In a recent New York minute: * The world's largest technology-based stock exchange relocates its headquarters to Times Square.

* Theme park designers premiere a science show inside a new $210-million planetarium.

* Television and publishing conglomerates race to produce "brand experiences" in corporate attractions all across town.

What's going on here?

We're seeing the first signs of an emerging guest-centered economy. It's a new design marketplace, driven by a fusion of environmental design, media technology, and narrative. It's creating a new genre of location-based entertainment (LBE) projects, and it's influencing the look and feel of many commercial and cultural building developments. It's about making places that communicate ideas and meaning, experiences that pulsate with intelligence, and environments that are relevant to right now. It's about entertainment design. Our citizen-guests have new expectations: they seek emotional connections with products, personal relationships with information, and experiences that satisfy multiple areas of the cerebrum. But there's one thing they've always craved: a good story.

This last decade has seen entertainment design escape from its theatrical and leisure roots and leap into the promising, if sometimes harsh, daylight of the "real" world. Along the way, it is transforming our businesses and invigorating large segments of our economy. From a new creative orientation dedicated to the guest experience to innovations in digital cinema to "brand world's fairs," entertainment is pushing the boundaries of every creative field. "Design is more important to the business of entertainment than ever before," says Michael Wolf, managing partner of Booz-Allen Hamilton, New York, and author of The Entertainment Economy, "and this combination will be a dominant factor in most consumer businesses for the next 10 years."

So how brave is this new world where the "entertainment idea" has become an agent provocateur for change? What are these new design priorities, and how are designers translating entertainment into ordinary places?

Breaking News: Form Is Not Content Entertainment is changing the rules of design, and the values of entertainment design are being adopted by the marketplace of ideas and money. What we have learned from world's fairs, theatrical environments, and leisure attractions is today being applied to a host of mainstream design assignments. This emerging design field is not about form, style, or "synthetic environments," but a call for places that communicate emotional content and narrative experiences.

It is clear that the spirit of the theatre and the theme park is having a profound effect on urban developments, retail environments, restaurants, sports and gaming facilities, and even museums, cultural attractions, and Main Streets across the country. We are now fully engaged in an "experience economy," where environments, products, and services are judged by their quality of personal interaction. It's a populist uprising, and it's reshaping our attitudes about the character of everyday places.

Entertainment design is often equated with "theming," a misleading association that undermines the broader contributions of this field. While we could coyly suggest that every environment has a theme, entertainment design brings something far more interesting to the table: a point of view. Theme park-style theming is just one form of environmental storytelling, and in practice, there are a limited number of appropriate venues for this design approach. We would not, for example, describe the NikeTown stores as "themed," but each one features an interpretive athletic/lifestyle/product experience inspired by local sports mythology. Similar narrative impulses shape environments like the Discovery Channel store in Washington, DC, the Columbus (IN) Center of Science and Industry, and the Museum of Natural History's Hall of Biodiversity in New York. While major theme parks and fantasy destinations like Las Vegas periodically announce billion-dollar projects, a more consistent and challenging market for entertainment design and technology is growing outside of these gates.

"As with theatre, the key is getting guests to see what you want them to see, to focus their attention," says lighting designer Dawn Hollingsworth LC, whose LBE credits include Sega GameWorks and The Way Things Work attraction at Sony Metreon. The transition is not an easy or automatic one, she adds: "Problems arise because theatrical designers are trained in illusion, not architecture and construction."

Form, of course, has an obvious role in experiential design. But our existing language of modernist design is, by itself, no longer able to express all the content of modern life. Consider the messages sent by the exterior character of Frank Gehry's Experience Music Project versus the tasteful platonic solids of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. EMP sings, "Are you experienced?" while I. M. Pei's building lectures, "I am architecture."

Entertainment design is creating places that become characters (the new Times Square), serve as narrators (NASA's Apollo/Saturn V Center), communicate brand messages (the NBC Experience store), heighten our relationship with information (the Hayden Planetarium/Rose Center), and empower future generations (SonyWonder Interactive Technology Lab). Entertainment design is preoccupied with communication and emotion rather than architectural form. It integrates media in all its forms, but it is not about media. Its focus is on the guest experience - the pulse and character of individual interaction.

Because entertainment design challenges us to respond to relevant issues - both cultural and commercial - with more than aesthetic answers, the field opens itself to criticism from traditional design sectors. "Many architects don't want to understand the care and attention entertainment projects require," says Jeff Gunning AIA, vice president of RTKL's ID-8 Group in Dallas, "and they seem to be genetically opposed to anything that challenges the priority of their forms." As a result of its particular requirements, entertainment design programs are now in development at schools including Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, CA., and Pratt Institute in New York.

Entertainment design teaches us the importance of - and market for - guest-centered experiences. From these projects we have learned architectural techniques for environmental storytelling, and perfected ways to engage large groups of people with compelling ideas. They demonstrate a social tradition for places that are designed to remove us from everyday life. They show us the value of being attractive to both visceral and intellectual interests. And they remind us about the universal pleasures of relentless curiosity, of stepping into possible futures, and of making connections to an often-chaotic world.

