KEEPING THE organizational pipeline flowing with creative, high-potential talent is a challenge every company faces, yet countless studies have shown that identifying and engaging young professionals early in their careers is critical to future success.
That’s why in 2012 we created VMSD’s annual Designer Dozen awards program to recognize retail’s rising stars, ages 35 and under, who are making their mark on an industry that is poised on the cusp of reinvention.
Nominated by their peers, these multidisciplinary designers, architects and visual merchandisers have demonstrated a dedication to design excellence as well as a commitment to advance the customer experience at retail in ways we are only beginning to imagine. Our Designer Dozen winners are working hard to further innovation in retail design and visual merchandising and to help rethink retail at a time when fresh perspectives are needed most.
It’s our honor to introduce the exceptional winners of VMSD’s 2021 Designer Dozen awards. This year’s class is certainly one to watch!
Age: 30 | Senior Visual Designer, Bloomingdale’s
A strong creative force, Ali is a gifted storyteller who designs and develops all of the components of her visual presentations. Having spent time in Bloomingdale’s home store, her creativity, agility and flexibility have earned her ownership of the ready-to-wear apparel, center core and menswear sections of the store where she creates holiday campaigns, pop-up concepts and oversees merchandising direction. She is also responsible for working on shop-in-shops.
How do you see the role of physical stores changing in the future?
The past 10 years have been hard on the retail industry, especially on department stores. During my entire career I’ve been challenged by this very question. I truly believe the industry needed a disruption, nothing as unfortunate as this pandemic, but it has enabled retailers to think quickly and strategize skillfully. I see the future of retail being more experiential and immersive, with less product on the floor. Stores will be the brand message and showroom for online businesses.Advertisement
Age: 28 | Associate Interior Designer, Gensler
Samantha’s background in fine art – with formal training in sculpting, metalworking, painting and drawing – allows her to bring a distinct perspective to client projects. Colleagues say she is also an analytic thinker and devoted advocate for functional solutions that preserve the design integrity. Her critical eye for detail helps Samantha deliver impactful designs that focus on elevating the visitor journey.
What is your dream job or project?
Working on more projects that can enliven a brand and engage the senses, while enriching the lives of the consumers, would be my dream job. Besides focusing on just the visual aspect of design, I enjoy curating a sensory experience that resonates long after you leave, having a positive impact on your well-being. I recently started learning about ‘salutogenesis,’ which means ‘the origins of health’ and focuses on factors that support human health and well-being, rather than on factors that cause disease. Salutogenic design is a principle that can be applied to nearly every project we do.
Age: 30 | Senior Graphic Designer, NELSON Worldwide
Megan leads the creative and graphics direction for the firm’s retail, restaurant, non-profit and workplace projects, from concept development to creating brand identity and branded touchpoints. Among the notable projects on which she’s worked, Megan was part of the design team that created American Girl’s experiential flagship in New York, which was purpose-built to nurture a stronger emotional connection to the brand.
How and why did you get into retail design/visual merchandising?
I graduated from The University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) and studied graphic communication design. Early on, I had a particular focus in environmental graphic design (EGD) – specifically because it had staying power. Using research, design theory and a little bit of style to create not only frictionless, but memorable, user experiences checked all my boxes when it came to choosing EGD as a career. Having a profession in retail design allows me to experience the best of both worlds – that sweet spot between style and substance. It shapes the guest experiences and celebrates the power of place.
Age: 28 | Brand Communications Designer, Chute Gerdeman
In her role, Annie designs and develops brand expression, identity and in-store communications for clients including Food Lion, HMS Host and Toy Kingdom. Annie’s expertise in branded communications in the retail and restaurant sectors has helped her create effective messaging that benefits both retailer and shopper. For one Food Lion program designed to support new and growing categories, her team created more than 1000 pieces of art.
What is your dream project?
Like many, my plant collection has, forgive the pun, blossomed during quarantine, so I would love to work on a plant store. I think it would be a really interesting communication challenge – there’s tons of information out there about plants, but it can be overwhelming. It would be really cool to understand what the balance of information is right for an in-store environment to encourage burgeoning plant hoarders. Plus, it’s always such a treat when your work and your hobby have the opportunity to intersect.
Age: 33 | Associate, Senior Architectural Designer, Bergmeyer
Samantha has led many of Bergmeyer’s largest and most complex project teams during her work developing retail prototypes and managing retail and restaurant accounts. Among her clients are TD Bank, Peet’s Coffee and Tea, Samsonite and Spanx. Colleagues describe her work as perfectly detailed, on brand, impeccably presented and, most important, buildable. She is equally at home working with design teams, builders, landlords and permitting agencies.
What place that you’ve visited has made the biggest impression on you and why?
I had the opportunity to go on Birthright Israel, and one of the places we visited was Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. I remember how the architecture of the space led you through each exhibit and was designed in such a way that it left you feeling cold and uncomfortable with its concrete floors and walls and the harsh edges formed by the triangular shape of the building. I loved the idea that architecture could evoke such emotions and how we, as designers, should always strive to design towards the experiences we want the user to feel.Advertisement
Age: 31 | Senior Designer, CallisonRTKL
In her role, Randi helps retail brands navigate today’s competitive landscape by creating authentic, experience-rich environments that engage consumers and advance their brands. Borrowing from sources ranging from hospitality, food and beverage to theater for inspiration, her work is characterized by the clarity of its design vision, the strength of its execution and the depth of its narrative.
