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Perkins + Will's Branded Environments Group

April 29, 2015

A Q&A reveals strategies to incorporate branding into design

Led by Associate Principal and Discipline Leader Keith Curtis, the Branded Environments Group at Perkins + Will Atlanta operates as much like a business consultancy as it does a design firm, with work spanning 3-D environments, 2-D visual identities, the intangible elements of strategy, and beyond. By focusing on brands’ experiential and cultural facets as much as aesthetic ones, they are able to tap into the rich histories and unique identities of their clients’ businesses to tell brand stories in ways that question the traditional boundaries of design.

Their project work has proven to increase clients’ sales and customer recognition, raise their perceived value with investors, and boost employee satisfaction, productivity, and morale. We spoke with Curtis and Senior Project Designer Katie Janson about their process for several retail clients. For them, sourcing product is less about the final specifications and more about the thinking that happens along the way.

* Before going to press Perkins + Will informed some of their clients about this story, and they requested approval of revised quotes to run. We chose instead to scrub their names and identifiers, as a courtesy to Perkins + Will out of respect for their ongoing client relationships. Anything you see in [brackets] in this story was rewritten to conceal the names of those companies. All photos are of [the infant and toddler product manufacturer] referenced in the Q+A, but we’ve decided not to caption for more detail.

Interiors & Sources: Can you explain what the Branded Environments Group does? How would you describe the underlying principles of your practice?

Keith Curtis: We think of ourselves as a living lab that finds new ways to tell our clients’ stories. And that means our process has to really understand who they are, what they do, and what their DNA is. What is their voice and personality? What is their aesthetic direction? Those are all design drivers for us that we always go back to in terms of a filtering system.

Katie Janson: I think another thing that makes our group unique is that we’ve had agency experience before. A lot of the agencies approach their creative process this way, but branding with an architecture firm is usually about your color selection or your material selection to point back to something else that the brand has done. We’re able to bring that agency lens and communicate it to the architects on the team, so there’s a true collaboration happening between the two.
KC: Typically when they’re bringing us a brief, it doesn’t include things other than program requirements, maybe some information on their existing branding communications. Obviously if there’s a pre-existing space, there may be information about that. And then there’s a description of what they’re attempting to do, but really not thinking about how they’re going to manage to make that happen.

That’s where our team comes into play—and the group is extremely diverse. We have brand strategists on board. We have graphic designers, departmental designers, architects, wordsmith people, signage and wayfinding people. It’s sort of a whole firm in its own.

I&S: How did you come into this type of work as opposed to what might be considered a more traditional process?

KC: We’ve done a lot of retail work in general—as individuals, in our past. And that work often leads to helping those clients think more strategically about who they’re selling to, who their audiences are, who their retail partners are, and how they want to communicate their products or services to them in order to customize particular fits either for their retail stores or some aspect of the product that can be customized for a particular customer.

Let’s say it’s Home Depot. They have their own brand, so anything you do in the environment to sell your product to Home Depot needs to support that brand, while at the same time encourage them to put your product versus your competitor’s product on the same shelf.

What we’re doing here now is really pushing the envelope in terms of that thinking.

I&S: How so?
KC: Ten years ago, there was planogramming going on in those environments: Here’s a series of shelves, and here’s where we would like for our products to go on those shelves, and we’ll help planogram around all the other products so that we get the best real estate on that shelf.

The fact is customers who are coming to these places and giving up a day or two days of their time want that experience to be customized for them. That may mean that there’s a focus group that one wants and another doesn’t. It may mean that we need to reconfigure a test lab for sharing real product development with them. It may mean that the whole agenda for the day is completely different and they may be going off site or outdoors. It all varies, so the spaces that we’re designing need to be accommodating to a variety of ways that our clients are planning to engage these customers.

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KJ: We always say the building is a tool. It’s not just this static place with walls where you conduct your business. The building and the design itself can be an asset in the way that you interact with your customers.

I&S: Can you give some examples from your recent work?

KC: For [an infant and toddler product manufacturer] showroom, they wanted their brand everywhere. Their brands are their products. They’re bringing their customers in to see the brands, to see the customization to their product, which is very particular to [their own brand], although [that] never shows up as a brand in the retail environment.

KJ: And their aesthetic as a corporate built environment is completely different than the products they’re selling. So they wanted their corporate brand to be featured: a very mid-century modern kind of feel, which is the very opposite of children’s toys. They didn’t want it to feel like a big playroom.

KC: To save time in that environment, we set up staged areas to feature the various lines of their products, so customers get the essence of the brand just by standing in each zone. Everything from the flooring materials to wall graphics, lighting fixtures with branded graphics—all of this makes each area almost feel like its own area within a retail store, yet there are still enough overall similarities in materials and displays that they still feel like [the parent brand].

