While attracting customers is key, keeping them entertained and creating an environment they will return to is every bit as important to the long-term success of a project. Toward that end, developers and architects should keep in mind three words that distinguish winning projects: icons, icons, icons.

Just as the retail developer is becoming more sophisticated, consumers too are becoming more sophisticated - and therefore more discerning. How can you make your project better than your competitor's? That's where the details of icon creation and integrated design are significant.

Everywhere you look, icons are a major force for daily communication and rapid visual identification. Whether in cars, where a snowflake identifies the air conditioning, or on computers, where the image of a printer indicates where to click to print a document, icons make communication easy, efficient and international. In public environments, icons are the best way to visually communicate desired messages to customers.

Three examples demonstrate how to incorporate entertaining and meaningful icons into shopping center plans right from the beginning.

Icons across retail America At the Taubman Co.'s Great Lakes Crossing Mall in Auburn Hills, Mich., Penwal Industries created many icons throughout the mall environment. For example, a coffee kiosk features six giant three-dimensional, custom-sculpted coffee cups that hang from the corner of the coffee house kiosk. These coffee mug icons visually identify what customers will find there.

For customers seeking information, a giant question mark was installed above the mall directory. This symbol is also useful for concierge desks and information kiosks.

At Ontario Mills in Ontario, Calif., giant food icons such as ice cream cones, sandwiches and hot dogs as well as giant forks and spoons holding illuminated food items like Jell-O, peas, carrots and cheese were designed to attract customers to the food court.

Measuring 25' long by 15' in diameter, the icons were suspended high above the food court to direct customers there in an entertaining fashion. Even people who are not hungry during their visit are visually made aware of the offerings for the future, and know that the dining activity is an integrated part of the overall mall experience.

Megaplex icons The moviegoing experience today starts at the curbside, continues in the lobby and finishes in the theater. An example of the use of icons to help create an entertaining moviegoing experience is Muvico's new Egyptian Theater in Davie, Fla. At this theater, icons were designed and installed to create an experience reminiscent of an actual visit to ancient Egypt.

The 95,000 sq. ft. Egyptian Theater is filled with visual cues that surround visitors and immerse them in a historic environment. Icons representing ancient Egypt - including two giant sphinxes that serve as guardians for the pyramid-styled movie theater and a box office with a multi-dimensional bas-relief sculpted mural - inform customers of the experience even before they purchase their tickets.

In the lobby, 20-foot high Egyptian columns marked with hieroglyphics are ultimately topped by blue-and-gold neon lights. The blue lights create a starlit night sky on the ceiling, while the gold lights bring the columns to life. A mosaic tile pattern on the floor reflects the feeling of being on the Nile river. Even the main concession counter is icon themed with two larger-than-life 16-foot Pharaohs.

In each of these examples, consistency is created through small details. But a themed design that touches the entire project, inside and outside, from ceiling to floor, is the best way to create a place where people feel as if they are actually experiencing a place and/or time different from their day-to-day life. The icons make that difference.

Dan Blackman is vice president of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.-based Penwal Industries, a theming company specializing in concept design, manufacturing and installation, whose clients include Disney, FAO Schwarz, Boeing, Mann Theaters, The Mills Corp., NIKE, Hughes, Paramount, Six Flags, NASA and Warner Bros.