Special Report: Young Minds of Design

A roundtable discussion with Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design students from FIT reveals a roadmap of where this next generation of designers is heading (…and there better be Wi-Fi)

By Jessie Dowd


The “M” word—Millennial—is not something that’s used in the classroom at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York. This youngest sect of up-and-coming retail designers and visual merchandisers to enter the field soon doesn’t like it, and they’re unimpressed with why everyone cares so much about them.

Apathy aside, this generation of designers is an interesting group that is bright, technologically savvy, forward thinking and globally cultured. To discover what’s on the horizon for our industry, design:retail wanted to pick their brains. What makes them excited about retail? Why did they choose design? How do they shop? These were the questions we sought out to explore, among a host of other topics. So we teamed up with Anne Kong, associate professor, program coordinator for Visual Presentation + Exhibition Design at FIT, for a roundtable of sorts and sat down with more than a dozen FIT students ranging in age from 21-25 (the tail end of the Millennial demographic), majoring in Visual Presentation + Exhibition Design (and one Interior Design major).

We learned that they hold little brand loyalty (except to Apple) and fluidly toggle between online and physical shopping. Want to know what else makes the next generation of Millennial (gasp!) designers tick? Read on.

design:retail: What are your thoughts on design? What about this field interests you?

Shōna: I used to be in fine arts. One of the reasons I switched into this major is because when you’re creating a painting, you’re just sort of putting it on a wall, but in this major you’re designing something for people to actually interact with. It’s an interest of mine to actually make something that people have an attachment to instead of just looking at.

Samantha: I came into this program from communication design, where it was a more broad design aspect and not necessarily visual, and I really didn’t know anything about this at all. I [thought] “design is graphic design. I’m going to make logos for the rest of my life.” Then I learned about this, and [it] is actually interesting to me and fun. That’s why I’m here.

Katia: For me, a big part of design is communication. The idea that you can communicate different viewpoints, different ideas. It’s about learning. So that’s the aspect of design that really interests me. It’s the fusion of a lot of different things that can come together to bring an experience to someone, so that’s why I chose this program.

d:r: What are your thoughts on the current state of retail?

Samantha: I always see all the headlines that say they’re shutting down, but I think it was last week I did see an article that [said] Millennials don’t agree with that. They are going to stores and buying things and not necessarily always doing it online. Personally, I feel like I know a lot of people that would rather go to a store and experience the experience of the store. I’d rather try something on before I buy it.

d:r: Do you shop more online or in-store? Both? And what do you do when you need to return something?

Patrick: I refuse to return things.

Shōna: Some online stores are just online. You can’t return [items] in-store. I have this problem when I shop online that if I buy it and it doesn’t fit, I just keep it.

Asabea: I don’t like to buy things from the store. I go in a store, I find my size, and then I order it online.

Katia: When talking about the in-store versus online conversation, a big part of it seems to be what product you’re shopping for. If I was shopping for a piece of clothing or cosmetics or a pair of shoes, I’d go to a store. But if I had to buy an item for the home, maybe, that’s not something that you have to pick up and touch and feel and try on…So if I needed a new Brita filter or a bowl for my salad, I would probably order it online, like Amazon especially.

d:r: Where do you plan to begin your career after graduation?

Joe: I like the idea of telling a narrative, whether it’s an exhibit, store or window. I came into this major wanting to do windows, because I’ve seen the Christmas windows and that was what I wanted to do. I like to work hands-on, so I’m thinking store and display would be the area I would go into [design].

Subin: I’m more interested in retail, store design/windows. I’m still exploring.

Shōna: I definitely like the design side more than the visual merchandising side. Right now, I’m interning at a production company that focuses on events, but I also like exhibitions as well. I’m figuring it out.

Asabea: I like to work with sensory experiences, anything that has to do with giving the visitor interaction. So I’m thinking about going into events, brand activation, working with brands directly. I’m not opposed to working in store design.

Katia: What I’m interested in is more educational experiential design—taking design skills and then using them to communicate ideas to people. For my capstone project, I’m partnering with Columbia University with their school of social work with a team of researchers there to create awareness and create design solutions for Syrian refugees.

Ally: I’m interested in branded environments and store design. So I think I want to work at a retail design firm. One of the challenges that I feel like I could face is a lot of architectural firms are kind of branching into store design and retail, and I wonder if you kind of have to be a jack-of-all-trades. Why would they pay two people?

Maria: I really love set design, so I would love to go into Broadway or television/movies, but what I really like is most of the Broadway set designers also do retail design and they do concerts and stuff like that. So I like that idea of kind of crossing over to a lot of different ones, but mainly set design.

