The Shape of Things

The Shape of Things

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, guest columnist Jared Diamond wrote about the world champion Chicago Cubs. But this wasn’t another story about breaking curses and changing perceptions of lovable losers, it was about the shape of the Cubs’ new clubhouse: a circle.

As Diamond correctly notes, this round shape design, which “might seem like a minor detail…provides deep insight into one of the most progressive franchises in all of sports.” Namely, the circular clubhouse layout promotes unity and equality among Cubs teammates, fostering collaboration, sparking conversations and creating more opportunities for serendipitous encounters. While you might assume a 25-player roster gets to know each other well over a 162-game season, that’s not the case in most baseball locker rooms. Instead, position players segregate into cliques, and starting pitchers may even separate from relief pitchers. The rectangular shape of most clubhouses facilitates these partitions.

According to pitcher Adam Warren, who played with the New York Yankees before joining the Cubs for the 2016 season, the round clubhouse was the right fit for the internal culture the Cubs wanted to build: “It’s just the vibe you get when you join that organization…That’s what they preach: team unity. It was already part of the culture, and [the clubhouse] helped bring it out.”

When members of a group encounter a form they know, they also know how to behave in or engage with that place—they recognize it, even if just on a subconscious, implicit or subliminal level.

This is the power of what I call culturally recognizable forms. These are places, shapes, forums and formats that are part of a shared taxonomy among members of a given society, community, “subculture” or tribe. When members of a group encounter a form they know, they also know how to behave in or engage with that place—they recognize it, even if just on a subconscious, implicit or subliminal level. In cultural anthropology, we’ve developed a set of theoretical concepts over the years to describe how people categorize and classify everything, in order to make sense of the world. Groups share common categories and classification systems. These systems constantly change and adapt to reality. They can be political and they can be the source of debate, conflict and reflection. They can include objects, people, places, animals or literally anything. These systems create meaningful distinctions for us, and they suggest and guide our relationships between things. Categories structure our worlds of meaning. And the rest, the stuff that falls outside the category system, is noise.

Through Shook Kelley’s design process, we often play with culturally recognizable forms in two ways. Our purpose is to create more instantly meaningful experiences, by producing new cultural meaning or channeling existing cultural meaning. First, we interrupt. In everyday life, we take most of what we experience for granted. We get conditioned to the everyday because if we didn’t, we would never make it out of our bedroom in the morning. So sometimes, by altering a recognizable form just the right amount, we can disrupt expectations and grab attention, but without confusing or disorienting. Once we have a person’s attention, that can open opportunities to consider new behaviors. Second, we transplant. In other words, we may transfer some recognizable concept from one place and stitch it into a different context. That’s especially useful when we introduce a component into a place unexpectedly, but the transplanted component serves as an intuitive tool to guide or prompt specific behaviors.

Let’s look at a few examples of both.


Consider the traditional box format of a gas station convenience store, an industry that consists of more than 154,000 stores around the nation with annual revenues of $575 billion (including fuel sales). Without a brand logo and exterior sign to distinguish one convenience store from another, the shape of these stores are virtually identical: a small box hiding behind a canopy of fuel pumps. 

One design strategy, among several, involved breaking the traditional convenience store box.

Several years ago, Shook Kelley partnered with Thorntons, a gasoline and convenience store chain with over 165 locations in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee and Florida. The aim of the project was to develop a prototype store concept that could transform the brand’s perception and distinguish it from competitors. Thorntons recognized the need to improve their food offering, more in line with the quality offered at the best convenience stores in the nation, such as Wawa and Sheetz. But how could the store itself help reset customer expectations and allow Thorntons to distinguish its brand from the legions of typical convenience store competitor boxes and their old hot dog rollers and nacho cheese pump formula? One design strategy, among several, involved breaking the traditional convenience store box.

The result at Thorntons is a two box format. Though a single building, from the outside Thorntons looks like two boxes merged together. The Thorntons prototype literally departs from the traditional convenience store box, and brings two forms together to communicate a different experience perception. While Thorntons continues to offer many solutions customers come to expect, the newly outlined red box design introduces a bigger space for fresh food and a broader selection of drinks. The new design breaks the mold of the convenience store, but builds on it, too.

So, what is the result of the new form at Thorntons? Admittedly, it’s difficult to tie behavior change to form or isolate any individual factor in the prototype, which represents a complete makeover. But by all measures, Thorntons prototype stores have been an enormous success. Customer counts rose 36% in the new store formats. Food unit sales grew by at least 15% or more in selected locations. Drinks skyrocketed 81% in unit sales. And somewhat surprisingly, the new locations even saw significant growth in fuel sales, increasing gallons sold by 26%.

Of course, Thorntons is not the only brand that is disrupting our expectations of a place experience. Considering the presence and weight of a typical supermarket store form—an enormous 50 thousand square foot plus size box with even larger expanses of parking lot out front—it should come as no surprise that new format food retailers, such as Aldi and Trader Joe’s, are not only providing a different product mix, but they’re doing so in a smaller box, which is both more human-scale and rectangular. These new smaller boxes can also be placed in different configurations to the street, neighboring retailers and parking. While these new boxes run some risk of surprising consumers who might be initially confused, they soon become reminders of how different these food brands are, compared to the traditional grocery store.

