Question of the Month: What are the important phases of prototype and brand imaging? How are designer/client communication and trends awareness essential in producing a strong design result?

The retail prototype process is distinct from other design processes primarily in its initial phases and in its direct relationship to commerce. The express purpose of brand development and enhancement is to drive business and to increase revenue.

Brand-based prototype retail stores must function on many levels. A successful store will exhibit a focused point of view and an edited product selection, offering complete communication to the consumer: "We understand you and we can meet your needs." Developing the appropriate educational and entertainment values help to create a shopping experience that will surprise, delight and intrigue customers. The design process begins with brand research, whether it is creating a new brand or reinventing or reinforcing a current one. This involves a strategic process aimed at identifying the brand's essence: the company, its corporate culture and product line. Working closely with the client through a series of interviews usually produces resources with which the designer can manipulate and hone the design environment.

Developing a brand image often requires an "image strategy" that helps designers get to the core of the brand. This process includes:

* conducting focus groups;

* developing a retail mission;

* identifying the target customer;

* listing business goals; and

* store environment, merchandising and graphics planning.

Strong prototype design also hinges on cementing client trust and respect. Listening carefully and meeting client needs are two critical components of good projects. Prototype design is not simply an exercise in building signature spaces; it means building a pleasing environment that is spun directly from the company's requirements.

Trends also play an important role in design. Retail design work is influenced by the fashion industry, product development, color forecasts, furniture, architecture, and what is relevant and of the moment. The current environmental, earth-friendly movement is a trend of particular interest, while there also is a proliferation of organic, wellness-based products. This new consciousness is seen in design, the arts, literature, business, politics and retail product development. Consumers are "buying" a healthy lifestyle, and they are using personal time and discretionary income for personal care, spa and wellness experiences of many types.

These trends create exciting new possibilities in retail prototype design and influence almost every retail design project in some way. The topics and products are constantly evolving, but the trends are here to stay.

PERSONALLY Speaking Favorite retail store(s): Takashumaya: "Amazing flowers, products, displays and store design. A real gem of a small department store." Filene's Basement: "The Downtown Crossing in Boston is a treasure hunt and a time-sensitive contact sport rolled into one."

Favorite restaurant design Mistral, Boston and Cirque 2000, New York: "Both spaces seemed designed as a haven for our hyper-technological age, yet still able to create a transporting experience."

Most improved retail image Abercrombie & Fitch: "They have created a new brand which is another great Limited success story."

Most admired industry figure(s) Celeste Cooper, Phillipe Starck, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and other designers who create trends and style yet never compromise.

Laura Regrut, associate, Bergmeyer Associates Inc. 286 Congress St.Boston, Mass. 02210(617) 542-1025

Number of years in the industry: 16

Recent retail project(s): Prototype concepts for Domain furniture, Dick's Sporting Goods, G.H. Bass & Co., and gift shop and bookstore remodel for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Upcoming project(s): Several prototype concepts in apparel, accessories and hard goods; a Midwestern museum gift store; Long's Jewelers; a new ethnic fusion cafe; and a gourmet cookware and food store prototype.