Placemaking for the Modern Consumer

In December 2013, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was being interviewed by CBS’s Charlie Rose on the popular news program 60 Minutes. Rose stated “a lot of small book publishers and other smaller companies worry that the power of Amazon gives them no chance.” Then he went on to ask, “is Amazon ruthless in their pursuit of market share?” Bezos replied, “…Amazon is not happening to book selling, the future is happening to book selling.”

The future is happening to book selling. 

Let that sink in. Read it again if you need to. The future is happening. It is undeniable if you are in the business of selling a physical product, your business is changing. Especially if you sell your product in a physical store. The places people buy things are being radically disrupted by digital models for commerce.

While online sales only makes up 6% of total retail sales in the United States (according to the US Department of Commerce), that percentage is rising and the trajectory doesn't look to be slowing down anytime soon. As a design firm, we find the impact of digital commerce on physical retail very interesting. Actually, we find the impact of all things digital on all things physical interesting, whether it be commerce, entertainment, education, transportation, healthcare, civics, work, or home. We have found there are some profound similarities between these sectors and the way they are each affected by technology.


The rise of intangible value and the experience economy may have the greatest impact on how and what we buy. James Gilmore outlined this idea in his 1999 book aptly titled The Experience Economy. The gist is that what were once products have become services experienced over time. Coffee is a prime example; it could be argued that Starbucks was the first to reframe a simple product from a commodity item into an experience as they designed their stores to be “third places.” They knew their product was really an experience of a product that existed in the context of a specifically designed place. But the creation of experience is giving way to the creation of purpose as a means of personal fulfillment. (See Aaron Hurst’s book The Purpose Economy for tangible evidence to back this assertion.) Meaningful experiences are a necessity for the next generation of consumers, and brands who will most intimately resonate with this next generation will be those who redefine their business strategy - shifting from creating financial wealth for shareholders to creating emotional, intellectual, physical, social, and creative wealth for customers. This is a wealth our GDP does not measure (I credit this idea to Umair Haque, he outlines a redefinition of wealth brilliantly in his essay Betterness: Economics For Humans), but it is this wealth businesses of the future must create to remain viable.


With the rise of the digital age and the internet has come a proliferation of resources to educate ourselves about the world around us and the things we want to buy. In his book To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink calls this information asymmetry. What he means is that for years those doing the selling had more knowledge about the product and service being sold than the consumer. Thirty years ago, car dealers would lock their factory invoices in a safe; today customers arrive at the dealership already knowing who is offering the best price on the car they want. The archetypical salesperson as a despised persona is a result of this, but today those doing the selling act more like altruistic filters and sounding boards than they do pushy information specialists. Their role has shifted from an imperial source of knowledge to shapers of perception. Patients arrive at their doctor’s office with a self diagnoses, and stay-at-home moms armed with a laptop have unprecedented access to the airfares, hotel rates, and reviews that were proprietary to professional travel agents only two decades ago. This idea means many things, but for retailers and architects alike it means that commerce is no longer contained to place, transactions do not happen at the source of knowledge. There is a nuanced difference between products and services that people are sold, and products and services that people buy; the difference is about knowledge, and who has it. The sales funnel has been dismantled and rebuilt with a digital component, one that is equally and unequivocally important to the experience of buying. Brick and mortar just isn’t what it used to be.


While the shopping experience does not exclude physical place, it now transcends physical place. As I mentioned, 6% of gross retail sales occurs online and while that’s a small percentage, the approximately 900 billion dollars it represents has been felt. Blockbuster Video, Borders Books, and Circuit City are all well known examples of this. Many now know that an online store presence, digital purchasing incentives, social media, and other digital brand touchpoints are core to a strong sales strategy. Most everyone knows your customer experiences must be considered in both digital and physical contexts. But not many business are integrating the digital into the actual physical environment in an augmented sense, and those who are integrating technology are doing so in ways that degrades trust and pollutes the ever-thickening air of the distracting and annoying cloud of corporate messaging. Adding iBeacons to a storefront so passers by get popup ads and targeted sales promotions is not a long term strategy for consumer loyalty and a strong brand. “But we have touch screens” you say. So does most everyone who comes into your store — it’s in their pocket. Even prolific and inspirational companies like Tesla mean well but get this wrong. I recently visited a Tesla showroom to sit in the the Model S and was impressed by the extending door handles (the way the car greets you as you approach, quite the human touch) and the built in intelligence (the fact that your car learns how you drive and responds accordingly along with an operating system that updates itself to create a car that performs better over time, essentially self-upgrading). But the pinnacle of the showroom? I was disappointed to find a touch screen that allows you to pick out your trim package. With such an amazing product you would think the environment in which the product is sold would be up to par. It may be much more interesting to highlight facets of the car that really differentiate it in the marketplace — the software, the battery technology, the human interface. 