Yoo Jung: I’ve always been interested in fashion and interior design. I want to go into visual merchandising or store design. I like exploring. I like to design the look and feel of the space.

Giuliana: I think I want to go into window displays.

Lauren: I either want to go into exhibition design or window displays. I really like working hands-on and just creating an environment people can have fun in.

d:r: What differences and/or similarities do you see in retail overseas versus the United States?

Shōna: I’m more familiar with Germany specifically. I used to live there, but they don’t use social media as much as we do. Fewer people have Instagram and stuff that we sort of take for granted here for our age group, and I’m noticing a lot more in the stores [here, where] you can hook up to an app and do all types of stuff with it. People still like to go into the stores more. I feel like [people in Germany] don’t buy online as easily. In their culture, they walk every day to get their groceries, while here we probably go once every two weeks maybe. I think they’re more traditional in a certain sense, and we’re more experimental with technology.

Katia: I spent about a month in Italy over the summer and also almost three weeks in Russia. I noticed that people seemed to be [quite] brand-oriented. So maybe brand loyalty or brand name is a really big deal. Everyone seemed to be visiting stores, but also a lot of the stores were located in heritage site buildings, so they were kind of tied into an experience innately, because of where they were, just because the cities were so much older. So that was probably part of it. But shopping in-store was a huge thing.

Asabea: I went to Rome, Florence, Venice and Siena, and if I would pick one that was most interesting shopping-wise it was Florence, because you have lots of markets. They had leather markets going down alleyways. It’s like a district similar to what we have going on here. I went to France and it’s also kind of the same, district-based areas. If I were to say anything about the stores in France versus here I guess I would compare them in size. They’re larger. They have more space.

Cynthia: I’m just going to talk about retail in Indonesia. That’s where I’m from. I think in Asia the retail is so much bigger than any other place. I agree with Katia about everyone [being] brand oriented. Even in Singapore from mall to mall they were all connected underground. You just keep going for hours and then you go to another neighborhood without knowing, and you’re still in the mall. That’s crazy. What I keep noticing is the same store over and over again, but people keep shopping even though the tax is much higher in Asia. So there’s two styles, you shop in town for a middle-class brand, but when you want luxury, even though we do have those stores, people would rather travel to Europe and get the bags from LV (Louis Vuitton) for example, and go back and say “I got this from Paris.” That’s the idea of traveling and getting from a certain place.

Yoo Jung: Like [Cynthia] said, in Asia taxes are so high, so if Koreans want luxury brands, high-end brands, they travel to Japan or to Hong Kong or Europe or to the United States and buy that stuff and go back.

Alyssa: My parents are from the Dominican Republic. I haven’t been there in a while, but every time they come back they tell me an IKEA just opened, they opened this restaurant there. I feel like the Dominican Republic, they’re definitely brand-oriented and they care about what’s the biggest thing in America that’s coming here. So I have family members that [say] “we just got the iPhone, let’s go to IKEA and buy some super fancy furniture.” So they always want what’s popular, especially through social media. It’s like a win/lose situation, because when you do have those brand names and those things that they view there as a luxury, it’s also a danger because not everyone can have that stuff. So when I go there, my parents [say] “don’t take out your iPhone because people are going to view you as a target.” So even small things are viewed as a luxury there because of the economy.

Asabea: My parents are from Trinidad. I go back almost once a year. They have malls, but the shopping experience there is more or less…it’s a small island, so you kind of split it up into three parts. There’s a shopping area. It’s a north part and a center part and then the south part. You’re not going to find any other stores anywhere but those central malls. Based on what Alyssa said just now, it just triggered my memory that they don’t have brands that I know of. I’ll go there and look at these stores and go “what is this? I don’t know what this is supposed to be.” They have their own versions of Starbucks and things like that. They are bringing things over there, but they’re not retail. It’s more food. They just got an IHOP. It’s so weird that I’m just wondering how come there’s no H&M. There’s not anything like that. There’s just stores where you can buy clothes. In that case, I don’t think there’s any kind of brand loyalty that way. They just kind of buy clothes because they need clothes.

d:r: What is your preferred source for information gathering? What about inspiration gathering?

Alyssa: I myself can’t actually watch the news, because it triggers anxiety for me, but usually I find out everything that’s going on through Facebook—it’s like a constant news cycle. Everyone’s sharing, information that’s happening everyone’s talking about it, so that’s primarily how I find out things that are going on. When it comes to inspiration, I usually just use Tumblr, because Tumblr has a lot of aesthetically pleasing things. A lot of people are “Tumblr famous” with styles, and they use a lot of online brands and there’s a lot of promoting going on through Tumblr.

