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Checking Out: Leonard Barszap

One of VMSD’s original Designer Dozen has evolved from an architect to an “experience designer.” But he says it’s all the same: creative, imaginative problem solving

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What were your early influences?
I was raised in a small town in Texas – ‘Friday Night Lights’ football country. I felt I needed to find something different. [In a place] where everything was about sports, I was an ‘art kid.’ I was also good at math and science. When I mashed those things together in my mind, I got architecture.

That sounds promising.
Except I knew nothing about what architecture was, other than it felt creative.

Your career seems like a roadmap of all the ways retail architecture has changed.
In a way. But architecture has always felt to me like an exercise in creative problem-solving, blending the analytical and imaginative. My career has been an ever-expanding pursuit of all parts of that equation.

Let’s talk about your career.
I graduated in 2001 during a bad economy when nobody was building anything. I spent three years at a traditional architecture firm, RGA Architects & Planners (New York), doing mostly public buildings.  Luckily, I then joined dash design (New York), which had grown out of a branding firm. [It was] very creative and fast-paced – we were pushing to make people behave and shop differently. I was there until 2012.

That’s the year you were part of the first class of VMSD’s Designer Dozen.
By the time I got to Las Vegas to receive the award, I had joined Lippincott’s (New York) Experience Innovation Group. The world was changing, and brands weren’t just being experienced through physical spaces. Before any physical design began, we worked with brands to figure out the ideal brand experience for clients’ customers.

Which led to your role as group experience design director at Droga5.
Today, the experience of brands is more and more controlled by chief marketing officers, who were Droga5’s clients. So we were uniquely positioned to help those clients craft the creatively led, strategically driven vision for every interaction they had with customers.

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Do you feel far from where you started?
The past six years have been about rethinking what good design really is. It has to look great, but it’s so much bigger than that. Retail today can’t live in a vacuum. It is one large piece of an intricate ecosystem of brand experiences that all have to work together seamlessly. I would say my whole career has taken place in a really exciting time, when so many things have evolved so quickly.  

You had an interesting start to your career.
When I first got to New York, I decided not to have a print portfolio and instead built my portfolio as a webpage. But several firms said, ‘Oh, we don’t do it that way. Come back with your print portfolio.’ I thought, ‘If that’s the way you’re thinking, I don’t think I’d be interested in working with you.’ The best designers constantly have to have their fingers on the pulse of change.

 

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