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Winning Concepts in Retail Design

An Interview with Charles Freestone

Retail designer Charles Freestone shares strategies for creating award-winning design bids.


"In retail display, it’s about breaking out of the ordinary to get your products noticed quicker than any of the other brands around it."

Charles Freestone - I am a retail designer, specializing in concept creation and concept sketching. I have been in the retail design industry for thirty years.

As a bit of background, and so you get a sense for how the industry is, I graduated with a design degree from university in Stoke on Trent in the midlands of the UK, and started working in retail design straight from university with a mid-range design agency. This company designed and produced all types of retail displays and merchandising.

Starting as a junior designer, I tried to get myself noticed by finishing other senior designers’ visuals. As 5:30 pm came and staff started leaving for home, I stayed on and finished visuals, attempting to add to the presentations as much as possible. We used marker paper and the old glass-bottled “Magic Markers.” It was difficult, most visual presentations were heading to London and the big names — L’Oreal, Kenwood, Pretty Polly and Yardley — so the designs had to be spot on. I was a junior in the business so I was mainly clearing desks in the studio, sweeping up and refilling marker pens.

Concept sketches for a simple false eye lash counter unit.

After a year, I was up to producing my own work to present, and being young and keen to impress, I was getting noticed. A year later I was approached to work for another up-and-coming agency, so I jumped at the opportunity. I was approached again by a new agency two years later, full of talent and people I had worked with in the past. But this was different, I was now on their level. I was the fourth person into this new company; within six months there were fifteen staff, in another six months we were at thirty. When I left the company nineteen years later, I was a Board Director and Creative Director, with a team of fifteen designers and another fifty staff members in the company.

By this point it was time for a new challenge, so I left the company, sold my shares and started my own agency. I ran the company with my wife Alison for eight years. Working for clients all over the world, we produced everything we designed — shops, floor-standing displays, on-counter point-of-sale units and exhibitions.

A year ago we decided to sell the company and concentrate on 100% of the design service, creating WOW Design. As a freelance designer, I offer creative concepts and sketches for companies such as US-based L’Oreal and UK companies large and small. Most of my new work is for startup companies who need the expertise without the huge fees of a larger agency. It suits both parties.

POP UP Discovery bar within a retail store — a table top designed to ‘pop up’ to allow customer to have a consultation whilst browsing in the shop.

Standing Out From the Competition

Over the last fifteen years, competition in the retail design business has been immense. The three or four companies that were successful in the late eighties and early nineties suddenly had teams of designers, salesmen and production controllers leaving in groups to set up their own companies. It meant the new agencies were all going for the same type of clients — beauty, healthcare and fragrance companies were now being pitched to by ten agencies rather than two or three.

Answering the client’s brief is the easy bit, but making your work stand out from the rest is where you need to get your head in gear and look at the whole project upside down, inside out. In retail display, it’s about breaking out of the ordinary to get your products noticed quicker than any of the other brands around it. I suppose I have this knack, the ability to look at it in a mirror to see something that nobody else has seen.

Back wall design concept drawn on site, colored on a train, sent to client via email within an hour after leaving store on site visit. Very quick, a bit scruffy, but got the client’s approval!

Having the ability to get ideas down as quickly as possible, keeping it looking confident and slick is also a challenge. Many agencies rely on computer-generated CAD visuals, which don’t get me wrong are fantastic — but to get the client to sit up and ultimately wow them at the start, you cannot beat some hand sketches.

For years we were stocking the cupboards and plan chests with A2 and A3 marker pads, Copic marker sets and Copic nibs and inks, spending thousands every year to get the next best marker pad, best pens and markers. On a typical project, I would use twenty sheets of A3 paper, five black felt drawing pens, fill fifteen marker pens with fresh ink… and I was one of four visualizers, working on six to eight project each and every week.

Salon Kiosk layout created for shopping centre in London, rough design sent to client for initial approval of size and product placement.

Approaching a Project

The client brief will be over email, or I will meet a client and discuss their requirements. I will be given products, advertising and any information that is relevant for that product. All USPs, benefits and color information will be given, and there may be a certain style or shape the client is keen on. This said, nine times out of ten I will answer their brief completely but will also show other routes that I feel would make the products stand out more in store.

I will always play with the rules. If a department store says we cannot break out of a certain size or area, we will always push the boundaries to make the client’s brand stand out and ultimately engage the shopper.

Electronics display stand, initial sketch designs.

Any additional boards toward our presentation also help — mood boards, image boards, fashion-style boards… it’s so important to ensure that the concept sketches are backed up by some real pictures, to share what can be achieved in metal, wood and plastic.

Simple display stands for garden tools.

It’s always good to consider the client budget at the very start of a project. This enables you to plan the concepts — more creative often means more money required to build the displays. Then there are the new ways of creating displays that stand out — digital information screens, interactive screens, tablet style product info panels, holographic images — anything to get the customer’s attention and get them to spend that precious thirty seconds to make them consider the purchase.

Window fascia and product display podiums, drawn on site for client to have ideas of what it could look like whilst on street viewing the actual store front.

Concepts and WOW Design

When creating design concepts, I use the iPad Pro 12.9” with Concepts, Adobe’s Creative Suite (mainly using Illustrator and Photoshop), and a 27” Apple iMac. If I’m away from my office, I also use a MacBook Pro which helps for presentations, etc.

The best tool in my designer toolbox is without a doubt the iPad Pro with Concepts. I have not used a piece of paper to design on for over two years, and the ability to be able to create something quickly and add images, color, client logos, figures and my own logos for presentation sheets is just amazing.

This allows me to work very quickly and send my designs straight to my iMac in the office, or direct to the client via email. Having my company logo saved to my iPad, I can add this to designed pages, therefore protecting my work.

Color concept sketches for Maybelline.

When I look at what some designers create with this app, it’s amazing. My work is quick, sketchy and sometimes a bit scruffy, but the ideas work and the thought process can be followed throughout the process. Thankfully, my clients love the concepts and the speed of response, and this allows me to take the project further, utilizing my contacts in creating 3D rendered visuals from my sketches.

Design concept created for floor standing unit in store to merchandize travel-size products, designed to look like a travel trunk and case. Produced and delivered to store.

Concepts has allowed me to create retail concepts on the train, in cafes, in client offices, anywhere in the world. The app has changed the way I work, and I really cannot work without it.

Anything I would change? I would like a bigger iPad so the drawing area is bigger. Hopefully that will come, Apple? I like the look of the Microsoft Surface Pro, but am worried about getting used to the different hardware as I have been a Mac user for twenty years!


Charles Freestone has been a concept designer in retail and branding for over 25 years, designing for companies such as L’Oreal in the US and UK, Samsung, Clarins and many more brands. Creating design concepts originally on reams of paper, Concepts on the iPad Pro has revolutionized the way he works, designing quickly anywhere in the world, right in front of the client on site or over a cup of coffee.

Interview by Erica Christensen


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