Asabea: I search [for] inspiration mostly on Pinterest, and I’ll explore design inspiration and I’ll explore things to hone down what I want to do, because I’m not going to go out without a purpose. I want to know where I’m going.

Katia: I think it’s constantly a fusion between using technology and experiencing the thing in person. I traveled for pretty much the entire summer break and I never went on Pinterest for inspiration, because I was in so many new places—but I used technology to figure out where I wanted to go. Once I got there and I saw something inspiring, I took a picture of it, maybe I would look it up while I was looking at it to learn more information. Maybe I used technology for online cataloging of the inspiration, which I gathered through photography. So it’s always kind of a fusion of the two no matter what.

Shōna: I also think it ends up being expensive, too. So if you have to go to a museum and if you only have this time slot and you can’t go…I mean I can’t drop 30 bucks just to visit this for a class. Especially as a student, 30 bucks is groceries for me.

d:r: How are you interacting with technology in the store environment?

Katia: “How many people have touched that screen?” That’s the first thing I would think of especially in the city. A lot of the time, they have really interesting touchscreen things in subway stations. Like the Columbus Circle subway station. I can’t remember what it’s called. They have a lot of cool stuff, but I never want to touch it, because I’m always thinking about how many people have passed through. So hygiene [is a concern].

Samantha: When I go into a store, I usually put my phone in my bag. If they [say] download our app and you’ll get 20 percent off, sure I’ll do that, but I’m there to shop and find my thing. I probably wouldn’t look at something that [said] “look at our whole catalog,” because I just want to see it and feel it and try it on.

Joe: When it comes to technology for checking out, I don’t feel like it’s intuitive. At least for me, every store’s system is different, so at Target the other day I canceled my order four times, because I couldn’t figure out how to use the self-checkout. They don’t make it easy. When I went to Montreal, they brought the checkout to you. They bring you the card reader and they said 10 years ago they were doing what we were doing, so it’s different when it comes to checking out in any sense, and it’s not easy especially with the chip now. Some places don’t take it still.

Asabea: I went to SoHo to the Nike store. I walked in with my boyfriend. He was going there for some sneakers. I [thought] “why does it feel so open in here?” Then when it was time to check out, there were no cash registers anywhere. That’s why. They were just like are you ready to check out? They walk up to a pillar and pulled something up and they were done, and then they closed it and I [thought] “what the heck? This is awesome.”

Urban Outfitters has these machines where you put your phone in so it can charge. I do that usually when I first come in the store. Using social media in a store is going to be deterred for me if I don’t have any signal. It’s important.

d:r: Are you loyal to any brands, or is it just whoever has whatever I need?

Joe, followed by all: To Apple!

Samantha: I am with shoes I guess.

Shōna: I feel like when it comes down to stuff that’s going to be durable, like phones, laptops and shoes, you want to know exactly what you’re getting, but when it comes to shirts and hats and lip gloss…I mean you’re going to not have that for as long, so it doesn’t matter as much.

Katia: The only brand loyalty that I probably have, other than with shoes maybe, is cosmetics, just because I don’t know a lot about cosmetics but I do know that a lot of brands put really harmful things in the cosmetics that they sell you.

Anne: What about agendas? What about brands that are generous or brands that have a commitment? Will you shop somewhere based on your core beliefs and values?

Katia: I think that’s a huge part of how our generation shops. A lot of the time, a brand, if they don’t have any kind of initiative like that, especially the newer, more trendy brands, you’re kind of taken aback by that. You’re like, “Oh, what else are you doing?”

Alyssa: Definitely core beliefs. If they do something that I am passionate about or against I will not give them my money.

Shōna: I think that also goes into sustainability and ethics about different brands. There are brands I refuse to shop at even though it’s cheaper, because they don’t treat their employees right. They don’t pay them enough or they’re stealing artwork from artists or they make clothes that fall apart, so you’re throwing them out every other day instead of making higher priced but more durable products, which I think our generation is leaning toward more…instead of just going out and buying that $2 T-shirt and throwing it away.

Samantha: I don’t think retailers…they’ve just been doing this for so long and they’re not expecting us to actually care. If that makes sense.

d:r: What’s your favorite store?

