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Designing by Instinct

For some, a job is just a job. For others, their career is their passion. For Brian K. Priest, it is a basic instinct.

"I always tell people I can't imagine doing anything else," says Priest, creative director and vice president with Oak Park, Ill.-based Schafer. "I love what I do. I like the opportunity to take thoughts and translate them into visuals or design that other people can understand."

Ironically, Priest only recently entered the world of retail design. Prior to joining Schafer in 1996, Priest was an art director with an advertising and marketing agency, and previously worked in several other fields.

"I was looking for another challenge," he says. "Graphic design, interior design and architecture have always been fascinating to me. The opportunity to work in a firm with all those disciplines, and then combine that with my background in marketing and advertising, was a perfect mix of all the things I enjoy and appreciate."

As creative director, Priest oversees graphic designers and interior designers. Priest does some design himself, but spends most of his time with the initial strategizing at the start of a project. The store design strategy involves not only the interior design, Priest says, but also the entire message behind the store.

For example, for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra store on Michigan Avenue, set to open this fall, Priest and his team must consider the store's mission. The store is the first retail outlet for the CSO, but the brand is already established. The design, as well as all other aspects of the store, will serve to promote classical music and the CSO brand.

"We will develop the name of the store, the logo, the interior design, the exterior, the graphics and how we're going to communicate to the customer," Priest says.

The store will have interactive areas throughout, to teach people who don't usually go to the symphony about classical music. A giant projection wall with state-of-the-art sound equipment will be a vehicle for education, showing current events at the symphony and stories about the conductors.

Unlike the symphony store, other projects require Priest to help rebrand or reposition an existing retailer, like the work that Schafer is currently doing for The Athlete's Foot. The athletic shoe retailer wants to further develop the image it has already established as the fit experts. The store will aim to educate consumers about the technology of shoe fit and performance, while remaining customer-friendly with a sense of humor. The idea is similar to Apple Computer's high-tech computer, the iMac, presented with a light-hearted attitude, Priest says.

"If you look at it like a hierarchy, the name and the logo is at the top, and then the other communications and visuals in the store are below," Priest says. "These are usually the things that affect the consumer, and we have an opportunity to change them."

Whether an existing or a new retailer, every part of the store is important in conveying the brand image to the customer. "Everything in the store - all the words, the vocabulary, the graphics, the interior, the paint colors - helps to sell," he says.

For this reason, Schafer considers its work as being far more than interior design. "We're trying to actually term what we do," Priest says. "We're looking at environments as marketing tools. It's like walking into an ad, like stepping into a billboard. The store is the biggest marketing tool a retailer can have."

Rather than studying retail design and architecture magazines, Priest finds inspiration from other sources. "Sometimes I may pick up a wallpaper magazine, or a home design magazine," he says. "I look at how consumers are behaving, how people are talking today, what visuals are stimulating people and what topics are hot. Good designers today have to be aware of trends."

* Favorite retail stores Gap and Old Navy: "(In both) the experience is the same no matter where you go. It's consistent. They know their customer and they know how to speak to them."

* Favorite retail projects The Athlete's Foot and Chicago Symphony Orchestra store: "As retail is changing, we are reinventing how we approach projects. These two are definitely springing to life our philosophy on retail design."

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