This is the second blog in a four part series on design studios. The first post addressed selling the right products in your store. Now we’ll take a look at environment, which plays a crucial role in creating the place where home buyers select products to turn their chosen floor plan into a home that reflects their own personal style.

As home building emerges from the downturn, beautiful and up-to-date design studios are becoming more common. The goal is to create an impressive, customer-focused place that streamlines decision-making and increases revenue. The good news is builders are increasingly aware that a design studio store needs to be more in line with current retail trends. But the bad news is that in creating a space with flash and dash, brains can get sacrificed for beauty. An effective design center is based on a thorough understanding of how home buyers make decisions. If you don’t have that, your customer will suffer—in addition to your efficiencies and bottom line.

A great design studio has both beauty and brains. It’s a visually inspiring environment that supports the selection experience.

 1/ A Design Center Is Different Than a Retail Store
 A store in a mall grabs shoppers’ attention and pulls them through as much of the store as possible. The aim is to keep visitors on-premise for as long as possible with as many distractions as possible and prevent them from leaving until a purchase has been made. Also, a retail store is usually a serve-yourself setup. It’s up to the shopper to intuit how to interact with the products.

On the other hand, a design center is its own special breed. It’s all about focus, control, and reducing distractions. Home buyers must enter the store and then walk through its entirety, accompanied by a consultant to guide them. It’s crucial that buyers aren’t overwhelmed by all the decisions they’ll need to make. Essential are a home buyer’s clear understanding of products, their ease of concentration on the choices at hand, an atmosphere that inspires creativity and investment, and moving through the decision process efficiently as possible.

Orleans Homebuilders' re-branding prompted them to redesign their flagship design studio as a prototype to be used nationwide. To embody the new “Simply Happy” branding, the new studio features circular ceiling and floor details, cheerful colors, and an easy, flowing floor plan. Uncluttered white walls and photos of smiling faces bring “Simply Happy” to life. 2013 National Gold Award Winner, Best Design Center. Builder: Orleans Homebuilders, Philadelphia; Design Studio: Success Strategies; Advertising Agency: Cecelian Worldwide (Photo Courtesy Orleans Homebuilders). 

2/ Process and Goals Should Drive Everything
Because a design center is different than a retail store, a different theory of retail applies. Every decision in configuring a design center should be driven by knowing exactly how it will result in a positive experience for the customer and an increase in your bottom line. Otherwise, buyer frustration and lengthy, inconclusive appointments will be the result.

Acadia Homes & Neighborhoods bold tagline, “Prepare To Be Inspired” is their Design Gallery theme and buyer promise. The design studio delivers with a welcome lounge featuring four diverse style galleries, and an up-to-date, broad selection of home finishing products on every floor, wall, ceiling, and counter surface. Builder: Acadia Homes & Neighborhoods, Atlanta; Design Studio: Success Strategies (photo courtesy Acadia Homes & Homebuilders).

3/ Products Should Be Highlighted (But Not Outshone)

Quadrant Homes' design studio was created to support their “Built Your Way” philosophy. White displays eliminate clutter and direct focus to product choices. Builder: Quadrant Homes, Seattle, Wash., Design Studio: Success Strategies; Merchandiser: Cynthia Higgins Design (Photo Courtesy Quadrant Homes). 

Provide simple, graceful access. Buyers need to be able to see a product clearly, understand it quickly, and interact with it easily. Displays should be open and accessible, with large-scale samples positioned at the appropriate height and angle. The design center should have several comfortable, well-lit work areas for buyers to sit down and enjoy selecting cabinets, countertops, and flooring. In a positive situation like this, a buyer’s creativity and confidence will be stimulated.

Interactive tools should be simple to operate. The only time products should be behind closed doors is if they’re the second part of a decision or if the home is so high-end that the buyer is working with an interior designer on sourcing products and making selections.

