The Shopping Mall and the Design Process

Approached by a certain mall developer, they proposed a project that would have the design team creatively re-envision the future use of the shopping mall and vacant mall spaces. Throughout the course of the project, the design team became aware of the client's self-perceptions, analogies, and words used to convey their ideas and business plans. While collaborating with the client, the project proposal changed. It now incorporated informational design of the client's business language. Information design, a human centered designer's bread and butter, is the process of making sense of the bigger picture and succinctly conveying these ideas both visually and verbally. In essence, it involves storytelling to persuade the client to understand who they are, what they do, and how they do it from a different perspective. The following paragraphs recount my experiences and viewpoint as part of this design team.

The design team's first step was to dive into historical research in order to understand the origins of the mall and the shopping mall as we know it today. 

The mall's original purpose was to be a community center. Victor Gruen, considered to be the founding father of the mall, was inspired by Greek agoras, Trajan's market, and medieval marketplaces. These public spaces played several roles for the people living nearby. Not only did they serve as a place to exchange goods but also as the location to share ideas. These places were the hotbed of culture and political debate. Gruen was hoping to turn the mall into the basic unit of urban planning and to transform society via the way it's organized.

Obviously, this is not what the mall has become. One of the reasons his vision failed is because he didn't anticipate the boom of the car industry. The car ushered in an age of streets, highways, and endless parking lots. The mall was now surrounded by a sea of parking lots, turned into an island separated from the rest of the community. Another reason his vision failed is because developers picked up his idea and made the mall synonymous with shopping while discarding other cultural roles it could play.

Developers leased large spaces to department stores; and in turn, the department stores would attract people to these locations, acting as an anchor for the mall. An anchor in the mall industry is a department store that attracts nearby residents and smaller tenants to the mall. And as long as the anchor was stable, it made the shopping mall a profitable business. The mall model eventually turned into a pioneer-follower mentality. One store would attract a herd of similar shops, resulting in the same brands appearing in every shopping mall.

Fast forward towards the end of the 20th century, we begin to see the decline of the suburban shopping mall. Failing department stores, the wealthy leaving the suburbs and returning to the inner city, and the rise of the internet has brought about the current situation with most malls; their anchors are failing causing the entire ship to be lost at sea. The shopping mall's story and historical baggage has created a framework of analogies that underlies the mall's business model.

While designing and researching for the client, we became aware of the stories the client used to describe their mission, the way they engage with the community around them, and their overall organizational structure. After several meetings and more than two dozen interviews, the design team realized that re-envisioning a mall space on behalf of the client would not result in a worthwhile outcome for them. The client's self-perception, the stories they told themselves and the analogies they used to make sense of their business was inhibiting them from implementing a creative outcome for their malls.

In light of having learned that the client already possessed the creative talent and resourceful experiences, the design team proposed a new project. The team would address the client's concerns by working alongside them in order to leverage existing resources to meet their future needs by changing how they perceived their resources. This process involved bringing to the attention of the client the stories and analogies used to describe themselves and the world around them. As a result of the non-disclosure agreement we signed with the client, I'm not going to discuss what analogies were used or the conclusions that we came to. What I can tell you is that we shifted the focus of the client by giving them examples of how one can re-frame their analogies and stories to make sense of the bigger picture. This began a discussion on their business model, which will lead to a series of forums led by the design team to develop an in-house method for the client to creatively envision the future of the shopping mall.

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Update: The project has continued on to a second semester.