Cynthia: UNIQLO. It’s simple. It’s not like H&M or Forever 21. It’s really big. I think the way they separate their space is really good. When I want to get this, I know where to go or I ask where to get this sweater and he just says this and that and I don’t get lost.

Ally: My favorite store is actually Lush, just because I feel like no matter what store I go into, all the employees as soon as I walk in, they ask me how I’m doing, if I’m looking for anything. As I’m looking around they’ll come up to me and be like “have you tried this? Let me test this on you.”

Samantha: I hate going to Lush. I love Lush, I buy their products, but I’ll just be looking at the store from the outside and they’ll be ready to pounce on me and I hate that. I go in and they’re like “can I help you?” I’m like, “no, thank you. I’m just going to get this and then I’m going to go to the cash register.” Then I can’t go to the cash register without three more people asking me if I need help. It’s nice, but just let me do it by myself. I would buy online just to not have to experience that.

Maria: The one store mainly I go into is Macy’s and then also Garage, which is a new store but I really love their design. The last time I walked in there, I was looking in more detail at how they designed the store and I also liked that they don’t really bother you that much. They say “do you need any help finding anything?” and they’re always around. You can always find them. It’s easy to get into the dressing rooms. And I feel like everything is displayed well and everything is in sight, so when you walk in you know exactly where everything is. They switch it up but you can still find your way.

Shōna: I’m cliché, but I love IKEA and I always have since I was a kid, because I feel like they were one of the first stores that actually had a restaurant in it and a playground. I just remember as a kid I would get to go to this really cool playground and then afterwards my mom was happy because she got her work done and we got meatballs. I notice people don’t like it in this country as much as Europe. I love it. I like being lost a little bit. It’s a whole experience. If we were sad when we were kids, my mom [said], “let’s get in the car and go to IKEA” because we’d get to play and eat meatballs. That’s my favorite store.

d:r: What other details about a store make you excited?

Katia: I’m that one weirdo that never goes shopping, but when I do go shopping I tend to get my clothing from weird places, because it has that element of exclusivity. If I’m looking for a black T-shirt or something, I’ll run into H&M, grab it and go home. But the dress that I’m wearing right now I got from my Spanish teacher in high school and this is from my dad’s friend who’s a sound guy. The shoes that I’m wearing I got because I broke my shoes in Italy and I found them in some random boutique. I don’t shop based on brand or whatever. It’s more about quality, and it’s about having something that’s interesting that you kind of know not everybody is going to be wearing I guess. So when I do shop, it’s more like smaller boutiques and places like Buffalo Exchange. Or maybe something that has a story behind it. If you get something that is from Buffalo Exchange and it’s kind of cool and old and whatever, it’s not something that came from a factory; it’s like an interesting story.

d:r: What other stores have resonated for you?

Ally: Nike. I went to the one on Fifth Avenue to actually return a pair of shoes that I had ordered online and it just was so…it made me want to…I stayed in the store to look around even though I didn’t plan on buying anything. I was like “wow, this is so cool.” It’s a place you want to be and appreciate what’s around you. It’s not necessarily about the merchandise.

Joe: Going away from clothing stores, Crate & Barrel has their CB2 [brand], which is geared more toward a younger [shopper], cheaper product, but it’s still the high-quality Crate & Barrel product and there’s different colors and patterns. They just did a good job in the way they transitioned.

Asabea: I’ll say Sephora is doing a pretty good job.

d:r: Is it important for a retailer to offer a community in its stores?

Katia: I think that it could be a bridge for people. Asabea loves Sephora; I never go into Sephora because I am terrified of Sephora. I always just leave. I can’t do it, but if there is some kind of event there…there was one time I went in with my mom because they were having some sort of make-up something and we went in because we were celebrating my birthday last year and it was really fun. That’s the only thing that could get me in there, because it felt more interactive, more like—I don’t know if community-oriented is the right [phrase]­—but it was more people-oriented and so it knocked down that barrier. How do I navigate this situation? Everybody here knows what they’re doing because they’re in the store and I’m an outsider to this product or this community. I think it’s really helpful.

d:r: How do you feel about the way Millennials are described?

Anne: We use “the ‘M’ word” here, please. We don’t say that word. It’s a good discussion though. I mean we talk about how you’re so targeted. Do you find it offensive?

Shōna: I don’t understand. I feel like we don’t care, but it’s like “you’re a Millennial you should care about what we’re saying” and we’re like, “no, we don’t. Leave us alone.” It’s really annoying. We’re just here.

Anne: Do you ever wonder why people are so focused on you?

