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How to build an authentic sense of community in retail environments

A recent community initiative in North London reminded me of the immense power that creativity and design has to bring a community together - and how important it is to draw on this power in retail and hospitality design now, more than ever, as people experience a renewed appreciation for what it means to gather together and socialise. 
28 June, 2022
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The initiative, Tidy Up Tottenham, has taken an entrepreneurial and grassroots approach to rejuvenating neglected pockets of the area by painting murals that ‘design out' fly-tipping and rubbish dumping while giving new life to forgotten areas. And the locals love them. This community-focused approach to creativity has both an aesthetic but also practical function and reminded me of the work of one of my favourite graphic designers, Morag Myerscough.

A lesson from public art

A veteran of creating engaging public art installations, Myerscough has brought her bold signature style to countless communities over the years, from collaborating with young people to transform Islington Council’s local performing arts centre Platform in 2011, to 'Endless Ribbon Connecting Us’ - a bold intervention in Coventry’s city centre last year inspired by the city's once vibrant ribbon-weaving industry and the famous cathedral’s stained glass windows. 

Having spent my early childhood in Coventry, seeing creativity transform an environment that I remember being tired and forgotten, is deeply inspiring. Today, as a designer, what I find incredible about Myerscough’s work is her ability to make a unique, individual and thoroughly ‘ownable’ statement within a space while reflecting the mood and identity of those who will use it.

Particularly inspiring for my work at UXUS is how Myerscough approaches these social engagement projects: “It doesn’t mean your work has to be compromised or that you need to do what people tell you to do, but you do need to have an understanding. You need to know how to articulate things to lots of different people and be able to be quite human. It’s about discussing things and listening when they have concerns.”

Putting ‘community’ at the heart of the design

Despite the differences between public art and retail/hospitality design, there are some crucial overlaps. Like Myserscough, it would be easy for us to dictate to our clients the types of environments their customers should inhabit. However, without the human part of listening to and understanding the people who will actually use the space, the design could well fail to make any real impact.

Instead, consulting the end users of a space is something we take very seriously. In fact, ‘community’ is one of the key pillars of our design process. It helps to ensure all our work has the most successful impact possible - from both a community engagement and a commercial perspective.

For example, our recent work for a world-leading energy provider challenged us to completely re-design the customer experience to adapt to the rapidly evolving energy, fuel and electric vehicle sectors. Our customer-centric approach completely flipped the experience so every customer was treated like a guest via personalised ‘magic' moments throughout the retail experiences. Following the redesign, 58% of customers said they were likely to return, a 19% increase, and those likely to recommend the store jumped to 87%, an increase of 26%.

Similarly, when the established European gym brand Basic-Fit asked us to create a new female-oriented offer for them where women could work out on their own terms, it was essential for us to speak to the women who would actually be using Basic-Fit Ladies, ensuring that it met - and surpassed - their expectations. We took a similar customer-centric approach in our recent work for Clinique’s new global retail concept, Clinique Laboratories, giving consumers a highly personalised skincare experience, and for Pudu Pudu, a new brand and restaurant experience for Dr. Oetker, which led to significant sales increases following the launch.

‘Design Thinking’ versus ‘Inclusive Design’

While many agencies will claim to put end users at the heart of their work for brands, I wonder how many are actually taking steps to fully embed this approach in their projects. At UXUS, we are re-examining our whole design process to try and maximise this crucial part of our work. In particular, looking at the difference between 'design thinking' and 'inclusive design’. 

Design thinking is a common and important methodology but it puts a designer-centric perspective on shaping what the environment will be like, not an end-user one. While designers are taught to try and empathise with different user groups, it still reinforces the designer’s role as an arbiter of what’s important to customers and what’s not.

Instead, 'inclusive design' actually gets the end users involved in how the spaces will be designed – including the staff who will need to feel empowered to work there. The design process might take a little more time but it can lead to spaces that feel much more inclusive and better serve all the people who will use them. Whenever possible, we try to take this more inclusive approach in all of our work.

While designing customer experiences for multinational companies might seem worlds away from painting grassroots murals to enhance a local community, for me the success of both depends on close, authentic engagement with the community of people who the finished work will affect. In turn, this allows their needs and views to be reflected in the environment that is created, which is something I continue to be very passionate about achieving and exploring further in my ongoing work at UXUS.

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