What did hot gluing tissue paper flowers together teach me about design? As it turns out, a lot. The summer after my sophomore year of college, I interned for three months at Anthropologie. It was unpaid, but it was my first "semi related to interior design" job nonetheless. It gave me something to put on my resume and I got the employee discount (which was the real bonus, let's be honest). I worked for the Visual Display Coordinator and helped make the seasonal displays throughout the store. It was an absolute blast.
Before I started working at a retail architecture firm, my "elevator speech" was about my experience in corporate culture and how it's given me an "inside look at how companies known for innovation communicate brand identity and cultivate customer experiences". I'm pretty sure that pitch (which I have obviously memorized) has gotten me every job I have ever had. Working at Anthropologie is where it all started.
Even though I spent the summer screwing eye hooks into the ceiling and dip dying everything in sight, being in that environment and observing the process taught me more about design than I ever would have imagined. Many of these lessons applied directly when I was interning at Steelcase and continue to influence how I approach retail experience design in my work now. Here are my five biggest takeaways:
1. The Importance of Branding
Anthropologie is famous for their store displays, and has a way of transporting you into a fantasy world like no one else. Even in my modern/minimalist phase (which lasted for the duration of college), I once walked out of Anthro with quaint, hand painted floral tea cup, because, despite not matching anything I owned, I simply had to have it. From the candles they burn from open til close, to the collection of antique dressers and shelving units that are used throughout the store, the Anthropologie experience is meticulously crafted and extremely intentional.
First and foremost, Anthropologie does not sell clothes or goods, they sell a lifestyle. They know their target demographic (women ages 28-45, with an expendable income) inside and out, and spend no time catering to the masses. Instead of tailoring their marketing strategy to fit customers, Anthropologie creates a perfectly crafted image that inspires their customers to fit them. The Anthropologie Woman is purely aspirational, an icon to be revered and emulated. Despite being outside the target demographic, women in their early twenties are drawn like magnets to spend more than they can afford to get a piece of the Anthro fantasy for themselves, and in doing so are groomed for a lifetime of customer loyalty.
If anyone could get me to stray from my tried and true gray, black, and navy color palette to try on a mustard yellow lace dress, it would be Anthropologie. You forget who you are when you walk into that store. It's like stepping into someone else's eccentric and whimsical life. Never mind that up until this point you have never been a "ruffled apron" type of person, when you see it hanging there, surrounded by a menagerie of french cookbooks and little painted bowls, you start to fantasize about a dream version of yourself who throws dinner parties and serves boeuf bourguignon while wearing an apron, saying "Oh this? It couldn't have been easier!" Like I said before, Anthropologie sells a lifestyle. The experience of losing yourself to see the vision of who you could be if you bought their product is exactly what they want. It's what they have planned. And it's genius.
2. The Importance of Story
The reason it is so easy to picture the life of an Anthropologie Woman is because the store is designed with these women in mind. Every 6-8 weeks, the corporate office in Philadelphia releases 3-5 concepts that serve as inspiration for the coming season. In my summer there, my favorite concept was Belle Monde. She lived in Paris, wore exclusively black, white, and red (but only a little), and collected antique napkins. She loved to bike around Paris, sip tea, and sketch. Her trademark was, of course, red lipstick. For her, we sketched teapots and bikes on hundreds of cocktail napkins and arranged them on the wall above her display. Another concept was called the Moon and Mars. This girl was an ethereal beauty, a bit space age and a bit bohemian. For her, we made a bunch of dip dyed clay feathers, and hung them from the ceiling.
Each concept occupied her own section of the store. In our case, Belle Monde lived at the front of the store and the Moon and Mars lived in the back. They each had a name, a story, a book of images, mood boards, and a set of likes and dislikes. The concepts painted such a vivid picture of a person, they almost felt real. This is how the "Anthropologie Woman" is formed. Though she begins as an idea, she is brought to life by the handmade works of art that occupy her space, as well as the clothes, books, and home accents that are displayed there.
In the retail work I do now, a lot of our designs are inspired by the people who shop in each center. On one project I might be designing for a techie at heart who makes it big in Silicon Valley and has more money than he knows what to do with. He knows the brand names he should be shopping at, but being new to this lifestyle he is still a little bewildered at the gloss of it all. How do we make him feel like he belongs? In another scenario, I could be designing for a mother of three who is really only at the mall to return a pair of shoes that she bought in the wrong size. How can I design a space for her to stop and regroup while her kid has a meltdown after passing Build-a-Bear? What if her phone dies and she needs a place to charge it so she can text her husband to pick up more bacon for dinner tonight? You get the idea. Thinking in stories is my favorite way of designing with purpose. It allows you to get inside the head of the user and develop a fully thought out experience.
3. How Large Companies Facilitate That Story
I will never forget what it was like to visit the Chicago store after finishing up the spring display at our store. It was incredible to recognize each concept, but see it brought to life in a completely different way. This is the genius of their business model. Because each store employs their own team of Visual Display Coordinators and Merchandise Coordinators, everything is designed and executed by hand, and is custom to the individual store. While there is a corporate blog for further inspiration and suggested crafts and materials, everything is pretty much up to interpretation. Instead of saying "do this, do that" they say "here is who you are designing for, now go have fun." Obviously there are inspections, approvals, and reviews, but when compared to other retail models, the coordinators have quite a bit of freedom.
