Thought Starters

What are designers missing when articulating a brand in their spaces?

Before we begin we need to say sorry.

Last week we went on a tear about architects and designers being terrible storytellers. There was some opposition to our thoughts which is a great thing. Thank you! Apparently we lumped all industry professionals into one basket without tossing out the bad apple.

Bad, bad, theviewfromhere. Tsk, tsk.

So before we rip into the profession again this week we want to apologize and bring some clarity to the term designer. By designer we mean Interior Designer and yes, we were being lazy by not typing out the full name. I suppose that alone is disrespectful to the industry that we are part of.

For that, we apologize.

What we won’t apologize for is the fact that Architects and Interior Designers are terrible story writers and by association storytellers. Here’s why (click me) if you haven’t had a chance to find out!

Let’s move on, shall we.

This week we are digging into that ubiquitous word BRAND and examining how Interior Designers have a difficult time interpreting a company’s brand effectively.

I know, I know.

Another broad brush statement that is surely to boil some blood!

Read on.

We all know what a brand is and there have been scads of books and articles written about creating, evaluating, managing, growing and sharing a brand. The list goes on and on however all the evaluation, opinion and research doesn’t do much when it comes to defining the relationships between people and brands.

There’s brand identity. There’s brand reputation. There’s brand promise.

What do all these things have in common besides being great buzzwords?


We have argued here before that without people there would be no brand.

A simple equation. True or false? Why or why not?

We are not branding specialists or marketing professionals here hence the ask.

We can read the marketing material, talk to marketing people and make some pretty big assumptions but at the end of the day we have our profession and our skills and that profession has a need to integrate into what a company’s brand is meant to convey so we have a need to understand not only the basics of a brand but moreover that company’s business.

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that there are very few corporate Interior Designers who are successful at effectively articulating a brand in the space they design. Integrating a corporate colour, a detail, or a material because it’s cool is just not the way it is going to get done even if the client says their brand epitomizes cool.

This type of superfluous thinking is a considerable challenge in our industry.

I know this for two reasons; I have been guilty of it myself and more importantly in order to really understand a company’s brand we need to understand a company’s people, their culture, their management style and the way they treat their customers and stakeholders in order to fully understand their brand.

Many designers think a company’s image (the look and feel, per se) epitomizes their brand and that is where we have consistently fallen down.

As I mentioned, I am as guilty of this as the next Interior Designer.

Interior Designers who work in the hospitality and retail world seem better attuned to reflecting their client’s brand on a more consistent basis. It is an essential part of the success of their work. Maybe the nature of their work predicates a different approach to understanding the needs of their clients more holistically or the nature of the customer experience is closer to what drives their solutions.

Regardless, there is a component of the design process that the corporate Interior Design world consistently overlooks that seems to drive the retail and hospitality design vernacular.

So, what is missing in the formula?

Well, let me ask you, how do you find out what people are thinking? What do people think of the place they work? How do you discover what does a company’s customers think of the services they are offered?

One word.


Many projects have opportunity to create space for clients that is completely new but the general consensus is that many of those projects are not positioned to devote the time and resources to do the research required to truly understand the client’s drivers, their business process or their culture.

At least that is what I have heard from many design professionals.

It’s a common problem.

If other design industries such as retail and hospitality can figure out how to make it work and make the process effective then so can the corporate interior design world.

We have some ideas to share with you and the basis of those ideas is reallocation of effort. We touched on that as demonstrated by the brilliant examples at last week’s IDC Roundtable. We know it’s possible.

We just have to make it happen.

Yes, not every project can have the in depth research it takes to truly understand your client’s corporate brand but that’s the brilliance of scaling solutions. Just doing some simple fact finding and asking the right questions will certainly help along the way to augmenting a single visioning session or workshop.

No, the system is not broken, but far too little time is invested in understanding a corporate brand in lieu of pushing trends and known planning principles on a business because fee and time won’t permit us to delve into a company’s drivers for change. This approach results in a square peg in a round hole situation. Sure, we can round the corners of that peg but is it the right thing to do?

