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Boston Society of Architects

Feature

Test. Learn. Adjust.

The pop-up approach allows for continuous adaptation

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The revolving door of pop-ups shape and alter consumer experiences around town.

Photos from Unspalsh by (top row left to right) James Sutton, Alexandre Godreau, Mike Petrucci (bottom row left to right) Tim Mossholder, Leyre Labarga, Alvaro Serrano

In the realm of retail, the term pop-up brings to mind short-term stores. Developed to serve many different needs—from bringing buzz back to an underused downtown, allowing a start-up to test the market, or launching a new brand impression—pop-up shops have helped redefine retail-store design. What makes them vital today is how they are influencing design thinking overall. For almost 20 years, they have altered our expectations of the consumer experience, just as Uber has altered the transportation experience and Amazon, the home-delivery experience.

Twenty-first-century lives are filled with rapid-fire multitasking. Consumers expect that merchandise, brands, services, and spaces should address multiple needs, rather than providing single-need solutions. Car-service driver: Please make sure you have a charger for my phone, a bottle of spring water, and some mints. Local bank: Please have a designated area where I can make a conference call or meet with a client, and yes, a latte would be nice. Employer: I need varying change of scenery for inspiration—please have spaces that are light and dark, big and small, high and low; spaces that fuel productivity and spaces that offer respite.

As a result, pop-up-driven customer-experience elements—engaging, flexible, and multifunctional—are weaving their way into all market sectors and public institutions. Companies are also using the ethos of the test-and-learn model to create a framework to continually adapt their spaces to allow for rapid response to user needs and feedback.

Office design

In the past few years, compelling shifts in office space design have been occurring. Forward-thinking companies are recognizing that, like a pop-up, an office space has the potential to provide a setting for customers to interact with their brands. So how should that be spatially allocated and curated? Recognizing the opportunity for office space to evolve, an apparel client recently asked if we could provide ongoing design assistance. The brand relies on customers buying into its technology, and the client recognized the value of engaging customers in its research and creative process. But how do we bring that to fruition? Fortunately, the company’s office space includes street frontage in Boston, which lends itself to becoming a space where the client could invite the community in to engage with the client as much as possible.

Our approach: Think of this office as a box cut into three zones. The front zone, or zone one, is an always-evolving pop-up space, allowing the company to engage with the community at street level to test new products and marketing campaigns. The middle zone (zone two) is the semiprivate office space, letting the sound of daily work filter into zone one, and the excitement and allure of the creative process to infuse the public arena. This creates transparency and a semblance of connectivity, while also allowing for a bit of intrigue. The third zone is the private space, which is necessary in every office environment for confidential conversations or related business.

By providing customers with a glimpse into the creative process and asking them to engage with new products and provide feedback—all within a highly curated, branded, and ever-changing environment—the company is able to build long-lasting customer relationships and provide an experience that those customers are eager to share broadly as brand advocates. The evolving nature of the pop-up environment provides a reason to return again and again, and the company has effectively created a test-and-learn focus group within its own office environment.

City streets;
pedestrian traffic

How many times have you read about or participated in one of the city’s pop-up transportation alterations? Boston and its surrounding cities have been using the method to test planning ideas from bus lanes to parklets.

In 2016, the City of Boston launched a pop-up park on Franklin Street as the first step in a community-engagement process to identify opportunities for activating underused spaces in the city and to experiment with placemaking through small shifts in the urban environment. Fast-forward to the summer of 2018, when Tontine Crescent Plaza was unveiled in front of The Merchant Kitchen & Drinks restaurant as a semipermanent installation, jump-started by the original experiment. With a few tweaks here and there based on use patterns and user feedback, this former pass-through space has become a constantly evolving destination enjoyed by many different user groups. Throughout the city, tactical temporary or semipermanent urban interventions such as street murals and parklets have the opportunity to become permanent. As an interesting complement, a pop-up travel-themed bar called the Foreign Correspondents Club opened in the Merchant’s basement this month.

Small spaces,
big impact

Urban streetscapes have regularly been dotted with pop-up experiences, whether in the activation of empty storefronts, through the proliferation of food trucks, or with regularly scheduled temporary markets and beer gardens. Each is established as a way to put unexpected and distinctive products in front of a consumer without the investment required by the build-out of a permanent long-term real estate lease. Spaces in the city are being established to foster these types of temporal activations through the creation of small-scale environments specifically geared to experimental brands.

The Current, a pop-up village created and curated by WS Development in the Seaport District, is billed as “the next wave” of retail. A series of independent structures that provide homes to a rotating series of curated brands, The Current is designed so customers can create new relationships with emerging entrepreneurs. The small scale of the spaces reinforces intimacy, and the frequency of turnover encourages repeat visits to allow for new discoveries. For many small brands that inhabit these spaces, exposure to the crowds of residents, business employees, and tourists who frequent the Seaport is invaluable.

This village-style approach is popping up in several formats, including a brand-focused department store concept called Neighborhood Goods that opened its first location in Plano, Texas. By taking the approach of collecting and curating pop-up activations together, developers and entrepreneurs are banking on the buzz and excitement that surround temporary retail experiences.

Roots Legends Pop-up, Boston.
Bergmeyer Associates, Inc.

The allure of pop-ups—urgent, surprising, delightful, engaging—has permeated well beyond the retail world into everything from workplace and urban design to transportation planning. Their flexible nature fosters experimentation, creates an opportunity to conduct market research, and activates underused spaces in the built environment. The lower capital investment required allows emerging companies to attract new customers through a physical presence—a must for innately digital companies, as the cost of both advertising and acquiring customers online soars—and permits established companies to test new marketing initiatives, product lines, or geographic locations. The ephemeral approach can sometimes pave the way for smart, long-lasting solutions.

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