Here are some hypothetical examples of how some well known retailers could potentially leverage the technology that is already familiar with consumers. Perhaps Radio Shack becomes the first retail chain to 3D print its products in store and picks up the flag of the maker movement. Starbucks becomes the first coffee chain to let a customer order from her computer and receive her coffee delivered to her seat so her workflow remains uninterrupted. H&M becomes the first major clothing retailer to use digital mirrors so customers can see themselves wearing their clothes with simple scan of a tag. Maybe Whole Foods becomes the first grocer to implement shopping carts that suggest recipes based on what you put in them. 

These examples contrast the milieu of retail and industry talk about technology. What we’re not talking about is leveraging big data, inventory and supply chain technology, providing wifi, apps, indoor GPS, iPads at the checkout, or same day delivery — these are table stakes. While my examples aren’t prolific, and are sure to be bested by others, they speak to the potential of using technology to elevate the experience of retail in a nuanced manner that adds real value to the consumer, enabling them to make smarter buying decisions that are conducive to their well-being and not just your shareholder coffers.


Space travel, social networking, real-time language translation, drone delivery, self driving cars, the internet of everything, augmented reality, digital currencies, fog computing, the sharing economy — these are a handful of realities that are continuing to snowball and implicate what we know about how humans behave at home, at the office, at school, and at the mall. The proliferation of social, cultural, and technological developments now ought to require businesses to consider strategies with multiple perspectives and use a transdisciplinary team of designers, anthropologists, strategists, marketers, scientists, technologists, and managers. This team is essential to creating rich consumer experiences that have depth and add value to the consumer themselves. But what does a rich consumer experience consist of? We in Studio 07 at NBBJ believe it consists of three things.

First, inspiration. The uninspired experiences of our lives are often bland, irrelevant, meaningless, and depleted. Rich experiences in and of themselves don’t require inspiration, they are inspiring. Inspiration moves us, inspiration is the magic that resonates with humans at a heart level. Inspiration is what happens when another person can articulate a passion for something we care about in the words that we have spent so long looking for. Inspiration is found in beauty, in serendipity, in the unexpected. But to design an inspiring experience, inspiration must be brought to the table. Empathy, understanding, humility, and a keen eye for insight are important here, but vision is what differentiates good from great. Inspiration won’t be found in market benchmarks, emulating the competition, or sales goals. 

Second, authenticity. Inauthentic experiences always lead to distrust, disappointment, and a misguided understanding of experiential meaning. With today’s knowledgable consumer and peer referral network, any attempt to be something you are not will be called out and broadcasted. Authenticity requires you know who you are, and you know what you value. The ubiquitous yet truest example of this in retail is Apple; they designed stores with the same source of drive tapped to design their products. Their truest truth shapes everything they do, thus the bond between Apple’s products, physical retail presence, and brand has been stronger than competitors could have dreamed. Authenticity is the result of activating a brand at its core and allowing it to become the connective tissue for every experience, every touchpoint, you're constituency comes across.

Third, harmony. Chaos shapes much of who we are, and in fact much of our entertainment consists of it. But chaos can also leave us confused, disoriented, and fatigued. It’s often the result of clunky interfaces, noise pollution, and nonintuitive direction. Harmony is the imperative to reduce friction in a way that elevates human experience. Harmony is not merely removing distractions for the sake of seamlessness, but approaching the design of place and technology with the intent to introduce users to more options of interaction, not fewer, freeing potential, not limiting it. By hiding the seams of physical and digital realities, we need to be conscience of the new reality we are creating and understand its impact on the wellbeing, imagination, and thought of those who we design for.


It’s an exciting time to work at the intersection of design, business, and technology. With the shifting paradigms of place, the evolution of technology, and the reconsiderations of post-industrial economies, there are countless opportunities to invent new places and new experiences that generally improve life. But improve life for whom? And who gets to decide whose life needs improving? These important questions are intelligently discussed in an article by H. James Wilson in the Harvard Business Review. He highlights some important assumptions that we need to take to heart before setting out to design places for the modern consumer. Namely, are we assuming the technology that augments our physical places are opt-out rather than opt-in? Is technology our path to self improvement? Is our natural perception of the world insufficient? Will technology become a precondition of human flourishing? Will humans simply become “nodes in the internet of things?” 

It is my hope that by understanding the importance of human experience, how access to information is changing consumer behavior, and technology’s role in our experience as consumers, we can design places that improve human well-being and enrich our lives.









