2020 Top Women in Retail Design

VMSD's annual award honors women in retail design committed to innovation, excellence, creativity and lifelong learning
Posted December 16, 2020

Despite the challenges that 2020 has presented, the winners of VMSD’s fourth annual Top Women in Retail Design awards have remained dedicated to creating compelling and engaging consumer experiences at retail. VMSD created this award in 2017 to honor outstanding women in the retail design and visual merchandising community. Nominated by our readers and selected by our editorial team, each recipient is selected based on her career commitments to innovation, creative excellence and lifelong learning; active involvement in a mentorship role; and an extensive body of accomplishments in the fields of retail design and visual merchandising. Read on to see who took home this year’s top honors.

Amanda Sarver
Senior Interior Designer
The Kroger Co., Cincinnati

Touching all aspects of interior design with a focus on the branded environment for customer experience, interior finishes and accent lighting, Amanda oversees multiple projects and design objectives from one-off prototypes to national rollouts. Influential in how new programs and merchandising are presented in store, her holistic design approach, involvement in the industry and mentorship activities – as well as the sheer volume and square footage of the multiple projects she manages simultaneously – are described by one colleague as “an incredible feat.” As a professionally NCIDQ-certified designer, Amanda effectively navigates and effects change within a multibillion-dollar organization to keep the Kroger brand fresh and relevant.

What advice would you offer young designers entering this field?
To not be afraid to voice your opinions and express your ideas and designs! Seeing projects and challenges through a fresh set of eyes can be the ‘a-ha’ moment the team was looking for. Don’t let your lack of experience lower your confidence or silence your voice. Just because something is done or designed a certain way (because that’s the way it’s always been done), doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be shaken up a bit!

Courtesy of Kroger, Cincinnati

What excites and motivates you every day working in retail design?
How challenging my job can be. I thrive on multitasking and deadlines so the busier I am, the better I work and the harder I focus. There are so many different projects that pop up, ranging from full store remodels to a bakery fixture redesign to a merchandising request for a new category sign. There’s never a dull moment, and the work is never static, which I love. Every day is different than the last. I get to wear multiple hats throughout the day. I also enjoy having the ability to work with individuals from all levels and departments within the company. Depending on the scale of the project, I could be presenting to senior leadership or getting feedback from store associates.

Christina Hernandez
Senior Global Design Manager 
Taco Bell 

Christina is responsible for the global design and architecture of Taco Bell brand assets – everything from big-picture planning like site layouts to granular details like wallcoverings. In addition to leading a team of three individuals who execute day-to-day activities in three different cities around the world (Singapore, London and Delhi), her attention to detail, paired with strong communication skills and an interest in learning, made her colleagues take notice. What stands out most, they say, is her love of what she does and her faith in the Taco Bell brand. Christina is passionate about sharing her knowledge by mentoring high school juniors and seniors interested in pursuing architecture as a career. Additionally, she serves as a guest juror for thesis reviews at her alma mater, Woodbury University. 

From where do you draw your inspiration?
I’m passionate about amplifying the cultural relevance [of Taco Bell] while also balancing global brand design consistency. So, I lean in and learn what is relevant and distinct from our franchisee or local teams. Inspiration can come in different forms, and in my case, it definitely comes from the local culture. From colors or materials to music or landmarks, the regional designer pairs elements of the brand with splashes of local flair. We want to weave ourselves into our customers’ lifestyles.

Photography: Pedro Gutierrez-Bocci, Costa Mesa, Calif.

How can organizations empower future generations of women in the workplace?
I believe organizations need to take the time to develop female talent, especially future generations of young women leaders in order to help them grow and navigate the careers they choose. I have been blessed to have worked in organizations where I have been given the opportunity to be mentored by either strong female role models or male ally mentors that empowered me to succeed in the company and in my field. I have been reminded that I am valued and that I had a safe environment where I can voice my ideas, concerns or challenges. There is a huge shift in the workplace as we enter the ‘new norm’ of working remote and having to navigate new responsibilities, during a time when women are leaving the workforce at an alarming rate due to the unsatisfying work-life balance. When we lose women mid-career, we lose their future potential as well.

