Creating Compulsion: An Investigation Into Casino Design, Architecture and Ambience

The impact of architecture and interior design on consumer spending habits is subject to lengthy discourse in retail, anthropology and psychology. Casinos provide an invaluable case study, as they are meticulously designed to encourage consumer gambling expenditure. Every element of a casino site – from the floor plan and décor to the sound and ambience – is systematically and strategically planned with this goal in mind.

Casino design is, in essence, a psychological exercise. It is about creating a sensory experience which will coerce visitors into gambling. Casino designers must strike a fine balance between stimulating visitors enough to encourage them, and over-stimulating them to the point that they become risk-averse.

This investigation will examine the basics of casino design, and the role of psychology in facilitating consumer gambling. It will analyse how casino layouts, and even seemingly incidental factors such as sounds and smells, are engineered to influence customer behaviour. Finally, it will underline tangible examples of how these principles have been used in the gambling industry.

Initial Casino Architecture and Design

Casino design is a complex, multi-faceted process that starts with the casino architect. Unlike most forms of architecture, casino architecture is a reconstructive process. Structures are frequently torn down and replaced to keep up with the need to provide a novel and stimulating environment.

As Paul Steelman, founder of Las Vegas-based Steelman Partners and one of the most revered casino architects in the world, explains: “Great architecture like Norman Foster does is judged through the ages… by generation after generation, after generation… In casino design they walk in, look left, look right – if a person likes it, it is successful – if not watch out.”

Despite having an ephemeral shelf life, casinos are notoriously complicated business spaces to design. A casino architect has to balance the requirement for a space large enough to house a vast array of gambling and entertainment facilities with the need not to overwhelm the visitor. Current casino architecture favours more confined, chic spaces to create a more intensive consumer experience.

Interior design represents the next stage in development. It involves generating psychological profiles of the target market, and then using key design elements such as carpeting, shaped pathways, paint, wall covering, furniture, signage and decorative lighting to create a tailored, sensual environment.

Roger Thomas, head of design at Wynn resorts, is acknowledged as an innovator in the casino design space. Thomas reimagined and revolutionised the Bellagio Hotel’s gambling hall on the principles of disruptive design. Acting on industry reports that slot games are more popular amongst females, he set about abolishing the masculine, club vibe. He replaced gaudy chairs and couches with tasteful white leather furniture, and introduced flowers and plants to create a feminine glamour. His counter-intuitive approach saw him introduce, “antique clocks and skylights, defying the dominant paradigm of profitable casinos in the past: no indications of time, so gamblers would lose track of it and spend more.” What Jonah Lehrer refers to as “a $1.6-billion bet on human psychology ” paid off as profits soared amongst the female demographic.

Roger Thomas in the Wynn Slot Room
Roger Thomas in the Wynn Slot Room – Image Source

The Marina Bay Sands is another unconventional casino space. Designed to look “nothing like a casino” the resort takes its inspiration from global financial centres. After scrutinising the relationship between gambling, tourism and entertainment, the Singapore government decided to make the site a flagship project and hired an esteemed architect rather than a casino specialist. This “anti-casino” effect produced what is now the most profitable casino site in the world.

Marina Bay Sands illuminating the Singapore Skyline
Marina Bay Sands illuminating the Singapore Skyline – Image Source

Casinos are an expensive enterprise. The Indian Head Casino in Warm Springs, Oregon is described as “lean and mean ” at US $11.2 million, while Steve Wynn’s Las Vegas-based Mirage casino cost US $2.7 billion to construct in 2005 . With so much initial outlay to recoup, it is obvious why profitability has to be built into the very fabric of the building.

Renovation is another key component of casino planning. The need for dynamism means that casino owners must be prepared to renovate every decade to account for changing tastes and requirements. The refit of the Palms Casino in Las Vegas cost an exorbitant US $50 million and included a full suite redesign, re-imagined dining and gaming spaces and remodelling for all its 428 hotel rooms. Yet according to Paul Steelman, the cost of renovation is quickly offset by the commercial benefits: “We have seen increases in gross gaming revenue of over 35% when a small renovation is completed.”

Drawing a Casino Floor Plan

One of the most essential stages of casino design is the floor plan – an intricate research and design process. Casinos tend to be designed on a single level, but that single floor runs to hundreds of thousands of square feet, each of which must be planned by the casino designer in close collaboration with a gaming psychologist.

The first step is to select a preferred layout convention. For example, the playground layout pioneered in Las Vegas is based on the principles of moving water, green spaces and natural light – encouraging players to get moving, explore, and spend more money by virtue of curiosity and trying new things. An alternative layout is based on the concept of the maze: casinos based on this principle will have low ceilings, smaller, more compact gaming areas, and narrower walkways. The aim here is to encourage continuous gaming by allowing players to shut out all distractions and stay in one place . The latter layout is becoming increasingly popular, with both architects and designers recommending a cocoon effect for a more personalised experience.

Having selected their layout convention, the casino designer will then use historical and scientific research to decide on the strategic placement of machines, arrangement of table games, traffic patterns, colour schemes and aesthetics. For example, the slot machines which pay out more often tend to be placed in higher-traffic locations, enabling as many players as possible to observe when a win is taking place.

The trick to selecting the most effective floor plan is to understand the target demographic – whether that be visiting tourists (whose gambling needs must be supplemented by hospitality), locals (whose preferences will follow a consumer arc), seasoned gamblers or newcomers. With this information in hand, the casino designer can formulate an idiosyncratic experience and aura. Roger Thomas was able to successfully defy casino layout norms thanks to an exceptional knowledge of his target market, designing the Bellagio gambling hall around accessibility and giving it an elegant lobby without revenue-generating slot machines.

