London 2012 opening ceremony: A triumph in experience design

by Shareef Ayyad. Average Reading Time: about 4 minutes.

Seven years of planning, £11billion spent, an East London transformation, and the 2012 Olympic games are finally here – introduced to the world through the imagination of film director Danny Boyle. And what an introduction it was!

After a slow, growing Tsunami of media coverage in the last six months, British cynicism was bursting at the seams – reaching its apex when plans of grass hills, sheep and cricket players were leaked to the press, mustering nightmares of a Teletubbies-esque impression of Great Britain. But as the world was reminded on Friday night, the history and culture of this island is immensely rich, and touches every corner of the world.

Experience design at its best

Designing experiences is a multi-disciplinary process, drawing on any number of specialties like cognitive psychology, architecture, environmental design, product design, interaction design, ethnography, storytelling, and brand strategy, to name just a few. But at the heart of every experience lies the user, and its mission is to persuade, stimulate, inform, envision and entertain that user (Jones 2008).

More often than not, an experience will have a set of explicit goals to be met, not just by the user, but by the experience designer/owner too. An effectively designed experience will do its best to satisfy the goals of both parties. Friday’s opening ceremony did just that, which is why I believe it was a resounding success.

The ceremony’s target audience

Over one billion people around the world are reported to have tuned in to the opening ceremony on Friday night, but I believe it was the 62 million UK citizens and 140 million strong British diaspora that were Danny Boyle’s primary target audience.

Boyle created a celebration of the city of London, Great Britain, its citizens, and British culture and history. In this scenario, the goal for the user was to feel emotional highs and lows towards their homeland. The goal for the experience designer/owner was to increase tourism, trade and investment by demonstrating the legacy and potential of Great Britain and its proud citizens.

As I mentioned earlier, an effectively designed experience will do its best to satisfy the goals of both parties. The British were reminded of their nation’s greatest achievements, while billions of eyeballs were watching. What better calling card can a country have for inviting tourism and trade? The opening ceremony experience met both goals.

The goals of the experience

Danny Boyle’s ceremony was designed to invoke emotional highs and lows in the audience by showcasing some of Great Britain’s most significant accomplishments. There were five emotional triggers that were used to achieve this:


This was perhaps the strongest emotion felt, especially in the first hour of the show. Boyle’s grand take on the Industrial Revolution saw farmland and villages slowly transform into towering smokestacks that sprouted from the ground as the arena filled with factory workers. The Industrial Revolution, of course, was arguably history’s single most influential period, having a profound effect on every part of life – so it was fitting to include it in Friday’s celebration. Also honoured in the show was Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web – English civil and mechanical engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the National Health Service’s commitment to children, and British literary giants like Shakespeare and J.K. Rowling.


In the third act of the performance, an audio-visual medley of British music, film and television spanning the last four decades was projected onto a giant house, sending the audience reminiscing about the old days of The Who, The Clash, Sex Pistols, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Queen, and more.


Scottish singer Emeli Sandé gave a haunting rendition of the hymn Abide with me, while a group of fifty dancers accompanied her with a breathtaking modern dance routine – all in tribute of those who have passed away.


In perhaps the funniest moment of the evening, Rowan Atkinson appeared in character as Mr. Bean, playing as part of the London Symphony Orchestra. And in a surprise acting debut, Queen Elizabeth, featuring in a video along with Daniel Craig as James Bond, participated in a mock parachute jump from above the Olympic stadium.


The individual who was to light the Olympic cauldron was kept a closely guarded secret, and it turned out it wasn’t an individual at all. The Olympic flame was passed on to seven young British athletes as a symbol of hope and optimism, where trust and responsibility is passed onto the next generation.

Multimedia mastery

Friday’s ceremony used a beautiful, and at times chaotic, mix of music, dance, acting, film, lights, smoke, and puppetry. It was an experience for all the sense, which made it incredibly immersive, especially for the audience in the arena who could smell the factory smokestacks. Experience design is never an exact science, mostly because each individual perceives their surroundings differently. However, Danny Boyle demonstrated that with a £27 million budget, you can have a good crack at designing an experience for everyone.

Measuring success

The ceremony was received positively by the majority of the audience, judging by the reviews in the media and the talk on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking platforms. As for whether the business goals of the ceremony were met – an increase in tourism, trade and investment – only time will tell us.