• Insight The ROI of aesthetics


Beauty as a business case

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Retail is an industry driven by metrics. Decisions are rarely made without the analysis of data, in the hope of minimising risk. It is used to evaluate a store’s performance and to inform decisions about store design. But can retail’s obsession with data be distracting?

It is tempting to focus entirely on the more quantifiable aspects of store performance, but in doing so, we may lose sight of more immeasurable aspects of design: describing how a store looks and how it makes us feel. A reliance on data may be inhibiting appreciation of the value of ‘look and feel’, or at least recognition of its importance.

Yet, how can we appraise the way a store looks with any accuracy? How can we quantify aesthetics in the same manner we do with 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.

Customer value in discount stores is delivered through price, range and in some cases, convenience. However, the lack of aesthetic consideration or investment in beauty limits how connected a customer feels towards these brands and the level of loyalty and trust they are willing to devote to them.

The science of beauty confirms a designer’s intuition

Beauty can be a combination of qualities that give pleasure to the senses or the mind. However, here we are predominantly concerned with how aesthetic qualities are perceived through sight. In relation to store design, such qualities might be shape, form, texture or colour. Consensus about what is beautiful is often thought to be in the realm of personal opinion and varies according to an individual’s preferences. However, this may not be entirely accurate.

Studies have shown that 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 subjective nature of beauty.

The business case for a beautiful looking store is now validated by the research being undertaken in the field of neuroaesthetics, and in turn, this validates designer's intuition. From our previous work on the ‘value gap’, we understand what people value in a store experience. While price, value and convenience are high on the customer’s agenda, they also value how a store looks, largely because of how it makes them feel. Science is now confirming what many designers already knew - that aesthetics matter.

Aesthetics can communicate brand value. Pharmacy delivery app Medly has opened a waiting room to pick up subscriptions in Brooklyn, New York. The small waiting 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, which combine the restorative and medical nature of health services. (credit: Medly Pharmacy by Sergio Mannino Studio)

Neuroaesthetics enhances the business case for beauty

Neuroscience enables researchers to quantify an individual’s response to beauty by measuring the neurological and physiological response to an environment or an object. These measurements occur in the controlled environment of a research lab and cannot be generalised to any individual store (or design broadly). However, this does 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. What is crucial about neuroaesthetics research is the confirmation 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 based on their aesthetic qualities. For example, Copenhagen’s Skovshoved Petrol Station, which was built in the 1930s, remains a local landmark to this day. Unaltered and operational, it continues to attract people, and is visited as a design icon rather than for its practical purpose as a petrol station. People return to it because it rewards them with its presence.

Beauty ensures longevity. Designed by architect Arne Jacobsen in the 1930s, the Skovshoved Petrol Station is located on the outskirts of Copenhagen, Denmark. The building is defined by its unique ellipse-shaped roof canopy, connected to a simple modern structure clad with white tiles.

Beauty is an emotional and rewarding experience

Neuroscience explains why we are attracted to beauty. The visual stimulation of beauty affects the reward systems in our brain. Simplified, reward systems increase the likelihood of repeating behaviours that bring us pleasure. The link between aesthetics and reward systems explains a human desire to be connected to beauty. We are literally ‘attracted’ to beauty. It’s a positive force we are drawn to. Applied to store design, this might equate to an innate biological desire to be in, or revisit a physical space. Our brain reinforces our connection to that environment. Importantly, brain regions responsible for regulating emotions are activated when individuals look at an object of beauty. So we now have evidence that aesthetics, or beauty, elicits an emotional response.

Whether intentional or not, Apple masterfully incorporates the emotive power of beauty into their store experience by using historic buildings to house their 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 designs of these buildings are technically not ‘on brand’, yet these buildings 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. They are essentially repurposing beauty for their own brand’s benefit.

Apple has recently been reusing historic buildings to house new stores. Aside from an obvious design and conceptual juxtaposition, the ornate detail and grandeur of buildings, such as the Los Angeles State Theatre, are highly emotive places. Apple can synthesise these feelings into their own store experience.

Translating 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 impacted physically and psychologically by objects, shape, scent, light and space, could transform the applications of interior design. The psychological relationship between 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 different shapes as pleasant or unpleasant. In a 2019 study1, people were asked to rate different categories of architectural window shapes are 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 cortical activity, further confirming that aesthetics have an unconscious influence on our perception. This may be due to embedded meaning in symbols that have been reinforced over time, or results may have a deeper biological/evolutionary root, such as some shapes inspired by imagery of nature. Lending to this explanation, a 2017 study2 found that there is a difference in how we are impacted 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, in comparison to sharp rigid forms. Such research illustrates that the surrounding built environment is embedded with layers of meaning that influence us subconsciously.

Beauty is a language perceived through our senses consciously and subconsciously. Some things are communicated most clearly by being seen, felt or experienced, engaging a more comprehensive range of senses. The Bud Post Office, located in the Zhenjiang province of China, uses design to communicate the important stature of the post office. The meticulously designed space recognises that the post office is a place for community members to share gifts, memories, and events. No words communicated in-store, by signage or by staff could deliver layers of meaning with such depth.

Beauty can transform a preconception. The Bud Post Office in Zhejiang, China, uses aesthetics to elevate the meaning of a postal office and place greater importance on its place in the community. The designers recognised that post office's services are often related to celebratory times such as cultural holidays, birthdays or anniversaries.

The need for Neuroexperiences

The field of neuroarchitecture is an example of how neuroscience and psychological science has informed and shaped directions and consideration within building design. Ultimately architecture is richer for it. Retail design should take a similar step. Given that the future success of physical retail is no longer just about 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 neuroexperience. 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 implication 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 unlock previously unreached heights in retail design, and importantly, unlock unseen depths of connection between brand and customers using the physical space.

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 where customers not only learn about food and preparation, but also have social encounters around dining areas. Rather than prioritising shopping speed and functional access, this supermarket focuses on community, where the design and aesthetics encourage an experience where users enjoy spending time.

Beauty enhances everything

There are many consumer missions that motivate a shopper. 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 other store objectives. Regardless of the store function or corresponding customer mission, beauty is the linchpin enhancing all 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 within the total ecosystem of a retail brand: to create an environment that connects the brand to the customer.

We hope this growing understanding within 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. The gravity of what it means to design a physical environment needs to be felt by designers. The stores that 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 this serves as the strongest business case for a beautifully designed store.

This article first appeared on Inside Retail

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