As physical and digital spaces converge, digital experiences will happen at an architectural scale. The cost of acquiring new customers for digital-native brands has skyrocketed, driving marketers to move their efforts offline. However, simply showing up and placing a product on a shelf is not enough. In today’s digitally-focused marketplace, consumers demand physical spaces that continue a brand’s narrative through personalization, experience, and convenience.
When we saw the innovative design of Ever/Body, we needed to find the creatives behind the concept, which led us to Brooklyn-based Cactus, best known for its digital and experiential projects for the likes of Samsung, Beyoncé, and Nike. Part architecture studio, part software engineering firm, part innovation consultancy, Cactus is a hybrid design firm that builds new experiences, products, and services through collaboration, iteration, and calculated risk.
BeautyMatter caught up with Eric Harvey, Cactus’ Art Director, and Marcelo Pontes, Cactus’ Head of Architecture, to talk about their design practice and the future of spatial design.
You describe your work as the intersection of digital technology and physical architecture. What does this mean exactly?
MP: We should see digital technology as something intrinsic to our lives today—like the air we breathe. At the same time, all these new technologies are in front of us, which presents a challenge about how we manage technology in our surrounding space. This relationship between evolving technology and an ever-present reality of physical space provides a need to consider architecture and digital technology in tandem.
The Cactus practice is far from traditional, living in this space between digital and physical. How does technology impact the design process?
MP: Technology is a path, a tool, a need, to work in favor of a bigger idea. We need to use technology to expand our natural limitations. The most important advancement in the following years will be the usage of artificial intelligence to think and help predict scenarios and possibilities that can’t be analyzed by a single brain. This will have huge impacts on design decisions and procedures. It’s a new kind of design “renaissance.”
What comes first—the technology or the design?
MP: Technology and design walk together in the process. We cannot allow one to be bigger than the other. There needs to be a harmonious balance, so the end product creates a bigger message than just technology and design could separately.
Many digitally native brands are exploring physical touchpoints. What advice do you have for businesses that are contemplating moving from digital to physical articulations of their brands?
EH: A true justification for a physical presence is key. In today’s digitally-focused marketplace, placing a product on a shelf is not sufficient. A brand’s footprint should serve to elevate the customer experience or enrich the narrative between brand and consumer, and customer to customer, in a way that digital cannot. Fully embracing the power of physical space, the interior design psychology, and the direct interactions it offers will help guide brands to physical experiences that build true brand value.
As it relates to the beauty and wellness categories, what do you think is the future for spatial design in both the retail and service context?
EH: We think it is the responsibility of beauty industry leaders to abandon tired messaging and unachievable standards in favor of creating open and honest channels of dialogue with customers that serve to build supportive networks and stigma-free social communities. It’s our job as designers to ensure that the physical and digital environments surrounding those brands foster this dialogue, and this seismic shift, into a refreshingly new realm of beauty and wellness.
You were responsible for the design of the Ever/Body concept. What are your favorite elements of this project?
MP: It’s truly hard to select one or two favorite elements. One overarching theme would be the idea to deliver one single message that crosses over several platforms, from the digital to the physical. But, if we need to choose one, the concept to create a room (the pod where the consultation happens) in a way that allows fast installation in several venues, is a notable element as it relates to the idea of making the entire experience as accessible as possible to the largest group possible.
What do you feel is the most important aspect of creating immersive/experiential space?
MP: The most important thing is to decide what you want to communicate; what is the message? We cannot let the technology, spatial decisions, and the physical design itself be the first thing selected. All of our designs are in favor of a bigger message.
What’s the biggest change we’ll see in spatial design in the next 5-10 years?
MP: The biggest change is related to a new question: How can we create a space flexible enough to accommodate the evolving needs of day-to-day life? We will need to use new technologies to discover new solutions, and incorporate real collaborative work and AI tools to expand the limits of our imagination.
What do you think are the biggest mistakes brands make when they launch branded retail stores? Who do you think does it well?
MP: The biggest mistake is when a brand thinks more about an idea of what they want to emulate, instead of what they inherently are and what sets them apart. A brand may say they want to be similar to Nike, so let’s build something that looks like a Nike Store, instead of realizing their own brand has a unique personality and deserves a unique solution. It’s related to the conflict between what you think you are and what you really are.
What’s your shortlist of favorite retail or service spaces?
EH: We often return to the Aesop retail experience for inspiration. The brand’s uncomplicated, yet refined aesthetic allows for endless translation into physical space and creates an ever-evolving narrative for the brand. The physical manifestations of the brand are a true celebration of texture and material, with great attention to artistry and detail.
Are there any exciting projects you have in the works that you can discuss?
MP: Normally our projects require a level of confidentiality that we, unfortunately, can’t talk about before their launch. We can talk about another project that we delivered recently; the design for a climbing studio, Rise Nation. There is an innovative new architectural lighting system on the ceilings of the studios that corresponds with the flow and energy of each individual class.
When you get a creative block, where do you turn for inspiration?
EH: Our propensity to approach projects holistically and focus on the convergence and interrelation of its parts often brings us back to the highly sophisticated and balanced systems designed by the natural world. Infusing those learnings and inspirations into the built environment aids us in designing more cogent, compelling, and surprising outcomes.
Photo: via Cactus