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Rational vs. Emotional Design

Furniture World Magazine



How do we want our brands to make people feel? “That question is an excellent entry point for designing any retail environment or experience,” says designer Julia Calabrese.

For this installment of the Design & Designer series, Furniture World spoke with Julia Calabrese, ASID, Global Design Manager, Ford Motor Company. Calabrese was recently recognized by ASID as a rising leader in its 2022 Ones to Watch program. Her empathy-led, science-backed design philosophy has applications in all types of retail, including home furnishings retailers.

Her Career Path

Calabrese’s career path might have landed her in the furniture industry as a residential designer. “At the tail end of 2008, right in the middle of the Great Recession,” recalled Calabrese, “I was on track to becoming a residential interior designer. My parents were concerned about job insecurity along that path, so I took their advice and enrolled at Eastern Michigan University, majoring in psychology. About halfway through the program, I reconsidered and enrolled at the Art Institute of Michigan, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Interior Design while working as a design consultant at a Thomasville Furniture store.

“After graduation,” she continued, “I joined Czarnowski Collective, an experiential marketing creative agency. There I worked closely with our client General Motors to adapt GM’s brand presentations at auto shows to specific international audiences in countries from Canada to Dubai. The plan for each show, which varied in size and audience, was an expression of our vision for the brand.”

Understanding Brand Design

“Many people understand brand design primarily in terms of logos, colors, fonts and physical products. What we did at Czarnowski was relate the essence of a brand to human experiences. We asked the question; How do we want a brand to make people feel? And in turn, how do people actually feel about that brand? Where is the intersection between the two, and how can we use design to transition people from the feelings they already have about it, to the feelings we want the brand to elicit?”

In 2017, Calabrese was hired by Ghafari Associates, a company that did workplace strategy and design for Ford Motor Company. In 2020 she was named Global Design Manager - Workplace and Retail at Ford.

“At the time, Ford was working on the first iteration of its Dearborn master plan, which totally reinvented the way Ford employees work. I was hired to help build a team of in-house designers and architects,” she recalled.

Home Furnishings Connection

Furniture World asked Calabrese how her experience in the auto industry is relevant to home furnishings retailers and their customers.

“Brands and retailers in each of these industries require an understanding of consumer behaviors and how to tell impactful stories about their brands,” she replied. “It doesn’t matter if it’s automotive retail or furniture retail. How brand stories are crafted is incredibly important.

Pictured above is the “library area” design near the entrance of a Ford pilot dealership in China, the result of a collaboration between Ford and Ghafari. It has lowered ceilings, a hospitality bar and comfortable upholstery to foster exclusivity. Elements of a typical retail experience that elicit stress were removed to help give customers permission to feel in control of the sales journey.

“To do it well requires an understanding of your brand’s purpose, its target customers and of the emotions you want customers to feel about your brand. With this framework in place, storytelling can build powerful emotional connections.

“At Ford, getting to this understanding began with the company’s purpose statement. Ford’s one-sentence statement, ‘To help build a better world, where every person is free to move and pursue their dreams,’ was surgically dissected to build the groundwork for meaningfully correlating Ford’s purpose with emotions we planned to elicit through design.”

Building Human Connections

“Consumers increasingly seek out brands that align with their values. This helps them to feel alive, heard and valued. Brands, in turn, can harness the power that comes from building connections to individuals and communities to create positive associations with consumers.”

Calabrese added that these emotions can be addressed at many levels including showroom design at the level of employee-customer interactions.

“From the perspective of front-line retail associates, understanding how your brand has decided to connect with customers and communities begins by understanding the brand ethos. What is the brand’s essence? Why does it exist? What’s its North Star?

“At Ford, we are considering how we can retrain dealership staff to approach customers without preconceived notions about what shoppers are looking for or who they are. In other words, to connect with empathy. The goal is to get salespeople to come to the table with a mindset that they are there to help build a community as opposed to just making a sale. How to get them to take the time to listen and be empathetic is still a million-dollar question,” she mused. “I believe that a good place to start the process in any organization is at the top. That alone can reorient companies toward promoting empathetic mindsets.”

Toward this end, Calabrese suggested that Furniture World subscribers read “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters” by Kate Murphy, part of her suggested 2021-2022 reading list shown in the sidebar on page 28.

Anthropology, Psychology...

Calabrese says that three disciplines, anthropology, psychology and neurology, when considered together, provide the best potential to create positive outcomes for any brand.

