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Yet, how can we appraise the way a store looks? How can we quantify aesthetics the way we do other aspects of store performance? Our inability to answer these questions with any accuracy often prevents store aesthetics from being recognised as an essential contributor to other valued metrics used to analyse performance. But that may be about to change.
Science makes the business case for beauty
What we declare beautiful is often thought to be in the realm of personal opinion; however, this may not be entirely accurate. Studies have shown there are cross-cultural similarities in what faces we find attractive. Our attraction to symmetrical facial features, for example, seems to be universal, shared by cultures that have never interacted with one another. Delving deeper, recent findings in the field of cognitive neuroscience reveal the neural processes occurring when we encounter something beautiful. As scientists unravel the mysteries of our brain, the experience of beauty is becoming quantifiable. This field of research, known as neuroaesthetics, may challenge the idea that beauty is subjective.
Such research validates the business case for a well-designed, beautiful store. Science is now confirming what many designers already knew – that aesthetics matter. Aesthetics can communicate brand value; for example, customer value in discount stores is delivered through price, range and in some cases, convenience. However, these stores’ lack of aesthetic consideration or investment in beauty often limits how connected a customer feels to the brands, and the level of loyalty and trust they are willing to devote to them.
In contrast, pharmacy delivery app Medly has opened a waiting room for picking up subscriptions in Brooklyn, New York. The small room uses a subtle blend of material textures and turquoise tones to create a calming space with a premium yet technical feel. The furniture, fixtures, and materials reference a spa and hospital, combining the restorative and medical aspects of health services.
Good retail design provides an experience that educates, facilitates social interactions, allows feelings of momentary escape, or provides a highly efficient purchase. The greatest quality of beauty is the ability to enhance all these store objectives. Beauty has the ability to improve the success of all retail experiences.
If beauty can heighten the connection or emotion that a customer feels during a store experience, then this creates a deeper connection to the retail brand. This, in the end, should be the overarching goal of the physical store: to create an environment that connects the customer to the brand.
Neuroaesthetics enhances the business case for beauty
Along with the emerging idea that beauty may be objective, neuroscience now enables researchers to quantify an individual’s response to beauty, by measuring their neurological and physiological reaction to an environment or object. These measurements occur in the controlled conditions of a research lab and cannot be generalised to any individual store, nor to design broadly. However, they do legitimise the argument that aesthetics are incredibly important.
Neuroaesthetics opens the door to understanding how we respond to design, and what we respond to in the world around us. It confirms that we do respond to beauty in significant ways, and that we are biologically predisposed to do so. It is in our nature to be attracted to, and affected by, the way things look.
Our attraction to beauty is reflected in the way societies make landmarks out of buildings that hold no significance other than their aesthetic qualities. This is because we value a thing consistently through time based on the way it looks. For example, Copenhagen’s Skovshoved Petrol Station was built in the 1930s and remains a local landmark to this day. The Arne Jacobsen-designed building is defined by its unique ellipse-shaped roof canopy, connected to a simple modern structure clad with white tiles. Unlike other, more utilitarian petrol stations, people keep coming back to Skovshoved because of its iconic aesthetic.
Beauty is an emotional and rewarding experience
The visual stimulation from beauty affects the reward systems in our brain. Reward systems reinforce the likelihood of repeating behaviour that brings us pleasure. We are literally attracted to beauty. It’s a positive force to which we are drawn. Applied to store design, this might equate to an innate biological desire to be in, or revisit, a physical space we find pleasant. Our brain reinforces our connection to that environment. Brain regions responsible for regulating emotions are activated when individuals look at an object of beauty. So we now have evidence that beauty elicits an emotional response.
Whether intentional or not, Apple masterfully incorporates the emotive power of beauty into its store experience by using historic buildings to house new stores. Buildings such as the Los Angeles State Theatre or Rome’s Palazzo Marignoli provide a striking juxtaposition to Apple’s carefully considered design language. The design of these buildings is technically not on-brand, yet they cause people to marvel at their incredible stature and ornate detail. Their beauty evokes emotions, and Apple is leveraging this beauty to create trust and loyalty through brand association, essentially repurposing beauty for the brand’s benefit.
