Plug and play

THE NEED TO CREATE PHYSICAL SPACES THAT INCORPORATE SOCIAL, CULTURAL AND ONLINE AREAS, AND ACT AS DESTINATIONS IN THEIR OWN RIGHT, IS ONE OF THE INDUSTRY’S BIGGEST CHALLENGES

We are customising our next pair of trainers with our own inimitable colourways, and shopping for our groceries online. We update our Facebook profiles on our iPhones, and we Twitter as we go. And if we don’t, we almost certainly know someone who does. Online and mobile resources continue to encourage our expectations of greater freedom of activity and consumption in the digital world, there’s no doubt about it. But in many cases the physical environment is stuck in the past and failing to deliver an experience that consumers find relevant. The solid space is simply not up to the task – it wasn’t designed to respond to individual input and remodel on an hourly basis.

Today’s designers are tasked not only with helping brands redefine what constitutes a successful and effective brand space, but also with delivering on their new set of criteria within a consumer culture that is evolving almost as fast as brand concepts can launch. Consumers are comfortable with booking holidays, restaurants and even buying houses online. They are sharing videos with friends on their mobile phones, and spend vast amounts of time pretending to be someone else in a virtual world. They expect to be connected all the time, everywhere, and stimulated by a constant source of information, entertainment and contacts.

But it must be stressed at this point that an effective physical connection is still absolutely imperative to brand success. Rather than assuming that the physical space is being hindered by the growth of digital activity, brands and designers are beginning to embrace the newer channels where consumers are choosing to spend their time and deliver a physical environment that adds value around these. Get the basic understanding of the ‘new purpose’ of the physical space right and the physical manifestation of the design will boom from there.

The key is to design interiors that can respond and morph with social and cultural shifts, so that the spaces become a form of ‘cultural commentary’, adding value to the popular activities of today’s audiences. Above all, interior design must be approached in a way that ensures that the brand communicates a relevant message through this critical channel. This can be achieved by considering and responding to three key topics: cultural relevance, social context and technology integration.

One of the most effective techniques being used to ensure relevance with consumer audiences is to tune into popular culture to find the triggers that attract consumers. There is still a huge amount of scope for interior design to explore this, but to date, one of the most notable executions has been the Diesel Denim Gallery in New York, which fuses fashion retail with bursts of cultural energy through changing art installations and events.

One of the most recent installations, designed by Jeroen de Schrijver, saw the gallery host a collaborative exhibition by Jaime Hayón and furniture company Moooi, to coincide with the release of Jaime Hayón Works, the first monograph of the designer. Sebastien Agneessens, founder of Formavision, a creative group in New York, is the curatorial vision behind the concept. ‘Consumers today are increasingly able to edit the communications and information to which they are exposed,’ he explains. ‘This means that brands must contribute positively to target audiences’ lives to be listened to and adopted – this can be done, in large part, through creating physical environments that deliver engaging and provocative cultural experiences.’

Agneessens’ work with Diesel has been highly successful, but he is the first to admit that if the installations do not inspire social interest, the consumer will not be loyal. ‘We are lucky to work with Diesel because it is always open to experimenting in this area,’ he says. ‘We have clearly noticed that footfall to the store doubles when we install one of the temporary cultural exhibits for which the gallery has become a notable destination. But we are also very aware that the content has to be genuinely relevant and responsive to current cultural interests, or the footfall is certainly not as pronounced.’

This belief that interior design must incorporate relevant cultural references is also held strongly by the founders of Neverstop, a creative group in Portland, which positions itself as ‘cultural engineers’ rather than designers. ‘A key discussion for us, when creating a brand environment, is how to turn a proposition into an experience with soul,’ says co-founder Alex Calderwood. ‘We need to establish how the brand space can become a credible participant in the local community, and how it can be perceived as “investing in culture”. Our mission is ultimately to create a sense of place.’