While radical and utterly transformational forms of leisure seem to be announced bimonthly, the evolution of entertainment culture has produced some notable casualties. It is with sadness that we must acknowledge the death of the great and wondrous World's Fair. This high-minded celebration of humanity is no longer a viable proposition. Expositions are near extinction as well, with no more international events scheduled after Hanover 2000 closes this month in Germany. These are orphans of the brand/Internet age, where even the Olympics must now deliver Phantom-grade production values.

1955 Meets 2001 Modern entertainment design came of age with the opening of Disneyland California in 1955. Here was the first contemporary place to integrate design and technology in pursuit of narrative experiences - architecture with a plot. It is no coincidence that this fusion took place between two of the great World's Fairs - New York 1939 and 1964. Walt Disney was finally able to combine the fictional settings of his films with a growing technical prowess to introduce a permanent, story-based destination. And from necessity he invented the Imagineering concept, which recognized that entertainment design excels through the coordinated efforts of both creative and technical points of view. After all, world's fairs had themes, but theme parks and theatres have stories.

Today we find designers translating this legacy into some unexpected places. A rise in corporate dominance has prompted the "rebirth of the brand," an initiative which is spawning new environmental concepts. Volkswagen's Autostadt campus near Wolfsberg, Germany presents a "Brand World's Fair" under the nostalgic umbrella of its beloved Beetle car. Nasdaq locates its virtual stock exchange and a paid guest attraction at 42nd Street and Broadway - ground zero for global entertainment culture. Electronic and print media companies like the People Magazine Group are developing attractions which, for the first time, give their logos a tangible presence. These projects stage memorable experiences, and rise above the ambient noise of an overcrowded marketplace. Remember that brands are stories.

Retail environments, often a barometer of design trends, are a growing consumer of entertainment design talent. American Girl Place in Chicago, winner of a THEA retail design award from the Themed Entertainment Association, deftly blends theatrical settings with product SKUs [Shop Keeping Units]. Produced by Michael Donovan and Nancye Green, partners in New York's multifaceted design firm D/G2, the store includes a 145-seat Broadway-quality theatre, complete with live orchestra. "We wanted an atmosphere that recalls the emotional connection between girls and [American Girl] dolls," says Donovan, "and the result is part retail/museum and part learning center wrapped in a narrative experience."

Cultural and historic sites are also taking on some of the characteristics of entertainment design. Regional cultural districts are being developed across the US, with some of the most hallowed sites being recast. At the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, a controversial new master plan calls for presenting the battle story from alternative points of view, rescripting the historical narrative to engage a wider audience. Combined with a new visitors center and portions of the landscape that will be returned to their appearance in 1863, the effect will be a complete restructuring of the guest experience.

The goals of entertainment art and technology are even at work in institutions that profess no interest in entertainment. The new Hayden Planetarium in New York is full of theme park-derived media technologies, including multiple edge-blended video projectors that present three-dimensional CG images moving across a supersized domed screen. It's a stunning visual accomplishment, presented in the service of science education, and before now rarely seen outside the economics of entertainment-funded attractions. Say farewell to late night Pink Floyd laser shows - this is hard astronomy packaged to reproduce the effects of that controlled substance called awe.

Simpler techniques have emboldened what must be the first featureless facade - the proposed Blur Building. It's a national pavilion set in Lake Neuchatel for the Swiss National Expo 2001. Designed by New York architects Diller + Scofidio, the "building" shape is defined by thousands of Mee fog-like water jets, creating an edgeless, purely sensory architectural encounter.

Forget the Future: Now Is Now The potential of entertainment design coincides with what can best be described as our growing "future now" condition. Simply put, the future isn't cool anymore. (Why can't the new International Space Station look anything like the sexy one in 2001: A Space Odyssey?) What is really cool is everything right now, in the way that we are "experiencing the future." Our imaginations can now be experienced. If we had postponed dreams in search of technology, much - maybe too much - of it is available today. Entertainment design culture feeds - and is nourished by - this emphasis on the now.

Some designers have faced this circumstance by looking in the rear-view mirror. Several years ago, Disneyland famously turned back the clock on its Tomorrowland attraction, renovating it to look like a romantic Jules Verne storyboard - an ironic twist on "yesterday's tomorrows." The more interesting goal for entertainment design today is to fully express the moment, to be a tool chest for helping the culture to communicate.

Don't be misled to judge the now as easy - it's probably the most difficult design problem of all. Just look at some of the recent Holy Grails in our field, like interactivity and virtual reality. Each idea represents a brilliant promise of our time - a rare commingling of art and commerce - and both remain completely out of our grasp. Just around the corner, in the near "future now," look for entertainment design to enable online companies to launch high-touch environments in a delightfully twisted digital-to-analog market conversion. If Nasdaq can do this in Times Square, what will eBay look like in SoHo? Very soon we will find the Internet dissolving into our environments, spiking them with international reach, and creating a fourth dimension of intelligence. And look out for unlabeled, hybrid spaces, like black-box exhibition/performance/retail spaces designed for temporary "brand occupations." All of this in the service of storytelling.

For filmmaker and inventor Douglas Trumbull, our constant desire for the next new thing is double-edged: "The future is here, and we can't keep up with it." Now, for the first time, technology is developing more rapidly than artists' ability to apply it. For Trumbull, our mission is clear: "The challenge is in finding a balance between seductive effects and the more lasting values of fine art...I prefer 10% cutting edge and 90% soul."