Inside the Design of the Penguins’ New CONSOL Energy Center

We’ve all wandered around an arena or stadium, imagining what we would change if we had the chance. Maybe it’s something as simple as the colors. Maybe it’s the bathroom location. Or maybe it’s the sight lines. Part of being a sports fan means feeling invested in where you watch the sport.

I remember spending many an afternoon in Shea Stadium, wishing it didn’t look like a prison. When Citi Field opened, and actually used daylight as a design element, I felt like my prayers had finally been answered, like baseball had been reading my diary.

Where Shea Stadium made me feel slightly hated by my team, Citi Field made me feel appreciated. That’s what good design can do.

When the Penguins finally got their new arena built, it represented a chance for the organization to re-imagine the home of both the Penguins and their fans. Christine Astorino of fathom, a research and design firm, coordinated the user experience for the new CONSOL Energy Center. Different teams worked on different pieces of the project, with fathom responsible for making sure the final concept made sense to everyone — especially to the fans.

For Astorino, a Pittsburgh native, quarterbacking the user experience of the CONSOL Center (think about her as Sergei Gonchar circa 2006, but with fabric samples instead of a booming slap shot) allowed her to reconnect with hockey: “I was a hockey fan. I used to go to games all the time in high school. I had gone to Penguins games here and there but this really got me so incredibly engaged.”

The process took years, including four months of user-centered research that involved interviews, both formal and informal, observations, and even sensory exploration, where fans were asked to describe what their new arena might taste or smell like.

Astorino also had access to retired players and the coaching staff. Sadly, she didn’t have access to current players, since the research took place during the season.

Although people within the Penguins organization have talked about the potential of the new arena as a recruitment tool, it wasn’t a design consideration. Astorino’s team felt an arena where fans wanted to be would also be an arena where players wanted to play.

At the end of the process, the Penguins had a new arena featuring three design concepts:

1. Connection of Community
“Pittsburgh is a great sports town, but what does that mean in terms of hockey?” Astorino said. “How do you take a Penguins game and start to spread it out of the arena and into the community?”

palette used for the Connection of Community theme
The Connection of Community palette

One way this was accomplished was with sculptures, visible from outside the arena, that light up when the Penguins score a goal.

This was a more positive direction than, say, to create some sort of sad, crying sound that’s triggered by Marc-Andre Fleury blowing a save.

“Fans wanted to feel a connection to the community. Many felt Mellon was like a second home because of the way they were treated there. The old, iconic [Mellon Arena] was embedded in the Pittsburgh community. How could we bring that into the new arena?”

2. Purity of the Play
“There’s this notion of how you feel at a hockey game versus a baseball game,” Astorino said. “Hockey is unlike other sports. How do those differences come to the surface?” Astorino discovered the Penguins’ colors didn’t necessarily need to be used to create an experience that reads hockey: “You have woods present in sticks and circular motifs present in pucks. The contrast between the black of the puck and the white of the ice. The translucencies of the ice. All of these things started to generate a color palette that became recognizable. The notion was that you don’t have to be hit over the head with black and gold. It can be done subtly through great art.”

photo of CONSOL club
The puck imagery shows up in these club tables

palette used for the Purity of the Play theme
The Purity of the Play palette

3. Energy of the Experience
“When you think about the energy of the game experience, how do you create a ripple effect from the ice to stands?” Astorino said. “One of our design insights was yellow banding around some of the levels of seats. You see this great contrast. It has this sort of radiating design seemingly coming up from the ice itself.”

Example of seat banding at CONSOL Energy center
Yellow banding around the arena creates an energetic cyclone effect

Another aspect to the energy of the game experience was making sure the game can be seen and heard from all parts of the arena — even when fans leave their seats.

palette used for the Energy of the Experience theme
The Energy of the Experience palette

In addition to working with those three themes, Astorino also had to work with the memory of Mellon Arena, where the Penguins had played since 1967. She said she wanted designs that paid tribute to the Penguins’ past but also looked toward the future. She was able to accomplish that design goal with two clubs within the CONSOL Center: “We recommended two clubs on different sides of the arena have two different themes. One more traditional — darker colors, pieces from Mellon once it’s demolished. It’ll have a historic feeling. The other club is all about the future. Lighter colors. The whole notion is that this new team is going somewhere, but recognizing you have to pay homage to the incredible past.”

Astorino’s research showed fans wanted a new arena for themselves, but also for the Penguins, who they felt deserved a new home. The research also showed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Mario Lemieux is still a god in Pittsburgh. “The team has taken on his sense of integrity,” Astorino said. “The whole tone of the team and the new arena has that sophistication and elegance and integrity that comes from [Lemieux’s] leadership.”

So in case you’re wondering just how cool Lemieux is, they basically made him into an arena. It’s too bad they couldn’t figure out how to make the whole thing into the shape of his head.

Of course, like any design project, not everyone loves the final product. Over on Twitter, CECsec214 has been an outspoken critic of many parts of the Penguins’ new home, some of them seemingly design related, some marketing related, and others more architectural:

@puckupdate please ask them how they managed to screw up the 2nd level at CEC so badly especially the railings many many flaws disappointing

The main goal of the Pens at CEC is BRAND BUILDING and $$$ thus only Xmusic is played and we get sound effects when every sponsor is shown

At cec My view when the guy in front of me leans aka pretty much the whole game largely caused by railings http://twitpic.com/2w80di

Because the CONSOL Energy Center is so new, it’s hard to know if these issues will eventually be resolved, or even if they’re long-term design challenges. You have to believe the Penguins are interested in making games a positive experience. At least judging by Astorino’s take on the organization: “Working with the Penguins has been touching. The fans are always front and center for them.”

Astorino left the project with a new appreciation for hockey players in general: “[Players] are put on pedestals because of what they do but they’re not trying to grab attention or flaunt what they do. They skate and play. I know there’s fighting, but there’s an integrity to it. We’re trying to show the fans these guys haven’t always been NHL hockey players…The fact that they realize their dreams is pretty amazing.”

Astorino also said she would be open to performing a similar role on another NHL arena project.

Perhaps Charles Wang will put her number on speed dial.