This cabinet display is spot-on. It minimizes the distance between samples, keeping the focus on the product. It shows both the door and drawer profile for this visual sweep--the first point of decision-making. Inside each cabinet are removable samples, which can be moved into the adjacent interactive display so can compare choices of cabinet, counter, backsplash and flooring. The result: more engaged buyers who make quicker decisions. Builder: Schell Brothers, Rehoboth Beach, DE; Design Studio: Success Strategies; Merchandiser: In-house (Photo Courtesy Schell Brothers). 

Create displays with appeal. Don’t use just any rack your supplier drops off. Be strategic about the height of the samples on display, especially when it comes to safety and visual importance. Think carefully about the angle at which the products are viewed and how much of each sample is visible. Put time into assessing the amount of linear space you’re allocating a particular group of products versus the financial return on that investment of space.


Recognize the power of vignettes. In A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Daniel Pink distinguishes between left and right brain decision-making. Much of what he says relates to design center strategy. While a showroom vignette satisfies the right-brain part of decision-making (emotional, holistic, synthesizing), a product display satisfies the left brain (compare/contrast). Imagine shopping for a new car. Comparing a charcoal-toned upholstery swatch with an espresso-colored one is a less compelling experience than seeing the floor model fully upholstered.

Eagle Construction’s Home Gallery, the 2012 National Gold Award Winner for Best Design Center, was created to take full advantage of heavy traffic outside in Richmond Virginia’s live/work/play center. Strategically designed views of kitchen vignettes pedestrian traffic into a Welcome Center which then leads to a tour of the Home Gallery. Builder: Eagle Construction; Design Studio: Success Strategies (Photo Courtesy Eagle Construction). 

A common mistake in many design studios is that kitchen vignettes face only the front door. While this makes a strong impression up-front, don’t just go for the ‘wow’ in the first minute. Instead, have vignettes that are visible from several different viewpoints so that they’ll continue to pack punch as visitors work their way through the design center. When a home buyer stands in front of the cabinet and counter displays, contemplating that dream kitchen, there’s great potential for them to get motivated. A smartly done kitchen vignette is educational and inspirational.

Devote more space to products that:
—deliver financial returns
—matter because they offer big impact (cabinets, countertops, backsplashes, and flooring)
—need more space to be properly understood (brick and stone samples, shower tile patterns, shower systems)
—are jump-off points for other product decisions (cabinets, flooring, stone, or brick)
—can’t be easily explained using an on-screen presentation (anything with a finish, color, or texture that has to be seen and felt in person)
—need to be seen together (bathroom counter, sink, faucet, bath accessory package).

4/ Maintain a Consistent Message
Too many design studios appear as disconnected elements to the rest of the customer‘s interaction with the builder’s brand. When the door to the studio opens, the customer should feel a continuation of what the builder stands for. Just because a certain look or feel works for one builder’s design studio doesn’t mean it’s the right solution for your design studio and your market. For example, builders who cater to value-conscious, first-time home buyers probably won’t have much success with a design center full of flashy reflective surfaces and high-end products. In that case, the builder needs to go for a message of “compelling yet achievable.” Consult with a design studio professional who understands the kind of homes you sell, who your customer is, what your brand represents, and what your business goals are.

An effective design studio is both beautiful and brainy. It combines the science of consumer purchase psychology and retail theory with a visually stimulating environment that fuels a buyer’s desire to create a dream home.

 Shea Homes' strategically-designed displays showcase various mantles and surrounds in meaningful ways that help buyers say yes or no. The staircase and lighting gallery provide smart return on investment of floorspace by showing carpeted vs stained vs painted stairs, various railings and lighting fixtures in enticing and substantial ways. A 2013 Silver National Award Winner for Best Design Studio. Builder: Shea Homes, Charlotte, NCDesign Studio: Success Strategies; Merchandiser: HRI Design, Denver (Photo Courtesy Shea Homes).

Design center expert Jane Meagher is president of Success Strategies, a design center consulting company that serves builders throughout the country. She's based in northern New Jersey.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Atlanta, GA.