Design for retail may seem like an exercise in branding or beautification, but it's one of the most exacting sectors around, as Graeme Aymer found out.
We can't get enough of shopping. According to the Office of National Statistics, as of July 2005 the UK's retail sector employed 2.9 million people, or 11 per cent of the country's workforce, generating sales worth some £260bn. This year, in August alone, Britons splashed out £4.7bn in the nation's shops, markets, malls, grocery stores and bazaars.
Potentially, this means pay day for designers happy to design in-store graphics. But this is no simple buy-a-book-and-try-it-out discipline. It requires a conceptual mind, one capable of imagining materials, 2D graphics within a 3D space, and an understanding of how shops work.
On one hand, the graphics guide you, the shopper, to the stuff you need to buy. On another, it's all about sleight of hand, designed to persuade you to come in and buy things you don't need, tempting you to act on impulse. Perhaps that's why it's so difficult to get right .
"It's not that large a sector to be honest," says Fold7 managing director, Simon Packer, whose company is responsible for a number of in-store campaigns for Nike and Orange, among others. "If you look at the design industry as a whole, retail design makes up a small part. It's quite specialist, and requires practical skills and the right sort of relationship with the printers who produce it."
Retail graphics have no design dogma as such, but the images used must work on a number of levels. "In-store graphics are inspirational, aspirational, informative, or all of the above," says Valerie Lloyd, managing director of multi-disciplinary agency Design Ministry, which specialises in in-store design.
"Graphics should do two things," continues psychologist Dr Tim Denison of retail measurement firm SPSL. "They should enhance the store environment in a way that directly enhances the shopping experience, and they should ideally be able to show off the merchandise: make the merchandise king rather than the graphics in their own right. That's the trickier one of the two."
"You're creating designs that are clever and simple, but must have quality and immediacy," explains Jeff Kindleysides of specialist agency Checkland Kindleysides. "You're creating the punctuation mark that delivers the information with a bullet, if you like. And that's really very important, particularly in a cluttered environment."
Increasingly, agencies are asked to help develop the overall interior look and feel of a retail environment, including visual merchandising (VM) - the way products are laid out - as well as elements within the shop, such as shelving, display cases and items of point-of-sale or point-of-purchase material.
"The client will ask us to design the whole environment, and we will take a holistic approach to that," says Lloyd. "We'll say, 'Okay, we need the shop interior, we need signage, we need graphics', and we plan that in right at the very beginning, so there is a space for it to go. It's a much better and easier way of working. The graphic designer will work with the interiors team, working hand-in-hand on the whole pull through the store: placing beacons that attract customers - impulse buys, etc."
Working hard to look good
"In some stores you're looking for graphics to do three or four jobs," says Kindleysides. "We've done a lot of work with Levi's: where you've got folded garments, so you're actually looking to describe with immediacy what size it is, and confirmation that it is what people have seen in the style guide."
For such a brand, in-store graphics must also endorse the quality and authenticity of the article, as well as providing a sense of premium nature of both shop and product, from door to till guiding the customer along a journey through the experience.
Graphics do this in many ways. Colour is perhaps the most important. But, a note of caution: beware the potentially motley array of products on show. "In designing the overall look of the store, you have to take into account the tapestry of the product and what effect that's having," says Kindleysides. "You're not going to design a graphic that will compete with that; it's going to be strong and powerful in itself. When you're creating in-store graphics, and images, faces and eyes are the things that talk back."
"Illustration for graphics of this nature has gone through a bit of a renaissance," explains Packer. "It's very fashionable again at the moment. It seems that people are warming to illustration more and more because it gives the product a point of difference."
"If they use it, companies look a bit quirky and a bit interesting, whereas photography is around you all the time," says illustrator Kat Heyes. "If you see illustration, it really catches your eye."
But this presents new problems, as Packer says: "If you want something specific and bespoke, an illustrator isn't going to be able to whack it out in half an hour. Also, with illustration, there's a more convoluted sign-off process. Often with retail you're buying from stock libraries, so you can chop and change and move around, but that doesn't happen with illustration. The process has to be managed very carefully to make sure that the client's happy that the illustration we're proposing is right, so we get buy-in and sign-off early on."
Pitching for success
The nature of the discipline means that pitching for in-store graphics work can be a lengthy process that's a bit more complicated than it is for other work. "It will be a big presentation," Packer reveals. "We will essentially create three complete campaigns to show the client. We won't cover all of their collateral, but we'll visit the stores, look at the overall picture and present maybe two or three concepts. This often means one or two-month lead times to a pitch, and you need to produce masses of work."
The creative, conceptual work will also be supported by plenty of strategic thinking. "You run through a very wordy document, picking out key understandings and insights into the consumer and that brand, and from there you develop a strategy that drives the creative," says Packer.
Timing can be equally important. Some events in the retail calendar really are as regular as clockwork - Christmas, for example. For a graphics team, this allows plenty of time for preparation. But retail is also a fast-moving industry, meaning that sometimes an all-nighter or two is inevitable.
"The client may only make decisions about the offer and what products they're going to push, at the last minute," says Packer. "With FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods), it could be the day before it goes to print, as the marketing messages might change."
Technology, such as screen-printing, computer to plate and quality inkjet printing, means that graphics can be sprayed onto any material. And there's more to come. Flat-screen monitors can be used to display stills or video. Its use is not unqualified, however.
"Orange has done a piece of research recently using in-store touch screens, and one of the problems it has is that people don't really know that they can touch and interact with them," says Packer. However, metallic surfaces are increasingly easy to use, as is lenticular holographic technology, which is similar to those rulers or postcards that appear to be 3D, when the image changes according to your position.
"This is quite an effective tool, as it grabs the customer's attention," Packer continues. "Visually it's fun, as it gives viewers something to do. You've got to be careful that you use it in the right way, so your message is absorbed rather than making them say: 'look at the little thing move left and right', but you've got to get your message across and to use it in a way that communicates that message."
Looking to the future
Valerie Lloyd is enthusiastic about the advent of digital ink: "When it arrives it will be amazing, because you'll be able to put your point of sale in place and your image or message could be changed literally by a message from your mobile phone." "There are loads of materials to choose from, from semi-translucent materials to fabrics, metal, wood, paper, card, things like Tyvek, things that don't tear, rigid materials, flexible materials - there's a whole gamut," says Kindleysides.
"You're basically dealing with the same technology but with modern equipment, nowadays," says Angus Pritchard-Gordon, sales director at printing specialist Superchrome. "In the old days, it would have cost somebody about £5,000 to do a billboard. Today it could cost the customer as little as £120."
Cost and creativity are certainly no barriers to entry in terms of design for in-store graphics, and with technology moving on, it's certainly a sector that has its best days ahead.
Leading by example
Three designers give advice on creating a great in-store campaign
NAME: Mike Eason
"Designers must remember to reel in the consumer and show-off the product in an impactful, yet cost-effective way. Some of the best designs are extremely simple, especially those designed for a well-established brand."
NAME: Luella Wright
JOB: Freelance illustrator
"Follow the brief and look at loads of reference material. Be aware of the brand and of trends relevant to the target audience. A successful campaign is about balancing concept and aesthetic, so find an engaging way to communicate the message."
NAME: Sean Rodwell
"It's all about stopping those shoppers in their tracks. I worked on a full window display for Nike Town in London and the main aim was to cause a pedestrian pile-up on Oxford Circus."