Spatial design is a relatively new term that emerged about a decade ago and expresses the idea that people, design and environments all connect together is the primary idea behind spatial design. The concept defines the relationship of people to environments through the use and application of design principles and is specifically oriented toward space-location, denoting an active response toward the creation of efficiently operating environments that serve the purposes and needs of people. Quite a mouth full to be sure, but the underlying idea is relatively simple – environments are complex and elements are interconnected, from furniture, to fixtures, to cultural understandings of space. If you have a retail space, every element works as part of a complex system of meaning. Design well and you increase loyalty and sales. Design poorly and people shy away.
Spatial design focuses on the flow of space between interior and exterior environments both in the private and public realm. It also looks at spaces within a larger context (e.g. “safe zones” within a store). The emphasis of the discipline is on the interrelationship between people and space, particularly looking at the notion of place and place identity.
Whereas space refers to the structural, geometrical qualities of a physical environment, place is the notion that includes the dimensions of lived experience, interaction and use of a space by its inhabitants or visitors. We cannot escape spatiality: as spatial beings, we live and meet each other in space. That means we do more than fill a space. It means all space is defined by social interaction and the cultural interpretations we bring to the environment before we even enter it. Space never is meaningless. Our body is the central reference point for perception and culture is the filter through with interpret a space. Movement and perception are tightly coupled and we interpret spatial qualities (or positioning of other objects) in relation to our own body. Spatial qualities therefore have cultural and psychological meaning – space can feel protectively enclosing or claustrophobic, objects and people are near or far, large objects tower over smaller ones. Spatial qualities inform interactions, creating or reinforcing how we interact with others, including sales staff.
So why does any of this matter? Because a retails space, like any space, is less likely to engage if it is difficult for customers to assign meaning to it. Creating a sense of place – memory, cultural cues, mythology, meaning – transforms the location into a destination. That means increased visits over time, greater loyalty, advocacy, and more sales. Retailers need to consider their environment in broader, strategic ways. How can different notions of place help us to understand collaborative practices within existing environments? How do we design for supporting collaboration and social interaction within retail spaces? What meaning does and can the retail brand hold for customers? That requires thinking, planning and a commitment to research that goes beyond the numbers.