Winning at Retail: Strategically integrating competitions into the curriculum.

Presented by: Brian F. Davies, Ann L. Black

INTRO There is a mixed history of integrating design competitions in academic curriculum, in part due to a lack of options and opportunities. This presentation delivers a positive case study on doing so. The student learning, the program’s reputation, and the curriculum have all benefited from adopting an international retail design competition as the annual upper level studio problem. The specific competition was first considered because the brief is written around a market driven opportunity. The faculty members consider this valuable as it enables them to push students to consider holistic stakeholder experiences and feasible design proposals. The competition briefs also serve as points of engagement with professionals from top firms who specialize in retail design. The studio consciously collects and shares its own nascent insights of millennial behavior so obsessed over across marketplaces. Additional value to contributing firms is recruitment for internships and full time employment after graduation. METHOD The studio faculty have developed and employed a method that synthesizes multi-disciplinary professional input, brand strategy, trend research, and benchmarking to elevate the launch point for design ideation. The structure enables students to stretch their thinking and form a solution from a broader network of information and expertise. The method also aids students in establishing explicit objectives to guide and evaluate their ideations. The faculty coordinate interactions with professionals from trend forecasting, packaging, and retail design at critical stages in the design process. From the professional input the methodology leverages group research efforts by the students into elevated individual creative solutions. The method also requires students to study and define explicit user groups and their behaviors to imagine four-dimensional experiences that go beyond the requirements of the brief. A unique aspect of the studio is the ability to insert, at key points, interactions with practicing professionals for feedback. These multiple interactions with professional design firms inform the students’ design processes. In the upper level of the curriculum, faculty demand students stretch their thinking and form a solution from a broader network of information, personal values, research, and expertise. The jury process of selecting a dozen or fewer awardees from a field of over 400 entries rewards immediate and hierarchical visual communication. Students are taught to assume they have 5 seconds to pique the judges’ interest, 30 seconds for a second look, and 3 minutes for a deeper dive. Storyboarding and narrative are stressed early in the process to refine both the presentation and content of the entries. Entrants are forced to be concise in their written content and persuasive in their visual content within the format limitation. The program archives the top proposals each year, both digitally and physically, to serve as exemplars in subsequent years. The archive of outstanding work has motivated increased sophistication in overall design solutions year after year. VALUE The student outcomes have been validated by blind review consistently over the past five years. The work of our students and that of other entrants offers inspiration to the sponsoring company and often-implementable ideas. Each of our winning students has been invited to industry networking events and actively recruited by professional firms for both internships and fulltime employment after graduation. The rigorous benchmarking, market and trend research, and user definition better prepares students to define their own senior capstone project the following academic semester. This presentation offers to share a tested and replicable methodology with peer institutions to benefit an expanded pool of young designers entering areas of retail design. The presentation is highlighted with original work from awarded submittals.


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  • Miles, S. (2016), “Experiential Retail,” Retail and the Artifice of Social Change. Routledge (Review copy)
  • Neumeier, M. (2015), The Brand Flip: Why customers now run companies and how to profit from it. New Riders.
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  • Roberts, K. (2005), “Emotional Rescue,” Lovemarks: the Future Beyond Brands. PowerHouse Books.
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