“If you build it, they will come.” Maybe, but if you want them to come again, they’d better like what they see. Here we ask designers what they look at when seeking to develop a new look for a bank. Not surprisingly, brand plays a big role. But there are other considerations to keep in mind when trying to make over your branch.
By Lauren Bielski, senior editor
When translating brand into design, cling to the particular
Attending a meeting about branch refurbishment? If you as a branch manager, retail bank officer, or CEO find the design process somewhat mysterious, take comfort. Many of your colleagues would probably agree.
In light of that, we talked to design pros about process and asked what inspires them as they translate a company’s notion of itself into the look of its branches. If you’ve ever wondered why designers ask the questions they do, understanding their mindset might make it easier to discuss your projects.
When it comes to inspiration, if we expected poetic answers steeped in Majestic Nature, the Seven Wonders of the World, or deep theory about how interiors and structures affect human psychology, what we heard instead was the idea that inspiration comes from a love of the challenge (“I’m inspired to create something that exceeds the client’s expectations”) or answers that reflected the utility of the brand concept.
Mind you, the theory is plentiful—many designers and architects draw on decades of research in areas like color, spatial navigation, and response to messaging in the development of their “design metaphors,” which can be thought of as the imagery coming from story lines about the company. It’s just that it tends to stay beneath the surface, where in the hands of talented denizens, it makes the difference between ordinary space and something that stops the eye.
Understanding the new rules
Design-speak may baffle many of us, but gradually, the banking industry has outfitted branches in more sophisticated ways. “We picked up banking clients about a decade ago,” says Chris Hamilton, principal at Seattle-based Callison Architecture, Inc. “In the conversations we were having at the time it was clear the [banking] vertical needed to understand the direction being taken in commercial design,” says Hamilton.
By “direction,” the principal at Callison was referring to the then-emerging visual slickness of stores and merchandising of notable retailers including Starbucks (admittedly retrenching its retail delivery these days), Nordstrom, and T-Mobile USA, among others.
In the period of trial, error, experimentation, and many individual successes in the years since, Hamilton has observed many banks picking up awareness of the relationship between design and brand—the latter defined as the promise you make to your customers about products and service.
Wachovia, and its efforts around gaining LEED certification and engaging in green design, was cited by Hamilton as a bank that’s “got it.” He indicated that the bank made particularly sophisticated use of not only conveying brand (“We offer uncommon wisdom”) in its unboxy, breezy branch look and feel, but expanded the brand definition to connect to the broader cause of environmental stewardship.
Brand is critical
In a conference call with two other executives from his team, Eduardo Alvarez, executive vice-president strategy and design, BrandPartners Group, Rochester, N.H., explains that the creative process hangs on the hooks of specific attributes: “Before we put a pen to paper, we do a complete analysis of the business—including key customer segments and core corporate values,” he says. “We need to tease out the particulars of brand and the specific experience that the bank is looking to create.”
Alvarez says that while the banking industry is in a good place on the continuum from blasé to fantastic, he thinks it has fallen too much in love with fads—the coffee bar concept, for instance.
“I see too many spaces that look similar,” says Alvarez. “It’s as if everyone is out there promising to be and offer the same thing, which is exactly what a financial services firm does not want to do. We still have to get our clients thinking very carefully about who they are and how to best project a distinct identity.”
William Bily, director of design, DEI Corp., Cincinnati, agrees that distinction is important. He says that corporate values count in finding the unique in a company, as does something he refers to as the corporate personality (the culture of the company, which, he says, can be projected in design terms impacting everything from colors chosen to how the floor plan is organized). Also key is being appropriate for a given community and fitting in with the region of the country.
“We come from the design process not so much from a purely architectural point of view but from a very client-centric point of view, where we are also thinking very strongly about branding. We also value a sense of place. All of these traits add up to a very particular vision for that deployment,” says Bily. “Where that client operates, along with brand and key customer segments served should be factored into the design.”