Applying neuroscience to interior spaces
Designers have always understood the emotive potency of aesthetics. The best designers consciously and masterfully use forms and materials to elicit feelings and emotions. Now, neuroscience qualifies the idea that the look and feel of a space can be used in this way. An empirical understanding of how people are affected physically and psychologically by objects, shape, scent, light, and space, could transform the applications of interior design, including retail spaces. The psychological relationship we have with these elements of the built environment has been the realm of ‘neuroarchitecture’. Rather than interpretations of beauty, neuroarchitecture is concerned with how architectural elements such as form, space, and natural light influence our wellbeing.
People are more likely to assess some shapes as pleasant and others as unpleasant. In a 2019 study1, people were asked to rate different categories of architectural window shapes while their neural activity was recorded. Round and circular geometry was found to be more pleasant than triangular geometry. The study found that geometric shapes influence our emotional state and brain activity, further confirming that aesthetics have an unconscious influence on our perception. A 2017 study2 found that there is a difference in how we are affected neurologically by linear versus organic contours. Participants’ neural activity was monitored as they walked through interiors in virtual reality. They were more likely to judge curved forms as beautiful than sharp, rigid forms. Such research illustrates that the surrounding built environment is embedded with layers of meaning that influence us subconsciously.
Some things are communicated most clearly by being seen, felt, or otherwise experienced. The Bund Post Office in the Zhejiang province of China uses design to communicate its important stature. The meticulously designed space recognises that the post office is a place for community members to share gifts, memories, and events. The designers recognised that post office services are often related to celebratory times, such as cultural holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries.
No words communicated in-store, by signage or by staff, could deliver layers of meaning with such depth.
Retail needs neuro-experiences
The field of neuroarchitecture is an example of how neuroscience and psychological science have informed and shaped building design. Ultimately, architecture is richer for it. Retail design should take a similar step. The future success of physical retail is no longer just the store and the merchandise; the real value of retail will come from how brands combine these elements with the experiences they provide, and with neuroaesthetics. We could call this ‘neuro-experience’.
Note that beauty can improve store dwell time and translate into a deeper brand connection. The Assembled Market is a supermarket in Changsha, China, that provides a shopping experience in which customers learn about food and preparation, but also have social encounters around communal dining areas. Rather than prioritising shopping speed and functional access, this supermarket focuses on community, where the design and aesthetics encourage an experience in which users enjoy spending time.
Retail designers should be considering how a physical experience affects us on a physiological and neurological level. How does a physical experience affect customers emotionally? What are the implications for customers psychologically? These are complex questions, but the road has been paved to begin exploring the answers. Brands or designers that can extend design thinking to this level of sophistication will reach previously untouched heights in retail design, and unlock unseen depths of connection between brand and customers, using the physical space.
We hope the growing understanding of psychology and neuroscience will serve to embolden retail businesses to place a higher priority on store beauty and, likewise, encourage designers to consider how beauty can enhance store function. Designers need to feel the gravity of what it means to design a physical environment. The stores we design are not just spaces to sell or experience products or services. They are spaces that can make people feel emotions. They can change us psychologically and physiologically – that’s an incredibly powerful thing. This is the highest level of impact a brand can possibly imagine. And it serves as the strongest business case for a beautifully designed store.
1 Naghibi Rad, P., Shahroudi, A. A., Shabani, H., Ajami, S., & Lashgari, R. (2019). “Encoding pleasant and unpleasant expression of the architectural window shapes: An ERP study.” Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 13, 186. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2019.00186
2 Banaei, M., Hatami, J., Yazdanfar, A., & Gramann, K. (2017). “Walking through Architectural Spaces: The Impact of Interior Forms on Human Brain Dynamics.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11, 477. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00477
This was originally published in the Inside Retail Asia November 2021 issue of the quarterly magazine.