November 21, 2002

Getting the most from environmental graphics

Callison Architecture


Like it or not, every retail developer knows that graphic design is an essential part of the retail package. Whether it’s considered a necessary evil or added value depends on who you talk to. Ask us, and we’ll tell you that graphic design offers plenty of potential for value, but that it is rarely realized.

The reason? Too often, graphic design is used to rescue rather than enhance. We see graphics deployed as a way to disguise poor planning (“nobody can find the food court”), to spice up boring architecture (“we don’t stand out”), to compensate for a mediocre tenant mix (“we need to increase traffic in the village”), or otherwise cajole customers into doing something counter-intuitive. It’s a band-aid effort, and a poor use of development dollars.

Photos courtesy Callison Architects
At Illusionz Magical Entertainment Center in Issaquah, the lobby’s spiraling floor pattern leads the eye to lighted curtains and veiled views into the main arcade.

The fact is, shopping centers don’t need more signs or graphic “features.” They need a personality that resonates with customers. They need to be fun to explore, and easy to navigate. They need to offer products, services, experiences and activities that are relevant to their target customers. In other words, shopping centers need to anchor the customer’s entire experience in an environment that reinforces who they are, where they live and what they live for.

For that, you need smart planning, thoughtful design and an aggressive tenant strategy, all built around a story that your customers will identify with. Spend your graphic design dollars to enhance these areas during design, rather than rescuing them afterwards, and we’ll guarantee “value-add,” whether you’re revamping an existing center or building a new one.

Stop the shouting

We live in an over-communicated world. A cacophony of cell phones, e-mail, advertising and media vies for our attention every minute of every day — a fact that much of the retail industry has responded to by shouting at their customers via showy, often thematic design.

 Flatiron Village
Flatiron Village in Broomfield, Colo. integrates signage and architecture in a seamless solution. It’s lit at night by gas torches.

Themes are fun, but they’re irrelevant to customers’ everyday lives. As a result, a themed environment promotes passive viewing as opposed to active experiencing. It soon loses its novelty, and thus fails to inspire return visits.

We think it’s time for a little restraint. Retail places designed to eliminate noise in favor a clear message resonate the loudest in our memory. Remember the old perfume ad? “If you want to capture someone’s attention, whisper.” In effect, that’s the result of graphic design that is well integrated into the planning, design and tenant strategy. Like the actor who doesn’t have to say anything to convey an idea, your center or store becomes a quiet invitation to the customer that speaks volumes about who you are and what you offer — and how that relates to their world.

Graphic design dos and don’ts

Beverly Center
As part of the revitalization of the Beverly Center in Los Angeles, Callison created a glowing, three-story shoji screen as a backdrop for a valet service that whisks guests to the seventh floor for upscale retail.

Integrated graphic design makes a stronger, more effective statement with fewer “pieces.”

Whether a store owner or shopping center developer, these tips will help you make the most the most of your investment:

Use restraint

Filling the entire environment with signs creates a level of chaos that is more confusing than most people can process.

Remember that signs can be sculpture

Whether it’s a fountain, a light display or the shape of a building, people often identify more by landmarks than by words on a shingle.

Consider other aspects of communication

Don’t be afraid to try new things. Almost any environmental condition can be used to communicate — the shape of the shrubbery, a floor pattern, the sound of trickling water, twinkling lights or dramatic shadow play. Simple effects can dazzle more than the most complicated tricks.

Create different levels of communication

Strengthen your overall message and acknowledge the fact that people receive and process information in different ways by layering communication.

Play off the natural characteristics of a place

Work with the architect to enhance a project’s identity or circulation through opportunities in the terrain or in the plan, rather than slapping signs up later to disguise poor planning.

Look for clues from the community

One of consumers’ biggest complaints about retail today is the sameness they experience from one place to the next. Find out what is distinct about a place and use it to connect with customers. Consider cultural influences, geographic characteristics and lifestyle qualities.

Ask about maintenance

Special effects don’t mean much if they’re not working. If you can’t maintain a fountain, don’t build one. If the light bulbs are out, so is your message.

Choose the fabricator carefully

As the last people to touch the work, fabricators have a big influence of the final product. The cheapest bid can cost the most, either in compromised quality or in last-minute change orders.

John Mason is associate principal for Callison Architecture.

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