Before speaking at an NYRIW retail design panel on Tuesday, January 15, Howard Sullivan, creative director and co-founder of the award-winning YourStudio, explains how his agency designs in-store retail experiences for retailers like Topshop, Pret A Manger, Birchbox and more that captivate, inspire and engage in an age of social media saturation and digital overload

Retail is not retail anymore, says Howard Sullivan, co-founder and creative director of London-based experience design agency YourStudio. Instead, the industry is moving into an era of valuing experiences over just selling products, prioritizing the creation of authentic interaction and spontaneity that appeals to human emotion, captures consumers' attention and even taps into what can't be shared on social media.

Before sharing his insights at the IRL Retail Design In A Digital Age panel, part of New York Retail Innovation Week, Howard spoke with PSFK for our podcast about his work with leading retailers like TopShop, Birchbox, Pret A Manger and many more, designing insight-led experiences so dynamic and powerful, they have to be seen in-person, absorbing visitors' attention and bringing them back into the moment in an era of constant distraction and frazzled focus.

PSFK: Could you speak a bit about the broader consumer and retail trends that are influencing the work that you do?

Howard: Coming from the products that we've done, we like to try and push the envelope a bit. We've been traveling around a lot. In the last year, we probably traveled more than we've ever have in the history of the company.

We started the year in America, starting at Shoptalk in Las Vegas and then ending in GlobalShop in Chicago. We did some projects in China as well. The thing that I thought was really interesting is when we went to both Shoptalk and GlobalShop, people were talking about the misconception that there's a retail apocalypse.

More globally, we definitely have to see this as an absolute rebirth of retail we're in at the moment. It's not doom and gloom. It's not the death of retail. It's not the death of the store. It's not the death of the mall, which people love to talk about almost like they love talking about recession. It gets into people's psyche.

The whole landscape of digital has really sharpened up the tools that we have now to understand how people shop, when people shop, why they shop, what they're interested in. The pace of retail transformation has picked up, and we're going to see the more sluggish retailers go out of business, superseded by a whole new smart breed of retailers that are responding to the changes that are happening.

Look at these brilliant companies who have formed communities around what they're doing. It's almost like a belief system. It's not about a product. It's about connections and genuine sparks flying. We saw Emily Weiss from Glossier talk, and she was so inspiring.

What she talked about a lot was that we're not linking people to products. We're linking people to each other and the products are just a side thing that happen in that bubble of exchanges. She built Glossier so brilliantly around that. What started out as a blog with people sharing and uploading beauty tips turned into a platform to buy the products and recommend them.

She understands that world really well. I think also there's a genuine spark there of why not look at each other to get genuine advice, rather than think that the brand is a hierarchical setting, filtering information down.

I think that's why the more established beauty brands are struggling, faced with this kind of competition, because they've been used to having carte blanche. They've got this red carpet that they've rolled out for themselves where they're an oracle of what they do and people buy into them because of just high prices and the gloss.

What people really want now is a feeling that a community is recommending stuff genuinely based on the actual quality that they see in it. It's an amazing thing. It's an amazing shift. It's a big shift, and it's a lot for a lot of people to deal with.

I think we're in a changing world that means retail as we knew it is reshaping. It needs to morph, and reshape, and become way more reactive and organic. It needs a really well‑rounded personality. I think retail's had a voice, a way of operating, but it needs to flesh out everything else in between. Online and offline are just two spokes in that whole system.

Is that something that you at YourStudio will help integrate, aiding retailers in figuring out how to best synthesize online and offline retail?

Absolutely. At YourStudio, we're working a lot with brands at the moment, specifically in experience strategy. That's definitely focusing around the whole concept of ‘it's one journey.'

We're building experience strategies with a real range of brands, from sports brands, to luxury cruise liner brands, to very interesting new technology brands, to really reposition what they do in everything from their online app, social communities, to their stores.

