Understanding the Art and Science of Designing Retail Experiences

Magic, now proven with logic

Rapha Cycling Club

Art and science—also known as magic and logic—have been informal phrases used in the design industry for as long as I can remember. The "art" dimension of design, as you would expect, continues to this day. However, the "science" dimension has an increasingly important role to play these days in the form of data, analytics and smart technology. 

Whenever I'm asked the cliché dinner-party question "What do you do?", my response is complicated. That's because I see all the creative pursuits—sculpture, fashion design, typography, architecture, etc.—on a single continuous line that is purely conceptual on the left-hand side and purely commercial on the right hand side, and yet I exist at the in-between. And that, to me, is the perfect tension of art and science. As executive creative director for retail consultancy Fitch, I lead a team that's constantly searching for that sweet point every day, and I'm constantly pushing our work to be as bold as it can be, blended with magic—which is proven with logic. 

I have previously seen how brands would trust the view of the lead designer or creative director in making an informed decision, trusting their experience and gut instinct. But today I see more and more businesses also looking for data points and research to validate that gut instinct. I don't think that's an insult to us creative leaders, although it certainly raises the stakes even further—albeit while everybody still pays lip service to "fail fast" or "test and learn" methodologies.

Since our shopping behavior is changing so quickly, one key point that brand leaders and agencies need to focus on is listening and observing customers in their habitat. Go shopping with them regularly. Go to the restaurants, amusement parks and museums they frequent. Agencies need to understand how all these different "touchpoints" have actually started to become a blend of hospitality, entertainment and retail. 

Something we as an agency have started doing is creating ethnographies, which have become a game changer in recent years. Our researchers and designers often spend a whole day with people, either at their homes or with them while they are shopping to understand more deeply their habitat and what they look for in a shopping experience. 

The harsh reality is that as a brand, if you just rely on having a great product, you won't survive. In a world of Instagrammable moments, we are emotionally driven and not always fueled by rational need.

Consumers want experiences that fulfill their basic human desire to belong, progress, be independent and find comfort. I believe that Experience Themes help us to better understand how a brand can create a compelling three-dimensional space that makes sense for its community of consumers. 

A successful brand takes shoppers on a distinctive, valuable journey. This could be recreational, retreat or a performance, as each Experiential Theme has a particular behavior and stimuli. Each responds and delivers different ways of meeting everyday needs, and the symbols and language, activities and emotions are bespoke to each theme.

For example, we've seen Rapha, the cyclist clothing brand, do an amazing job moving from being solely a product-based brand to a community of cycling enthusiasts that connect with each other through Rapha. They have created "Campfires," or Rapha Cycling Clubs, that meet the need of belonging and help consumers feel welcomed. From organized rides to panel discussions in the backdrop of the coffee shop, the club gives cyclists a home and enables them to become experts within their field. 

Today, these brand experiences can be measured and analyzed in great detail. Another example is WPP-developed BrandZ, which measures 650,000 customers and 23,000 brands, and then tracks them across 31 countries. The ability to tap into this data has brought marketing pros to the conclusion that consumer needs are actually pretty fundamental. Consumers are looking for brands that connect with them beyond just the product and build an emotional connection that triggers a smile or progresses their goals. 

So before, when it was solely about trusting the creative's gut feeling, science now proves that the art of experiences should be emotionally focused and data-driven. 

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Alasdair Lennox
Alasdair Lennox is executive creative director at Fitch.