Retail Design: Behind The Scenes

The average consumer likely doesn’t think about it too much, but a lot goes into all the displays and fixtures we see at retail everyday. Today I would like to provide some “behind the scenes” real world insight into the effort that goes into designing for retail.

Where Retail Design Comes From

There are a variety of resources creating the designs that go into every retail space, including in-house designers, architects, consultants, freelance designers and manufacturers. Often times two or more of these resources will team together to provide the final retail design solutions for a brand or retailer. In many cases in-house design teams have shrunk, or need additional capacity, so they will work with outside creative resources, building a highly capable creative team to work on a specific project. The brand or retailer client may not even know this is the case because the team will work seamlessly behind the scenes. Some design providers have no problem letting clients know they are leveraging the best and the brightest professional creative talent for their projects. As a professional designers we adapt our approach specific to every situation and client to assure the end result is the best it can be, whether anyone knows we worked on a project or not.

You Always Pay For Design, Even If You Don’t Think You Do

Like they say, you get what you pay for. For most of my career design was “free”. Clients would pit several design providers, often manufacturers, against each other. Then they would select the design they liked and give it to the cheapest manufacturer. Fortunately as we emerge from the economic downturn, and everyone has slashed creative staffs, brands and retailers are realizing that design isn’t free anymore. Or at least good design isn’t free. Projects are more curated, and carry a lot of weight in the success or decline at retail. Good design takes specific skills, creativity and knowledge. Why leave your business to chance just to save a few dollars? Invest in good design and it will pay you back ten fold throughout the process. The decisions your design team makes early on in the process impacts every aspect of your retail business.

As such, good clients now understand the true value of a comprehensive design approach, and are willing to engage, and pay for, design separately from manufacturing. Sure house accounts typically have a certain amount of design services built into their budgets, and a prospective client may get a round of free design consultation, but no longer should they expect that to be the case, indefinitely. The retail business can no longer support that model. So you can either pay sooner for design or pay later to fix problems. We prefer you pay for design.

We’re Constantly Working

Designers never shut off. We’re constantly thinking, designing, researching…looking for inspiration….looking for improvement.  We work in fits and flashes. Creativity can’t just be turned on, but often times that’s what we have to do to meet a dizzying array of due dates. For every billable hour I would bet there is at least one hour spent building the creative foundation that is applied to any given project. There’s a good chance your next retail design solution was born whilst a designer was driving somewhere or taking a shower.

We Love Retail

Speaking for myself, I actually love shopping. I love being in stores. The people, the products, the displays, for me it is a one stop shop to see all kinds of materials, designs, ideas in practice. Plus, despite being an advocate for the environment, I actually love buying stuff (just in moderation). When I  go “retailing” for a project I keep thinking to myself “This is the best job in the world.” So while most of us aren’t technically merchants or marketers, we love and understand retail. As designers we understand all the things that influence success or failure at retail: products, environments, consumers, manufacturing, marketing, merchandising and business.  We take a holistic approach and know how to work directly with everyone throughout the process. Often times the designer may be the only advocate for an interested party that isn’t in the meeting room.

We’re Judging You

If you have a store then we’re judging you every time we visit. But it’s a constructive judging. Really.

We know all of your dirty little secrets that consumers may not consciously pick up on. We can see when something was not executed according to plan. On the other hand we also celebrate really awesome retail designs and problem solving. And we straighten things up because deep inside we want the store to look as great in person as it did in the renderings. We’re also looking at everything from the parking lot to the entrance, and beyond to each department and display. We evaluate how well your brand communicates through your store. We get ideas and inspiration.

We don’t mean to judge, but we have to in order to make sure what we’re designing for you or other merchants is the best, relevant and effective solution possible.

Covert Operations

Last but not least this is the funnest part of the retail design job: covert operations. If we’re designing a display or fixture for a retailer, then we need to get into the stores and measure the existing environment and often times take photographs. It’s easy if you’re working directly for the retailer. You just call and get permission from your contact. More often than not my client is not that retailer. I’ve designed displays for virtually every major retailer in North America over the last twenty years and I know for a fact none of them would know me, but they know my work.

The reality is we have to go under cover. With tight deadlines looming, and tight-lipped clients not wanting to let their customers know they’ve outsourced design, we need to put our James Bond hats on. Like an overseas CIA undercover agent we’re alone and no one knows who we are. There’s no one to call.

We make every effort to speak with on-site store representatives to let them know we need to measure a fixture or take a photo for reference. This is often met with middling results, and depends on who you talk to. We spend a lot of time explaining that we’re retail designers to glazed eyes.

Assuming I’m not escorted off the premises, I will discretely walk the store and measure any necessary fixtures that my display will need to attach to or work with. I’ll  take photographs to use as reference in designing the new display. The advent of good cameras on cell phones is a life saver. Clients love seeing displays in actual store environments so I’ll snap some photos for that purpose as well. I avoid photos with people in them.

If you are a merchant, please  let responsible retail designers discretely measure and photograph in your stores. We earn our living making your store environment the best it can be for your store and the brands you carry.

There you have it, some insight into our world. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful. Here are some examples of what we look for and output when we’re designing for retail. These are all older images so no retail environments were harmed in the making of this blog post.

Have any design “secrets” you’d like to share?

Have you ever been thrown out of a store? (I have by the way)

Share in the comments section below.

-Chris

Chris Weigand is president of Chris Weigand Design, LLC a full service retail design consultancy. He is a professional industrial designer who’s innovative, consumer focused retail designs can be seen in virtually every major retailer in North America. Whether you have one store or 5,000 stores Chris Weigand Design would love to work with you on your next retail design project. Visit http://www.chrisweiganddesign.com for more information or contact Chris at 330-858-8926.