Trailblazing Talent

VMSD presents its 2018 Designer Dozen
Posted April 9, 2018

Most creatives understand the value that a fresh set of eyes or an alternative perspective can bring to a project. Often young designers offer just that, turning a problem on its head or challenging long-held beliefs in order to explore uncharted territories.

Now in its seventh year, VMSD’s annual Designer Dozen awards recognizes the industry’s rising talent, ages 35 and under, who we believe will shape the future of retail.

The retailers, designers and visual merchandisers showcased this year captured our attention, not only due to their commitment to furthering their design knowledge and dedicating themselves to their projects, as well as volunteering and mentoring during their personal time, but because of their desire to play a role in the continuing evolution of the modern shopping journey.

From a restaurant chain design manager who looks to his customers and team members for inspiration to an experiential designer who uses the world of video games to influence his creations, our Designer Dozen honorees are working hard every day to transform the in-store experience.

Open your mind, brace yourself for inspiration and get to know the winners of VMSD’s 2018 Designer Dozen awards below.

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Justin Brooks

Age: 30   \  Design Manager

Sweetgreen   \  Los Angeles

Why him?

Justin manages the design of new builds and renovations for restaurant brand Sweetgreen. Recently selected as “impact player of the month” by the retailer, whose core values include “making an impact,” as well as “making connections” and “keeping it real,” Justin is responsible for site selection to ensure new locations fit the design and culture of their surroundings. He also presents all conceptual work to the management team and leads the production and approval of shop drawings for each project. His attention to detail and organizational skills have served him well, and he says he designs as much for the store operators and associates as he does for the customer.

What project are you most proud of?

I was assigned to a location that we had been locked into long before I started [at the company], and we had already outgrown the space before we even opened. None of us thought we would be able to design something that would operate successfully in that space, but we had to, and so we dove in head first and embraced what we could while discussing what compromises could be afforded. After months of designing and delays in construction, the store finally opened and turned out to be a really great location. What made me proud was when the store manager told me a few months after opening that it was the most efficient and functional store he’d ever worked in.

Project Photo: James Edward Smolka, New York


Stephanie Chavez

Age: 29   \   Designer

Gensler   \   San Francisco

Why her?

In her work, Stephanie focuses on retail and hospitality projects where she’s involved in all phases from concept development through construction administration. Her aptitude for translating a design idea into an immersive 3-D experience has made her a go-to resource among the design directors at the firm. Her altruistic nature has led her to oversee Gensler’s annual AIDSWalk silent auction, benefitting the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, as well as volunteering for Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA), Habitat for Humanity and LEAP (Arts in Education).

If budget were no object, I’d...

Do more research. I would love to travel the world looking for new experiences and trends that could be used and applied to my design work. Getting to know local artists and makers, discovering new products and understanding different points of view would make my work that much more impactful. 

Headshot Photo: Courtesy of Gensler, San Francisco

Project Photo: Courtesy of Alexandria Real Estate Equities Inc., Pasadena, Calif.


Katie Handy

Age: 34   \  Senior Associate

Field Paoli Architects   \  San Francisco

Why her?

As a newly appointed senior associate, Katie is responsible for establishing a design direction, generating concepts and managing internal design teams, acting as a liaison between them, clients and the construction team. A key member of the Whole Foods Market design team at her firm, Katie has helped introduce several new concepts to the retailer. Among them are the SOMA Steep Brew in San Francisco (shown); the Whole Body Salon and store in Campbell, Calif.; and the first brewery to be built as part of a Whole Foods store outside of Texas at the Alameda Whole Foods Market in San Jose, Calif.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I’ve been fortunate to work for more than 10 years at a firm that recognizes talent, encourages self development, fosters growth and promotes within. I’ve been educated in retail design at every scale, from planning neighborhoods and shopping centers to urban infill, tenant interiors, brand strategies and fixture design. I am grateful for what the older generation has provided to me, and I enjoy providing that same guidance to my teammates by challenging them, giving them opportunities for growth and advocating for them. I believe it’s our industry’s responsibility to elevate the younger generation, and it’s a responsibility I truly enjoy.

Headshot Photo: Field Paoli Architects, San Francisco

Project Photo: David Wakely, San Francisco


Liz Lucas

Age: 27   \  Senior Interior Designer

FRCH Design Worldwide   \  Cincinnati

Why her?

