Redefining Retail Design Part II: Reconstructing Our Retail Reality: Creating memorable experiences to design a brighter future

“Reconstructing reality.” That’s a phrase that’s been bouncing around my mind for many months now.  Last month, I encouraged us all to start thinking about redefining ourselves and our roles in retail design. Now that you’ve had time to think about that, if you were to redefine yourself and give yourself a new title, what would it be? Am I to define myself as a “design professor,” “interior designer” or “retail designer”?

As I’ve been thinking about the notion of “reconstructing reality,” the theme for this year’s TEDxOhioStateUniversity event, where I will be presenting a designer’s perspective on this topic, I was asked to provide my title for publication. So what did I call myself? A design professor, of course, but is that authentic? Does that accurately portray everything that I am and do? If I could redefine myself (because why can’t I?) I would call myself a “design thinker, researcher and maker who tells stories in hopes of creating sensorial memories.”  (To learn more about sensorial memories and other perspectives on reconstructing reality, join me at the TEDx event March 5 in Mershon Auditorium on Ohio State’s campus in Columbus, Ohio.)

I was conversing with some colleagues the other day about the topic of my TEDx talk and the role retail was going to play, which led to a discussion about the role of retail design within design education and its “academic stature.” Through these conversations, I became discouraged by the lack of prestigious regard retail design receives.  It also illuminated the fact that there is a huge misconception about what retail design is and what retail designers do, perceiving it as purely feeding into a mass consumption product. Many still look at past consumer behaviors and define today’s retail landscape as no different. But as you and I know, that’s not true, and it’s certainly not true of the future of retail either.

But later, as I watched the trailer for “Minimalism: A Documentary About The Important Things,” it reaffirmed my belief that the future of retail is optimistic. The documentary captures a snapshot of mass consumerism in America, and though that might still be prevalent, with the influence from millennials and Gen Z, and with “generous brands” paving the way, there is a bright future ahead. But it has to start with redefining and reconstructing our retail reality to be about more than just the purchase, but about people and creating memorable experiences for them.

You might ask, why am I discussing this two months in a row? I think we are at a critical time, not just retail design, but design in general. Design pedagogy and practice is becoming more and more collaborative. It’s putting a focus on research-based design that crosses all disciplines. The approach of designing for people and with people is becoming even more a part of our teaching now: By breaking down the siloes of each design niche and creating a collaborative environment where research insights are the springboard for each forward-thinking design.

The process begins with a thorough analysis of the customer, understanding various personalities, lifestyles and needs for the present and future. In essence, we define and redefine who customers are to construct and reconstruct physical realities, creating experiential stories and hopefully memories.

So with all of that I believe comes the challenge to reconstruct the framework for which we teach and practice retail design. And it’s my belief that the area of retail design was the pioneer of this collaborative and user-centric approach. I’m not saying other areas of interior design don’t consider the user – that’s not accurate at all – but I do believe that the process from which retail is based has been adopted by many other archetypes.

As we look to the future of design, I believe it’s our responsibility as retail designers to continue to pave the way and challenge the conventional norm and to do what we do best: start redefining and reconstructing the future of design.


Redefining Retail Design: Transforming the definition of what we do from the ground up

This past fall, I took a group of students to Grand Rapids, Mich., to visit the headquarters of two of the industry’s largest furniture manufacturers. While visiting these suppliers’ showrooms, I was quite inspired by their unique definition of what it is that they do – “a research institution that happens to make furniture,” one company says. Their design thinking and research-first, manufacture-second philosophy, made perfect sense upon considering the impact these products have in designing innovative customer experiences.

This got me wondering … if instead of thinking of our practice as a “retail design and brand firm,” what would happen if we thought of ourselves as “design researchers and innovators” who happen to create retail brand environments? How would that change our design process? How would that evolved methodology change our retail design solutions? And, maybe more importantly, how would that transform the retail landscape?

In preparing for an upcoming presentation I’ll be giving at the Design Principles and Practice Conference in Rio de Janeiro, these notions started to form even stronger connections to the perceived future of retail and store design. As I was reflecting back on the Tom’s and Lush stores I wrote about a few months back, I thought about unique elements of the store experience of many “generous brands.” It struck me how both of these brands’ founders spoke about in-store experiences.

Tom’s founder, Blake Mycoski, describes his store as “a real space for the community … a café, a meeting place for people who are inspired by what we are doing, and [in turn, are] doing other great things themselves." This store challenged the retail convention and redefined their store’s purpose, changing their programming needs and resulting in a unique customer experience that was less about selling product and more about forming community.

Lush does a similar thing through their community space, which they describe as “a beauty mart with a green grocers’ soul.” Both of these store experiences are unique and transform the users’ perceptions; they dared to be design thinkers to reimagine the store as not only a retail space, but instead, as a memorable place for people and communities. And isn’t that what a truly “generous brand” does? They go beyond simply giving and take action for social change, ultimately changing people’s lives by doing so.

If stores like these are the future of retail, then what is the future of our practice and process? I often say to my students that anyone can be taught the skills, but it’s the thought process that allows us to be truly innovative and forward thinking. Like the aforementioned furniture manufactures, if we begin to think of ourselves as design researchers and design thinkers who create innovative customer experiences, how would that impact the ways in which we design retail spaces and ultimately the user experiences? If, like Tom’s and Lush, our objective as designers becomes changing peoples lives, how would that transform the definition of what we do? I encourage all of us to start thinking about redefining ourselves and our role in retail design, to rethink your process, and re-imagine the future of our customer’s experiences.