The Future or Retail Design

14 Jan 2010 

Few people outside the design industry may have heard of Contour, but anyone who shops at The Esplanade in Ratchadaphisek, buys groceries from Carrefour or grabs a bite at McDonald's has experienced the work of the design and architectural firm.

As business competition intensifies and every bit of differentiation can make a huge difference, more and more companies are turning to design for reasons beyond a pretty look.

"Design and business used to live in different worlds," said Sorachat Jaikid, brand strategy director at Contour. "Now the business world regards design as an essential part of business strategy as it can add value to business."

Set up in 1987 by architecture graduates from King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang, Contour sees itself more as a business partner than a design consultant.

"Our goal is not to deliver the most beautiful design," said Mr Sorachat, 37. "Rather, we want to serve as a business partner that helps our clients to build brands either from scratch or to develop better recognition for existing brands using design as a tool."

Contour's brand-building portfolio includes the J-Avenue shopping centre in Soi Thong Lor, which was developed by Siam Future Development, a long-time client. The design concept has helped make open-air shopping malls popular among Bangkok shoppers and developers in recent years.

For global fast-food clients such as McDonald's, the company aims to turn a dining space into a lifestyle hub where customers can surf the internet while sipping coffee, said Mr Sorachat.

"Even though it is a fast-food restaurant, our design concept for McDonald's competes more with coffee shops like Starbucks than with other fast-food rivals that do not offer the same customer experience in which customers can spend long hours relaxing there," he said.

While Contour's designers study a client's business model and brand strategy to create a design that best represents the brand, the key to the company's successful design is a "humanscape" or customer-centric approach, said Verapong Paditporn, Contour's chief operating officer and partner.

"Our design objective is to create customer engagement," said the 46-year-old former managing partner of The Gallup Organisation. "We need to combine business and design aspects together."

With every design, the company seeks to create an enjoyable and happy experience that makes customers want to come back, said Mr Sorachat.

"Design as a strategy needs to look for something that will last and help sustain business," he said.

Recently granted the Association of Siamese Architecture's Green Award for its design of another open-air shopping centre, The Avenue Ratchayothin, the company considers that its humanscape principle has always covered being environment-friendly.

Sudhisak Sudhiswat, Contour's chief creative officer and founder, said green design served not only to reduce energy consumption but to make shoppers feel relaxed in green surroundings.

"Green is just another tool that fits into our concept," he said.

Contour has seen its business continue to flourish with 70 projects in hand this year, 15% more than last year, while spending per customer is up 10%. Some of its other clients include Toyota, Isuzu, B-Quik, Bangkok Bank, Krung Thai Bank and PTT.

Shopping malls contribute about half of Contour's revenue and the rest comes from retail branding through branch design and mixed-use architecture.

The company has ongoing projects in Malaysia and Singapore. It has also worked in Australia, Japan and Cambodia.

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