Consider the unique serpentine shopping layout found at home furnishing retailer IKEA.

And looking on the inside of a space, consider the unique serpentine shopping layout found at home furnishing retailer IKEA and the premium gourmet food retailer Central Market. Home furnishing retailers and supermarkets share some similar environmental qualities: vast spaces filled with a seemingly countless repetition of objects. But IKEA or Central Market disrupt our expected shopping style behaviors, as they direct us through our shopping routes. There are shortcuts to provide alternative routes, but these just rearrange the trip. Shoppers still must confront each zone in a way that is more like moving through a house—walking from one room to the next—rather than drifting through a vast sea of product. Here, the disruption doesn’t necessarily slow people down, but it certainly requires that shoppers engage with products and these brands in a different way.

While we could also look at product packaging examples, or nearly any other category of objects today, from the smartphone to the automobile, let’s turn now to another way to play with culturally recognizable forms.


In recent years, brick & mortar industries, including many retailer and service providers, have introduced cafe zones into their environments. Shinola, maker of “Built in Detroit” watches, bicycles and leather goods, created a Shinola Cafe in some of its retail spaces. The custom motorcycle builder, now fashion lifestyle brand, Deus Ex Machina has stores around the world with spaces for cafes and galleries, to celebrate a culture of creativity. Umpqua Bank in the Pacific Northwest has reinvented its financial center, calling it a “neighborhood store” that provides engaging space to browse merchandise, shop online, enjoy a cup of coffee and learn about community events, all in addition to banking, of course. Capital One Financial launched their entry into the Boston banking market by creating six marketing offices they called “cafes,” designed to resemble coffee shops more than banks. Bookstores have long been ahead of the curve, with Barnes and Noble opening a Starbucks inside of its store back in 1993. And fashion retailers, from Burberry to Gucci to Ralph Lauren, have begun introducing cafés, bars and restaurants to their stores. There are even more potential examples out there.

Many retailer and service providers have introduced cafe zones into their environments.

People mostly ask Why? Why all the cafes? And there are many theories on this. Some say cafes boost dwell times; that people want more community, and it can only happen in the real world; that shoppers want more engaging and memorable shopping experiences; that cafes can help brick & mortar spaces better compete against online retailers (i.e. Why go to a store when I can just buy online?); or, that more people are eating more food more often in more places.

But I’m more interested in How? We know that (nearly) everyone knows how to behave in a cafe. And this instant recognition can alter the routine experience of any retail or service environment, creating hybrid behaviors and combination mindsets, which may or may not have any of the desired effects outlined above. Will people dwell longer? That’s likely. But will a cafe prompt them to invest in mutual funds or purchase a new pair of jeans? Big maybe. It really depends on how each of these stores and centers choreograph a broader experience that matters. The process of taking one recognizable form—here, the cafe—and stitching it into a new context is not an exercise in figuring out a new “look” for the environment. Retailers and service providers need a coherent place strategy for how they want people to behave. A Starbucks, for example, might not be the best match for a bookstore these days, because people tend to move through a Starbucks relatively quickly, not taking time to sit and read a book. But many other cafes today are quiet places for co-working, which may not be helpful for a fashion retailer that wants people to get curious about their latest style.

Consider the inverse relationship. At the restaurant chain Le Pain Quotidien, they feature a long wooden table near the entrance, a cue for diners that this brand is all about communal eating. Not everyone is going to eat at the long table, but the table becomes a symbol for the brand and a cue for how to behave in the environment. The solution is simple and intuitive for eaters. So intuitive, that it can be easy to neglect the strategic intent behind this social transplant.

Harley-Davidson, another great brand that Shook Kelley has had the privilege of working with, has also introduced cafes throughout their network of dealerships. But there is another transplanted experience component I want to talk about here.

The Parts & Accessories department is one of Harley’s most important sales zones in the dealership. Of course, owners need parts and accessories to repair or maintain their motorcycles. But “P&A” has a greater significance for Harley riders because no one rides a non-customized factory model Harley. That would just be weird. Customization and personalization is how riders discover, reinvent and/or continually refine their identity as a member of the Harley tribe. So, P&A is much more than a transaction, it’s a key moment in building Harley culture.

We reinvented the Parts &Accessories service counter by making it more like a bar.

That’s why we reinvented the P&A service counter by making it more like a bar inside the Harley dealership. The bar is, of course, a quintessentially social place, where people can let down their guard, meet up with old friends and make new ones. And within the social hierarchy of the bar, the bartender plays a special role. At the new Harley P&A bar, the “Parts-tender” becomes the ultimate insider and local authority, the man every rider wants to know and be recognized by. He’s the coolest guy in the room. So essentially, we brought a “Cheers” into the dealership. All the design details prompted different kinds of behavior and mindsets at P&A, compared to what we saw happening before. Instead of a transactional task-focused behavior approach, riders began to engage the parts bar in a more social and casual manner, lingering and getting more comfortable there.

Understanding how culturally recognizable forms work is one potential pathway to retail innovation. Identifying, acknowledging and then playing with these forms can create opportunities for surprise, engagement or resetting expectations within environments. It’s about rethinking design in terms of shape and social behavior.


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