As a successful small-business owner, you've probably nailed down the key moving parts of your company—location, inventory, staff training and advertising. But, do you feel pretty?
I don’t mean prancing around your office or store like Maria in West Side Story (although that might earn you some free media attention). I mean, how attractive are the various elements of your business—your location, products or website? To borrow from Sondheim again, are they so stunning and entrancing that customers can’t help but stare?
If not, you’re missing a key opportunity to capture and retain your customers' attention. Studies show all of us are hardwired to appreciate beauty. Even newborn babies spend more time focused on pictures of attractive faces versus plain ones. Taking the time to build beauty into the various elements of your business will ensure a good first impression to capture customer, and sometimes even media, attention.
“Just because it’s a law office or dentist office doesn’t mean you can’t focus on the same things as fashion design,” says Julia Lovallo, a New York City-based marketing and design consultant. “In fact, if you have a staid overall aesthetic—a basic brand—focusing on aesthetics is one way to give yourself an edge over your competition.”
Numerous small-business owners who recognize the power of attractive design have created arresting visual impact for their websites, offices and products in a variety of ways. And all say that the investment has set them apart and been valuable in attracting attention.
Workplaces That Wow
“Clients can glean a lot about us just by walking in the door,” says Tyler Smith, president of Traction Marketing Group in Oklahoma City. Smith took over the ad agency in 2006 from his father, who started it in 1974. When he took the reins, Smith moved the agency to a warehouse space that he rehabbed and designed himself, with spectacular results.
The 6000-square-foot warehouse had 30-foot ceilings and a typical warehouse “feel” that Smith decided to run with. Now mocha and lime green walls warm up the lobby space, which features a ping-pong table and low-voltage spotlights highlighting colorful wall art. Shiny ductwork snakes along the high ceilings, with a skylight brightening the loft work spaces.
Smith was a fine arts major, so he felt comfortable driving the money-saving design himself, which included choosing $2 door hinges to use to hang artwork in the lobby. “’Pretty’ is a hard word for me as far as intention,” Smith says. “But the colors—that’s where pretty came in. We wanted people to come in and say, ‘Yeah, this is what an ad agency should look like.’ We wanted it to scream ‘creative.’”
Not to say Smith didn’t hit a few snags with the design. “The big thing we didn’t think about was we don’t have any windows,” he points out. “That hit me about three-quarters of the way through the build-out, and I thought maybe people were going to go crazy without windows.” After his eight-person team had been in the space for a year, Smith finally mentioned the lack of windows. “Nobody had ever processed that or thought about it,” he says. “That’s when I knew the design was successful.”
Traction has been featured in several media stories, and has been said to be a tiny version of Google’s much larger and more expensive offices. The attention not only attracts customers but helps Smith pull in creative-minded employees from the Oklahoma City area. “The type of people we try to hire are people who value this type of space very highly,” he says. In addition, client requests have pulled Traction into an entirely new line of business—helping other companies express their brand image in their own office design.
Dreamy Digital Design
There’s no law that says law firms and other regulated or staid service industries can’t inject a little creativity into their marketing materials. The trick is to take your cue from your client base, as attorney Katerina Duarte did.
Duarte’s New York City-based firm primarily represents clients in the fashion and entertainment industries, and when she started the firm in 2012, she designed a website to help attract that client base.
“I studied industrial psychology as part of my undergrad,” Duarte says. “Whether we like it or not, visual aesthetics are very important. For example, when I go to court, people come up to me and say ‘You must be a fantastic attorney because you have great shoes.’ People’s perception means a lot.”
Duarte’s striking website features black and white photographs of iconic New York City locations. “Why would a lawyer put a picture of a gavel on a website? Lawyers don’t even use gavels,” she says. “When you think of New York City, you think of women wearing black, or black and white. It’s an aesthetic that appeals to me, and it really just provides an attractive visual.”
Duarte paid $15 per image for works from New York City photographer David Beckerman and designed the website herself using a Squarespace template. “I had to ask myself as a business owner, am I wasting my time spending money being girly? Making things pretty when it’s really not necessary?” Duarte says. “Then I tell myself marketing expenses are a legitimate business expense, and a TV commercial can cost millions of dollars, because they work.”
Duarte says one of the first things new clients comment on is her website. “It sets me apart from other firms,” she notes. “It makes my clients and potential clients feel special because it’s geared toward them.”
Though success in the fashion industry is most-often predicated on eye-catching design, there are plenty of utilitarian wearables that don’t seem to cry out for prettying up. Yet when an enterprising startup brings a design sensibility to a plain product, it often impresses customers. Consider the cute kitchen gloves, bibs and aprons from Flirty Aprons. Or how Dansko’s edgy colors and prints reenergized frumpy clogs.
