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Environmental Design

How environment design can help your brand, business, and organization.

Environmental design is a method of applying your brand identity to a physical space by considering colors, graphics, user flows and more.

Environment can include colors in the form of paints, materials, and surfaces, as well as the sights, sounds, and smells customers experience when they visit a physical store or location. We could widen that scope even more to include a digital experience in your brand environment as well, but in this article, we're going to talk about a brand environment and environmental design, as it relates to a physical store location and business.

Your brand environment affects the way that customers and users interact with your brand in a physical space. It can impact how much they're purchasing, how long they stay there and how frequently they return to that location. Needless to say it's important to invest in a well designed physical environment.

To keep this from getting too abstract, let’s look at two examples. 

Two examples of strong brand environment design: Target and Starbucks

The first one we'll use is Target. Target has carefully designed all of their physical environments. At all Target locations, the physical layout is nearly identical, which creates rhythm and consistency for every customer who comes through their store. People know exactly where the produce is, exactly where the electronics are, and that the seasonal items are in the back left corner of the store. This brand experience not only creates consistency as customers visit different stores in different locations, but it also sets clear expectations. 

People can always expect Target to look and feel the same way. To paraphrase a story from my mentor: Paul Rand once said while in a cafe, “Look around. The people here are comfortable. Comfortable with the furniture, the smell, and the lighting.” When people are comfortable with the brand and its environment, they enjoy visiting that brand over and over again.

Another environment that is just as consistent, but works harder to establish its physical presence is Starbucks. 

Starbucks has done a great job thinking about their physical materials, paint schemes, smells, and sounds in order to create their environment. First, with the counters at the back, Starbucks encourages patrons to nestle in. Second, they have consistent colors in all their locations, whether it be a selection of greens or deep browns, hearty blacks or warm neutrals. Third, they have a materials palette that is consistent—deep rich woods, modern stone surfaces that catch the dim light, and comfortable leathers that encourage users to dwell in the space. 

Starbucks designs this environment. The longer people remain in the space, the more likely they are to purchase more than one item and the more likely they are to become loyal returning buyers.

Now, both of these brands are multi-location, international corporations. As such, it may be tempting to write off those examples as things that may not be attainable to small businesses.

I think the opposite is true. Smaller businesses and organizations can look at these large brands and learn from their mistakes and successes. Let’s look at these methods of environmental design as ways to draw inspiration and prioritize investment in order to grow. 

It's imperative for small businesses to carefully consider their environmental design, because it impacts how frequently users come in, how excited they are once they get there, and encourages repeat customers, which lowers customer acquisition costs and increases value for the business. 

Let's outline a few of the principles of good environmental design that businesses can consider starting today, and that designers can start to implement for their next client.

Five steps to designing a beautiful environmental brand experience. 

  1. User Journeys
  2. Color Blocking
  3. Wayfinding and Signage
  4. Brand Graphics
  5. Installations and Brand Interactions

In every brand environment design project, we want to have these five layers of depth. The user journey and color blocking in environmental design should happen in a user’s subconscious, taking up almost no conscious thought. Visitors and customers should spend only 1–3 seconds figuring out the wayfinding to complete their goal, and 5–15 seconds admiring a brand graphic. Installations and brand interactions garner the largest amount of attention at 15–120 seconds, or up to two minutes. It’s important to remember, however, that the brand graphic and installation steps aren’t usually the primary goal. The primary goal is a purchase, a conversation, or real estate in the customer’s mind.

User Journeys for Environment Design Flow

First we'll talk about user journeys. The fundamental to every brand environment is based on a user journey. When designing a brand environment, think of three individual users, and walk them through the space in order to visualize what visitors are going to experience during their visit to your business or storefront. 

First User: Design for Someone New

The first user to imagine is a new customer. When a new customer walks into a space, what are they met with—what does the facade of the building look like? How does the door work? What do they see when they first enter? What are they searching for before they get there? Most people walk into a space in turn or look to the right, so that’s prime visual real estate.

Are they greeted by a person? By a display? By branded colors? By a smell or sound? All of these questions ask what a new user experiences and ultimately how they will fulfill the need they came in with.

Perhaps the most important question to ask is: what is the end goal of the user? If the customer walks in, and they're trying to find a person, is that person easily accessible? If the person is walking into a storefront, and they need to find a product quickly, is it easy to locate? From the perspective of a new user, a brand environment should answer all their questions and ease all their concerns, as soon as they walk in the door. 

A well-designed brand environment should answer all of a new customer's questions and ease all their concerns, as soon as they walk in the door.

