There’s No Place Like Home
How Culture-based Design Approaches Drives Value
During a recent weekend walk in Buffalo Bayou, I listened to an episode of Product Love, which featured design thought-leader Nik Parekh. During the episode Parekh mentioned his latest book, The Future of Extraordinary Design, which focuses on challenging norms in the design industry, including standardization. Many organizations standardize their design to enable scale. If you’re a coffee drinker, think of every Starbucks you’ve ever been to. Though the mugs that are sold may be different, the layout, aesthetics, and background music of Starbucks locations are very much the same. However, according to Parekh, changing consumer trends show that people value a bit of “local flavor”.
As a native Houstonian, I’ve begun to feel tied to the ‘Be Someone’ sign on the downtown overpass, the smell of Buffalo Bayou on a Saturday morning, and many other quintessentially ‘Houston’ things. Like me, many people feel a deep tie to their culture or community. Because identity and culture are so closely intertwined, there is value in starting from a deep understanding of a culture in the design process and organizations should use this lens to shape their customer experience strategy.
Acknowledging culture in the design process can bring people in, towards your product or service. In the podcast, Parekh cites Apple stores as an example of culture-based design. Though the service experience in most Apple Stores is largely standardized, Apple has begun to bring a community aspect into their architecture and their value-added services. The Apple store in Dubai is a great example of this. The architecture of the store was inspired by the traditional Arabic mashrabiya, a projecting window with a wood lattice screen that provides shade from the sun. In the Dubai Apple store, the mashrabiya inspired screens open to reveal a view of Dubai attractions such as the Burj Khalifa, and when the sun is at its peak, the screens close to provide shade. The design of the store acts as an attraction in itself, as do many other locale-inspired Apple Stores. Apple also launched its Today at Apple program in the Dubai Apple Store. The program aims to cultivate community by bringing in experts to host workshops around photography, design, music, and more. By directly acknowledging the importance of culture and community, Apple is able to bring potential consumers into their stores, even if they don’t have a purchase in mind.
Using a culture-based approach can also foster connection between your brand and your consumer, keeping them engaged. Enoteca Maria, an Italian restaurant on Staten Island, started by hiring grandmothers from regions across Italy as chefs who cooked on a rotating schedule. The concept was based on the cooking of the owner’s own grandmother, an Italian woman who shared her culture through cooking, and that authenticity is woven into the core of the business. The restaurant has since expanded to include a rotating menu of grandmother-chefs from countries around the world. Every day features a different menu, but it’s always rooted in generations of culinary tradition and the comfort of a grandmother’s cooking. The cosmopolitan but deeply cultural elements of Enoteca Maria make the restaurant feel authentic, and restaurant-goers feel a connection to the food, no matter the cuisine. The popularity of the restaurant reflects the successful brand Enoteca Maria has created.
Though valuable, culture-based design is a choice that adds complexity to the design process. Cherry-picking cultural design elements without intentionality can lead to cultural appropriation and harm the brand’s perception. Organizations that successfully navigate this nuanced space conduct deep research and engage in partnership with the community in question. An example of this is Nike’s Nothing Beats a Londoner campaign, where Nike conducted research to understand London youth and involved them in the creative process. The result was the ad below, which was wildly successful and kicked off the beginning of a multi-year partnership between Nike and organizations that support London youth sports.
To truly provide value, culture-based design must be a holistic approach, including an understanding of culture, historical context, and the effect of a design on the local community. This may require additional skill sets outside of the typical design team, but the increased level of consideration is worth the effort. When consumers see their culture, community, or identity reflected in a company’s brand story, it creates a powerful emotional connection to the brand — reminding consumers that there’s no place like home.