Column: Communicating through design

Imagine you’re opening a store or restaurant. You spend a lot of time and effort picking a name, choosing a sight, negotiating a lease, chasing down permits, looking for fixtures, etc. You talk with the sign people, the floor people, vendors and the credit card folks. By the time day one rolls around, you didn’t actually want to sell inventory, did you? You didn’t actually want people walking through your door, right? All that planning wasn’t just for fun; it was to make money, yes? 

Why do I even ask these silly questions? I ask because despite what would seem like painfully obvious answers, when I look around town or shop in local stores it seems that some shop owners or landlords are visually slamming the doors in their customers faces every day. They are literally turning business away because they’ve either forgotten that looks matter, or they don’t know how to get the look they need to attract the customers they want.

Well that’s no way to turn a profit I tell you. 

Many shop owners get so caught up in their day-to-day demands that they’ve overlooked the fact or never learned that every physical surface of their store or property is a marketing tool – a tool at their disposal to attract business or turn it away.

Marketing isn’t just your website, Facebook page or an ad in the paper. It’s every surface your customers can see, feel, touch, taste or hear. Marketing is the style and color of your awning; it’s how well your property is maintained; it’s the amount and type of light at your lease line or in your store; it’s the quality of your door pull; it’s turning your maintenance dollar into a marketing dollar by choosing the right color for your building and your store; it’s whether or not it’s worth it to use that sign cabinet that came with the building or create your own; it’s a clean sidewalk and gutters; it’s how easy it is to walk through your store; it’s posters blocking your view or a clean inviting entrance; it’s a window display or the back of a filing cabinet. Intentional or not, every detail communicates who you are, and your customers are listening.

Unless you’re selling rain in Texas, there are two things you’ll want to develop in order to attract more customers: retail visibility and retail clarity. In other words, do people see you? Do they see you in a positive and complimentary way? Good colors, attractive signs, clean? Do they get you? Can they get, at a distance, who you are, what you sell or what you do? In order to truly get noticed and understood you need to address the seven basic components of an effective storefront. When designed to work together, these areas will give you the results you’re looking for, which is more customers walking in your door more often. The seven components you need to work on and invest in are as follows:

1. Building materials and architecture

2. Lighting

3. Colors

4. Signage

5. Windows and window displays

6. Sidewalk activation (streetscape and landscape)

7. Entryway (a well-defined inviting entrance) 

The process of choosing materials, colors, place lighting and what constitutes good signage or well-designed windows and so forth, could each be an article on their own. Miss one and your story starts to unravel. Ignore one and the money you invested elsewhere starts to lose value.

Good design doesn’t have to be expensive. It just has to be effective at communicating who you are. Invest in these seven components and every penny you put into them will start paying you back.

Seanette Corkill is the owner of FrontdoorBack, a Vancouver-based visual merchandising and store design company serving new to medium-sized retailers. She can be found on the web at or by cell at 360.281.3853.

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