Design principles for physical spaces

13 Sep 2017

If a brand is going to create a physical presence, design should be much more than an afterthought. This is something architect, Chris Kennedy and product designer, Tom Woods, the founders of Kennedy Woods Architecture, understood well when launching their own studio in 2015. With a shared passion for human-centered design, the two friends saw the opportunity to merge their two fields and began rolling up their sleeves to build out pop-ups, event spaces and retail environments.

Kennedy Woods Studio
Inside the Kennedy Woods studio, Peckham.

Today, their interdisciplinary creative studio works across architecture, interiors, graphics and furniture design to create impactful spaces for commercial brands. Working with the likes of Tate, Liberty and Rapha, they visualise, plan and develop ideas straight through to the end experience.

Although the Peckham-based studio has grown and matured from its initial fabrication projects to venture deeper into spatial design processes, it’s their hands-on attitude to which they credit their success. We spoke to Tom about their craft, why they love working with innovators and what it takes to design memorable spaces.

A glass event space on the roof of the Bussey Building, Peckham offering panoramic views of London.

Your studio has worked with a range of iconic London spaces and brands. What defines an exciting project to you?

We’re interested in the scale of impact, rather than scale or type of project. It’s not so much what we’re working on for a given client, but how explorative or radical a client wants us to be. We get a buzz from working with other young business owners that have a real energy and enthusiasm for their product, and who want to be genuinely disruptive in their market. That word is thrown around a lot, but it takes a lot of ambition, dedication and risk to want to be radically different, not just follow the crowd.

So what might your dream project look like?

We want to build long-lasting relationships, so a dream project would be one where we work with a young brand across all stages of their business growth. Many different challenges present themselves as a company grows and gets to know its customers and markets better. Helping someone achieve their business aims and following them on that journey is always rewarding, regardless of the project type.

Good and Proper Tea
Good and Proper Tea, Leather Lane

What’s your approach to working with younger brands who might not yet know how to capture their brand in a spatial, physical space?

We’ve taken lots of young brands with very different products into their first bricks-and-mortar premises, but the approach is always the same. We always start with an intensive brief development stage, which involves workshops, market research, interviews, data analysis, and often a ‘safari’ where we tour around other fit-outs of competitors and aspirational brands. These exercises help us try to capture the character of the brand, so we understand their identity in the marketplace before proposing anything.

Once we have a clear brief in place, we tend to work through an iterative process where we present the client with a variety of options. Gradually we refine and narrow it down until we have a final design.

Good and Proper Tea
Good and Proper Tea, Leather Lane

As many modern retail brands think digital first, what should they think about in the physical space?

Digital markets offer unprecedented reach, but it’s the immersive aspect of physical spaces and the quality of face-to-face interaction that can create deeper and longer lasting impressions on a customer. Physical spaces offer different opportunities to connect and cement relationships with customers, as well as a chance to get feedback about your product (and information on your customers) in a more fluid and qualitative way than can be done with online data.

When designing a retail space, what do you think are the most important factors to get right?

Customer flow is of prime importance. It’s about thinking through the journey someone takes as they move through a space, not just physically how things are spaced out. What draws someone's attention and makes them want to enter? How will they know how to move around, or where to pay? Do you want the space to feel airy, or bustling? It’s very hard to do this exercise on paper. We always look at things in 3D and with physical mock-ups to get the right atmosphere and an intuitive flow. Secondly, it’s important to constantly strive to exaggerate your point of difference. If you’re not nervous about how it will be received on the opening day, you’ve played it too safe!

Yo Sushi
Roof Top Film Club on the roof of the Yo Sushi hotel in NYC

What’s currently on your radar in terms of exciting things happening in the physical retail space, in London and beyond?

The level of competition in cities like London, Paris and New York is so high right now that it’s forcing everyone to innovate– which is great to see. This is exciting because as brands strive to be more original, customers are also becoming more savvy. A good example is the rise of the ‘single food’ restaurant.

The more limited and specific a product or service is, the more tailored the design response can be. More and more distilleries, breweries and roasters are also opening their doors as customers have become more interested in the process and provenance beh a product. The theatre this brings to a space gives it an immediate character, and it’s interesting to see the different ways designers can help retail space work to educate customers, as well as sell to them.

Any words of advice to those launching their first ever physical retail space?

There’s a common misconception that once you’ve planned things, you get a designer in to create the ‘look’. Design is much broader than this. The more time you can spend exploring ideas, testing different design options, discussing functionality and planning out every detail in advance, the better the final store will be. So get a designer appointed earlier than you think and draw on their experience. Design is the tool that will make your business a success. Don’t try to skimp on this and get a favour from a mate. We’ve seen it happen a lot and the results speak for themselves.

Words by: Lisa Roolant