We're seeing that as they're all one big extension of each other, and they should all have a simpatico together. They should all have nuances in terms of what channel they're in, but it's one experience. From the consumer point of view, it's just what they need when they need it. How do you make sure what you create is right for that spontaneity and human emotion?

We're talking about this new retail landscape. Could you explain how your services are helping retailers put themselves out there and succeed? Can you give any specific cases of retailers you worked with?

If I start from one of our most successful projects in the last couple of years, it's been the Topshop Splash! Project. Topshop Splash! is a physical and digital project that brought the launch of Topshop's swimwear collection to life in a way that they'd never done before.

We were approached by Topshop initially to create a visual merchandising concept for the window of their flagship in Oxford Street in London.

Rapidly, we ended up building a full‑scale water slide all the way through the store that spiraled all the way through to the basement where the swimwear collection was.

It also gave customers the chance to sit in the water slide in the window and put on a virtual reality pair of goggles and experience flowing through the store, through the waterside and out, spiraling above Oxford Street, above the sky of London, and then spiraling into this amazing fantasy beach and seeing a bit of swimwear on the way.

Shoppers were kind of taken into another dimension. We had scent in the store. We had food served that brought that summer feeling to life with candy‑floss ice cream and a company called Milk Bar who we collaborated with to do the food.

It was successful in that there was a permanent queue for the installation while it was running. It was open for 10 days, and they had queues constantly from morning to night. At the first point of measuring the metrics from three weeks after the launch, it achieved 6.5 million media impressions.

The sales of swimwear were exceptional. They did really well. It was reviewed in “Teen Vogue.” There was a big double‑spread feature in the “Evening Standard.” It was in tons of international publications.

It's a good example in that it took something quite familiar to people, like, “How do you launch a campaign for a fashion collection?” in a way that spread through every channel. It was physically really engaging, in the moment, in a store. It got lots of attention because it was in the window.

Also, just online, there was a lot of storytelling going on. People were publishing stories on Instagram and sharing their experiences. It made a real emotional connection with swimwear. It got the feeling of swimwear beyond just the products.

It was like having that really lovely feeling when you've got the sun on your body, and you're on a beach, and you're putting your bikini on or your swimming trunks.

Speaking of Instagram, are you seeing social media integrations a lot in terms of enhancing this community element that's so important now?

Yeah. When we talk about Instagram moments, it's become quite a familiar part of a brief now. What's the Instagram moment? Where's the point where you're going to do your selfie? In some cases, I think sometimes it feels quite contrived, almost like the tail's wagging the dog, the line in its brief.

This is definitely not a reflection on Topshop—I don't want to link the Topshop example with what I'm saying now. But we have had other briefs where it's very explicitly, what are the three signature Instagram moments?

It's definitely driving design work, but we rally against that a bit. It's almost to the point where, in a seaside town, you might have a pier or a boardwalk with a big postcard with two holes cut out where people put their faces and take a photo.

We've got to be wary. If the Instagram moments aren't really much more than that, they're just a very staged, obvious.

I think if we can create experiences that are really emotive and get people doing the whole story of how they feel, and what's really excited them, and seeing the whole environment from beginning to end as one potential story rather than an Instagram moment, that's how we want to approach it.

Equally, what we've been discussing and debating in the studio recently is what is going to come post‑Instagram moment—because we've seen what happened with Facebook, where there was a big fallout of people. It changed the kind of sharing element to the point where lots of people moved away and closed their Facebook accounts down.

The interesting thing is, it's almost a paradox where, yes, you want to create sparkly, incredible experiences that people share on their stories and post about. But then there can be something really powerful as well about arresting someone in the moment to the point where they can't Instagram it but they have to just live it, and be in that moment, and really have the Zen of almost switching off a bit from something that's all about every element of it being published.

That's really interesting, something we haven't heard a lot of people say. So it's really about spontaneity and authenticity before all?

Absolutely. What we've talked about a lot lately on our team is how experiences that really stood out to us have been the ones where we've had to almost go off the grid and really be immersed in something.

