GDR Innovation researcher Lamorna Byford met Lucy Hackshaw, Founder and MD of SEEN DISPLAYS, to talk about her research into neuroscience in application to retail design.
London based visual design agency Seen Displays has just conducted a piece of research that explores how humans perceive physical space. Through an ethnographic lens, the report brings neuroscience, ethnography, psychology and sociology into one coherent piece of insight that Seen Displays will be able to draw upon throughout their design process.
“People want a ticklist of ‘how-to’ advice, but it’s a bit more tricky than that”, said Lucy. “This approach is about thinking differently. Nowadays we want brands to reflect our beliefs and our culture. This insight will enable us to connect our brands with their consumers more quickly – connecting nostalgic cues, things that make people feel comfortable, empathic spaces.”
“Neurologically speaking, our perceptions of a space are an orchestration of everything. We remember things like it’s a cinematic experience. We can remember the smell, the taste, how the space felt, that we were nervous – whatever that experience was. When I was a child I was scared of roller coasters so whenever I would hear that clicking sound as you approach the big drop, I would feel nervous. We imprint those physiological references in our memory. Brands need to think about how they create positive psychological cues and memories through enriched environments that connect the senses.”
Balancing conflicting priorities is a challenge for retail designers and visual merchandisers. There might be a desire to create empathetic spaces that make consumers feel safe, but brands are often also trying to make their stores disruptive and memorable – polar aims that Lucy labels novelty and nostalgia.
“Novelty creates a quick spike of excitement. You think, “OK cool, they’re doing that now”. That doesn’t necessarily stick in the consumer’s mind though. If you think about someone like the Kardashians, they constantly have to disrupt. They have to do new and novel things because otherwise it isn’t memorable to us. A brand that behaves with a purely disruptive posture will have to do the same thing, unless they become more empathetic. By using nostalgic cues, brands can make experiences that stay with us for much longer because they evoke a meaningful memory that has a biological reaction attached to it. “
“I really remember, and can still visualise, a Studio TooGood scheme called A-gender that was in Selfridges in 2015. It used social and cultural references to openness about gender, so it connected with me on a values level, but it also had beautifully crafted, curiosity-provoking displays. The most memorable was two giant spheres balanced on top of each other with a shoe on top. It almost defied gravity. A-gender was an illustration of creating something interesting, that we want to discover and understand, rather than creating something that is just a screaming display of colour, reflection and noise.”
This simple but culturally relevant approach is one that Lucy thinks needs to be applied to the creative industry itself. An aversion to the noisy and chaotic visual strategies some brands employ is perhaps analogous to the feelings of consumers in daily life. “The problems that brands are facing at the moment are the same problems that we’re all facing. We’re in a disconnected world. We’re not engaged, we’re stressed and the world is confusing. Our jobs aren’t satisfying and we’re not energised or motivated. We constantly have to prove ourselves and it’s stressful, particularly in the capital and in our industry.”
“That’s affecting creativity. It’s making it difficult for our creatives to be open and free-thinking, so it’s affecting the quality of work in the VM industry and it’s making it an un-enjoyable place to be. I wanted to inject some energy and excitement around a new way of thinking that could mean we feel more satisfied with our work. I won’t accept the status quo of installing something, walking away and thinking “thank god that’s done”. I want us to reflect on success and effectiveness. There are so many challenges around measurability in VM, especially in such a connected world where we’re constantly over-stimulated. We might already know about that campaign before we go in store or see a window, so it’s very hard to show where the motivation to buy came from. Providing robust data around the return on a visual campaign is very difficult.”
“What I wanted to do is almost remove the discussion of measurement. I want to know that what we’ve put in a space is effective because we know how humans behave and we know how we can connect with that. We have an opportunity, but also a responsibility, to make spaces that people choose to spend time in at the weekends. Pleasant places to be and places that people feel they can re-engage and reconnect because the Monday to Friday is a disaster zone for both of those things.”
The argument that we are disconnected could be contested. Our inability to look away from our phones could lead to the opposite conclusion, that we’re pervasively and constantly connected. Establishing how to connect the online and offline world is a challenge for brands and retailers.
“In terms of mobile and retail, I think that there is some value in using mobile to collect data in store and I think there will be on-going need for digital commerce, both in store and online”, said Lucy. “But it’s a tricky one. For instance, Selfridges have an app that can send you a location-based notification to tell you that there’s a specific offer nearby. On the one hand that’s quite helpful, but I also think by doing that you are limiting openness to navigate, enjoy a space and connect with it. It might feel effective to drive consumers to that spot, but I think long-term it could be driving greater disengagement in physical retail.”
Stepping away from mobile and establishing what really matters to consumers could be the key to driving engagement in physical stores. “Cultural capital – a phrase used as a status ranking concept in sociology – is the cultural knowledge and relevance that we’re all constantly searching for”, said Lucy. “That’s why we go to galleries, why we have a desire to learn and navigate our interesting world. As we move into the 4th industrial revolution, or the ‘human era’, where the consumer is now leading, there’s a need for brands to respond to consumers values and cultural interests and create curious spaces that invite exploration, engagement and exchange cultural value.”