sophia: I haven’t (yet), but I think the medium is awesome. Wouldn’t rule it out that I’d dabble in it one day.
Who would be an unlikely candidate for a theme park experience? Why?
I think anyone can be part of a theme park experience!
You’ve just been approved unlimited funding for your ideal experience design project. Tell us about it and who it’s for.
Sophia: I’d love to design an immersive theater experience one day for something similar to an Alice in Wonderland type of story – like you’re leaving reality to enter a different world that’s beautiful and whimsical, but the guest still has the autonomy to make decisions. Also, I’ve worked on a few theme park dark rides before and would love to work on more.
Bonus – Is Shaquille O’Neal the coolest?
Sophia: Of course!!!