A Q&A with award-winning Context architect and retail expert Natalie Snowden as she celebrates 25 years in the industry

08 March 2021

As she observes her 10th anniversary with Context, architect and retail expert Natalie Snowden reflects on the high points of a quarter-century in the design industry — and sets her sights firmly on the future.

2021 sees Natalie Snowden celebrate two noteworthy milestones: a cool 25 years in the design industry and her 10th anniversary here at Context.

An award-winning architect and design expert with experience across projects in the retail, commercial, and residential spaces, Natalie is a member of the executive committee for the Retail Interiors Association (NZRIA) and contributes to our partnerships with some of New Zealand’s best-known brands and retailers.

Intuitive, empathetic, and deeply creative, she designs with a laser-focus on customer experience, putting that understanding to use on work ranging from high-profile retail to pharmacy fit-outs. Guided by an integrated design approach that melds architecture, interiors, furniture, graphics, and brand identity, Natalie creates innovative, people-centric spaces and experiences that enable clients to hone their brands and powerfully connect with their audiences and communities.

To commemorate her 10 years with Context, we sat down with Natalie to chat about everything from the evolution of her career to the influence of technology on design to why her passion for retail remains so strong.

What’s influenced your design style and philosophy the most over the course of your career?

I went through my degree and started work before computers and email had really taken hold (there were debates in the profession at the time about whether we could accept tenders via email instead of fax). We take all of that for granted now, but I think it gave me a solid grounding.

I had a wonderful first job with Chris Fox, working in a larger collective called Archangels. Chris saw it as his duty to the profession to train graduates, and he was marvellously patient. He would explain construction details by drawing them in 3D, and I would marvel at how he could do that without taking his pencil off the paper (something I was determined to emulate). He also demonstrated how clarity in drawings was essential if you want contractors to understand what you’re asking of them.

My philosophy has always been client-centric. I’ve always loved bringing clients’ visions to life and pulling together the threads of a brief into a cohesive whole rather than relying on a ‘signature’ design style. I suppose I’d say my design philosophy is more approach over style — exploring the depths of a brief and figuring out how to translate its possibilities into designs that clients love.

I’ve also been an avid proponent of the Chris Fox School of Dimensioning — which is again about clarity and showing the hierarchy of importance. By being clear about our thinking all the way through, we can help contractors deliver the project exactly how it was envisioned by us and the client.

Looking back to the beginning of your career, what would you say are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as an architect and designer?

Architecture as a career is particularly cyclical. I graduated right into a recession; only two people in my class got jobs straight into architectural practices, and then there was the GFC, and now there’s COVID. The construction industry (which we of course service) is also highly susceptible to shifts in the economy, so I’d consider all of that a challenge within the profession.

Perhaps surprisingly, gender has never really been an issue, although when I was younger it might’ve taken a beat before the contractor realised I knew how to resolve issues with a pencil on an off-cut of gib. They were probably more concerned about my limited experience at the time, but with each project and each contractor, you learn more ways of putting things together.

How do you ensure you’re providing clients with the best possible design experience?

By really, truly listening to them and asking lots of questions, we make sure we deeply understand our clients’ strategic and project objectives. Once that understanding is established, we have a great foundation on which to explore the challenges and opportunities afforded by all the different converging aspects of a project: the brief, relevant regulations, site orientation, budget, programme, commercial constraints, and the like.

Context’s mission and philosophy are entirely client-focussed; by that, I mean that we’re in the business of solving problems and helping people realise their design visions. The reason we need to listen to our clients and prioritise developing strong relationships with them is that these things are key to understanding the fundamentals of the problems we’re engaged to solve.

It’s not really about the architect or the designer; it’s about how we can help the clients who’ve trusted us with their projects. There’s really no room for ego!

What advice can you offer on the most productive ways to collaborate and achieve enduring design outcomes?

Technological advances mean we can fully investigate, conceptualise, and detail sites in 3D using point-cloud scanners and 3D modelling as well as CAD, virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR). We can then share and interrogate that journey with our clients through further use of VR.

