While different people have their own personal definitions of a brand, we all know an iconic brand when we see one — think Apple, Google, and Coca-Cola. Iconic brands can be worth millions, and there is no denying that successful branding will add to the profitability of all products associated with it. But what roles do architecture and interior design play in establishing brand identity, and how does that translate into the buildings and spaces we design?
The concept of branded environments is not new, but sometimes overlooked is that branding characteristics of an organization or community can be applied to three-dimensional environments. The use of branded environments can be a powerful tool for designers to help clients create office headquarters, flagship stores, achieve customer product or service recognition, or target a desired demographic of end-users.
In terms of environmental branding, there are design strategies that may be obvious or self-explanatory, such as the use of the company’s logo, incorporating the company’s colors into the finishes, and basing the design concept or overall style of the space on the types of products or services provided by the client. But how, as designers, can we start to think of environmental branding in a broader sense?
Branding based on company philosophy
I believe one of our first jobs as designers is to really know our clients. What is the primary goal of their business, what is their mission or philosophy, and who is their target consumer? By immersing ourselves in our client’s approach, we can start to tap into their core values and use that information as the basis on which to build our design concepts.
For example, one of our clients, the Y of Central Maryland, focuses on youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility. Their ultimate desire is to create a family-centered “third place” — a place where we spend the bulk of our time aside from our home and workplaces. At the start of our relationship, our design response to the Y’s mission was to create a family-friendly atmosphere through color palette and amenity programming. We added, for instance, a circular fireplace gathering area. These design features were so well received that they are now used throughout all new and renovated Y of Central Maryland facilities. By repeating these design elements throughout various Y facilities, members can enter any central Maryland location, know exactly where they are, and feel at home.
Branding based on environmental or cultural cues
In looking at branding abstractly, one can argue the importance of taking environmental cues from the local culture and neighborhood in which a project will exist. How does the project relate to the surrounding community, and how can the project team create a destination for consumers by filling a need the community is lacking?
Recently, our firm worked on an adaptive reuse project by converting a warehouse in a vacancy-riddled neighborhood into apartments and retail spaces. The development objective was to create a high-energy space that would attract resident and retail consumers, thus enhancing the vibrancy of the area. At the outset of the project, our team looked closely at existing buildings and the needs of the neighborhood, and based many design decisions on what we learned. For instance, we used bold, colorful elements to support the neighborhood’s goal of drawing in young professionals and art students. Likewise, we inserted a living wall into the lobby and created an outdoor courtyard by cutting a hole through the building, which filled the need for more green space in this urban environment. Adding flexible amenity spaces like incubator offices allows residents to work from home, and a retail component consisting of a coffee house and artisan marketplace help establish the area as a destination.
Branding with graphics and typography
Designers are visual thinkers who can appreciate the power of conveying an idea or message through graphics and typography. Graphics are universal in nature and can evoke thoughts, emotions, and human responses with a single glance. What better way, then, to showcase a product, service, or business philosophy than through the simple act of incorporating graphics and typography into our physical spaces?
When it comes to graphically branding our projects, we are only limited by our imaginations. This concept can be applied to virtually any interior surface (walls, ceilings, or floors) through a variety of media (applique, digitally, through lighting, or even 3-D installations). Recently, I stumbled across an example of how typography can illustrate a company’s mission in an extremely simple yet powerful way. The Australian Human Rights Commission, whose main focus is leading the promotion and protection of human rights, hired the marketing firm BrandCulture to create a way-finding and environmental graphic package for its new space. The goal, here, was to showcase the core belief system of the government agency by plastering articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights throughout the building interior.
Branding based on demographics
Successful branding is directly related to reaching the specific consumer or demographic at which a product or service is targeted. What steps can we take to ensure that our design concepts encompass the desires of the targeted demographic? Depending on the market sector, our design approaches will vary, but it is imperative to understand the demographic through research.
Take, for example, multi-family housing projects, and how research can inform our design approach. Multi-family housing is in high demand, but not all housing projects are equal. There are vast differences between affordable, market-rate, and luxury housing. When starting these projects, we must answer the question of who will live there. Is the project geared toward young professionals, college students, families, or retirees? Begin by researching the area or neighborhood. Look at local census studies to find out the average age range, gender, race, and income of the local population. Then come up with visual storyboards of the future residents — who are they, what do they look like, what is their style?
By compiling this information, we can take an educated approach to branding the overall aesthetic and amenity programming in a way that will appeal to future residents. This may be a more abstract way of looking at environmental branding, but it can bring concrete results. In this case, the service being sold is housing, and if the brand appeals to the end-user, the leasing process will be much more successful.
Of course, the ultimate success of any project depends on many factors like location, financing, and building systems, along with talented developers, engineers, and designers. Environmental branding is a small but vital piece of the overall project process. By creating strong branded environments, we help attract more clients, consumers, employees, or residents to a range of physical spaces — corporate, retail, hospitality, institutional, residential, and more. I believe it’s up to us as designers to start the conversation about three-dimensional branding by considering company philosophy, cultural cues, the use of graphics, and demographic research, to name a few, and to apply what we learn to the designs we create.
To learn more about our approach to environmental branding or to discuss your needs, please get in touch.