What’s the biggest challenge you face professionally?
The growth of e-commerce has ultimately changed brick-and-mortar retail forever, challenging brands to adapt. My design approach is driven by customer empathy and understanding what motivates them, alleviating friction points and providing an in-store experience that cannot be replicated online. Designing an immersive and sensory space is a must to excite customers and have them visit time and time again.
Age: 34 | Architect, BRR Architecture
With experience on both the brand and agency side, Jessica approaches each retail design project holistically. She leverages her experiences working with brands like Michael Kors, L’Occitane, Carolina Herrera, Chanel and Bottega Veneta to encourage clients to elevate their brand experiences. Her ability to think many steps ahead helps ensure that no detail, no matter how small, is overlooked.
If you could offer advice to young designers, what would it be?
It would be to find different mentors that can speak to your life, both personally and professionally. Learning from their achievements and their failures is a huge opportunity for a young designer. Yes, a mentor can teach you things, but can also point out things you would not have even known to ask.
If budget were no object, I’d…
I would allow all of the items that get value engineered to remain in any project. It is unfortunate sometimes to see a design get dwindled down or compromised due to time or cost.
Rhea Mariam Mathew
Age: 33 | Associate Studio Lead – Retail, Design, FRDC
A 10-year veteran of the retail design industry, Rhea’s background is in product design and engineering, and she has led projects ranging from concept design to project execution. Willing to go the extra mile to bring projects across the finish line, Rhea has won the Client’s Choice Award at FRDC for many years. Her focus on innovating at both a design and process level help her serve each client from a variety of distinct backgrounds.
Who or what has been the greatest influence on you in your work?
While there are many designers and innovative thinkers who I look up to, my greatest influence is still my family. From a young age they encouraged me to embrace my individuality, to be respectful and humble, and taught me to allow myself room to grow and to be open to new thoughts and ideas. So, while traveling to new places, meeting new people, exploring new cultures and cuisines, these values that my family taught me influenced my work and molded my work ethic.
Age: 35 | Brand Designer, Taco Bell
Leslie is charged with designing spaces for Taco Bell that exude the brand’s image and its fun-loving culture. She has worked on projects from freestanding, ground-up restaurants to new concepts like urban and cantina locations. Leslie was the lead designer on all Taco Bell urban and cantina locations in New York City and partnered with local artists there to produce custom localized murals.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
My day is never the same. Most days I’m consumed with space planning or reviewing drawings. Other days, I’m working with industrial engineers to calculate tacos as it relates to dining room capacity or working through a procurement issue. I always will remember a day I spent talking to engineers about different kinds of ice: cubes, crushed and pellets, and thinking, “Did I imagine this would be my life when I was in college?”
Age: 29 | Senior Design Manager, WD Partners
Courtney, a key member of WD’s environments design team, functions as an extension of client Starbucks’ design team. An experienced retail designer, she has worked at L Brands on the Victoria’s Secret store design and construction team where she created projects ranging from prototype development to daily roll-out designs. Colleagues says Courtney can “turn on a dime,” adapting seamlessly to changing situations.
Can you share a bit about your creative process with our readers?
When I first start a project, I need a big cup of coffee and time to myself – to get to know the space, the feel of the area, the customer. However, after that, I do my best brainstorming with my team. I find joy in bouncing ideas of each other – jotting down notes, pinning materials, images, et cetera.
If budget were no object, I’d….
Ah, give me all the marble and high-end textiles!
Age: 33 | Interior Designer, Associate, Gensler
A top retail designer in the firm’s Southeast region, Lainie has experience designing a variety of spaces, from boutiques to department stores. She has worked with clients including Neiman Marcus, Tiffany & Co., Adidas and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream. Recently, she led the team that fused elements of retail, hospitality and workplace design to develop the Augusta & Co. visitor experience center for the city of Augusta, Ga. A member of the Retail Design Institute (RDI), she also mentors design students at The Savannah College of Art and Design.
What advice would you offer to young designers?
Don’t be afraid to try new things and take on assignments out of your comfort zone. Seek out feedback. Find champions and cheerleaders that support, teach and encourage you. Be open to all opportunities. Sometimes the projects you learn the most from are not seemingly the most exciting or glamorous.Advertisement
Age: 29 | Senior Environmental Designer, Arc Worldwide/Leo Burnett Groupe
Kylie oversees all activities related to 3-D concepting, space planning and materials for projects ranging in scale from shop-in-shops to full-store remodels. She recently completed a total interior and exterior redesign for Firestone Complete Autocare, which saw its concept stores increase sales by 50 percent in the first month following the redesign and sustain a 10 percent sales lift after 90 days.
Where do you tend to find inspiration?
The interdisciplinary element is truly what inspires me. An interior designer, graphic designer and industrial designer are all going to bring different perspectives and solve problems in different ways. There is nothing like getting an open-ended brief and filling a big cork wall (virtual wall these days) with words, ideas, scraps of ideas, pictures, objects, string, stickies, et cetera.
Embracing Whole-Brained Thinking in the Design Journey
Strategy needs creative, and creative needs strategy—yep, having both is really the only way of unifying all disciplines with a common vernacular with an eye toward building a strong creative vision that is foundational to the processes. Hear from Bevan Bloemendaal, former VP, Global Environments & Creative Services at Timberland, how to connect the dots between disciplines, claiming and creating a clear differentiation for the brand and ensuring that any asset (experience, product, ad, store, office, home, video, game) is created with intention.
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