Setting a stage for bonding
Part of the slickness that first emerged about a decade ago has simply been about commanding the implements of looking terrific. It has entailed using a broader color palette of once “noncorporate” colors, smarter looking fixtures, more flattering lighting, and stronger merchandising.
This has resulted in a broad aesthetic shift that most of us are aware of when we shop. But the artifice aims to do more than look good, whether we as shoppers realize it overtly or not. The goal is about setting a stage where an experience of bonding could occur—with the store, with a product line, and with the overall brand.
This bonding process doesn’t always happen, and if design isn’t the only reason, it certainly can be a factor. One designer spoke of a financial services client which had a lovely interior rendered with good materials that suggested financial prosperity but didn’t mirror the customer base in any way.
There were other problems, including a lack of clear principal of spatial navigation—a suggested flow in the floor plan that could show customers where to get questions answered, pick up information, or do anything other then basic transactions they would already expect.
“The only sign that conveyed a brand message was en route to the rest room,” the designer explained. It’s this sort of error that can make the difference between a warm and pleasant looking branch that hits—or misses.
Getting the elements right
And there’s the not-so-small matter of color. “Color itself sets a mood and evokes feelings,” says Kathryn Bruckner, retail planner, NewGround, Chesterfield, Mo. “At the same time, it needs to be used strategically. If a client is wedded to a so-called serious color like navy or gray, the client needs to understand what a room filled with navy might feel like. Color research shows, unless used sparingly, it would tend to feel sedate,” says Bruckner.
“Customers need to feel energized to life’s possibilities and focused enough to work with branch personnel to make key financial decisions,” Bruckner adds.
Callison’s Chris Hamilton sees another tendency in the financial services industry and that is, in the quest to “own a color” (a strategy of the top 20 banks in particular), he’s seen branches that get, as he put it: “dipped in color.” The effect, he says, can cheapen the richness of the interior and make an exterior be “about calling attention to itself and not about the customer segments that the bank is trying to reach.” Hamilton believes that clients should link intangible financial products to tangible images of client aspiration. Many of the experts interviewed for this piece made similar statements. The space should somehow—typically through images of customers doing the things that financial soundness provides—create a link from what the brand promises to the customer.
Another tendency that designers see occurs around the creation of the design metaphor itself, that is, the visuals that are there to symbolize the brand message. “Sometimes the metaphors can be too literal, too obvious, and don’t serve the brand as well as they could,” says Brian Judd, senior architectural designer with BrandPartners. Judd also sees a problem that he calls, “withholding literature.” “They don’t want to look cluttered with brochures and signs, which I understand, but then they overcorrect and don’t have enough,” says Judd. “Banks shouldn’t assume that all their customers will know what their options are when it comes to various financial products. You have to explain what you have and what it can do for you, the valued customer.”
Linking to the broader community
When done well, says Elisa Winter Holben, design director, BrandPartners, effective design makes a statement, inspires people, and can familiarize them with aesthetic quality.
“People respond to a sophisticated, well thought out design, even if they don’t know all the theory behind it,” she says.
As an example, she brings up National City Bank in Cleveland. Not only did ten 25-foot long windows look dramatically different for a bank known more for traditional lines, it signaled an alliance with the broader community, and became a symbol of hope and urban redevelopment.
“It was not an easy project to shepherd,” Winter Holben relates, “but when it was completed, it proved itself worth the effort.” Subsequently, the bank has decorated the windows for various community-oriented projects, including pink ribbons as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Week. National City also launched a “Real Men Wear Pink” campaign making use of the windows that pictured the Cleveland Browns showing their feminine side.
Avoiding a sea of sameness
You can get an individual store or branch just right but there are other issues to contend with. Melissa Centra, president, eView360, Farmington Hills, Mich., says that many companies struggle to deliver a distinctive brand in physical stores and through multiple channels.
A client might think in terms of needing edgy graphics or needing to look more modern without first pulling back to consider (with designer guidance) what elements, colors, fonts, and content best reflects their values message and “personality.”
eView360, which started its life as a brand consultancy for the internet, moved to logo development and paper-based branding as well as interiors. “It’s challenging to make those choices,” she admits.
