When retailers call on a design firm to create a new store image, they sometimes overlook the fact that a responsive firm can be a key player in the corporate strategy to take a new retail initiative to the market.

As part of the creative design process, the designer is responsible for an investigative course that builds his knowledge of the product and of the organization's operations and objectives. From this vantage point, he finds himself in a unique position to present a new design to the investment and development communities, which play a significant role in a new prototype's success.

Who can better explain how a design is arrived at - its strategic qualities and its long-term potential? By his personal involvement, the designer can contribute to the project's credibility and impact.

The design firm also can play a key role in the client's development by overseeing the prototype application at its rollout phase. On one hand, the firm's assistance can be critical when a new design is the object of numerous simultaneous applications and where adjustments are required in a fast-track schedule.

On the other hand, at a time when corporations are looking at outsourcing to focus on their core competence, the design firm is strategically positioned to become an extension of the client's construction department, especially when large rollout programs require the addition of important resources. The Internet and station-to-station video conferencing are making this work relationship effective and almost seamless.

Retailers today operate in a competitive environment that requires them to react quickly with new product offerings or merchandising strategies. Over and above the visual impact of a new store prototype, a design solution needs to incorporate flexibility as a value-added feature so that the store's image remains strong and cohesive, enduring change. Flexibility is attained when the prototype design allows for inexpensive and timely adaptation to sites and real estate conditions over which the retailer has less and less control.

An even more intangible value results from the designer's creativity and perseverance - with a compelling store prototype that bridges the retailer's offering and the core customer's culture and aspirations.

But the designer's involvement need not end at the grand opening of a new prototype. The true test of a design is in its repetitive application in the course of a construction program.

During the rollout program, responsive design management often creates unexpected opportunities to test new design strategies. By letting the designer play this role, the retailer protects and strengthens its image and becomes a leader in the marketplace. Design updates keep a store chain at the cutting edge, reducing the extent of store retrofit programs as the retailer charts its strategic course.

* Favorite retail store

Old Navy: "Rigorous, yet entertaining - with lots of surprises. The designers must have had a good time coming up with this one."

* Favorite restaurant design

L'Express in Montreal: "A modern interpretation of a French bistro designed 15 years ago and still current. Finishes have aged elegantly, just like the bistro staff. A restaurant with a soul."

* Most improved retail image

Adidas: "They've done a great job of redefining their product offering, and their store echoes very well their determination."

* Most admired industry figure

Nigel Coates: "He was one of the first designers to accept and recognize, as an immense creative potential, the ephemeral nature of architecture and interiors, which led him to consider function and spaces as events, meshed together by thematic narratives or stories."