Second User: Reward Returning Customers

The second user to think about when outlining a user journey for brand environment design is a returning customer. This person has visited the business once or twice and they're coming for their third visit. This person has had their expectations set by their first or second experience, and they're either looking for the same thing, or they're looking for something new. Imagine that they're diving deeper into the business. At this point, the second user is trying to get further into that environment, and figure out how they're going to nestle in after they found exactly what they were looking for the first time. 

Does your environment help people go deeper into your business? A well-design environment will reward people for staying longer and dwelling in a space. From the Starbucks case study, their free wifi is an example of this. It rewards people who nestle in and that, in turn, drives repeat business. Another example are displays that are rich with information. More on this later.

Third User: Learn from Loyalty

The third user journey to think through a brand environment is the loyal customer. This is the person that comes every day. Everyday they have the same coffee, lunch sandwich, or stop by just for the smell of the rubber tires in the workshop. Whatever the case may be, this is the loyal customer who's returning over and over. For them, the environment is comfortable. 

This person's not too dissimilar from employees because they have to exist in this space for a long time, too, which means we can't be putting in displays that are obnoxious because this person is going to be in that space for an extended period of time. We want to encourage them to come back as they have been. It can be useful to ask these people what keeps them coming back. Oftentimes, our most loyal customers are able to share insights we might not have thought about before. 

With user journeys mapped out, we have a perspective and a framework with which to think about how we design a physical space. The environment design is going to hinge on the answers that stem from the user journeys because, ultimately, they are the client we want to satisfy.

Color Blocking in Designed Environments

Now that we understand the people we’re serving and their goals, we can start to map out our environmental designs with color blocking. Color blocking is the first layer of design that we're going to introduce to the physical environment. We’ll do that largely through paint and furniture.

We can use paint to help us through a few major environmental milestones. First to outline the brand experience by welcoming customers and introducing them to the business brand identity. Second, to annotate important points along the user journey. Third, to hide things that we may not want people to see. These three efforts are about mitigating a user’s attention—where we want it, and where we don’t

Color blocking is about mitigating users' attention and outlining a plan for the designed environment.

Brands should use the first walls that are to the left or to the right to encourage a brand experience and start to build up the brand identity in the environment. For example, if a brand’s colors are orange, that's where we'll start to include that color. Interior designers and painters may call these accent walls, but for environmental design, we consider those moments of impact. 

Brands want to let people know they're in a branded space and in the user’s subconscious they're going to always remember what it was like to exist in that brand environment. The benefit of a physical environment is the opportunity to immerse a customer. Brands can work to seize this opportunity as soon as visitors enter their business.

Once we’ve established a brand presence, we can use deep colors to hide things away or to push things into the visual background. For example, the back wall of most every Starbucks is either painted a black color, or they have a matte stone that's just as dark. That's so all their roasting machines, their plastic containers, their piping and all of the dirty work of running the business goes away visually and fades into that dark color.

With users aware of the brand and sheltered from the business innerworkings, it’s time to give them moments that pique their interest and balance out the space. Secondary brand colors can be used to draw users to a specific point of interest, like an ordering counter or informational display. Thinking through a user journey, if a customer is supposed to start at point A, talk to a person at point B, and check out at point C, a secondary color palette could be used to annotate each of those points. In this way, our environment helps walk customers through a space subconsciously. 

Neutral colors, on the other hand, are going to make it a space where those loyal customers are happy to dwell. This is an effort to make the space not too upsetting or off-putting to those who spend hours in the space. Neutral colors act as a visual respite from any overpowering color combinations and can be dark or light in nature. 

The combination of deep colors to push things back, brand colors to notate important journey points, and neutral colors to make it feel like a living space work to balance out the range of users. The new customer is going to pay most attention to that brand wall, the returning customer is going to remember what it's like to exist in that space, and the loyal customer is going to feel like they belong in that environment. 

All of this effort in journey mapping and paint blocking set us up for the next step in environmental design: wayfinding. 

Wayfinding Design in Physical Environments

In a scenario like a hospital, helping someone find the emergency room is more urgent than color mapping or developing a comprehensive user journey. In a small coffee shop, maybe wayfinding doesn’t feel necessary because the store is too small. In either case, the goal of wayfinding in environmental design is to help users find their way.

The goal of wayfinding isn’t to sell—it’s to ease anxiety and help people find their way.

Companies don't want customers to get lost. We don't want them to get frustrated before they even think about buying anything. A clear wayfinding and signage system can help customers find what they’re looking for, ease rush time traffic, and increase purchase just from ease of use.