The balance between complete creative freedom and corporate consistency is hard to find. The goal should be for all the stores to feel unified, but different enough to offer customers a unique experience. It's difficult to nail down a common vision, because creative ideas can be elusive and interpreted very differently depending on the person. If six designers or artists were given the word "bohemian" there are a million different directions that could go in. But when you give the character a name, a story, distinct traits, and likes and dislikes, everyone starts speaking the same language.
4. How to Craft an Experience
Experiences are created by what you see, what you cannot see, what you smell, and what you feel. When you walk into Anthropologie, the first thing you encounter is the front display. This display is typically a more literal interpretation of the season, so instead of representing a specific story or narrative, you are more likely to find a beach theme in the summer, a cozy sweater theme in the fall, or a holiday theme in the winter. By creating a vignette that stops the eye upon entry, you are preparing the customer for moments of discovery as they move throughout space. In contrast, when you walk into a department store. everything is revealed at once. You can pretty much see everything from front to back and it all looks the same. By breaking up the space the shopper experiences spikes of wonder and discovery, as opposed to one long, monotonous passing through.
Controlling sight-lines and creating "rooms" is the most important part of shaping an experience. What do you see when you walk in the front door? What don't you see? What is revealed as you pass through the space? A well crafted retail design allows the customer to have as many "Oh! Look at over there!" moments as possible. This means creating smaller vignettes to divide the floor plate into manageable areas. However, this can be tricky. One of the best ways to break up a large retail floor is through the use of scale. At our store, we would often hang things from the ceiling and use the full height of the ceiling to our advantage. Visually, this divides the space and sections off each concept in a subtle way. Also, many Anthropologie stores are designed with physical rooms that separate the home goods from the clothing.
In all Anthropologie displays, there is a sense of awe and wonder. Whether it is thousands of little handmade flowers suspended from the ceiling or a giant archway framing the front entry, the best designs make the viewer stop for a moment and appreciate it. Some corporate chains are more comfortable boxing up a pre-made display and shipping it to their stores to ensure consistency, but Anthropologie has built hand made art into their corporate identity. The difference is noticeable. By weaving awe inspiring artwork into the fabric of their customer experience, they are creating an association with their product that shapes the way customers view the merchandise. It builds a correlation between hand craftsmanship and the clothing that they sell. Even though it's a chain store, each item feels unique and one of a kind.
This awe and wonder is successful because equal importance is placed on detail and as well as what you see when you walk in the door. I once spent a day tying dip dyed string onto candles to make them feel more customized. I also spent a morning creating fake coffee rings on a paper table cover to make the area feel like a coffee shop. Even though the table was covered by books, candles, and jewelry, the detail was there. While first impressions are important and the relationship that a customer has with the space is vital, a huge part of the retail experience happens at a very hands on level. When a customer picks up a new mug, or decides between two different colored kitchen timers, what is speaking to them at that moment? It probably isn't the stuffed coffee bean bags sitting at the top of the bookshelf, but it might be the bakers twine tied around the mug handle. Shaping experience at a human level, what people can touch and interact with, solidifies the Anthropologie fantasy world. It becomes more than what you see on the walls, it becomes hands on and tangible. It becomes real.
5. How to Trust the Process
In every single project I worked on, there was a moment when we took a step back from our work and went "Welp, this looks like crap!" I once spent three days stringing paper clips together to help form the top half of a DIY chandelier. The bottom half was made out of hundreds of rope tassels hot glued to a Styrofoam half cylinder. I remember I climbed down from the ladder at the end of a long day of hot gluing and completely panicked. It looked way to sparse, like a sad Pinterest failure, and I started to doubt that it would make a big enough impact. I showed the Visual Display Coordinator and she told me not to worry. She advised that we wait until it was closer to being finished to make a judgement call. In the end, she was right. We had planned the perfect amount and it ended up looking great. The lesson I learned was to trust the process, and be patient. To let the design run it's course before allowing gut reactions to take over.
Sometimes a design isn't finished until it's finished. That sounds obvious, but it isn't. Beyond my professional work, I have had many DIY experiments go awry because I judged too soon and made a poor snap decision. Assuming there was an adequate amount of planning and prep work that went into the project, chances are good that everything will work out if you give it time. Sure, sometimes course correction is necessary, but not as often as one might think. It would be silly to taste test a batch of cookies before all the ingredients have gone into the dough. Design is the same way, especially when it comes to bringing custom made creations to life.
I joke that my favorite part of working at Anthropologie was the discount, but the truth is, working there formed the foundation of how I understand space and shape environments. Not only did I get a behind the scenes look how the magic happens, I got to create and be a part of it. While the work was far from glamorous, I appreciate what the designers at each store do so much more now that I know how much work goes into it. The intention, the creativity, and the thoughtful execution is truly astounding.
For more information on what it's like to be a Visual Display Coordinator (my boss' job) I found a great blog post here. For more information about Anthropologie's corporate culture and philosophy, check out this great article from Racked.
What about you guys? What lessons did you learn from your first (i.e. not glamorous) jobs? In what ways did they help you become a better designer? I'd love to hear from you :)