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Should we be designing for hyper-niche tribes?

In her regular column, Conran and Partners’ Tina Norden ponders the value of a hyper-focused design approach.

06/10/2022 2 min read
This article first appeared in Mix Interiors Issue 221

Talking about flexible design in the last column, my conclusion was that trying to design for everyone results in designing for no one. The discussion about designing for specific tribes (our new favourite word for customer groups in the post-age, post-gender era) is closely related to the same topics. I would argue that niche design for a very specific target group is actually a very good design approach, even if it sounds counter-intuitive when looking for maximum appeal – or, shall we say, maximum revenue.

There are a number of excellent examples where a hyper-focused stylistic approach has worked incredibly well, starting with the trailblazer Ace and onto the likes of the Hoxton and Mama Shelter, but also high-end propositions like One Hotel, all the way through to Aman Resorts. All of these have been phenomenally successful and not only with their target ‘tribe’.

The reason for this is simple: they have a clear message, a strong attitude and, as a result, a convincing and firmly defined identity and design. They know who they are, who they are aimed at and exude a seductive confidence – almost defying audiences not to like them if they are not in the tribe. Don’t like the artwork, the minimal design or the particular shade of pink (still the colour if Salone this year is anything to go by), well, tough, maybe it’s not for you. This appeals to the discerning guest today, certainly to a sufficiently large audience to fill their rooms and public areas very nicely – and possibly keep away the type of guests they don’t desire. These types of spaces, if done right, appeal to their niche tribe but also those that aspire to be part of it, or simply like what it stands for or want to get a taste of its attitude.

As designers we have been long been talking about the all-important concept, a strong identity and narrative for our spaces. A client coming to us with a very clear brief and their target audience based on research, competition and brand development is the holy grail for designers and gives us the perfect starting point for a concept. Equally, a client with an open mind that allows time to develop the brief and ‘target tribe’ collaboratively, before we pick up the proverbial pencil, will have the same result.

One key part for this approach to be successful, however, is to be innovative; agile in the resulting design approach. Regurgitating trailblazing examples, lazy assumptions and actually trying too hard to please ‘our’ tribe will all fall flat with today’s educated audience. They want to feel understood but not patronised; feel at home without being bored, yet be challenged and surprised. And if any of the earlier examples are anything to go by, if we can achieve that both with the design and the service, we will not only attract our tribe but many others will enjoy being part of it – even if they are not in the club.

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