Design Becomes You

How an out-of-control design process makes perfect sense
Posted July 10, 2015

She requested I play Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia” while designing her store. I drank Kombucha and her favorite tea, Guayaki Yerba Mate, during our brainstorm sessions. We dined together at inspirational restaurants and scoped out the competition. Our values aligned; our thoughts were in sync. Then the design began. Not as a separate effort but a joint venture in every way. An experience that was “mindful” in every meeting, with every idea, in every moment. My client took the lead in the design process, and the bull’s-eye was hit the first time.

Most of my experience is with big brands. But working with my latest client, an independent retailer, has taught me that letting go of control over what the “typical” design process is provides more flexibility and understanding than words on a contract could ever describe. From the get-go, phase one delved into researching the company, looking at its market positioning, interviewing its key players and analyzing the competition. But I realized very quickly that in a small independent business or startup, it all comes down to one-on-one conversations ... and sharing the control.

Here are a few ideas for how you can “let Jesus take the wheel” and give your clients the experience that they have in mind, from the nitty-gritty details in the process, to the big-picture goals:

1) Be open to your client’s inspirations. Ask relevant personal questions about their favorite movie scene, the food they love and their preferred music. Check out their Instagram and Pinterest sites – learn about what they care about and how they see the world.

2) Experiment with the services they want to provide. My client is going to offer cooking classes, so she tried them out on me as a test subject – I learned how to cook the best filet mignon of my life.

3) Really know their product offering. When the project began, my client brought over her salads for my family to try. My husband (who’s in construction and is a very manly man) said, “This is more than a salad.” It became my client’s favorite line to quote throughout the design process. If it’s fashion they’re offering, shop there. If it’s hospitality, sleep there. Don’t be afraid to be their guinea pig.

4) Accommodate. My friend Kate, a residential designer, took a client’s daughter on a shopping trip as her “design assistant” for the day. She learned that the tween was obsessed with nail polish, so Kate chose a vanity with more storage. More recently, driven by my client’s passion for the environment, she and I used old materials from the building the store’s housed in, that otherwise would have been wasted as repurposed design elements in the new space.

In the end, I realized that designing a space is all about growing a relationship through a shared purpose. Let your client’s individuality influence you in ways you never thought possible. Yes, I guided the design. But she designed the experience that got us there.

Faith Bartrug of FBD Studios (Columbus, Ohio) has more than a decade of experience in transforming national brands. Her background includes brand strategy, environmental design and visual merchandising, and she has been able to practice what she preaches with leading design firms and clients such as Neiman Marcus, JCPenney and Mark Pi’s.

Be sure to catch Faith's session ("40 Retailers, 40 Brands, 40 Minutes!") at IRDC this year, Sept. 9-11 in Austin, Texas! For more information about IRDC, visit