Meet a CEO: Callie van der Merwe – Design Partnership

We sat down with Callie van der Merwe of Design Partnership to discuss the importance of human psychology in successful design.



Hi Callie, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your business?

I am the founding partner of Design Partnership, established in 1994 as a business-led agency, focused on strategy, design and build in the retail, hospitality, workplace and services market. I originally qualified as an architect but the business model was not one that made sense to me. With a group of like-minded architects and designers, we established Design Partnership in 1994. Our core focus is the intersection of creativity and commerce within the physical channel, to connect people with products and place. The name went through a bit of a transformation in 2016 due to its preferred shortened use as DP and is now known as DP Strategy. It’s the most awarded business within this category in Southern Africa.  Headquartered in Johannesburg, we have satellite offices in Cape Town and Sydney.


What are the kinds of services that you offer?

We are currently also the biggest business of its kind in Southern Africa extending our strategy, design and build services across banking, large format international apparel chains and food and beverage groups. I have come to Sydney to extend our core strategy and design services into this market.


Your company was founded in South Africa and you’re one of the top retail and hospitality design houses there. What prompted the expansion to Australia?

Looking at the skillsets that we needed to hone in an extremely tight and highly competitive financial market, we became quite adept at developing a good understanding and sensibility around human behaviour within the various categories that we operate in. Although great design sometimes arrives completely left of field, we measure all our interventions on people first – how they will engage with our space and our clients’ products, and how we can enhance that experience to the best of our ability.


You talk about understanding human behaviour as being essential to successful design. Can you tell us more about this?

As eluded to above it’s all about people. People ignore design that ignores people. People also ignite people. The way this happens within the physical channel (physical retail environments) is quite different to how it happens online. Online is a little more linear. More predictable. Physical is a little more unpredictable with more surprises as it’s populated by physical people. What people do and how they do this naturally is the geneses of each of our projects. Although we operate in the physical world, we know that the new front door to any retail format is digital. Whether you just go online to look at trading hours or the address, or peer into the layers a bit deeper to look at product, it starts with digital. How this digital channel then engages with the physical channel is often up to the requirements and understanding of the retailer. Every successful retail offering used to subscribe to what I refer to as the DOM principle: design, operations and merchandise. Designers stood on the sidelines and made pretty stores. That was then. A successful designer today needs to understand the integration of all three fundamentals and how they influence the entire path to purchase.


Tell us about some of the businesses you have worked with.

In South Africa, we have been fortunate to work with some of the largest local groups such as Edcon (biggest clothing group trading in over 1,500 stores across Southern Africa in a total of 6,500 square meters) and Foschini (second-largest clothing brand). We also work with the biggest banking groups such as ABSA and Standard Bank and have done work with a great selection of local and international food and beverage international brands such as Nandos and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. In its heyday we did the Toys R Us chain and it did phenomenally well. The licensee at the time was a bit of a maverick that did things his way and then asked for forgiveness later. It worked 99% of the time.

Locally we have been fortunate to pick up the entire Seagrass account that includes brands such as Meat & Wine, Ribs & Burgers, Italian Street Kitchen and Hunter & Barrel. We have also developed the architectural and interior conceptual visual positioning for Taco Bell’s re-entry into Australia. It is currently one of the top performing stores internationally. We have been commissioned to develop three more Taco Bell designs. Amazon’s entry into Africa has seen our Cape Town office almost exclusively occupied with their work in the last three months.


What would you say is the most interesting space you’ve had to design so far?

There have been a few, but I would say that the challenges for the Meat & Wine Co at Tower 1 in Barangaroo has been up there with the best. Trying to link two completely unconnected floors over 1,000 square metres and doing it in such a way that all 350 seats would be equally attractive and appealing was a massive challenge and one that had my colleagues and I wheel spinning for months! Add to that the requirements for ROI, budget, imported handmade furniture, all the legal hoops around fire and safety – and just to make it interesting, a required Greenstar rating of six – and you can imagine the knifes’ edge we operated on for almost eight months!


What are the things that people get wrong about design? What makes for bad design in public spaces?

It’s quite simply where designers forget that they design for people. When we have biases and make assumptions about how we think people would behave without looking at what they really do within context. The best way to address this challenge is observation: to understand how people walk you have to look at where they stop and start, sit down, group together or separate etc. You have to look at climate, more specifically sun and shade paths in public squares during certain times of day and year and look at how people engage with it. A common mistake, for example, is to treat seating in public spaces the same way you would treat it in a restaurant. Restaurant or café seating is at 450mm high: it’s the comfortable height for the average height person sitting at a table for a longer period of time. However public spaces with public seating often have no tables and people spend far less time sitting there. Often, therefore, a higher seat is required to make it more comfortable to get up.


Anything else we should know?

That’s about it for now!



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