Asabea: Because we don’t care. They’re like, “why don’t you care?”

d:r: How do you feel about the Gen Z demographic?

Samantha: They don’t even know what they’re going to get themselves into at all. I work at a camp in the summer and I would ask what [brand] are they wearing and I don’t even think they know or care. Their parents are buying them stuff or they’ll be like, “Mom, I saw this on Instagram. This girl is wearing it. Can you get it for me?” They can’t buy their own things yet. I think a lot of people are trying to push for Gen Z, but they’re not necessarily independent yet.

Katia: I have a sister who’s a teenager and she’s the older side of the Gen Z group I think. She’s super advanced and it’s kind of terrifying. If you compare us, and what we were like at 15 or 16, a lot of us were totally clueless. She and all of her friends are super tuned in to social media. They know how to do their make-up, they know about brands, they know about what’s going on. My sister is hugely influenced by social media, because it shows her inspiration for what to wear, what to do her room like, the music to listen to, all sorts of stuff and so that trendy aesthetic is super popular, because I feel like everybody is kind of looking to similar stuff.

Ally: I also have a younger sister. She’s in high school, and I think her generation in terms of retail and social media makes them more aware of different brands and what is popular, especially with make-up. I feel like when I was in middle school and high school, YouTube had just become a thing of tutorials and stuff. Now you can look however you want to do your make-up.

Katia: There are famous 10-year-olds who are make-up gurus on Instagram.

Ally: I used to buy make-up from CVS but [my sister] goes to Sephora and she knows the brands that she likes and she has specific concealers.

Asabea: I have a younger brother. He’s in the middle of Gen Z. He’s only nine and he’s not influenced by brands. My mom will be like “let’s buy new Jordans” and he’s like “I don’t care.” I don’t know what that is, but he will watch YouTube from morning until night if he can. He will be like “I saw this on YouTube, can you get it for me? I saw this and this person using it. Do you think you can get that for me?” I was like “why are you watching YouTube all the time?” The influencers on YouTube, if they’re doing it I’ve got to be like them. It must be cool.

Shōna: I have siblings ranging from seven to 20, so I just go home and experiment on them. But I have to say, I feel bad because I feel like they’re under pressure. The influencers, they’re seeing people that are our age that are making these videos and these blogs and they’re like, “I’m 12 and I’m behind the curve. Why don’t I look like them?” I think they do have a lot more stress, because they’re exposed to sort of the same things that we’re exposed to. I mean my parents have no idea how social media works, so there isn’t a way to stop them, but I feel like in a way they’re like “I wish there isn’t that pressure to always be updated and it’s stressful.” Especially for a 12-year-old, they’re so angsty now. They’ve always been angsty.

Asabea: If you market anything now, it has to have a face. You have to have this person and whoever her followers are. I was on YouTube watching a tutorial and so many make-up artist users were like “Fendi just sent me this box. I didn’t pay for it. They just sent it to me so I can use it on this channel to tell you guys how to wear it and how it is.” That happens so often. It’s like, “oh, I got this company to just send me this and I’m going to tell you guys what I think about it.” They do that all the time, so that they can get their brand out there to their followers and subscribers.

Alyssa: Color Pop partners with make-up artists and celebrities and they base a product launch off of that celebrity. It’s good for them, because the celebrity gets more well known and probably gets paid as well, and then Color Pop gets a huge amount of revenue because of just their name and their presence. That’s a rise.

d:r: What do you think the next retail “buzzword” will be?

Shōna: I hope that it will be “sustainability” and just more “transparency,” like Patagonia, Everlane and Timberland. I think it’s something that consumers want now, so it has to happen.

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FIT Student Participants

Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design (VPED) Majors (unless otherwise noted)


Asabea Ayres, 21
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Giuliana Buono, 21
Long Island, N.Y.

Cynthia Chandra, 25
(Interior Design Major)
Jakarta, Indonesia

Alexandra (Ally) D’Alleva, 21
Needham, Mass.

Lauren Fregman, 20
Long Island, N.Y.

Joseph Klaus, 21
Eastern Long Island, N.Y.

Yoo Jung Lee, 24
Korea

Katia Michalopoulos, 21
Woodstock, N.Y.

Nora Mohamad

Alyssa Moreno, 23
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Shōna Neary, 21
Military Brat

Patrick O’Connor, 24
Long Island, N.Y.

Subin Oh, 22
Korea

Maria Resavage, 21
Staten Island, N.Y.

Samantha Skopas, 21
Bethpage, N.Y.

Iris Yang, 24
Korea/Philadelphia

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