10 Questions With... Mike Lim of DP Design

As director of the Singapore-based interior design firm DP Design, Mike Lim knows retail spaces. He's the visionary behind numerous international retail meccas, such as The Dubai Mall, Paragon Shopping Center in Singapore and Noon Square in South Korea. Lim has been at the forefront of identifying consumer trends and the needs pushing modern day retail spaces in new directions. On the heels of his talk at the World Architecture Festival on the need to infuse cultural, social and commercial components into retail design, here Lim discusses the evolution of shopping habits, design trends for the millennial shopper and a larger, social agenda that is the future of retail design.


ID: Your talk at WAF was titled ‘Today’s Malls, Tomorrow’s Social Spaces.’ Why do you think there is a present day need to incorporate more social functions into malls?


ML: The consumer’s needs today are changing. Our easy accessibility to information online and the widespread use of internet retail mean that people do not shop at malls for their needs or wants anymore – they can research and find what they wish to buy online and no longer need to go to malls to see new product collections. People now shop for an experience. This means that the value of brick and mortar shops, which used to be theatres or physical showcases for brands, has been reduced. Malls, thus, need to transition beyond housing such retail spaces and evolve beyond becoming a place that just showcases physical products.


ID: In the study of the evolution of the consumer needs, you mentioned spontaneity and creativity as the new needs for the present day consumer. You have also talked about millenials being more likely to display identity loyalty to certain brands. How do these two factors affect and challenge retail design?


ML: The shopping experience is now more emotional, spontaneous, creative, based on inspiration and the ‘surprise’ element. People will buy things they chance upon while exploring or discovering the mall, things that are different and that they have not seen before. Currently, malls tend operate like chain stores—with similar tenant mix and interior design concepts. Moving forward, for differentiation in an increasingly competitive landscape, the mall needs to have its own individual, unique identity. This is especially if retailers want to align themselves with specific groups of millennial shoppers, who relate specifically to individual brands. The mall designer needs to create an exciting environment that evokes unpredictable and spontaneous moments as well—that prompt the consumer’s desire to shop when they feel inspired. The ‘cookie-cutter’ mall will not work anymore.


ID: What are some design opportunities that can update the already existing retail spaces and malls to cater to the modern day consumer?


ML: Existing malls can become more integrated with their surrounding communities by allowing for more social elements within, so that people’s social lives revolve around the mall. In previous decades, older generations of consumers’ lives revolved around the souk or marketplace. They would not only go there to buy what they needed but to interact and talk with the stall keepers, or to talk with their friends. Malls have lost that personal touch, and the key is to re-introduce this personal touch to large spaces. Malls need to find a balance between social activity and commercial space and to see that actually, they are mutually beneficial, not exclusive.


In Singapore for instance, we have community centres that cater for a wide variety of demographics seeking recreational and social activities, such as dance classes, karaoke sessions, cooking classes. What’s stopping us from thinking about locating some of these recreational and social spaces within a mall? We can provide amenities that the community needs—preschools, play gyms, cooking and dance studios, tourist offices – within a mall too. Having these non-retail spaces will draw crowds who will spend half a day there after their designated activities and this will end up translating into retail spend as well.


When you inject life and vibrancy in a mall through softer social spaces, naturally, your retail sales will go up once that captive audience is inspired to explore and wander around the rest of the mall, including the commercial spaces, and buy unique things that they chance across. Success begets success.


ID: You’ve talked about some design and marketing strategies, including creating strong identity and customised collections that can help to enhance the consumer experience of typical brick and mortar shops. On a macro scale, what can architects do when designing malls to help them become the heart and soul of social experiences?


ML: From an interior design perspective, malls need to have more open and flexible spaces. Malls need to think beyond maximising net leasable space that is defined commercially, and to allow for more versatile lease lines to be drawn. To create more social spaces within the mall, as mentioned earlier, the types of lease offered need to be flexible. There need to be more multi-purpose and loosely defined activity spaces, allowing for a different variety of events to be held at the space each week, that could further allow for complementary products to be sold temporarily alongside that event, or on the fringes of that event.


The mall needs to have a stronger sense of place—it needs to resonate with the community who needs to feel a sense of social belonging to that space. Once the community members form emotional ties to the mall because of the memories made there, they will keep coming back.


ID: You’ve mentioned that malls of the future should go beyond commercial objectives. What should these social spaces be like?


ML: There should be social spaces that cater to all ages—from young children to the elderly. As I mentioned previously, it’s about offering spaces that can cater to a wide variety of demographics and lifestyles so that people of all ages can use the mall to socialise and interact with each other on a regular basis—bringing in repeated customers. It will happen if people feel like they can do everything at the mall.


