How to Change the World

When academia and industry join forces to drive the conversation around the future of retail, amazing things can happen
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Posted May 1, 2019

Last month, I wrote about the importance of identifying and nurturing young professionals for the continued success of both our individual organizations as well as our industry. First, I’d like to thank all of you who reached out to share your stories of mentors who took the time and made the effort to help you grow, as well as those who contacted us to find out how they could do more for the young talent they’ve spotted.

This month, as I do every spring, I had the opportunity to serve as a juror for the Retail Design Studio course at The Ohio State University. The class, created and taught by Department of Design Assistant Professor Rebekah Matheny, who had just joined OSU after practicing as a retail designer and strategist, was conceived during an introductory conversation she and I had at NeoCon three years ago. At the time, I’d just joined VMSD, and as Rebekah and I sat on the stairs at The Merchandise Mart talking about how we could change the world, we asked ourselves, “What if?”

That question eventually became more formal and extensive as Rebekah lobbied OSU to add a new studio course as an elective for seniors: “What if industry and academia and media joined forces to create a course that allowed the students to explore the future of retail in a real-world, multidisciplinary strategic manner? What if we could design with the next generation instead of for them, giving them a platform to express their values and vision for the future?”

The answer to that question was satisfied resoundingly as the jurors, hand-picked from some of the most influential design and architecture firms in the business, and who had mentored the students throughout the process, listened to final presentations from the five teams enrolled during the semester.

Building from Matheny’s academic research in sustainable design strategies and pedagogical approach, each team was charged with selecting a “slow fashion” apparel brand that aligns with their team’s core social and environmental values and does not currently have a physical retail presence. The students were tasked with developing a brand strategy and creating an innovative and inventive physical retail presence that expresses strategy, translating the principles of slow fashion into defining a “slow retail” vernacular.

What sets this course and initiative apart, and is clearly reflected in the relevance and depth of the final presentations, is that these students are not designing in a vacuum. Because each team operates as if it were a real-world agency, it is responsible not only for creating a design solution, but also for the research, consumer insights and strategic exploration that drives that design approach.

The winning team, which chose the brand Bangs Shoes, presented a final design proposal that ticked every box and impressed the jurors with its thoughtful approach, willingness to embrace innovation, yet keep one foot firmly rooted in feasibility and elevation of brand assets, to drive the visual strategy.

But don’t take my word for it! Hear about their journey and meet the students and their professor in person, on-stage at the International Retail Design Conference (IRDC), Sept. 30 - Oct. 2 in Boston. I hope to see you there!