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Intelligent design in the retail environment | Asking the right questions for the right results

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

There are many factors and elements which contribute to a successful design in the retail environment. Finding an ideal balance between all of them is the essence of intelligent retail design, and it can, quite literally, make or break a project.

As designers, our task is to constantly ask ourselves questions to help focus our design. Questions like: Is my design cost-conscious? Is it materials-conscious? Is it process-conscious for streamlined manufacturing? Is it structurally sound and visually enticing, with an appropriate lifespan?

It’s easy to get caught up in the digital part of the process – the pretty pictures – but we have to remember that in the retail environment a 2D (or 3D) digital design is not the final product. It helps define things like form, function and aesthetics, but it’s still just a means to an end – a single step in the journey from concept to completion.

If we fail to plan past the digital to things like the manufacturing process and eventual application of the design, the chances of false starts and failed attempts increase exponentially. This not only impacts on timelines (which can be expensive in terms of internal human resources), but also causes difficulties for suppliers and manufacturers who have to work with the ill-considered designs.

Properly thought out designs, on the other hand, not only positively impact on sales and product awareness, but accurately address issues like placement, budget, longevity and return on investment.

To illustrate the impact these considerations might have on design choices, let’s take a look at a previous Angle Orange project for BOS Iced Tea.

To the average shopper, these two units look almost identical. In reality, however, the difference in thought, approach, materials, manufacturing, finishing and lifespan are worlds apart.

A closer look begins to reveal some of the differences:


Unit 1 is an MDF assembly with MDF shelves and a spray-painted finish. Because the entire structure is MDF, the unit is extremely simple to manufacture and finish – it’s very cost-effective. It’s also manufactured entirely under one roof, with no outsourcing required. This makes the processes and timelines pertaining to the roll-out into stores a lot simpler from a management perspective.

Unit 2 is a little more complex. The structure of the unit is fabricated steel finished with a powder-coat. The shelves are made from vacuum-formed plastic, and provide slots for both square and round product. While the unit is still relatively simple, the number of different processes and suppliers involved (steel fabricators, plastic vacuum-formers, powder-coaters etc.) requires much more attention to detail from both the designers and project managers. It’s not difficult to predict that this unit would be more expensive to produce.

Artwork / Graphics

The artwork on Unit 1 is printed directly onto the spray-finished MDF. The greater part of the print is limited to two colours, which means it can be applied by a screen-printing process. Only the bottom, multi-coloured area needs to be applied using more expensive digital-printing processes. This means Unit 1’s printing costs are almost half that of Unit 2, whose materials make graphics applications more costly.

Cost and ROI

The total cost of Unit 1 (MDF) at the time of manufacture was R1 650, while Unit 2 (steel) totalled at R3 870 – more than double the cheaper unit. Clearly the MDF unit is the more affordable option.

Or is it?

When viewed through a “lifespan lens”, things aren’t always as expensive as they seem.

For example, the steel unit has a lifespan of 24 months. It may cost more to begin with, but would only need an ROI of R161.25/month to cover its construction costs. The MDF unit, on the other hand, has a lifespan of only 3 months, which means in order to cover its costs (excluding floor space), it would need to generate an ROI of R550/month.

Furthermore, while it’s difficult to attach a price to the interchangeability of prints or artwork panels, the steel unit has the added potential of being able to work across brands given its higher degree of adaptability.

In some situations, the adaptability and longevity of the steel unit might make it a better choice than the MDF. For this particular project, however, that was not the case.

BOS Iced Tea only needed their units for a single campaign over a period of 2 months – designing for a longer lifespan and adaptability they didn’t need would have been overkill. By narrowing down our design choices based on BOS’s specific requirements for their campaign, we were able to quickly and successfully roll-out a cost-effective solution that completely fulfilled their needs.

There are always multiple choices, procedures, processes and materials available at the start of any design project, and while many of those may be good and proven options, they’re not always the best answer to the questions we must ask.

It’s that process of question and answer that, when conducted with thoughtful consideration, elevates a project out of the realm of conceptual, digital design and into the realm of intelligent, responsible, and manufacturable solutions.

Contact Angle Orange to find out more about intelligent retail solutions tailor-made to answer the questions your brand asks.

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