Interaction designers know that (information) architecture can make or break an experience. But, when we look outside at the businesses and services we use on a daily basis, we see that architecture — particularly the external architecture of buildings — is beginning to play less and less of a role in contributing to the infrastructural layer of service design experiences (the planned interaction between customers and service providers).

Starbucks is perhaps the most famous business that takes advantage of its internal architecture to enhance an experience. Whether we walk into a Starbucks in North Dakota or in Mexico, Turkey or Taiwan, we know what’s up: We know where the line is, we know we’ll see coffee mugs and music for sale by the register, and we know that the bathroom is at the back and anyone can use it (unspoken rule).

Many other companies employ the same tactic—designing a service to seem familiar no matter where we use their service.

While it’s much easier (especially budget-wise) to capitalize on familiarity within an experience through the use of internal architecture, I’d bet that taking advantage of external architecture could be equally worthwhile and perhaps even more worthwhile.

Maybe I’m biased, though, since my reasoning for this belief comes from missing Whataburger, a legendary burger chain which originated in my hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas.

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The founder of Whataburger, Harmon Dobson, was a pilot. He used to fly over Corpus Whataburger sites with a Whataburger banner affixed to his plane, dropping coupons from the sky onto unsuspecting patrons. In his time doing this, he concluded that making his business more eye-catching (from all angles) would be a good investment.

Because of Dobson’s revelation, every single Whataburger you’ll see bears a bright orange-and-white-striped A-frame roof (this started before the “Weinerschnitzel” chain, if you’re wondering). Dobson chose the colors because they’re frequently used on airport structures to ensure their visibility from the sky.

When it comes to internal infrastructure, Whataburgers vary. Whataburger “On the Bay” (shown below) in Corpus is two stories; the second story has a balcony that overlooks the Gulf of Mexico. This layout is radically different from every other Whataburger, obviously. What is the same, though — what never changes — is the orange and white A-frame.

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In Corpus, all it takes for me to have even the slightest experience with Whataburger is to see its tell-tale architecture. There’s nothing else like it, and even if I don’t stop in, I’ll consciously recognize it’s there every time I pass. Whataburger’s architecture is used as a symbol of the kind of service a customer will receive, using the familiarity of its structure to communicate the consistency of quality and of its tradition.

In a post on the blog “Dairy River”, Andrew Wasson discusses the architecture of establishments such as Whataburger and cites White Castle as the first to capitalize on the strategy:

“I’ll make a claim: things that leave an indelible thumbprint on our collective subconscious are important.  ‘Great’ buildings wield this sort of power — buildings like the Empire State Building or Lever House, impressive in their size, majesty or uniqueness, they often represent something bigger than themselves — a city, or an architectural movement — and they are studied by scholars down to each and every mullion — they are placed in contexts artistically and socially, dissected in tomes many volumes deep. As I am attempting to show, other buildings also wield this sort of power, but they have largely gone unrecognized in the same critical circles…. The strategy of using a distinctive and standard building design was not a new one – even in Wichita. In fact, one of the pioneers of this strategy (White Castle) was from right in the Carney’s backyard.”

Wasson goes on to describe the trends of restaurant marketing and service, which left behind an architectural approach for the kind of approach we’re more familiar with today.

All that being said, I get it: It’s expensive to use external architecture as a driver of branding and service design. It also takes more time. If it is an option, however, it can be an extremely valuable long-term option.The experience and the good feeling starts before you’re even there, and remnants of its experience can be felt without even having to walk inside the building.

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