We need to solve the problem of reallocation of resources in order to remain competitive but we also need to demonstrate to our clients the value of the research necessary to understand them and their business better. Some clients will not understand and the effort will not be appreciated but until we ask more, engage more and offer the opportunity most won’t know to say yes.

We have a long way to go change our approach.

In a corporate environment research has traditionally been difficult to translate to tangible results. Research takes time and it is unproven to demonstrate savings in effort down the road.

The benefits of detailed discovery, communication to a project’s stakeholders and clear understanding of the business drivers that affect the planning decisions will affect how the user experiences the project through its lifecycle. If the only tangible benefit that comes from a project is that the customer is happier then we cannot see why the investment is not fundamental to our success as professionals. As Interior Designers there is no reason why we can’t take the time to integrate ourselves in their world, understand their problems beyond the surface root cause that drove them to make a change and involve them in the process beyond the approvals necessary to take the project to the next phase.

No, we don’t have all the answers but hope that you, no matter what profession you are in, are willing to share your thoughts on how a better understanding of your issues can help solve problems in a more efficient, effective and holistic way.

So, over to you.

What do you think about the idea that people equal the brand and understanding those people is the single best way to communicate a corporate brand? How do you approach a project when you don’t know the stakeholders well? How do you develop a relationship with your clients?






About this Author: Ralph Dopping (199 Posts)

A quirky sense-o-humour coupled with an indelible sense of stylish sarcasm makes it difficult to take the world too seriously doesn't it? My faves: fun, passion and hard work. I work here everyday:


There's your "brand" as you wish it to be, and the real one, which is what your customers see. As consultants, we have our own brand, and we hopefully help our clients improve their brand. Caitlin mentioned researching the client. I'm not in your business, but I might suggest researching the client's customers as well, to see what they think of the client, what they want the client to be, and where there are common purposes, directions, desires, etc.


Just as in any of the creative services, there's some stress between the designer's desire to express their artistic interpretation, and the business objective. I've heard a lot of graphic designers/advertising art directors answer the question "Why did you go with this design approach" with "No particular reason",  "I love this look" or "Don't question me, I'm the designer." Mmmm... maybe it's a good design, maybe even it's a good choice for the client, but you need a little better support based in some objectives that are anchored in strategy. (I know this is an extreme example, but just illustrating the point.) 


Strategy requires a good understanding of who you need to influence, not just what the client prefers. 

Caitlin Kelly
Caitlin Kelly

No offense, but this seems pretty obvious.


I was recently approached by a local and well-established architect, here in NY, to possibly help him with marketing. My very first impulse was to ask him and his staff, at every level, to answer a questionnaire, (which I have not yet created and not yet done, as he has not yet financially committed to this) about who they are, what they value, why they chose this line of work and this firm and their clients; i.e. their intellectual and emotional DNA. I couldn't sell anyone to anyone else without being extremely clear about all this -- even if (which appeared to be the case) they had never (?) asked themselves these questions, and they have been in business for decades.


There's no way to design intelligently without a clear understanding who you're designing for and their end goals. Maybe, because I'm a journalist and everything I do begins with intense research, this seems the clearest first step, to me. Why would research be considered difficult? If so, maybe every interior designer should consider hiring a journalist, even part-time, to help them with this process -- i.e. outsource it to an expert in gathering and analyzing complex written, verbal and visual data quickly and efficiently. I've studied interior design and love it, but I know my greatest strength is getting people to open quickly and tell me a lot, usually far more than they intended or planned.


Aren't you really talking about a paradigm shift for the client? Instead of the client hiring a firm to get something done (essentially washing their hands of involvement becAUse they believe the professionals MUST know how to do it right) , they are nvesting time and energy in a firm to do what they cannot do for themselves but know exactly what that thing IS? 

If my goal was to serve my client they would have to know from the beginning that part of the package would be X,Y nd Z  meetings as well as a planned immersion (a week in the life of the company) until I felt like I understood who they were. They would have to be clear on and sign up for that approach or search for another firm to serve them.

