The Idea of Place

The Idea of Place My wife, daughter and I recently celebrated our first year living on this magnificent island called Salt Spring. It has been a very interesting year personally as we adjust to life here but it's the professional adjustment that has been the most surprising.

Prior to our move here, I had some anxiety about relocating away from the geographical area where we do a fair bit of business. Would that have any impact on our bottom line? Certainly, I had every confidence that we could execute to the same high standards we always had. We've worked with clients all over North America – and our team is spread out across Canada.

The real question was that of perception. Would any clients be concerned by the decrease in physical proximity in the Vancouver area? In today's businees world, I didn't think so – but I wasn't absolutely certain.

Well, to my surprise, what I thought might be some occasional hesitation has been almost the opposite: our clients seem to think it's "cool" that we're "on Salt Spring". It seems to have a certain caché to it.

But why is that?

As I thought about it further, I realized that reaction should have been expected. Looking at the real world and bricks and mortar, there's always been the element of physical location holding a certain appeal and reflecting certain values for a company. Take for example, Fifth Avenue in New York or Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. By being located in a certain location, that association reflects upon the business – its products and offerings gain a sheen of increased worth and desirability.

So perhaps that's what's happening with us. Those who know what Salt Spring is like probably transfer some of that to us – the idea that living here isn't an easy thing to achieve in practical and economic terms. And since I (or "we" as Coalescent) have been able to achieve that, it speaks to our viability and success as a company.

So what of other companies where the physical location isn't a factor – either because customers don't go there or don't know it because it has no caché to it? Therein lies the great equalizer – the web.

In the early days, websites could focus on just looking pretty while providing some (hopefully) useful information. People perceived them as another kind of object – a brochure or advertisement. However, as we become more accustomed to working and doing business online in a virtual world, the old perceptions of location and associated value begin to change.

People are transferring the idea of place and imbuing virtual locations with the same qualities and value judgements they hold for physical locations and experiences. In reaction, websites have been transforming to focus on that user experience with the idea that the site can be a destination – an experience – just like going to a boutique clothing store or visiting your corporate law office on the 51st floor.

The website has to inform, educate and offer products with the same compelling experience of a physical encounter. It must lodge itself firmly in the user's memory as a pleasurable experience that supports an effective product.

That focus, taken with the advent of social media is turning websites into what used to be a trip to a mall, shopping in a popular commercial district or gathering in other public venues. They become destinations that hold a certain amount of emotional appeal.

None of that is earth-shattering information to a web developer and I probably shouldn't have been surprised by the reaction – or lack of reaction to our move (for those who don't "know" of Salt Spring). In fact, it is interesting looking back at the drive that welled up in me to build a new Coalescent website after we moved here. I think my own subconscious was prodding me to update the old site because it – as much as our physical move – was really an indicator of having changed locations. The move couldn't really be complete until the website reflected that change.

That thought highlights for me how pervasive this shift is in today's world of the virtual experience being equal to the physical and how those lines continue to blur and meld. As that occurs more and more, as a designer, it might become easy to take it for granted when in fact it demands focused and thoughtful attention in order to bring the physical world successfully into the virtual one.

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