I have already started to outline a shift in consumerism today, looking at the emergence of a new corporate discipline called “shopper marketing,” as well as a potential emerging corporate consciousness of the role of retail environments in shaping consumer behavior. What I find most interesting about these changes in consumerism is not just what people are buying or how retail environments do or do not shape the way shoppers think, but the changing, shifting and evolving strategies retailers employ to inform store design. This is significant because I would assert that store design plays a critical role in producing and changing culture—for example, through its influence on the food we eat or the food we even have available to us. This post addresses another major trend employed in retail strategy—innovation and design—as well as the way that the figure (or “face”) of “the anthropologist” supposedly plays a key role in innovation today.
Corporate America has been abuzz with something called “innovation” for some time now. Perhaps it was Joseph Schumpeter who was one of the first to define innovation, though I have yet to more thoroughly investigate this intellectual history (admittedly, a major gap in my research up to now). As far as I can tell though, the vast majority of retail professionals out there are largely unaware of Schumpeter, though what he articulated may nonetheless have an impact (my sense is that innovation in the past often referred moreso to technological innovation, product innovation and organizational process innovation). Still, this buzz word is contested and only vaguely defined, while also always influential and highly prized. In other words, people are not quite sure what innovation is, but they know they want it. Innovation is a golden ring, the promise of a new tomorrow, the genius concept that will somehow change everything.
An entire industry has grown up around innovation and the promise of providing innovation to boring bureaucracies and stale, old companies. Innovation is big business. And in many respects, the product they’re selling is creativity.
One of the most successful, and compelling models of this innovation industry is a firm called IDEO. Formed in 1991 and headquartered in Palo Alto, California, IDEO employs over 500 people from various disciplines. What they do is, well, complicated, partly because they are creative enough to know how to elude stereotypical business categories. Suffice it to say, they have been the darlings of the innovation industry for at least a decade now. And they have come to “own” an entire pattern of thought, called “design thinking.” While many other innovation firms exist, if you only know one of them, it’s probably IDEO.
Design thinking is an important new trend, with antecedents and influences that date back many years, but which only rather recently has emerged as a major influence in the business world—including in retail store design innovation. Essentially, design thinking is the translation of the design process to the application of business problems. Designers are, by and large, problem-solvers who seek out complex problems.
Tom Kelley, founder of IDEO, wrote a popular business book in 2005 called The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Defeating the Devil’s Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization. The first “face” was “The Anthropologist.” In Kelley’s words: “The Anthropologist brings new learning and insights into the organization by observing human behavior and developing a deep understanding of how people interact physically and emotionally with products, services, and spaces. When an IDEO human-factors person camps out in a hospital room for forty-eight hours with an elderly patient undergoing surgery—as described in Chapter 1—she is living the life of the Anthropologist and helping to develop new health care service.”
Now, if we can all just—deep breath—get past this problem of forty-eight hours = ethnographic fieldwork, I think it is important to think about this perception of what an anthropologist does and how this perceived role applies to the world of innovation. Of course, they are using our professional identity. But for a few moments, let’s look at why they are doing this. I’m basing this interpretation largely on my own experiences in corporate settings where innovation is expected—so to clarify, this is not what I believe anthropologists do or what I think anthropology is about. These corporate groups often see anthropologists as objective and non-judgmental. We sit, we watch and we just take notes. Before we analyze, before we interpret, before we figure anything out, anthropologists sit in the corner and soak soak up the scene like a mop. In doing so, we notice details that regular people tend not to, from quirky behaviors to patterns of thought. We are not influenced by the normative. We are purely curious about how the world works. In a sense then, we are purposefully naïve. We are professional strangers and professional aliens. This sense, then, of the anthropologist’s curious ability to see everything and think in a more purely rational manner is part of a mythology that makes us, in the eyes of IDEO and its many innovation followers, the first “face” of innovation. (I don’t have time to cover the whole book for you here, but the only other recognized professional disciplines named as other faces are “The Director” and “The Set Designer.”)
Much less a portrait of what anthropology is about, of course, I actually find this appropriation of anthropology revealing because it explains something about what business people are looking to do through innovation. In essence, they are recognizing the limitations of what they are currently doing, and are seeking ways to get outside of normative patterns of thought in their respective industries. They are also seeking to understand how people construct their way of doing things, their habits and routines. But these businesses seem much less interested in reading thick ethnographic descriptions, as much as they are interested in defamiliarization. As Marcus and Fischer (1986) describe this concept: “Disruption of common sense, doing the unexpected, placing familiar subjects in unfamiliar, or even shocking, contexts are the aims of this strategy to make the reader conscious of difference. Defamiliarization has many uses beyond anthropology.” And similarly, innovation begins with critique, though certainly not in the direction Marcus and Fischer, or others had conceived.
But defamiliarization only seems to lay the foundation for innovation. It is not yet innovation because it is not yet creating anything anew. This defamiliarization strategy allows a business to recognize that their current mode of operation is not the only way—change is possible. How behaviors might change is moreso the realm of the designer. IDEO, which has played a big role in shaping this contemporary definition of innovation, was originally an industrial design firm. And like IDEO, many other firms have taken on this task of “design thinking” (although this term, too, is perhaps fleeting, just a marketing fad for business development at IDEO and elsewhere). We might call this next step refamiliarization, because designers are trying to create solutions that are “intuitive” for users and already instantly make sense to people. In other words, this is a kind of process where designers attempt to produce culture.
Now, if I had the time and space to do so in this blog post, I would turn to look at more specific ways that designers—including graphic designers, interiors architects and others—have come to play an increasingly important role in the way retail stores get produced, specifically. To an extent, they have always played this role inside retail. But as a result of heightened competition in the last couple decades, more and more retailers are looking to “innovate” their spaces through design, which is something different than simply needing an architect to design store space. This is a different way to talk about grocery stores, especially, which in the past had remained relatively straightforward and simple in their design. When, for example, stores begin transferring budget money from advertising to store design because it is considered a more effective way to impact consumer decision-making, this is a sign of a shift happening. And when consumer packaged goods companies start calling on innovation firms, like IDEO, to design areas of the store environment in order to change how shoppers look at their products, this is a signpost. As a point of comparison, consider the design of a Whole Foods Market to the old mom and pop grocery stores of yesterday. Clearly, changes have been afoot.