Ron Singler has possessed a talent for creative problem-solving from a young age, originating from his studies in the Fine Arts. Today, Singler is a Senior Vice President at CallisonRTKL, the leading retail design and architectural practice, where he uses his expertise to create environments for some of the world’s most recognized brands and successful retailers.
To discover his key to success, MiND delved deeper into his career progression, his personal highlights, and what advice he would give for those with a similar interest in the world of design.
Tell us about your start in the architectural industry and how you came to be at CallisonRTKL?
RON SINGLER: First I studied Fine Art. I have a background in retail visual merchandising and I was a Creative Director for an apparel company for some time. It’s quite a different background from most of the people in our practice.
I originally joined our environmental graphic design group about twenty years ago, when entertainment retail was very important and architecture practices were looking for people with diverse backgrounds to come in and give them a shot of energy and help create experience-rich environments. A few years later, I moved into our Retail Studio as a creative director to work with retailers like Williams-Sonoma and Nordstrom. I was involved in many projects – from small retail shops to large home goods stores – while also working on large projects overseas. Over my career, most of my work has been in speciality retail and department stores.
Your focus at CallisonRTKL is department stores. Can you tell us how that differs from other clients of yours?
RON SINGLER:: My clients are fairly evenly divided between specialty stores like Williams-Sonoma and department stores like Nordstrom. Both are consummate, highly successful retailers who understand their brand, their customers and their businesses. But they differ in scale. Both are wrestling with many of the same issues: to stay ahead of trends and the changing nature of retail, to integrate technology, to engage the consumer with an authentic, seamless shopping experience and so on. But they go about it in different ways. Department stores have layers of engagement across a broader array of products and services. Specialty stores have just as much complexity but they tend to go deeper into that specialty product line. Each handles similar challenges but approaches those challenges through different narratives.
How do you see department stores evolving?
RON SINGLER: Perhaps the biggest issue is flexibility. Being able to anticipate on-coming change, adapt and get ahead of the competition. Department stores used to be about fixed elements, programmed architecturally to manage product categories and different types of business lines. Now, you see a pivot to flexibility. It’s about being nimble: product location, storytelling, the ability to reframe their in-store presentations without having to renovate completely. So, as designers, we need a tool kit that allows for this. In many ways it’s a lot like stagecraft or theatre design—where you can easily and simply adapt and create different points of view.
Accessibility is another issue, and I mean this in the broadest sense. It’s no secret that online shopping is growing, so brick-and-mortar stores have to offer something beyond the transaction. We want customers to get to their purchases easily, quickly—and have a pleasant, enriched experience along the way. It’s that experience that will set apart successful department stores.
And then there is differentiating from the competition. Those department stores that simply present a random collection of brands often don’t have a point of view that today’s customer is looking for. These are places focused on the transaction rather than a value today’s shoppers seek, whether that be style or quality or a level of service. If you come into retail competing on a transactional level, you are going to lose to the online sites because they can be cheaper and get product to you quicker. The point is that successful retailers create different, unique and special — you can’t get that online. I think when you look at Nordstrom, you can see they are heading down that path more than others.
How do you see technology developing in the stores?
RON SINGLER: Every client asks me this question, so I don’t think it’s something that has been completely figured out yet. To me, technology is not about a video wall. Or even a great on-line sales channel. It’s about the customer taking charge of the environment and the experience. Consider the device in the customer’s pocket [mobile] and the ability for them to access information wherever they are, without them having to figure out other technology in-store to get that information. To me, that’s the advantage.
We are always talking about things like recognition systems. They can understand you, they see you come in and then they start adapting the environment to the types of things you may be interested in based on your preferences. I think it is less about making people engage in a digital experience but allowing customers to select the way they want to engage with the device they feel most comfortable with.
The other thing is that technology may be involved in a way that helps the brand. That experience—adjusting lighting, sounds, scent, all those things—may be connected to some sort of technology that helps reframe the environment. More atmospheric and less direct to marketing and promotion.
What is the most important aspect of a successful relationship between client and architect?
RON SINGLER: The biggest thing for me personally is to have empathy. It’s being able to understand what motivates each individual relationship and finding ways to deliver the best possible service. It involves very clearly understanding the client. Understanding what motivates them and having empathy for their problems, needs and desires.
In a small retail environment, you usually have two or three people that have the vision and it’s easy to connect with them and deliver what they are looking for.In bigger organisations, there may be five or six people with ideas on direction. It could be Marketing, Services, Facilities or Real Estate; you have all these different groups and you need to have empathy and understanding for what each one of them wants to achieve. A lot of times we find ourselves in the middle, trying to bring these people together and get them to where they want to be.
Do you think art has an influence in architecture and retail design?
RON SINGLER : Yes, I do. There’s a great architectural mastermind series online and one episode focuses on a Frank Gehry presentation. He talks about programming and all the specific things that need to go into designing and creating a building. But there is always at least 15 percent of that process that comes from an art perspective. And what he mostly focuses on is that 15 percent—it brings humanity to each project. So for me, I started out saying, we have to deliver a drawing that gets a client excited about an idea or an experience. Why not leverage art or an expression of that sketch or idea?
We were doing a project in the Middle East, and for the original design concepts, we were inspired by an artist’s drawings from the early 1500’s—the drawings had textures to them. They were drawn with a fine, black pen and so we drew the environments with thin sketch pens. They looked great in black and white but when you layer in a colour behind them, softly, it gave an expression of a place that had real energy and movement. It was a completely different point of view than just a standard sketch or rendering. We are always trying to find ways to offer intellectual property or some layer of art or humanity to the work we produce.
You are passionate about mentoring junior designers; what piece of advice would you give to those starting off in the design field?
RON SINGLER: Develop a diversity in skills and an ability to think with a broad perspective. Learn to draw with your hands and with your computer. Understand constructability — but be sure to create an emotive place. Continuously work on deepening your listening, writing and presentation skills. Your ability to be empathic and be a good communicator will result in long lasting client relationships. The more you can put into your toolbox, the better.