Neverstop’s approach is to design environments that draw on local creative talent, from art to music. Its Ace Hotel chain concept is a good example, promoting a sense of community throughout the design – from collaborative creative ventures to an emphasis on social space – and encouraging guests to ‘plug in’ to local popular culture. With venues initially opened in Seattle and Portland, further sites are soon to launch nationwide and then potentially internationally. Ë

The boom in online social networking is having a strong impact on the needs of the physical brand space, as partially illustrated in the Ace Hotel example. This movement in turn impacts on the way retail interiors need to be addressed, as brands gradually orient towards ‘social facilitators’, providing activity hubs where consumers can socialise around a lifestyle offer. In this scenario, the service provided by the brand needs to take centre stage, so the design of the environment must clearly communicate and support this delivery.

Virgin Megastore in Manchester is a concept that brings this vision to life through repositioning the role of a home entertainment store. ‘The big opportunities lie in combining online participation with offline retail, where the brand as social facilitator becomes a powerful beacon in the physical marketplace,’ says Jeff Kindleysides, founder of Checkland Kindleysides and the store’s designer. ‘It is the job of designers to aid brands in facilitating this to create dynamic, permeable interfaces that blur the boundaries between culture, social space, retail and online.’

Central to CK’s design for the the concept are a number of ‘social hubs’ dedicated to music, films and gaming, allowing visitors to browse and engage to a deeper extent than more traditional concepts would. Digital download units bring the ease of online consumption into the store, while gaming contests encourage visitors to interact and share tips on the latest products.

‘The store was designed to engage consumers in ways which encourage discovery, entertainment and, importantly, social interaction,’ says Kindleysides. ‘By creating immersive hubs which are clearly defined areas of specialism – places where consumers are actively encouraged to dwell, meet and enjoy the experience with very local relevance – the store embraces the idea of brands as social facilitators.’

Designing immersive brand spaces is particularly critical when faced with the challenge of embracing the digital and virtual channels of consumers’ lives and respecting them as increasingly important constituents of the physical experience. The most successful interior design concepts will be those that consider the technological aspects from the outset – translating and incorporating the benefits of these channels into the design, rather than adding them as a detached element at the end.

Mobile and digital channels are absolutely key to the future of consumer activity, but this should not be seen as detrimental to the role of the physical space. After all, the physical space is the only area where the features of digital and mobile – the features that make these the future channels of choice – can be translated into a sensory experience.

The Adidas Mi Innovation Center in Paris, designed by Mutabor, shows how integrating technology at the heart of a spatial design can ease the consumer experience. This flagship design is dedicated to delivering the brand’s customisation service for footwear, allowing customers to create a pair of trainers using interactive expert measurement and choice management systems.

Imagination’s stand design for Ford at the Geneva Motor Show in 2007 is another example of integrating online activity into a physical environment. Visitors could record text and video clips of their responses to the Ford brand and new cars, or contribute SMS messages from their mobile phones. The resulting content was collated on a visual server where Video Jockeys would select and mix it before displaying it on the large integrated wall screen.

‘Each of the three arenas of experience – physical, digital and virtual – influences and is dependent on the next,’ says Eduardo Braniff, director for imagination at Global Insights. ‘There needs to be fluidity between them. As any brand becomes more experimental in the virtual space, its physical presence demands greater authenticity. And the more physical the brand, the more it should sustain dialogue in the digital space.’

In both the Adidas and Ford concepts we can visualise how interior design could incorporate the key components that already make online activity so rewarding. ‘As we strive to create a physical world that integrates to a much greater extent with our digital and virtual lives, we will find that we need to design smarter spaces that are more vocal and more responsive,’ continues Braniff. ‘Intelligent, networked environments that respond to individuals and seamlessly connect them to online networks and resources.’

So, although digital and mobile channels enable freedom of activity, social connectivity and co-creation in themselves, the physical space is in a unique position to be able to bring all this together. It is an environment that acts as the anchor for all brand activity – perhaps comparable to a central ‘server’ that connects all components in a network. Above all, interior design must play a key role in injecting the energy that allows brand spaces to become destinations in their own right, living and responding to consumers and not just remaining a passive brand showcase. •

Lucy Johnston is executive editor of the Global Innovation Report published by GDR Creative Intelligence, London

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