An alum of the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP), Liz has also spent time studying at the famed École Spéciale d’Architecture (Paris). As a design professional, she strives to transcend many roles, balancing a rational, strategic approach with an emotional, artistic eye. A strong aesthetic vision and sense of brand allow her to focus on crafting retail experiences in the built environment that are both multifaceted and memorable. Her work for luxury retailers like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue illustrates her refined eye, clean aesthetic and editing ability.

What’s the biggest challenge you face professionally?

Designing a space is about blending form with function, art with business, practicality with emotion. This balancing act is the biggest challenge that I face each day professionally. I try to keep the design vision at the forefront of my mind while also responding to the real world implications of creating inhabitable spaces that serve its guests. This is always an exciting challenge! 

Headshot Photo: Courtesy of FRCH Design Worldwide, Cincinnati

Project Photo: AFrame Photography, New York


Alex Majkowski

Age: 32   \  Senior Designer

Prophet   \  San Francisco

Why him?

Alex’s work on a wide range of projects has exposed him to the dynamism of the retail industry, including automotive dealerships, grocery and convenience stores, quick-service and fast-casual restaurants, and specialty retail formats. He’s responsible for managing the daily design explorations of a team of contractors and also investigates strategies behind the designs of public and private spaces. A strong conceptual thinker, he’s able to translate business and brand ideas into built forms and store communications, always keeping the consumer top of mind.

What role do you see physical stores playing in the future?

I’m constantly thinking about this design challenge. It’s obvious that digital experiences are becoming more readily available in retail design and that customers are starting to embrace and be curious about the change. However, I feel like personalization will be a huge factor in how we shop in the future. Physical stores will become avenues of designed experiences or customer journeys that cater directly to the user and his or her specific needs. I think in the future there will be ways to know about who is experiencing what, and how they prefer that experience.

Photography: Alex Majkowski, New York


Chloe Muir

Age: 28   \  Associate, Interior Designer

Gensler   \   San Francisco

Why her?

Chloe’s role of providing design expertise on projects, from concept through completion, includes programming, fixture design, detailing, material sourcing, FF&E, creating presentations and renderings, as well as producing stunning hand sketches. Her innate interest in the way that consumers, brands and environments interact enables her to translate emerging trends into insights that inform her designs. She actively participates in the firm’s global initiatives on visual data gathering and analysis, and regularly blogs about retail and other trends on the GenslerOn thought leadership platform.

What’s the biggest challenge you face professionally?

As consumers demand more from their retail experiences, design has to meet these expectations and go beyond the norm. On projects where there is a lower budget, this can be extremely difficult, but requires a more innovative approach to allow us to enhance the in-store experience in a way that is within a defined budget, while remaining clever, creative and forward thinking. This is often a challenge at first but quickly turns into one of the most exciting parts of being a retail designer. 

Headshot Photo: Courtesy of Gensler, San Francisco

Project Photo: Courtesy of C&A Bern


Michael Rankin

Age: 28   \   Senior Designer

WD Partners   \  Dublin, Ohio

Why him?

Michael is compelled to create emotionally engaging, concept-driven work to connect the client’s business objectives with consumers’ desires. While working with Intel on an experiential marketing project, the end product of his initial concept, strategy, design and playbook went viral, garnering unexpected attention (Search for #intelgametime for more information). His primary responsibilities include the design of flagship prototypes, environmental graphics, virtual reality (VR) retail prototypes and digital user interfaces for clients like Samsung, Bob Evans, Sukiya and others.

What experience or specific interest has shaped you as a designer?

Video games ... and the process of game design. I’m drawn to them because they offer some of the most accessible and diverse forms of modern escapism. I’m inspired by the amount of thinking and work that has to be done to create these virtual worlds and experiences. I see a lot of opportunity to learn from their processes since retail deals with similar design challenges, including human behavior, the customer/player journey, risk versus reward, storytelling, graphic communications, environmental design and, my favorite overlap, ‘replayability.’

Photography: Javier Javin, Columbus, Ohio


Emily Rubin

Age: 34   \   Retail Design Manager

Westfield Corp.   \   Los Angeles

Why her?

Emily’s role as Retail Design Manager involves the influence, oversight and management of tenant designs for Westfield’s flagship developments in California. Specializing in high-end retail, she likes to explore how retailers can integrate digital technology into their environments. Trained as an architect, Emily has worked on the client side, designing retail environments internally, and has also spent time working for a major developer. She brings these skills and experiences to the table to help create Westfield’s designs in an ever-changing marketplace.

What’s the biggest challenge you face professionally? 