For me, I went to New York earlier in the year and got an appointment to visit the Donald Judd house in Greene Street in SoHo. His studio's there. We were pretty much banned from using our phones because they didn't allow any photographs. They didn't want you to put anything on social media.

For an hour, when we normally would have been looking at everything and taking photos, we weren't allowed. It was moving. It's such a lovely space. This is a stunning space that you would want photograph, but the fact that we weren't allowed to meant that we had to be in the moment.

That hour was probably the most standout experience that both of us had the whole time that we were in New York doing lots of different things.

Reflecting on that, back in the studio we talked about this idea of mindfulness and connection.You can almost see a shift on Instagram with maybe more generations there. There's a bit more curation of the things that people do share and a selection of imagery.

It might be that we're going into an era where the impact of something that can't entirely be shared has to be taken into consideration as well. I do think there's a lot to be said for a little bit of mystery where people really want to experience something and maybe there's an element that they can share, but there's a bit more that's the icing on the cake. You have to experience it in the moment.

Wrapping up, what's in store for the future of YourStudio? Are there any projects on the horizon that you can speak about? Alternatively, any trends that you think might take off in the year to come?

We're working with an incredible tea brand at the moment where we're looking at the immersive alchemy of tea, and what that means to people, and how it fits into daily life and culture, and tea tasting, and relaxation, and calm, and connection with community.

It's the idea of what happens when you share a cup of tea with someone. It's a really lovely project.

Tea time is definitely one of those classic moments of the day meant for disconnecting and being present.

It's good, isn't it? There are so many cultural associations about tea and sympathy, or sharing a cup of tea with someone, the moments when you have a bit of a breather from work. You're in the kitchen, gossiping.

We're working with the senses and thinking about bringing human passion and connection together through sense. We're working with a couple of brands on quite immersive, large‑scale experiences, one of which might be open in New York next year. It's really exciting.

We are also working with a global cruise liner on what the future of luxury retail would look like as an experience on board cruise liners. That's a project that's going to launch in 2022. That's a really forward‑thinking one. It's interesting, looking at how the cruise market's shifting and a lot more experience on board is attracting a younger crowd.

In terms of what we're doing, everything that we're focusing on is looking right inside human behavior, emotions, drives, needs and desires. Innovation with meaning, but thinking what it means at the most absolute human level.

When we were talking before about the tea or the moments of contemplation, I think in terms of what we want as humans is the ultimate sense of satisfaction, or enlightenment, or self‑understanding.

Although that sounds good in the context of retail, I think retail is not retail anymore. Retail is moving into an era of personality and what your brand means to people, where you can serve in different ways.

It makes my hair stand on end thinking of what we can potentially do with some of the brands we're working with to connect people, or form a community, or find how there can be a sense of enlightenment from something, too.

We all have so many to‑do lists in our heads, and buzzings in our pockets, and reminders of things that if we can give people a breath of something for 5 or 10 minutes of their day, that can be quite a nice, fulfilling sense of escape and maybe a connection back to themselves.

That's our biggest mission, which relates to a really nice quote I found: “Attention is the most important currency that anyone can give you. It's worth more than money, possessions or things.” That's from Steve Rubel of Edelmann.

When we're talking about attention, we should see it as definitely not attention purely in terms of, how do you get people's attention, make them buy stuff? It needs to be more, how do we give the gift of people's attention and how do we use that in a way that's really meaningful and inspirational, and culture provoking, or enlightening, or helping people connect with themselves?

Whatever we might be trying to do with any brands reduces down to how on a human level, we're doing a bit of good for the world or creating spaces that inspire positivity and enable people to be the best they can be in that moment.


Come listen to Howard share more insights at the IRL Retail Design In A Digital Age panel, part of New York Retail Innovation Week. The 45-minute discussion will explore the process of converting retail trends into living and customer-facing storefronts, and more broadly the store experience in the age of screens and other digital interfaces. Tickets available here!