“The broad stroke transformation I most enjoy in the home furnishings space is the emergence of confident consumers who don’t shop for what matches or what’s predictable.”

“Neurology,” she explained, “has to do with the way our brains process information—how they take in and perceive the world. It speaks to the decision-making process people use to purchase a new sofa and what makes a choice feel right. Psychology is the behavioral outcome of that process.

“The final piece of the puzzle is anthropology, which looks at communities and groups of people. It helps us to understand why a particular geographic region will likely be interested in a brand; its style, price-point, sustainability profile or another feature.

Think Tank Solutions

“I recently moved from Detroit to Texas and furnished a home. The furniture store experience wasn’t much different than when I worked as a design consultant at Thomasville Furniture years ago. I haven’t seen a lot of innovation in the way that furniture is sold, displayed, talked about and engaged with in physical stores. There seems to be a lot of room for improvement.”

Furniture World asked Calabrese to describe what Ford does to explore ways to innovate. That can be a challenge for furniture retailers who grew up in the industry, network with similar retailers and get information from their reps.

“At Ford,” Calabrese responded, “to expand our field of view we’ve found that hosting Think Tanks are an excellent way to move the needle forward. Like many others in 2019 we were faced with a big question. What is the future of work? To find out, we put together a think tank that included roughly equal numbers of participants from Ford as well as subject matter experts from outside the automotive industry.

“The external participants ranged from doctors and anthropologists to a woman from NASA. Assembled were innovators in technology and experts in collaboration tools. This diverse group brought with them a range of experiences, backgrounds and knowledge we could never duplicate in-house. The results were profound, and we were able to formulate a solution that will take us through the next 50 years.

“Our last think tank was so successful that we’ve convened another one to address the future of retail, bringing in people from Meta, as well as from retail and the entertainment sectors. The only people that will not be represented are those who have previous experience at other companies in the auto industry because we don’t want to benchmark a competitor or apply preconceived notions.”

She believes that if a brand is looking to disrupt its industry and deliver transformational results, “an excellent place to start is by consulting with a coalition of innovators.”

Julia Calabrese’s Reading List Suggestions for 2022

You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy makes accessible the psychology, neuroscience, and sociology of listening.

Permission To Feel by Marc Brackett,Ph.D. Founding Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. A guide to understanding emotions and using them wisely.

The Catalyst: How To Change Anyone’s Mind by Jonah Berger. This book looks at why the most successful change agents don’t push harder or provide more information. Instead they become a catalyst for change with extraordinary results.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. There are two systems for thinking. One is fast, intuitive, and emotional. The other is slower, deliberative, and more logical. Kahneman explains how people think and why they often fall short.

Think Again: The Power Of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant. Organizational psychologist and Wharton Professor Adam Grant is an expert on opening other people’s minds - and our own. His book describes how to stay curious enough about the world to actually change it.

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... And Others Don’t by Jim Collins. Collins shows his readers how good companies, mediocre companies, even bad companies achieve enduring greatness.

Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything - Even Things That Seem Impossible Today by Jane McGonigal.

Rational vs. Emotional Buying

Humans are emotionally driven beings. As much as they would like to think that their vehicle or furniture purchases are driven by logic, the truth is otherwise. Price point, durability and style might be just right, but ultimately, it’s how people feel about the products they purchase that are deciding factors.

“Most people think that they make fully rational buying decisions,” said Calabrese, “but at the end of the day, brand choices usually come down to how people feel when they enter a showroom, interact with customer service, take a test drive or, in the furniture industry, sit on a sofa.

“Powerful emotions may come into play when a shopper sits in a vehicle that they believe makes them look cool. Or, when they imagine what friends will think when they first see their new dining set. What will these purchases say about who they are? Too often retailers think in terms of product features and merchandising lifestyles. I don’t think that the furniture industry has focused on bridging the gap between the products they sell and the emotions they want their customers to feel when they see, sit on and purchase products.”

Emotions are also a key factor in driving people back into stores to replace furniture, she observed. “After five years, a person might look at their living room set and think, ‘This doesn’t fit who I am anymore.’ People ebb and flow as human beings and that’s an opportunity to educate them about how new items can fit into their lives, grow with them and make them feel.”

BEHR paint tapped into this idea recently with their “Festival Girl” 30-second television spot that advises, “If you don’t paint every now and then, it’s like the old you is still hanging around.” Check out here.


“Two topics retailers from different industries have been intensely interested in recently,” Calabrese continued, “are building authenticity and building community.