ID: DP Design has worked on a lot of large-scale retail projects like the Dubai Mall. What are some strategies that you implemented in your retail projects to push mall design beyond its commercial functions?


ML: At DP Design, we first look at what is inherited from the architectural form and the spaces we get to work with. As most of us are architecturally trained, we work closely with the architects from building conception, helping to layout and plan the overall building in order to achieve specific internal conditions. We start from the experience of space, volumes, and scale and customise the elements according to each project. Fundamentally we are concerned with the concept of ‘placemaking’, creating places that evoke sensation and emotional attachment. We think about injecting a sense of place and identity that allows the space to have its own character, beyond just interior decoration. You can see how this design thinking is applied, in more detail, in our latest book, DP Design—Designing Spaces .


ID: Much of the conversation about holistic mall design probably takes place in the conceptualising phases of design, during conversations with a client. How do you convince a client to go beyond the expected and push the social experience along with the mall’s commercial functions as part of the program?


ML: Ultimately, it has to be acknowledged that effective mall design has to be customer-driven rather than owner-driven. As designers, the best we can do is to share our ideas, driven by consumer insight, with the clients and the final decision rests with them. From their perspective, they would have to weigh the commercial gains against the social aspects of the design, and consider all the risk factors. But I personally believe that crowds only bring in more crowds and that the more socially vibrant a mall is, the more people will be attracted to visit. It’s seen as trendy, up-to-date, socially relevant.


Another thing clients can consider is the fact that shops do not need to be so large anymore. Since e-commerce is gaining popularity, brands may rethink the space they require for their inventory as well as display space for their merchandise, so they may request for smaller physical shop fronts. If the need for commercial space reduces, malls can consider social spaces as alternatives. But it should not be a half-hearted effort stemming from difficulties in renting out particular spaces within the mall. There should be a concerted effort by mall owners to plan with the community in mind from the beginning, so that it can be part of the mall’s established identity.


In Singapore, there is a scheme by the Urban Redevelopment Authority called the Community/Sports Facilities Scheme, which promotes the integration of community and sports facilities into commercial developments for mutual benefit. Under this scheme, mall developers are granted additional Gross Floor Area above and beyond their maximum permissible Gross Floor Area for premises to be used by non-profit organisations such as public libraries, eldercare, child care and other social services, enabling them to serve their social mission better without worrying about costly rentals. An example includes the Singapore Dance Theatre at Bugis+ mall designed by DP Design.


ID: Has the approach to mall and retail space design within DP Design evolved over the years? If so, how?


ML: Yes. We make use of critical thinking and we are pushing ourselves to think about retail interior design as something that goes beyond decorative work. We’re interested in bringing to the table all possibilities and ideas for clients to evaluate, a different perspective that is grounded in our observations of behavioural patterns pertaining to interior layouts and usage of space. Also, aside from supporting DP Architects in the interior design and space planning for its projects, we have also evolved to collaborate with other architecture firms on projects where we experiment with different ideas and approaches for strong solutions.


ID: What retail projects are you working on now or have recently completed?

ML: Aside from projects in Singapore, we are going overseas and working on malls in Medan, Mumbai, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Wuhan and Astana. We would be able to share more details once they are completed within the next year or next few years.


ID: Going forward and looking into the future, what do you think will be the next trend or the next step forward in retail/mall design?


ML: To me, the more complete and holistic a mall is in being a one-stop destination that meets consumers’ consumption and service needs, the more successful it will be. Malls need to be more targeted in terms of their branding and marketing in order to have an edge over other malls. Since millennials—who are the buyers of the future—are known for their loyalty once they discover a brand they can identify with, malls should make use of data-driven insights and technology to develop a niche identity and target only a specific group of consumers. Their identity should be grounded on a strong sense of place, unique to their market and community.


I also feel that mega-malls may start to break down—retail spaces within a mall will no longer be confined to just a typical big box setup. Future consumers are looking to be surprised and to shop for things that emotionally resonate with them, things that align with their personal identity since they no longer shop for wants and needs.


People now prefer more subtle, inconspicuous consumption that is less about showing off the brands you own, but about acquiring more exotic, one-of-a-kind hidden gems that they can tell stories with—about the unusual place they got it at, the journey they took getting there, how unexpected the find was, et cetera. They will want to have fun—shopping will become all about the pleasure of discovery. An urban adventure that is all about creative and spontaneous exploration, the experience to uncover rare finds.

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