Dave Corbin, co-founder of 30 Collins, a Los Angeles based lifestyle design firm specializing in retail, residential, and hospitality design, started following his design path at an early age. An original Midwesterner, he grew up knowing he was going to pursue art and design. As sometimes happens with Midwesterners, Dave dreamed of living on the coast—so he packed up, threw caution to the wind, and headed to San Francisco.
While pursuing a career in graphic design, he found himself taking on side jobs to support himself financially. Little did he know, one of those jobs—sales assistant at Banana Republic—would set his career path in an entirely new direction.
With his natural talent for design, it wasn’t long before he was offering his input on visual merchandising at the Banana Republic flagship store in San Francisco.
Over the next 20 years, Dave developed and honed his skills and talent with some of the top brands in the United States as both a visual merchandiser and store designer. He’s held creative leadership positions at such brands as Banana Republic, Gap, Guess?, Seven For All Mankind, Splendid, and Vince—just to name a few. He has parlayed all of his experience and design passion into his new company, 30 Collins. With partner Nicole Heininger, the firm offers a full range of design services, as well as a design workshop dedicated to the development of custom furniture, fixtures, and lighting.
Having worked with Dave in our past lives—and somehow never realizing he was also from Kansas—I was thrilled to have the chance to catch up with him and learn more about the role music has played throughout his career and in his life.
Once we reconnected, we both talked at length about our underlying philosophy on design—his for space and mine for music—and how the pieces all come together to form the whole.
Orchid: At what point in store design do you consider music?
Dave: I’ve always realized the importance of music in the retail experience. It took me years, however, to learn the importance of considering music very early on in the process. Designing a branded store experience requires consideration of all of the senses, not just the visual sense. I think many designers allow things like sound, smell, and touch to be secondary to the visual sense. Music often becomes an afterthought. I now realize that music should be considered during the earliest conceptual development of a space, and should evolve alongside the other design elements as they take shape and become clearly defined.
Orchid: How important is music in a business environment?
Dave: I think that depends on who you ask. For me, it’s very important. Whether working in a corporate environment or my own business, I always have music playing. For me, it energizes the work-space and gives it the sense of creativity and fun that I want for me and my team.
Orchid: From your experience, in what ways can music help brand the experience?
Dave: Branding is ultimately about imprinting or enhancing something with meaning and personality and then communicating that message. People innately project personality whether they know it or not. Products can have personality and meaning and that comes through from their designer. But branding serves to amplify and expand that through sensory messaging. Music is a powerful sensory tool that helps generate the emotion behind a brand. Films and television use music to amplify the emotion behind a story or imagery, and brands use it in the same way.
Music is also strongly linked to memory. It’s incredible that we can remember the words and melodies to thousands of songs, some of which we may have learned as a small child. Music not only injects a brand with emotion and feeling, but because it’s so linked to memory, it causes us to attach those feelings to the brand for a long time. Music is an extremely powerful branding tool.
Orchid: During your time as a visual merchandiser, in what ways did you learn that music can hurt the brand experience?
Dave: One of my mentors taught me that every move you make in an environment communicates something to the consumer. Even things you don’t do tell the consumer something. For example, if you drive by a business at night and the lighting in one of the letters of their sign is out, it tells you something. It may say to you that they don’t operate well. It may tell you they are in financial trouble. may tell you something else. It’s all about your perception of that unintended message. Music communicates a great deal to the consumer. It can change the way a consumer perceives a place and a brand. If the music is sending an emotional, lyrical, or sensory message that is contrary to what the brand is about, it can erode the brand message very quickly and in a way that is very memorable.
Orchid: How important has music been in shaping all of the pieces to form the whole within the visual elements in a store?
Dave: Music is very important in shaping a total environment. I tend to use film as an analogy because film often uses music so effectively to enhance the emotion behind a story that’s being told. Every brand is telling a story and branded spaces tell stories. The music is the brand soundtrack. It dictates the emotion, the pace, and the energy of a space. Without it, it’s like watching a movie with no soundtrack. If that silence is intentional and part of the story, it’s fine. If it’s not, then the environment is incomplete.