Road Holland is bringing the same vibe to a somewhat neglected corner of athletic apparel: cycling gear. “Most cycling clothes are just plain ugly,” says Jonathan Schnieder, who co-founded the company in 2010 with his childhood friend, Richard Grossman. “Lots of loud, logo-emblazoned gear.”
Traditional cycling gear is typically skin-tight spandex covered in bright primary colors and team logos. The designs are great for professional Tour de France riders, but not so much for weekend cyclists who may want to grab a beer or coffee after a ride.
Schneider, who lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, was inspired by the cycling culture in Holland, where avid cyclists wear regular-looking clothing on rides. Road Holland jerseys look a bit like polo shirts, come in black, white and orange (Holland’s national color), and are made from soft, wool-blend fabrics.
“We focused on color, clean elements, stripes and fit,” Schneider says. “We don’t want people to look sloppy. I’m a preppie at heart, so I like to think about that aesthetic. A preppie person is always put together, but there’s an element of ruggedness that also goes with our clothes.”
Schnieder’s redesign of an existing utilitarian garment has attracted a client base of “real world” cyclists, people who don’t aspire to race like a pro, logging hundreds of miles a week. In other words, the product design is an extension of the brand’s image. “We’re not about the suffering,” Schnieder says. “We’re about the enjoyment of the ride.”
Beautiful Customer Spaces
Although Garden Spot Village is a nonprofit retirement community, like many of today’s nonprofits, it has clear business goals. “We work very hard to attract people when they're young enough to make the decision themselves [about their housing] versus a family member making the decision for them,” says Scott Miller, the nonprofit's chief marketing officer. For Garden Spot, design is a key differentiator that helps it reach its targets.
“This was intended to be a place where people go to live but also participate in a larger community,” Miller says “So our spaces, like the gardens, are well-designed and open. And internally, our spaces are wide, open and inviting. That whole idea of design for the spaces is very important.”
Based in New Holland, Pennsylvania, Garden Spot has a series of formal gardens that include flower beds, seating arrangements, waterfalls, ponds and tree swings. The organization employs a full-time landscaper to design and maintain the 104-acre grounds. Residents can plant their own flowers in mulch beds near their residences or volunteer to help care for community flower and vegetable gardens.
“We may be a retirement community, but high school students come here to have their senior photos done,” Miller says. “We do wedding photos and weddings also—people of all ages come here to get married because of the environment.” This helps Garden Spot in its goal to attract a younger demographic to the campus, Miller says “so when they're thinking about post-career years, our environment is very inviting.”
The design aesthetic carries over to the interiors as well, where large open spaces were designed to create gatherings. The large entry atrium, for instance, includes an indoor garden, a cafe and grouped seating spaces.
“What we see is important is just creating great good spaces,” Miller says. “Spaces that attract people where they want to come, sit down, talk to each other, engage in community. It’s not only important that the space itself has those characteristics that make people want to gather, but it must also be well-designed and beautiful so people are attracted.”
Miller says Garden Spot attracts visitors from all over the world who want to study the design and learn how to apply it to retirement communities in their own countries. And business is booming: The campus houses just under 1,000 residents, 22 percent of whom moved in while they were in their 50s and 60s. Garden Spot’s occupancy rate is just over 97 percent, compared to an industry average of 92 percent.
Keeping It Simple
Beautiful design doesn’t have to break the bank for small businesses, says designer Lovallo. She suggests focusing on three cost-effective areas that have the best potential for big impact:
1. Color. “Color is a free way to add visual excitement," Lovallo says. "You can change colors seasonally, add it to a logo, and use it as a design tool to give excitement to what customers are looking at.”
2. Stock photography. “Photography can be expensive, and it takes planning to map out what you need, hire a photographer and edit the photos,” Lovallo says. “An alternative is stock photography. Stock now is getting a better rap, and one of my favorite resources for a pretty low cost is Stocksy.”
3. Collateral. “Keep it current," Lovallo advises. "For your signage, brochures, etc., the number-one thing is be seasonal or talk about latest offerings. They have to be updated—nobody wants to come into an environment with old sale signs or brochures on display with old imagery.”
No matter your industry, every small business can benefit from the addition of a little primping. As modest Maria discovered when she put on her new party dress, a few small changes can definitely attract the right eyes.
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Photo: Getty Images, Courtesy of Katerina Duarte, Jonathan Schneider (2), Courtesy of Garden Spot Village (3)