Casino Floor Plan

The Sandia Casino, New Mexico, Floor Plan – Image Source

The Essentials of Casino Décor

Though many may think of casinos as dark, smoky areas characterised by artificial light, neon flashes and an absence of windows, the casino industry itself has long since moved on. The guiding principles of casino décor are about creating an experience – a journey. A typical design will include curved pathways which offer direction whilst encouraging consumers to explore what lies beyond the curve.

Another key principle is the use of colour. Casinos tend to make extensive use of the colour red – known as the colour of commerce, while avoiding drab, dull or mundane colours such as brown. A careful consideration, however, is the fact that bright colours can confuse as well as stimulate. To avoid this, experienced casino designers will limit their palette and ensure that carpets feature large patterns in a single colour rather than an explosion of different shades.

In a 24-hour casino environment, carefully planned lighting is essential. Whereas historically, gamblers preferred the privacy of lower lighting, today’s players favour natural light. 21st-century casino lighting, therefore, is more likely to be based on a sunny day than a never-ending night. For example, the Thunder Valley Resort in California takes its design inspiration from the outdoors, with the interior using rich colours as well as images of acorns and oak leaves to create this effect.

While the casino interior may be bright and stimulating, the adjoining hotel accommodation should be anything but. The aim of hotel rooms is to ensure players are refreshed for another gaming session, so it’s important to select a design which promotes rest and improves rather than interrupts sleep patterns. To this end, a good casino designer will focus on designing comfortable bedrooms which ensure good quality sleep. The Tropicana casino in Las Vegas has extended this aesthetic to the entire site, using soft-coloured furnishings, white ceilings and canvas artwork to promote a comforting, residential environment.

Creating the Right Casino Atmospherics

The casino atmosphere must be a “timeless space.” As architect Paul Steelman explains: “Casinos are not successful unless people are in the seats 65% of the time…65% of 24 hours is a good proportion of the day so you have to stretch the day. It is really not hard to design a casino for Friday at 7 o’clock. It is very hard to design it for Tuesday at 10 o’clock in the morning, and believe me that’s what we are concentrating on.”

The casino must offer a comprehensive entertainment experience in the form of comedians and musicians to restaurants, theatre shows and theme parks. Catering and hospitality services in the form of buffets and beverage rounds create a complete living environment. This all adds up to profit; in fact, non-gambling in Las Vegas generates more revenue than gambling itself.

Sound plays a pivotal role in casino design. Every casino deploys a sonic strategy to create a sense of flow. Describing the Vegas floor, Tom Vanderbilt notes, “It all percolates and pulsates in a gently propulsive fashion, as if to convey a sense of progress even as it relaxes.” Casinos need to sound like hives of activity, subjecting players to the cascading of slot machine coins and convivial chatter of successful gamblers.

The games are designed down to every last decibel. A slot machine win is synonymous with a synthesised chirping sound which resonates throughout the casino floor, offering hope to neighbouring players. Sound engineering for slot games is a precise science as Natasha Dow Schüll, an anthropologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, points out in her book Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling In Las Vegas. The audio directors at Silicon Gaming decided that every one of the sounds made by its slot machines would be issued in “the universally pleasant tone of C,” sampling existing casino soundscapes to create a sound that would please but not clash .

The Impact of Design, Architecture and Ambience on Gambling Tendencies

Psychology is the fundamental component behind casino design. For example, the use of red lights and fast music has been proven to encourage players to place quicker bets, whilst white lights and less intrusive sounds slow down the pace of gaming.

Fantasy is a particularly important part of the ambience. Psychologist David Canter suggests that casinos are designed as places where players can allow themselves to be “swallowed up .” The gaudy décor and effervescent lighting may seem excessive, but they offer an Alice in Wonderland escapism. This is perpetuated by the absence of mirrors, which sustains the imagined, romanticised self. Other approaches include the creation of giant sweet shops, such as Candylicious at the Resorts World Sentosa in Macau, which allow casino visitors to recreate childhood fantasies.

Famous casinos built on the fantasy model include the Casino de Monaco in Monte Carlo, which features mythical creatures in its décor and has a series of rooms built to resemble the hall of a train selling tickets to exotic lands.

Casino designers also study the way gender impacts on gambling preferences and tendencies. According to 2009 research by University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, women are more likely to gamble in a less crowded environment, favouring the privacy offered by a “playground” layout . Dr Alan Hirsch, founder of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, revealed the impact of certain scents on male players. Time Out Chicago explains that when a, “Las Vegas casino pumped a pleasant but unidentifiable scent (Hirsch says a mixture of so many notes that you wouldn’t say “Aha, rose!” or “Aha, violet!”) into a slot-machine area on a Saturday, the machines raked in about 50 percent more money than on the previous or following Saturday.” Smell elevates mood and acts as an aphrodisiac, creating a more aggressive, compulsive behavioural pattern.

Conclusion

In terms of casino exterior, the radical design of the world’s most profitable casino could see a move away from the lavish, hedonistic castles of Las Vegas towards the more orthodox, professional-looking establishments in Singapore.

As for interior design, consumer, tourism and technology trends are demanding the creation of a highly personalised gambling experience. This is why casinos are opting for cocooned layouts, creating personalised spaces for players who have grown up in the era of video gaming and individualised user experience.

Yet the challenge of casino design – to create an environment that evokes a visceral compulsion to gamble – remains the same. Casino designers will continue to work closely with casino officials to crunch consumer data, identify behavioural tendencies and deliver an environment conducive to sustained gambling.

Sources of Information

  1. BBC Business
  2. Casino Design Magazine
  3. Smart Planet
  4. Casino Design Magazine 2
  5. Las Vegas Review-Journal
  6. Academia
  7. University of San Francisco
  8. The Guardian
  9. TimeOut Chicago