These branded vignettes live within the corporate branded environment, so there’s this layering of brands that’s happening.

I&S: How are projects like this different from what other groups at Perkins + Will are doing?

KC: Oftentimes we’re assisting clients in changing the way they do business. Having practiced architecture and interior design, I think they both have a major role in what we do, but at the same time, they’re not always changing business. They’re following a program, and a lot of times they’re slapping a logo up on the wall behind a reception desk or something like that. All that has its place. I think it’s really good, but we’re not actually being asked to do that. We’re being asked to communicate something that’s more about a mission.

We really have to dig in and mine for information about their work, why it’s important, what their vision is, what their goals are, how they want to differentiate themselves and compete in a market. We also have to have a really good understanding of who their customers are and how they’re communicating to them, whether their story is about a product or whether it’s an actual experience that they take a customer through to develop something for them.

I&S: When it comes to design that actually changes the way your clients operate, how are you helping them to identify the need?

KC: For these types of collaboration- or customer-centered projects, we typically know that we need to get involved and have a really deep understanding of what their current process is in order to meet their goals of an environment that can support it. We’re sort of like undercover boss. We hear what they have to say from a stakeholder point of view, and then we suggest that we become a part of a team that can actually go through the process. That may be a day’s events or maybe a 3-day event that they’re holding with one of their customers, and we’re sort of a fly on the wall participant, just listening. We get a first-hand understanding of what they’re attempting to achieve in those sessions, and then ultimately build a program and design that supports those initiatives.

KJ: And sometimes the way that they’re conducting business with their customers and observations of consumers happens as a workaround because the nature of their facility isn’t ideal. They’ve created their own way of doing stuff just to help them get by with what they’ve got. We try to say, “If you had anything what would be your ideal way of doing business?” and then we work backwards to see which of the workarounds were actually golden nuggets we need to keep and which things we can scrap to make them more efficient in accomplishing what they’re trying to accomplish.

I&S: What are some common mistakes that you have seen in other attempts to brand a space?

KC: A lot of people believe their logo is their brand, so you see it used over and over, or you see the color palette that represents their standards for communication, those kinds of things. We don’t believe that’s true. It’s what we call a smashable element of the brand, those things that move within a brand vocabulary that can be used, but many times it’s the only thing that’s being used.

We’re very fortunate to be able to work closely with our interior design groups and our architects so when we see that happening we can push against it and say, “Listen, let’s think about this a little harder. Let’s really try to integrate everything together in a holistic manner that tells a story.”

I&S: You call it a smashable element?

KC: Yeah, we call them smashable brand elements. So if you think of Coca-Cola for instance, their name word, Coca-Cola, is actually a smashable element. You can take the swoosh off of the bottom of it and put it somewhere and still know it’s Coca-Cola. Look at that profile on their bottle. It’s used all over their merchandising and their advertising and you know it’s Coca-Cola. It’s a smashable element. It’s not just a logo, it’s not just their name, it’s the fact that it’s recognized for what it is.

I&S: What are some smashable elements that you were able to pull apart and apply in interesting ways?

KC: At [a subsidiary of Koch Industries], for instance, there’s a series of icons that they use in the testing and development of their products that we brought into their public space to help tell the story of what they’re doing. Otherwise they may have been held behind the scenes, and no one would have seen that kind of stuff.

Other times smashable elements sometimes are just sort of attitude and people and personality: the way they talk about themselves, the type of work that they do, the mechanics of some of the things that they do.

[The infant and toddler product manufacturer] is really interesting. The way they design products is a little bit old school. They still use big, thick design markers and things like that. I mean, they’re industrial designers, you know? They love to draw! We actually utilized the movement of the marker across the page, the gestural qualities of the line work, to influence the overall design of the space itself. So you’ll see very fluid lines that create space and an overlay of those lines to create dimension in those spaces.

When someone’s walking a new designer through and they say, “Wow, I really like this space. I’d love to work here. What is it about it that makes it so cool?” And then they can say, “Well, the fact is we designed it to represent the way we work.” It’s an artistic impression of what that is. Now that’s a smashable element that has a story.

I&S: Is there a piece of advice that you would give to a designer who is maybe trying to think more in this way?

KC: For a young designer, I would say don’t let the computer design for you. You have to know how to build emotion in everything that you do. If you put a line down on the paper it has to mean something. If you put a color down on a logo, it has to represent something. If you design a space using a specific shape or material it has to refer back to something—history, or the future, or a vision, or whatever—but we don’t just design to design. We design to tell stories.

About the Author

Robert Nieminen | Chief Content Director

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of Architectural Products, BUILDINGS and i+s, sister publications of Smart Buildings Technology. He is an award-winning writer with more than 20 years of experience reporting on the architecture and design industry.

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