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Rules Of Engagement: Using Materials & Design to Create Engaging Experiences

The Minutest of Details in Materials & Design play a critical role in creating an engaging store for the customer.

What compelling reason would it give a shopper to leave his home, travel to a store, park his car & buy an item when he gets the same thing online at a better price ?

For instance, Why would a person go to an Apple store to buy an Apple product when the same item is available at a Walmart or a Best Buy or at a better price ?

The answer as per Ron Johnson, ex- Head of Apple Retail Design, is in: 'Creating engaging shopping experiences. By building relationships with the Shopper rather than trying to sell him stuff'.

The difficult part is in trying to implement this solution. How do you convey the brand's values in the smallest store details ?

It's the small stuff that matters.

Materials are the building blocks of space. They are the stuff that customers touch, feel and see. They provide colour and texture. They change as per light & provide mood. Similar to the painter, materials are the colours and brushes that a retailer uses to paint his brand onto the canvas of the store. ...

New materials with better performance and functionality have become a major driver of retail innovation in recent years. Emergent materials and their associated technologies are changing the way that architects and designers work and the way that we as consumers are engaging with the buildings and products that surround us.


  • The 'Product' is the focus. Store interiors play the subdued backdrop.

  • Increasing focus on craftsmanship, hand work and handcrafted products.

  • Classic styles with cutting edge modern forms, patterns and designs.

  • Rural themes and earth inspired colours.

  • The uses of patterns. Repetitive motifs, grids.

  • The use of textures. Lots of things to touch and feel.

  • Multi-cultural designs - Inspired from cultures and nations across the globe - with specific focus on China, Russia, Morocco, several Latin American countries and India.

  • Lots of use of Mosaics and patchwork.

  • The increasing use of weathered wood, chrome, gold and antique prints.


  • Technology is changing retail - both online and offline.

  • Mobile payment is removing the store cashier desk. The cashier can charge the buyer anywhere in the store - making the interaction very personal with the customer.

  • Customers want to know more about the background, heritage and source of what he is buying. Retailers are putting displays with touch screens to run presentations that explain the brands story.

  • Food is a category where this shift is seen. Education of the customer is becoming a huge driver. For example, instead of trying to get someone to simply buy a saucepan, some utensil retailers offer a cooking class first and then promote the pan.

  • As mentioned above, touch screens are replacing walls and counters. Companies like Corning are inventing glass surfaces that double up as touchscreen walls and table surfaces.

  • Building management systems and automation are used to save on electricity costs and optimising the customer experience. Body temperature sensing air conditioning systems, adjustable lighting to suit your mood, glasses that turn opaque at the touch of the button are becoming common place elements.

  • The retail store needs to be entertaining and enriching. The focus on the experience. Lighting plays a huge role in the design. Hence the emphasis on correct lighting strategies to match the brand. A mixture of soft and hard lights, general, focus and warm lights make a huge difference to the store.

  • To convey movement and ever changing mood of the store, use of video walls, digital mannequins, reticular signage, interactive displays. Changing displays add a huge amount of versatility and variety to the store interiors.

  • Los Angeles's short-lived BAPE (A Bathing Ape) store on Melrose Avenue was an interesting site for design enthusiasts while it lasted. The main attraction, architecturally speaking, was a huge display column in the center of the store featuring a parade of brightly colored shoes on a conveyor belt. Like a sculptural object, each shoe was given its own steel display pole.


  • To the best extent possible, materials need to be sustainable and multipurpose.

  • Lots of innovation is happening in glass. Different types of glass - etched, ceramic, patterned, frosted - are being used. Companies are merging technology with glass. You can increase the opacity of the glass at the touch of a button. Patterning in glass is a new trend. Glass walls that also act as touch screens are being used extensively.

  • High pressure laminates and solid surfaces like Corian allow seamlessness and formlessness. A large number of resins are being used in multiple ways and in different materials. Resins are being used to make flexible and durable boards for furniture.

  • Meshes in various materials like recycled metal, steel,acrylic, resin. Infact, aerospace technology software is utilised to design and manufacture the hugely curvilinear shapes.

  • For ‘La Maison Unique’, design firm Heatherwick Studio spent 6 months sculpting hot-rolled steel into an artificial landscape draped from the ground upto three floors. Movable magnetic lights and display stands attach to the stairs themselves, while transparent balustrades made with aerospace windscreen technology keep the focus on the shape of the steel.

  • Free form is a design trend. It conveys a brand's independent and free thinking attitude as well as its focus on customisation and individuality. Corian, numerous types of foams, meshes, high pressure laminates, acrylics and plastics are being used to create very imaginative free form structures. Some examples are Patrick Cox's store in Tokyo and Snarkitecture's Richard Chai Pop-Up Store.

  • Playful cutouts and a limited color palette characterize the Vila Sofa furniture store in Amsterdam, designed by Tjep. Large graphics of home accents like mirrors, windows and chandeliers punctuate the space while the warehouse unfolds like an aesthete’s playground, reminiscent of a slightly higher-end IKEA.

  • Retro-reflective surfaces are primarily used in fields where safety is an issue, and in fashion. Typical applications include reflective patches for cyclists and security staff. Retro-reflective fabric is also very popular in shoe design. In art, the material was discovered only recently. Reflective concrete, currently being developed under the name BlingCrete, is intended to be used for marking edges and hazardous areas (e.g., steps, platforms) and designing integrated building guidance systems and large structural elements. Given its special feel it can also be used in tactile guidance systems for the blind.

  • Transluscence and transparency in materials is being used by designers to layer and create mystery. So onyx, resins, backlit laminates.


In the wake of reducing costs, growing awareness and need for sustainability, Eco friendly materials are vastly being used.

  • So you have lots of usage of recycled wood, carpet and metals.

  • Laminated Boards made with Eco- friendly fibres are fairly common.

  • While ecological materials already focus on the use of natural fibers as a reinforcing material, coconut wood composites are a new category that is finding increasing use.

  • Biodegradable packaging material, made with mushrooms, that could replace Styrofoam.

  • Banner signage made entirely from plant material (goodbye, vinyl!).

  • UV coatings used to achieve a glossy or metallic effect on paper add a little flavor to your design—and protect it from fading—but they aren’t necessarily the best option from an environmental standpoint. While consumers might put UV-coated paper into recycling bins, they can contaminate the recycling stream. Conscious of this, the company Henkel developed MiraCure UV coatings that are water-based and don’t introduce contaminants into the recycling stream. Along the same lines, the company’s MiraFoil allows designers to give a metallic sheen to various colors—including the entire set of Pantone hues—without preventing the papers from being recyclable. Both provide options for designers searching for the necessary “pop” without the environmental downside


  • There is a huge focus on creating customer comfort. So doors and drawers must open silently.

  • Lighting plays a huge role in creating warmth in the store. Tracks, pull down lights, LEDs, angle tilting fixtures have become commonplace.

  • The store interior become the backdrop for the merchandise. It should not be loud or scream out it should be silent. So you have the Aesop store where the product is placed across a White porcelain background.

*The above is an abridged version of our article published in the March 2013 edition of 'Shopping Centre News" -- India's leading retail magazine. Download the full unabridged article here.

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