Is there really any other way? [ asks she with no idea...:) ]

rdopping moderator

Hey  @barrettrossie thanks so much for your point of view. You make a brilliant point about soliciting the brands customers. Not sure how well that would go over (TMI sometimes is tough to approach) but in context of gathering the right information to inform design decisions a very good suggestion.


I hear you on the "don't question me, i'm the designer." You have no idea how many time's i have heard that or "It looks cool" as a reason for an approach. Has it worked? Sure, but have we simply gotten lucky or has the client not been really satisfied and not been able to articulate it clearly? I would rather do the work to ensure the decisions are relevant than hoping we nailed and having to go back to the drawing board when we miss.


Rework is just so unproductive. There really are no guarantees that we will get it right but with dedicated detailed research we will certainly be close to the mark or simply expose an approach we may never have thought of.


Cheers, I enjoy your serious side, as well. :-) Thanks again for your comments.

rdopping moderator

Hi  @Caitlin Kelly I really enjoyed your point of view.


Yes, learning what we need to know about our client's business is certainly part of the design process but we have, as mentioned to @BetsyKCross  below, known planning principles, practices and experience that is applied to the program of space that is developed for clients in their sectors. That is primarily why we are hired; for our expertise just as a journalist would be hired to write a story about their client in an effort to demonstrate something that is not obvious to the general public.


The deeper research I am discussing here doesn't normally happen. We know enough from a program, through discussion and meetings with a client to apply standard design principles to solve planning issues. Unlike retail or hospitality design where the client's brand is a major part of their public face in the physical space they occupy "corporate" interior design has traditionally not translated the brand in any significant way.


Why? Well, likely because the planning requirements for corporate interior design are first and foremost based on hard numbers (utilization) and the look and feeling conveyed becomes a superfluous afterthought based on trending industry standards. This is wrong and needs to change primarily because even if the space is not client facing people are affected by their surroundings and should be treated with the same respect and care no matter the position they hold. Client facing or not the spaces we design can benefit immensely from more in depth study of a clients brand.


Hope that helps to clarify my position here. 


 @Caitlin Kelly I don't know anything about design. It wasn't obvious to me. I think you're point about the training in journalism and your approach to asking questions, makes you a natural at asking probing questions. I'm not sure everyone has this innate skill.


To me calculus, algebra, geometry, trig, statistics, and such, are obvious. I can't imagine that some people can't do 17% of 350 in their heads. I mean, duh. We all have different strengths and I thought the post was helpful to those who aren't gifted at asking the right questions.

Latest blog post: It's Late in the Evening...

rdopping moderator

Hey  @BetsyKCross in your first paragraph you have basically described the reason why our industry or any industry exists. There will always be professionals that can do a thing you can't do, for sure but as you mentioned the best ones actually involve their clients in the process past the basic approvals. That IS the key here and NO we don't all do that. It is a very key differentiator in this industry. A big one, if you can believe that.


So, the basic client involvement, meetings, approvals, input are all part of the process but have to imagine these professionals using their skills to develop a solution that is based on their historical and collective knowledge of the industry common practices for whom they have as a client. Most projects do not take the extra time to delve very deep into the client's MO; their drivers are identified but not explored beyond the basic knowledge gathered over the years the design team has done similar work.


I am suggesting that we stop interpreting brand and truly understand it. The benefits seem obvious but who knows. Thanks for your input. It is greatly appreciated. Cheers!


@ExtremelyAvg @Caitlin Kelly 59.5. If that's wrong, it's because I did it in my head.

rdopping moderator

 @ExtremelyAvg  @Caitlin Kelly Cheers Bryan. I think Caitlin pointed out some interesting things. I agree with her position because it SHOULD be obvious but like you said and I can attest to this personally most designer are not as analytical as they are creative. Because of the right brain activity that permeates this industry the emotion of spcae can be captured well but in many cases, as @barrettrossie mentioned in the Ad world many of the answers are as lame as "It looks good, don't question me, I'm the designer." Sad, but true.


This piece is meant to recognize the need to based design decisions on data. Real hard data. Right or wrong, a much better way to validate decisions.


Cheers, sir. Great to see you by here!