Above, members of the Bona Design Lab team, from left to right: Tatjana Kalbag, Byron Anderson , Flavio DiBlasio, Betty Chow, and Joseph Bona
Joseph Bona is the Founding Partner and President of Bona Design Lab. With over 30 years of retail design and branding experience, Joseph is an industry veteran whose work spans 6 continents and whose impressive client list makes him a leading and respected voice in the retail design industry. His firm, Bona Design Lab, specializes in brand strategy, retail design and operations consulting - and has a host of leading, global clientele in convenience, mass market, drug and luxury. The Bona Design Lab team respects each client's unique business needs and merges the science of retail with the art of design to drive personalized client to success.
You Have an impressive career trajectory with a host of storied retail clients. How did you get into this side of the interior design business?
My first industry job while studying architecture, was providing drafting and layout work for a national food chain. That experience set me on the path of working in the retail space. It was the combination of design, consumer insights, marketing, and operations that made the field much more dynamic and interesting for me. Plus, perhaps as with all design industries, retail is never static and is in a constant state of change and innovation; with that, comes the challenge of always trying to improve my design sensitivities and sensibilities. This is even more true now with so much disruption and innovation coming from non-traditional entrants such as Amazon, as seen with their purchase of Whole Foods and their development of a frictionless Amazon Go shopping experience (a walk in/walk out technology without checkout lines).
Tell us a bit about your creative and conceptualization process when you start a retail design project.
It starts by being a good listener. Our clients know more about their unique challenges than we do. Therefore, our job is to search out those opportunities by learning and understanding their business as best we can, in as short a time as possible. We also gather consumer insights to insure we are connected to those issues that matter most for the end-user – collectively, it’s what I refer to as the science of retail with the art of design.
What kind of governing philosophy do you use when approaching space and layout?
First impressions paired with operational efficiency. First impressions really are what define how you want your customers to experience your store/brand and how you want them to understand your unique selling proposition – if you’re not creating a meaningful first impression, then you’re just another generic “me too” retailer. Operational efficiency is what enables retailers to manage daily operations with functional work flows. That is, work flows that allow employees to spend more time helping customers without being burdened by the inefficiencies of back room functions and other customer service areas, such as the pay point.
An exterior image of the the Spot Cafe in Argentina
What are some of the specific considerations that go into creating a branded retail environment? How are those similar to or dissimilar from other commercial or residential interior design processes?
The complexity of retail clients is that they operate in a highly competitive landscape and are in business to make profits from their retail operations. So, our job actually goes beyond creating magical spaces where customers love to shop. Retail spaces need to be designed in ways that ensure they deliver better results than they did before we were involved. We often get judged not by how great the design is, but by how great the stores performed.
How has the emergence of online shopping and other technological advancements in retail sales and merchandising caused you to evolve your approach to retail design?
The good news is that technology has actually placed more of an emphasis on design. So we are seeing our clients looking for retail spaces to be designed to be much more experiential and engaging. With purchase decisions now happening at the click of a keyboard, customers are looking for authentic and real experiences that make them feel good about the physical places where they shop.
What are some of the brands (retail partners) you’ve found to be most inspiring and/or innovative in their approach to creating immersive and thoughtful retail spaces?
Prior to starting Bona Design Lab, I had the fortunate pleasure of working with Duane Reade. It was exciting to not only participate in the transformation of a retail chain, but also in the evolution of an entire industry. If you recall, in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, they were a retailer that New Yorker’s loved to hate with stores that were old dirty, dingy and over-merchandised, and at that time, the management team was challenged with having to turnaround the company’s performance. From there, fast forward to the first prototypes in the Financial District and Brooklyn stores, where we had introduced nail salons, makeover beauty counters, yogurt stations, and growler bars. The flagship stores were located in some pretty unique New York properties where we had to consider the architectural integrity of the spaces they occupied, while also adding the modern flourishes of a “Look Boutique” and sushi bar. This process of transforming a retail store into a branded destination experience, really brings to life our firms’ key principles of combing the science of retail with the art of design.
The "Look Boutique" inside of one of the New York City Duane Reade prototypes
What work are you personally most proud of?
Rather than any specific client, I’m most proud of the fact that our boutique firm has delivered highly recognized and successful retail brands all across the globe, from Europe to Asia, the Middle East to the Baltics, Eastern Europe to Latin America, and Africa to, of course, North America. We have become students of the world and try our best to adapt and apply global best practices to local environments. I hope this is what allows our work to stand out and not to be defined by a single, signature style. Today we have active projects in Brazil, US, Ecuador, Peru, Puerto Rico and Chile.
Tell us a bit about your team. What makes you such strong collaborators?
Longevity, Loyalty and Love. Our core team have worked together for many years. Betty and I go back 25 plus years, Flavio close to 20 years, Crosby for 15, Byron for 10, and Tatjana is approaching 6 or 7 years. That is longevity. Our network of support has been involved with all of us for quite a long time. There is no way this would be possible without the other 2 “L’s” of Loyalty and Love. I think we all have a deep loyalty to each other and we genuinely love what we do and enjoy working with each other.
HOW do you see retail design evolving in the next 20 years?
I foresee that technology and design will merge in ways that are so seamless, that no one will even mention technology. Retail is in a constant state of flux and never stands still – some new format is being developed each and every day. Our job, if we are lucky enough to stick around, is continuing to innovate and motivate – turning shoppers into buyers. Overall, design and technology will continue to drive new formats and new experiences.