“Community engagement activities include both reaching out to communities and inviting them in. It’s about being an important presence, becoming a recognized friendly face, creating potential customer contacts, building trust and hiring locally. Doing this well can lead to a brand being recognized as authentic, if its actions consistently reflect its brand values.

“In addition to local efforts, having a robust presence on social media helps brands to expand the boundaries of community to like-minded consumers independent of geography, age, ethnicity or income.”

Emotional Showroom Design

A large part of the vehicle purchase process happens at dealer showrooms. “Retail showrooms,” noted Calabrese “are stages that can be designed to elicit positive emotional responses.

“For example, we recently made architectural modifications to a Ford showroom located in China. The emotional goals we identified for the space were to help people feel safe, comfortable and empowered. Successfully eliciting these emotions can build trust in our brand and serve as a gateway to customer loyalty.”

Entryway: Calabrese said that before it was renovated, when customers entered the facility they were welcomed by a large, open area. “The impressively high ceilings in this space had the potential to make shoppers feel exposed and unprotected. The redesign included a baffled canopy dropped over the main entrance. The baffles allowed the space to remain light and transparent, while offering a sense of refuge upon entry. Next, we removed all of the sales desks within the facility. It is more common for shoppers to be confronted by desks in auto dealerships than in furniture stores, but removing them from view, also provided space to insert a hospitality bar. Going into an already uneasy situation, such as negotiating a big-ticket car or home furnishings purchase, can be intimidating for many people, especially women. Desks on a sales floor can reinforce this emotional distress. Entering a sales office or finance office and having somebody close the door behind you can make it even worse.”

Lounge Area: “Instead of having customers enter into a potentially stressful space, we designed an area where customers could be greeted and offered refreshments. It includes a hospitality bar and an area we call ‘the library.’ To the left of the library, two products were displayed that acted as an invitation to enter the main sales floor of the showroom. This arrangement was designed to give shoppers the feeling that they have the power to choose where and when they want to conduct business. In other words, we encourage them to feel in control of the sales journey and their experience. Historically, when a shopper walks into a car dealership or a furniture store, they may feel like just the next ‘up.’ The salesperson pops out of nowhere and says, ‘Hey, how are you doing? What can I do for you?’

“This library area was designed to facilitate conversations in an open environment where people can be seen and heard by others. The design included a variety of seating choices, intentionally clustered to make customers feel at home.”

The Studio: Another consideration Calabrese and her team addressed was helping purchasers to build emotional relationships with products. They created a design studio where purchasers could take samples of leather and interior trim home with them.

“We called it a studio table,” she said. “The idea was to get their neurons firing and connecting as they touch, smell and show their purchase to friends and family—building a feeling of pride in their purchase even before it arrives. This is anticipated to be a really big hit with consumers, who we believe will form stronger emotional attachments to both products and the brand.”

Customization: “We’re definitely seeing large increases in terms of customization, creating cars that people feel are created especially for them. So, whether it’s through storytelling or actual customization, it’s clear that people are looking for a connection with the products they shop.

“Similar to the emotional effects of the studio table initiative,” she noted, “is keeping customers in the loop before, during and even after delivery. The effect of continually reestablishing the value of the products they’ve already bought in ways that connect their emotions to products is substantial.”

Service: “In the car industry, there’s a lot of revenue generation potential on the service side that’s not there for home furnishings retailers,” observed Calabrese. “It doesn’t make sense to put all this effort into telling stories and creating positive emotional content only to erase all that work post-sale.”

For furniture retailers, post-sale service falls squarely on the cost side of the equation. This can be a subtle disincentive to provide less than stellar service or try too hard to get customers to accept solutions that are not fully satisfactory.

“There’s a cost to not making customers feel valued and heard. Being attentive to a service customer’s needs in terms of getting problems solved quickly and easily makes it more likely that they’ll be a return customer and tell their friends about their experience.”

The goal of Ford’s service concept as illustrated in the rendering at left is to equalize the sales and service experience.

The Future

Julie Calabrese added some final thoughts for retailers going forward.

“Baseline, there is room for improvement with storytelling and human connections in both the auto and furniture industries. We all know about the big push by Meta (formerly Facebook), which has the potential to change the way consumers make major purchases. It’s going to be very interesting.

Russell Bienenstock is Editor-in-Chief of Furniture World Magazine, founded 1870. Comments can be directed to him at editor@furninfo.com.

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