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 reimagine the future of our customer’s experiences.
Rebekah L. Matheny is the assistant professor of interior design at The Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio), where she teaches courses in interior finish materials, lighting design and design studios that integrate a retail brand strategy process. Matheny’s research investigates the sensory perception of interior finish materials and their application in retail design to create an emotional connection between the customer and the brand. Follow Rebekah and her journey with materials on Instagram @rebekahmathenydesign and to start a dialogue about the sensory experience of materials visit her web site interiormaterialsmatter.com.