Juliana Strieff
Design and Construction
Blaze Pizza

Juliana oversees the design evolution and construction of all architecture, interiors, retail and kitchen design for Blaze Pizza’s domestic and international restaurants. A staunch advocate for consistency of experience across all channels, she works closely with marketing, operations and real estate, which is central to the success of her role. Prior to joining Blaze in late 2019, Juliana had been designing and developing restaurants and retail spaces for more than 15 years, most recently at McDonald’s Corp., where she was the Global Creative Design Lead. Colleagues say one of Juliana’s strongest traits is her ability to empower her team and peers to contribute the best work of their lives to any task, no matter how small.

What excites and motivates you every day working in retail design?
None of us would do what we do if we didn’t believe the spaces we inhabit have a direct and palpable impact on the quality of our lives – we wouldn’t bother being designers if we didn’t believe that at our cores. But there’s something special about retail design (sorry, workplace/residential/institutional designers!) – there’s something about the seemingly competing interests of designing spaces that are delightful, physical representations of a brand, but are also business drivers, spaces that might make someone feel happier for an evening, or just for a moment, and also directly impact sales and push the business you’re representing forward. The duality of retail design – the balance of creating real emotion and the responsibility toward business goals – is what makes this an irresistible problem.

Photography: Juliana Streiff, Westchester, Ill.

What advice would you offer young designers entering the field?
As designers, we love to focus on the finished product, taking fabulous photos of the built “stuff” we claim to spend all of our time bringing to life. But the end result is such a small, short part of the process. If you were to break down how a successful designer actually spends his or her time, five percent of the job is determining the problem you’re trying to solve – and it’s rarely what might be presented to you. The next 10 percent is actually solving that problem in the best possible way. But by far the most important, overlooked, and often exhausting part of the job, is getting that design realized. So 85 percent of your time is spent selling very abstract ideas to those who can get those ideas actualized – getting buy-in, and alignment, and building excitement over concepts that don’t yet exist in the real world. This is not a skillset that comes naturally to most designers, or one that is taught in school. That’s the part you need to work on, day in and day out, in order to be successful; a great idea that lives and dies in your head is worthless.

Sarah Amundsen
Senior Director Store Design

Sarah leads, creates and implements store plan layouts and displays that improve Target’s brand equity position by highlighting value, differentiation and innovation. Her team proactively leads and supports design efforts related to new and existing prototypes, store formats, remodel strategies and the overall in-store experience. Sarah and her team deliver hundreds of new store feasibility studies, remodel and interior design projects that utilize more than $1.5 billion of capital expenditures every year (with expected merchant sales increases of multiple billions). Most recently, Sarah led and influenced the design of Target’s NextGen store model, helping to reinvent the big-box store design along with Target’s interiors and merchandise layouts. Working with the visual merchandising teams, Sarah and her team helped to develop new merchandise displays across all categories. This major initiative continues to inform Target’s aggressive store remodel program.

What excites and motivates you every day working in retail design?
Retail is constantly changing in new, and often, unexpected ways. I relish in defining what these conditions mean for brands and the experiences they create. Leveraging design as a differentiator means encompassing the aptitude to exercise brutal honesty and present ideas that challenge the norm – no matter the level – for the greater good of the team, business and brand.

Is there a school of thought or design philosophy you subscribe to?
Studying the customer, your business and the business of others while seeking to understand the challengess dictate the backbone of solid design programming. Drawing conclusions from what is learned, coupled with great imagination, contribute to building experiential solutions that inspire.

Photography: Kevin Weber, Baltimore

What do you like the most about your job?
Investing in the development and growth of others is the passion I find the most challenging and rewarding. Each team member brings a different strength, and it’s my role to discover and activate what makes people awesome. I lead with the belief that one cannot “empower” people, but instead, remind them they walked in the door with innate talent. My responsibility is to create the conditions for them to exercise it.