November 22, 2022 Interior Architecture Students Are Diving into Real-World Problems: The Challenges of the Post-Pandemic Retail Industry

image of building with bright colors

In fall 2022, School of Interior Architecture Lecturer Tim Dolan is challenging his studio to think about real-world retail problems and the causes and effects of trends over time. Not only are Dolan’s students researching and designing, but they also are benefitting from collaboration with retail professionals.

Dolan’s studio, “Retail is Dead…Long Live Retail!” is exploring how the COVID-19 pandemic has permanently altered the face of retail consumerism and how the students as future designers would interact, solve and overcome the problems that are emerging post-pandemic and how these solutions impact the retail guest experience.

“Retail is dead” refers to the U.S. trend of the closing of brick-and-mortar stores and the struggles of retail chains. Historical evidence, however, indicates that with design and marketing adaptations, retail can survive in the post-pandemic world. Students in Dolan’s studio are studying both conditions.

The studio was designed to prompt the students with questions about the response of retail following the COVID-19 pandemic. By researching both perspectives of the decline of brick-and-mortar locations and the concept of retail’s survival with substantial adaptations, the studio is modifying and evolving our students’ critical thinking of the design process and how they will practice in the field.

Students began by considering, “How do designers leverage their abilities and re-think the ‘what’ and the ’how’,” said Dolan. “How will the students as designers begin to reconsider how the retail perspective and design experience could be interpreted moving forward?”

image of student working on computer

The studio’s unique perspective is teaching students valuable skill sets about how to think about the use of space. Retail design expects the redesigning of spaces such as shopping malls and semi-permanent retail spaces into multi-family housing units, schools, or other uses. Dolan wants his students to push the boundaries of those expectations by focusing on designing a new space rather than repurposing existing retail designs. Further, the studio is studying how brand-new designs would impact the guest experience.

As students research the trends of businesses and hone in on the perspectives of survival or revival, they are developing a unique retail presence as a new invention of the space. Dolan hopes the studio’s structure will encourage experimentation and innovation of a new experience for those interacting with the space.

To help the students better grasp the concept of today’s retail environment and put it into practical use, the studio has partnered with Greg Terry, Design Director for Altar’d State, a rapidly growing women’s fashion brand. The company has 128 locations in 39 states and also has several sister companies.

Terry is serving as a creative consultant and forecasting strategist for the students to show what he does in his role and how his skills and practices can be applied to real-world challenges and design solutions.

Students in Dolan’s studio are responding enthusiastically. One said, “The dynamic of working with a designer in their field adds additional credence and reality,” and another stated, “Most studios ask us to re-work what already exists, while this studio has asked us to explore and invent.” Still, another student said, “This studio seems to be more pragmatic than theoretical in terms of application in real-world problem-solving.”

Students are learning from Terry the importance of considering both the implications and impacts of the brick-and-mortar foundations as well as the realities of the commercial implications in retail operations. Students also have the benefit of interacting with other key members of the Altar’d State team. “Altar’d State is making available members of its creative staff to further engage the studio in areas such as branding and marketing in addition to construction site visits and engagement with their corporate office,” said Dolan.

These new approaches to thinking alongside the timely events that are impacting their careers as future designers are challenging students to overcome the expectations of retail design to make a difference in the user experience.

Learn more!

Learn more about the School of Interior Architecture