There’s a merger forming between having a spectacular experience and shopping. It’s no longer just purchasing an item and ringing it up after standing in a long line at a register. It’s about style, space, entertainment, technology and the experience. This is what shoppers want, so it’s our job as retail designers to make that happen.

Headshot Photo: Christopher Weirer, Los Angeles

Project Photo: Courtesy of Westfield Century City, Los Angeles


Josh Meredith Small

Age: 27   \   Senior Designer

CallisonRTKL   \   Baltimore

Why him?

As a concept designer, Josh works with clients collaboratively to brainstorm strategies aimed at elevating and creatively branding retail environments. He specializes in designing custom retail fixtures, furniture pieces and lighting as well as art installations that enhance dynamic and engaging spaces. He places a strong focus on hospitality and strives to enrich the retail environment with memorable and unexpected elements. Design is more than just work, according to Josh – it’s a way of life.

How and why did you get into retail design/visual merchandising?

I love how retail design blends my passions for art, architecture and fashion. Growing up in an isolated region, retail shopping became my favorite event because it was one of the few opportunities to venture out to the large cities. I fell in love with the enticing window displays, the concepts, all of the bright lights – I wanted to be a part of creating those experiences, too. I studied interior design and found my opportunity in the Retail Design Institute’s (RDI) student competition. I pushed the boundaries, took some huge risks and was one of the winners. I knew then I could make a career in retail design.

Headshot Photo: Courtesy of CallisonRTKL, Baltimore/Ann Nelson

Project Photo: Aaron Leitz, Seattle


Ashlen Thomson

Age: 32   \   Senior Interior Designer

McKinley Burkart   \   Calgary, Alberta, Canada  

Why her?

The best part of retail design, says Ashlen, is that everyone can experience it. As a designer, her primary goal is to transform the common shopping experience into an immersive and authentic one. In her role, Ashlen is responsible for managing projects from concept to completion, ensuring that schedules are met, coordination is complete, drawings are accurate, clients are engaged and creative materials are in development. She has received the Commerce Design Winnipeg Award for her work for Smith, a restaurant in Canada, and was part of the team that completed an award-winning La Maison Simons store in Calgary. 

Describe a project you were involved in that you’re most proud of.

From the onset of working with La Maison Simons we developed personas of the customer base. La Maison Simons, a Quebec-based, family-owned department store expanding across the country, is deeply committed to its Canadian customer. One persona we developed was the family who shops together, the associated image had a cliché but trendsetting mom and daughter in fashionable matching patterned outfits. After the Calgary location opened, I have had many opportunities for my own family experiences shopping together. This makes me happy.  

Photography: Jamie Hyatt, Calgary, Alberta, Canada


Brian Weltman

Age: 34   \   Founder and Chief Creative Officer

Retail Habitats   \   San Diego

Why him?

In addition to his role as Chief Creative Officer, Brian works hands-on designing mood boards and 3-D plans to help bring clients’ ideas to fruition. Once a design is in place, he manages each aspect of the build and installation, including client communications, materials and fixture sourcing, and vendor and contractor timelines. He has a knack for translating seemingly disparate input from clients into holistic designs that are representative of their needs and desires by quickly honing in on personalities, backgrounds, goals and business approaches.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

It’s having the creative license to look at a brand from all angles, translate it in a human way and design an environment that not only reflects the brand’s aesthetics but also evokes feelings about what the brand represents. I’m so personally affected by whatever environment I’m in, and I love that we work in an industry where our designs can have both a subconscious and conscious effect on people’s overall experience. And in retail, those experiences get multiplied by thousands of people over time.

Photography: Steve Kosaka, San Diego


Irene Yu

Age: 30   \   Lead Creative Strategist and Architectural Designer

Arcsine   \   Oakland, Calif.

Why her?

A lifelong learner, Irene uses her natural curiosity to fuel her creativity and design thinking. She brings a holistic and balanced approach to developing scalable design concepts and leads programming, narrative development, customer journey mapping, investor/developer visioning and concept development across a number of projects. With solid experience as a visual stylist, Irene has produced more than 20 multimedia props and often assists during photoshoots.

Why did you get into retail design/visual merchandising?

I enjoy working with different brands. It’s never boring; always exciting, inspiring and definitely fast-paced. Retail design has given me the opportunity to dive into new stories and ideas for each project and to design environments and experiences that cultivate connection and fun. I’ve always believed that architecture has power; well-designed spaces can make you feel, behave, think differently and have the potential to impact the present and the future.

Headshot Photo: Laura Johnson, San Francisco

Project Photo: Eric Rorer, Mill Valley, Calif.