New Work: Lydig

I'm excited to see the new identity for Lydig Construction launch today. I designed the identity this past spring and have been working with the team in Studio 07 at NBBJ to apply the identity to their new office space in Bellevue WA. My good friends at Belief Agency recently completed a short film for Lydig and it's amazing (see below). It's super cool to see all the pieces come together. Lydig is heading in a fantastic direction as a company, and I believe they'll shortly be setting the standard for the construction industry when it comes to telling story through film and leveraging brand as a differentiator.  


The Fluid Wall

NBBJ Studio 07 is in FastCo Design, again. My genius colleague Sam Stubblefield and the team here designed the Fluid Wall last year and we've always loved the serendipitous nature of it. It's been fun to prototype the technology and see how it shapes the experience of the analog environment.

"FluidWall demonstrates that our environments can be designed to help us connect to people in ways beyond floor plans and furniture."

You can read the whole article and see more pictures on FastCo Design.

Lydig Construction Headquarters

I recently wrapped up a project with NBBJ S07 for Lydig Construction. I designed the new identity and worked with our team to design the application of the identity to their new space. One of the cool cultural aspects of Lydig is the way they celebrate each win for the company. Every month they announce new projects and the teams get to hit the giant gong; while this was tertiary for Lydig as something to integrate into the space, we knew it was a big contributor to morale and teamwork, so we made it central.

Internet of Things Idea Lab

Had the pleasure of co-facilitating an idea lab on the internet of things with some colleagues at NBBJ for CodeFellows, a Seattle based computer science education startup. We discussed how the internet is implicating architecture and the built environment, and how architects will be working in code more and more as the gap between digital and physical shrinks. As part of the idea lab we had teams break out to discuss potential ideas for new technology, we made the cards below for each team to draw inspiration. The "internet-of-things card deck!"

Why is it an exciting time to design new businesses?

What would you add to this list?

... because the next generation.
... because space travel.
... because social networks.
... because the environment.
... because drone delivery.
... because self driving cars.
... because information symmetry.
... because the internet of everything.
... because MOOCs.
... because augmented reality.
... because population density.
... because global economies.
... because urban farming.
... because automated workforces.
... because economic stratification.
... because digital currency.
... because incarceration rates.
... because fog computing.
... because the social progress index.
... because ubiquitous data access.
... because the sharing economy. 

The Paradigms of Architecture and Designed Place are Shifting

“Place” has an evolving role in the world. Society is making a shift from geo-based networks, to technologically-facilitated relational networks, and people are considering alternatives for what architecture has classically provided to the world. 

The large influx of digital technology in the last twenty years has radically shaped the first-world perception of place, along with its value. While historically time, place, and language have been the backbone of connectivity, a new digital dimension has arrived on the scene radically shifting the framework in which humans operate. This has led our society to augment and replace some functions of built space altogether. New social facilitators have recently blossomed with the integration of the internet; for example consumerism, the largest economic driver in our country, is growing less dependent on built space as the percentage of goods bought online has grown from just 2% in 2004 to 6% in 2013 - now a $1.2 trillion dollar industry. The store is not just a physical place but also a digital screen accessed wherever the consumer chooses. Traffic is no longer the colloquial business term referring to a quantity of people who visit a physical address, but a digital one. Furthermore, this consumer-driven economy has turned into an experience economy where products become services that are experienced over time. Consumers are spending more today on intangibles such as event planning, admission to experiences, digital media and apps, and personal or brand reputation, than ever before. In fact, 86% of everything produced in the United States is an intangible, up from 32% in 1985.

Education, the workplace, and healthcare have likewise been affected by the shifting need for built space as students and workers increasingly participate and contribute remotely through technology. Schools, businesses, and healthcare providers alike are now competing in digital verticals that didn’t exist 20 years ago, not only for constituents and talent, but to be sustainable, viable and relevant. Our lives are becoming ever more digital in a physical world. This “trend” is not going away, and will only become more apparent in the years to come. 

Other factors also play into the shifting architectural paradigms of our time. For the first time ever, according to the World Health Organization, the majority of the world’s population lives in a city, and this proportion continues to grow. “One hundred years ago, 2 out of every 10 people lived in an urban area. By 1990, less than 40% of the global population lived in a city, but as of 2010, more than half of all people live in an urban area. By 2030, 6 out of every 10 people will live in a city, and by 2050, this proportion will increase to 7 out of 10 people.” This unprecedented change has profound impacts for architecture. Built space will have to accommodate the needs of these populations and assimilate the digital infrastructure the population will demand. The use of resources in an efficient and sustainable manner will require this assimilation to be continually streamlined until the digital infrastructure that facilitates commerce, education, socialization, and entertainment is indistinguishable from built space. Once this is realized, the value we offer our clients will be dependent upon our ability to design digitally and physically harmonious environmental experiences.