Redefining Retail Design Part II: Reconstructing Our Retail Reality

Creating memorable experiences to design a brighter future
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Posted February 16, 2016

“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.

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