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Interview: DBA chief executive Deborah Dawton on retail challenges

One of the DBA’s objectives is that companies should be able to make strategic decisions with an understanding of design in the boardroom. Just as a finance director would be expected to have authority over finance, so somebody should have a similar authority in design, says Dawton: “And some of the biggest brands in the world do have that.”

Fresh from chairing conference sessions at Retail Design Expo, Dawton says she encountered a diverse range of design capabilities among retailers, from those who are actively engaging with their customers to those who are failing to adapt.

“The brand that consumers interact with, they are also experiencing in other ways outside the store… the idea that we would try to satisfy the ambitions of a brand exclusively in retail [fails]. It manifests itself through social media, through stores, how it talks about itself or associate itself with other causes or campaigns,” says Dawton, adding that stores can no longer exist in isolation from the outside world. “The idea that the retail environment will remain as a thing of its own… is a thing of the past.”

With so many new challenges presenting themselves, Dawton believes that now is an important time for retail to learn design lessons from other disciplines. “I think cross-discipline learning has to happen, because we have consumers today who consume across disciplines,” she says.

A clear example of this cross-discipline learning can be seen in the way that retailers are adopting rapid prototyping techniques. A Post Office presentation at Retail Design Expo showed how the company test four different store concepts to inform a final design, while Maplin developed a ‘proof of concept’ store with design group 20.20 to a very short timescale. “That process is one that industrial designers use every day… it’s a process that’s very common in other sectors. It saves expensive mistakes,” says Dawton.

The changing landscape also highlights a misconception about design: that all designers are experts in all areas. “We need to push back hard against the view that you can go to a one-stop shop,” says Dawton. “That’s a lazy client, basically. It’s like going to a heart surgeon and asking them to do brain surgery. There are specialities in design. You use experts.”

Companies that do use experts achieve better consumer understanding and better design, often making physical design as relevant in the new digital age as it has ever been, says Dawton. She quotes PepsiCo chief design officer Mauro Porcini, who observed that “Social media is mostly about doing things offline to talk about online,” to illustrate just how important the real world remains.