Many times, we'll start an environmental design wayfinding system with an upfront kiosk to affirm that customers are in the right place to find what they need. The signage is then able to direct them to the places that customers are looking for right away. After that, we're just annotating nodes at the end of the user journey. Things like room signs, office signs, and the like. From the moment they walk in the door or see a business from across the street, users ought to be able to find their way without a second thought. Instead, we want their second thought to be about purchasing something else, or their next trip to the business.

Brand Graphics in Environmental Design

We know the user journey, have color blocked the space, and eased users with wayfinding signage. The fourth point of environmental design is brand graphics. These are large scale graphics that remind users of the brand identity. Brand graphics work in the back of a customer’s mind to reinforce your brand image.

Of course, it seems important to always have a big logo, but our environment design works differently than slapping a logo on a wall. Sure, if there is a reception desk or something small in the entryway, it's good to put a logo at a small scale, but it's much more engaging for users to have a large scale installation in the main spaces. Brand graphics that are done with brand artwork, brand colors, mascot, or content more rich than just a logo build up a brand in the mind of visitors. 

Installations and Brand Interactions

The brand installation layer is where we encourage people to engage for extended periods of time—up to two minutes. In order to hold a customer's attention for an extended period of time, our installations need to be rich with content. That can be content like a history of the business, a display of the customers who have visited, testimonials from previous customers and success cases, content the business can put out as experts, or any other type of content that the business might have. Each business is an expert in its respective field and there's a plethora of content to pull from that expertise.

Installations for environment designs are places where physical locations get to show off  expertise or fulfill the promise that customers have when visiting the business. With that fifth layer of installations and brand interactions, environments become deeply engaging and start to fulfill all the needs of new customers as well as the desires of loyal customers. For repeat and loyal customers, brand installations make users feel comfortable and they and their interest is maintained through repeat visits.

Installations and brand interactions also encourage new users to come back, because visitors may not have experienced everything that a business or institution has to offer environmentally. A customer who visits a restaurant and sits on the left side may not experience a set of installations and graphics on the opposite side of the environment. The environmental design alone might make a customer feel the need to return so they can sit on the other side to experience the whole environment. That level of richness nurtures brand loyalty.

A Rich Environmental Design Fulfilled

With all five steps of a successful brand environment design fulfilled, not only are we satisfying the basic needs of clients and visitors, but also building up brand awareness and developing loyal customers. These brand environments can be invested in at any point in a business's career. It may seem like it's easier to invest early on, when working with an architect or brand designer, to walk you through these experiences because there's already a blank palette and nothing needs to be removed, remodeled or reworked. But it's just as easy for a business to undergo a manageable remodeling process one space at a time.

Step by Step Environmental Case Study: Trinity Christian College Admissions Building

Working with Trinity Christian College near Chicago Illinois, Pen and Lens worked to develop multiple environmental designs, but the first came in their admissions office. Since the institution prioritized cost, timeline, and overall impact, we started with one small hallway—the entryway. Following the five step system above, we decided what the visiting student journey would be, color blocked the space, added places for visitors to interact, and created deeply engaging brand installations such as a large-scale, 3D campus map, a campus history wall, and a photo backdrop. 

With just this small hallway renovated, the feedback from admissions guests, visiting students, parents, and the admissions representatives themselves boomed. By testing high-caliber environmental design in this small, affordable space, Trinity executives were quickly able to see the value and expanded the project to the whole building, and later other buildings on campus. 

Consider Environmental Design Today

Whether a small business, large corporation, public school, or higher education institution, if there are customers visiting, environmental design can amplify their experience. Ultimately, we want to develop strong brands that entertain a positive headspace in customers, visitors, and employees. A quality environmental design strategy can do just that. 

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Environmental Design: Theory, Practice, and Implementation
Environmental Design Case Study: Target and Starbucks.
Target Environmental Design Sketches, 2017, Corporate Target Announcement. Target uses User Journeys (people sketches), Color Blocking, and Wayfinding in this section.
Target Environmental Design Sketches, 2017, Corporate Target Announcement. Target uses User Journeys and subverted Brand Graphics in the form of round target lights and tables.
Starbucks new exterior environmental design.
Starbucks Greener Store Initiative Designs, published September 22, 2021. Starbucks Stories and News. Store exterior.
Starbucks Greener Store Initiative Designs, published September 22, 2021 by Starbucks Stories and News. Interior environmental design with users in context.

The above video is a TED Talk by Temple Grandin from 2010, included here for her emphasis on visual thinking and willingness to put herself in the perspective of cattle while designing cattle treatment facilities. In context of this article, we can think of this as a phenomenal example of committing to a user profile—that of a cow. See the full TED documentation and credit here.

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