In terms of physical space, what she sees many clients struggle with is form versus function. “Either they’ll have a very good floor plan with ample separation between client spaces and other work areas or an appropriate space for product display, but the look and feel is neglected or the look and feel will be on target but the spacing will be wrong,” Centra explains. “It’s rare for me to see offices or retail interiors optimally used and designed.”
When pressed, Centra mentioned National City Bank, Flagstar, and Fidelity Investments as three financial services firms that had done some “nice things” with their outlets in the Michigan area where she lives and works. She also referenced the effectiveness in the headquarters look of search engine juggernaut Google. But it was clear that Centra wasn’t easily impressed.
Neither was Pam Saftler, senior associate with TVA Architecture in Seattle. Her biggest issue? Too much sameness in stores that may, indeed, look smart as a single entity, but can have the net effect of de-regionalizing cities when a copycat cuteness is scattered nationwide.
Backlash against a sea of uniformity, Saftler predicts, may force banks and other retailers to adjust design-savvy deployments just as these companies were learning how to master the rules of looking good. Yet, command of these nuances will give national companies in many industries an edge, she believes.
Saftler and her team worked in partnership with brand development firm Ziba several years ago to help Portland-based Umpqua Bank come up with its highly celebrated Pearl District Branch.
Particularly progressive at the time, its layout was designed to help customers to engage with the space around them, because tellers were placed in the rear of the store. But as good as the branch looked, Umpqua didn’t literally duplicate it in every location. Admittedly practical concerns like cost were partially behind the reasoning, but the bank’s retail delivery team also carefully considered how each branch would fit into its surroundings.
When it comes to tailoring, Saftler especially likes retailer Anthropologie, which she says is adept at regionalizing its outlets.
“Different window designers are used in every city to develop more of a unique look and feel,” she says.
As for her bank client, Saftler says that, more recently, Umpqua has come up with an Innovation Lab format with TVA that underscores technology and targeted use of self service. “The team at Umpqua understands that branding and design work is an evolving process, you have to make adjustments over time,” Saftler says.
Don Lonergan, founder, DRL Associates, Inc., Weymouth, Mass., wasn’t nearly as tough on the industry. He says he sees many outstanding deployments in the financial services sector and thinks that gradually, the group as a whole is getting better at “acting as retailers.” Yet he admits that his 30 years of service has given him a long view. “In my experience, banks have been pretty adventurous. Here in the New England area, we had one of the first banks that decided to implement an ATM at a time when nobody really knew what they were,” says Lonergan. “Banks are pretty open to innovation when you look at overall cycles of technology adoption.”
Retail bankers, he explains, struggle to find a balance between self service and teller assistance. They need to signal being a place where planning can occur. BJ
“Make it work!” Ten tips from today’s designers
When preparing for a redesign, first think hard about your business and honestly assess what you stand for, what differentiates the brand, and what key messages you’d like to convey.
While in the assessment stage, contrast and compare how you look now with sketches of various options for the new look. Ask tough questions about what contributes to the brand message versus what detracts.
In some of the visual elements such as signs, digital displays, or brochures, you should mirror your key customer segments.
The branch should tell a logical and emotionally coherent story as customers move through it. There should be a place that brings different elements that may stand alone elsewhere into a coherent whole.
Design materials have to be of a quality to match customer expectations, depending on whether the bank caters to value or high-end customers.
There should be an attractive display immediately inside the entrance, called a “doorbuster.” It could be the product of the day or something else to entice impulse buyers.
As customers move around the branch, their eyes should always fall on a focus point, whether it’s merchandise or a display.
There should be no dark corners. The light has to be just right, not too cold, too warm, too light, or too dark.
Retail concepts have an average 24-month shelf life and should be refreshed in no more than five years. In keeping with this tenet of design, a bank’s store should be designed to facilitate redesigns in the future.
Once the interior looks terrific, you make sure you’ve trained your personnel to make that open floor plan pay off. Don’t let people hover in the offices just because it’s habitual.
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