As placemaking has become perhaps the essential element in creating value in today’s retail environment, can older shopping centers legitimately compete? The answer is a resounding yes, as outdated shopping centers from coast to coast have been reborn through updated graphics, lighting, signage, landscaping improvements and minor architectural updates—all of which have served to increase consumer traffic and convince shoppers to stay longer and spend more.

The question is why? If most of us inherently see things such as wall murals, new landscaping and improved signage as decoration, why do these elements attract shoppers in sufficiently high numbers to transform older or underperforming retail sites into popular and profitable centers of community life?

The answer lies in the fact that graphics, lighting, signage and architectural detailing possess the ability to radically alter the physical presence of place. They can animate, direct, inspire, comfort and engage. Ultimately, by embracing a new color palette, paying attention to detail and updating the graphics and signage, it is possible to literally transform the identity of commercial and mixed-use space from tired to inspired.

In a country that can arguably be considered “over-retailed,” reinvesting in existing retail properties in this way has become increasingly commonplace, particularly in an economy that, while improving, still remains somewhat sluggish. Obviously, reinvestment represents a significantly less expensive option than constructing new retail space and typically is widely welcomed by communities aware of the benefits it brings. Moreover, it has the added benefit of being environmentally friendly, reducing pressure on natural resources by not developing on greenfield sites further outside the suburban sprawl.

Linden Square, a 218,000-sq-ft, mixed-use development outside Boston, offers a good case in point. While boasting a promising demographic profile and an appealing mix of uses (bank, fitness club, pharmacy and a number of restaurants) to complement a diverse selection of national retailers, the project had been criticized for a bland design aesthetic that lacked character. A new signage and graphics package complemented a few strategic elements, such as storefront canopies, new plaza and landscaping, to reinvigorate the space in a way that engages and reflects the surrounding community aesthetic, while simultaneously conveying a fresh and instantly recognizable identity.

New Identities

Similarly, full scope signage and graphics were used to bring a strong project identity to the main thoroughfare at Rockville Town Square outside Washington, D.C., where the project brand previously was nearly non-existent. New signage and well thought-out wayfinding locations were used on both interior and exterior areas to increase project awareness, create greater navigation into and throughout the site and elevate tenant presence. Paired with a new identity and marketing program, this facelift helped to re-launch the property to the neighborhood, to passers-by and, ultimately, significantly increase consumer traffic.

Signage, décor and graphics, in fact, tend to define how visitors to a shopping center perceive, interact and engage with the space. It is often times the first thing shoppers see when they arrive and the touchstone to which they return throughout their visit. From wayfinding and directional signage to recognizable symbols of recognizable tenants and cultural icons, the writing is literally on the wall when it comes to the shopper experience.

Projects like Linden Square and Rockville Town Square exemplify the degree to which a few strategic improvements to the physical characteristics of a place can improve the feel of that place and can have a dramatic impact on the corresponding psychology of the people who move through that space. Bottom line: happy, comfortable consumers stay longer, spend more, and visit more frequently.

Crisp, clean, style-conscious signage and graphics and a well-maintained environment, in fact, can play a huge role in making a retail center feel like a safe and appealing shopping destination. Numerous studies of human psychology have reinforced the notion that cleanliness, order and style are directly associated with comfort, safety and security.

It has been said that true innovation comes not just from creating something new but also from re-arranging familiar elements in a new way. For many commercial centers, an eye-catching swath of color atop the existing architectural canvas can accomplish exactly that.

As developers and property owners around the country turn to new signage and graphics, vibrant colors, improved lighting and fresh landscaping in lieu of the wrecking ball to attract customers and invite them to have a memorable experience, they are not just making an innovative and cost-effective investment in their retail and mixed-use portfolio. In recognizing that it is not the site plans but the sightlines, psychology and signage that define a space, they are also celebrating the pageantry and power of visual identity to energize and inspire.

Valerie Cataffa has been the director of graphics for 16 years at the Baltimore-based design firm DDG. For more information, visit DDG at