Orchid: What was your biggest challenge, when you were charged with the music, in implementing the right sound for your stores?
Dave: Everything. My talent lies in the visual realm. Although I recognize the importance of music to the total experience, I do not possess the skill to design a musical landscape for a brand. It’s a very complex process that needs to consider many things. Like all design, it’s not about the parts or the individual songs; it’s about the whole or the overall composition. I can pick some songs that I think are right, but I don’t know how to turn that into a perfectly balanced, carefully considered, cohesive, branded design. I had to rely heavily on music partners to do this. Many of the traditional music providers left a lot of the creative decisions in my hands. I really needed someone to take charge of the music design and be the expert, in the way you work at Orchid.
Orchid: Was there a methodology to what kind of music you would play in your stores?
Dave: Not really. I deferred to the music designer. I did provide input, but I don’t have the talent to design musical environments. I love music, I play music, and music is a big part of my life. That said, I don’t possess the skills to consider all the things that need to be considered to develop a carefully designed music environment. It’s a very complex process, similar to designing a three dimensional space. I know how to do that and all of the things to consider. I don’t know how to do that with music.
Orchid: How did you or your management team quantify the success of the music playing in the stores?
Dave: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think there were good benchmarks for determining the success of many aspects of the retail environment, including music. I think the analysis of it tended to be very emotional and personal, which speaks to the way people process music—through feeling. The problem with that is that the music needs to be considered through the filter of the brand. I may not like a particular song or a whole music environment, but the real question that needs to be asked to determine its’ effectiveness is, is it right for the brand? Does it support and enhance the brand message? If the answer is yes to those questions, then it’s a success. It’s hard for most people to get to that answer because their personal tastes and emotions get in the way.
Orchid: Can you share with us the most memorable moment where music impacted you emotionally?
Dave: I can’t think of one particular moment. There have been many. I tend to be most impacted by music in situations that are already emotionally charged, like watching movies, being at meaningful family events, concerts, and things like that. If the music is right, it enhances the emotions that are already present and makes the moment that much more rich and memorable.
Orchid: Have you ever been in any business, such as a store, or a restaurant, where you’ve noticed the music and the emotional connection it creates between you and that space? Whether negative or positive, what reaction did you have, and how did it affect your behavior?
Dave: I notice it all the time, both positively and negatively. Occasionally, I’ll be in a boutique or hotel and really connect with the music. It will feel really right in the space and I’ll notice, appreciate, and remember it. I often notice overpowering music in restaurants when it commands all of my attention and becomes the focal point of the experience. In those cases, the music detracts from all the other senses. I get really frustrated when the music is so overpowering that I can’t enjoy the conversation and food—the reasons why I’m at a restaurant in the first place.
Orchid: And finally, congratulations on 30 Collins! What has been the best part of launching your own design firm?
Dave: The best part of launching my own firm has been the ability to shape my own culture and work with a world-class design partner, Nicole. After working in corporate retail for over twenty years, I have learned the incredible power that culture and management style have on people’s daily lives, their creativity, and their work. I want to work in an environment that is fun, positive, respectful of people, and conducive to creativity. Now I have the power to create that for me, and for the people who work with me and for me. And yes, music is a part of that cultural landscape, for sure!
Orchid: What role will music play in the new store concepts you create at 30 Collins, if any?
Dave: Music will always play an important role in the commercial spaces we design. I’m happy that 20 years in, I finally understand that and realize the importance of considering music early in the process. I also realize the importance of hiring someone with more talent than I have to design that important component of the space.
Orchid: As a designer, would you share with us 5 songs that inspire or motivate your work?
Dave: I have no idea how to answer this. I guess that speaks to my lack of ability in this area. I love so many different types of music and all of them inspire me in different ways at different times. What I listen to is largely dependent on my mood and what I’m doing at the time. I guess it’s a bit like asking most people, which five shades of white most inspire you? Most people wouldn’t know how to answer that, but I do.
Thank you so much Dave for taking the time to share with us your insight and knowledge.
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Q&A by Leanne Flask