Guest Column - February 2010
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Design Corner

Your Visual Voice

By Mark Schmitz

Every once in a while you see it. You can't quite put your finger on it, but something seems very right. You understand it. You connect with it. You want to be a part of it. It's speaking to you but you can't really hear it. You can see it. There is a passionate truth in the room… no, in the Web site… actually, it's in the signing, the brochure, the front lobby, the restrooms. Really, it's in everything. Everything to do with the company is speaking to you. It's kind of like a visual voice. A comprehensively designed "emotional experience." Each day we subconsciously connect with images, colors, textures and messages, and that either reminds us of something we know or invites us to be part of something we don't.

You've walked into a health club that feels energized, natural and full of your healthy future, and you've no doubt walked into one where you can't find a towel, the front desk person is on her iPhone and the colors of the carpet are right out of Miami Vice. Yup, you're outta there. Why is it that some places connect with us and some don't?

The answer is in strategic visual brand planning. If you understand that the front steps to your facility are as important as your banner ad, you get it. If you think your ad budget is more important than your restrooms, you're gone. Yes, your restrooms are where people literally connect with your facility. Make them fun. Make them memorable. Refill the paper towels. Get some flowers in there (even in the men's room). Tell a story.

The Trifecta

If you could start over with designing your facilities, you would no doubt change a few things. Let me suggest an idea. In addition to your architect and interior designer, add a third partner for success. Add an environmental brand designer. Environmental brand professionals are responsible for the "storytelling" portions of the facility experience. They coordinate and infuse your unique culture into your space. "Culture design" is as important as HVAC and carpet. It is the art of "placemaking." The art of showing your customers what is truly unique about your company. With environmental brand professionals on the team, the architect and interior designer will coordinate efforts to infuse your "story" into the DNA of the building. There's nothing worse than hanging your mission statement on the wall after you open. The wall should be the mission statement. That means everything in your building should be integrated to speak with one common visual voice.

How'd They Do That?

A few things to consider when integrating your story into your space:

Tell the Truth: Many companies try to be too many things to many people. We all know that doesn't work. It's like a dentist taping your ankle. Stick to what you do best.

Communicate With Passion: When it's from the heart, it's real. We all need a reason to emotionally connect to something every day. Give them a reason.

Keep It Simple: Don't confuse anyone. We're already confused before we walk in your door. Give me some clarity. Don't try so hard. It will show if you do.

Delight Me: Show me something that will surprise me. Show me how your company, club, facility or products can make me a better person. How can you share in my success? Remember, it's all about me—the American consumer.

Help Me Tell My Friends: Give me the gift that keeps on giving. I want to Tweet, Facebook and Bebo everyone all the time. Please give me a reason to share in the experience you just gave me. Your blog is your best friend.

Making a Digital Connection

We all search for a reason to emotionally connect to objects each day. You identify with your toothpaste because of the packaging, name or color. Perhaps all three. They all taste basically the same but you still use Crest because it's what your Mom bought for you as a kid. That's OK. It's safe.

We associate to facilities the same way. First my friend tells me about your company. Next I check out your Web site. I like what I see. I find out where you are and I make plans to show up. That's the point where everything has to come together. You've already made some promises to me, whether you know it or not, and now is the time to find out if you're telling the truth. Your Web site is your digital facility. It has to be a mirror experience to your space. Otherwise I will be confused, and the disconnect will be bad for both of us. Use your digital media to enhance the experience everyone has with your products, services and most importantly your physical space.