So instead of our clients needing to just trust that we’ve understood their brief and transcended it, they can step right inside and have an emotional response to the design, which really aligns with the strong collaborative culture we have at Context. Personally, I’m most excited about VR opening up the fourth dimension — seeing how spaces unfold and relate as you move through them and being able to share that with our clients.

You’re an expert in retail design. What are the biggest changes you’ve observed in the sector over the past 25 years?

The aforementioned technological advances have been and are being similarly harnessed in retail — from holographic displays to slim or integrated transparent digital screens (think Samsung’s fridge fronts) to AR apps where customers can virtually put their own feet into retailers’ shoes (Adidas, Nike, and the sneaker reselling biz Goat, to name a few).

That actually leads into my favourite evolution in the sector. Retailers are putting themselves squarely into their customers’ shoes (see what I did there) and asking what their customers want, what will engender their loyalty (spoiler: it's not a loyalty card), and what experiences will truly resonate with their lifestyles and values.

The days of ‘stack ‘em high and see ‘em fly’ are over. Retailers are really diving deep to understand their audiences and customers and to do whatever’s necessary to eliminate their pain points from the purchasing process. A great example of this is Amazon Go, a grocery and convenience store concept that uses technological innovation to bill shoppers digitally — letting them simply walk out of the store with their purchases without queuing to pay.

And looking ahead, what shifts might we expect to see within retail design? What do you think will become the norm over the next five to 10 years?

I would expect we’ll continue to see a trend towards flexibility, especially in the wake of COVID changing the retail landscape. We can look for retailers to implement ‘temporary’ flexible solutions for their physical spaces, such as pop-ups and modular shopfronts — basically design that allows them to connect with customers in person whilst meeting their commercial objectives and taking advantage of benefits including sustainability and efficiency. We’ve actually been exploring flexible solutions for our clients at Context for many years.

I think we can also expect to see the recent tendency toward shopping local stick around. This will take considerable effort on the part of the retailer; in terms of buyer psychology, humans are wired to comparison-shop for the best deal, so retailers are unlikely to succeed simply by virtue of being local. But if they can capitalise on what we saw during COVID — remarkable empathy within our communities to support struggling local businesses — by finding ways to emphasise their unique values and personalities, then the trend toward shopping local should solidify.

How do you see technology impacting retail over the coming years? How will this transform the customer experience?

As we’ve seen with Nike and Adidas and numerous others, augmented reality (AR) has many valuable applications within the retail space. I think we’ll see AR become the norm in the sector — offering a ‘retail in your pocket’ experience that allows customers to immerse themselves in brand offerings, ‘try on’ the likes of clothing and footwear, and otherwise connect with retailers at any time and in any place.

We’ll see more charming and unpredictable moments of connection between retailer and customer — like the Jafflechute — ultimately creating an instantaneous community.

Finding ways to encourage this connection will be especially important as flexible retail (and perhaps fewer physical stores) takes hold.

You’re also an expert in universal design and accessibility. How does this influence your design work in retail and beyond?

Universal design is really all about having empathy for users, which means everyone, including retailers and customers. It’s about resolving and removing the barriers to everyday life, including shopping — making it an accessible and enjoyable experience for everyone who enters the space.

This ties in nicely with what I’d call ‘Retail 101’ — making it easy for people to come into your shop, both figuratively and physically. Excluding people is hardly conducive to sales.

You’ve done some excellent work here at Context. Which project(s) are you most proud of, and why?

Firstly I’d say I’m most proud of the way we do work here at Context. It’s relationship-based and entirely dependent on collaborations with the client that allow us to get to lasting, satisfying design outcomes. All of our work falls out of that relationship-based, client-focussed design philosophy.

As far as specific projects go, I’m particularly proud of our decade-long collaboration with Westpac. It’s been incredible to witness the evolution in the banking sector over that time and to adapt our designs and design thinking as we re-evaluate how best to support them.

Our Liquor King client is a super-smart, hilarious person who’s a delight to work with, and I’ve really enjoyed doing a deep dive into her world of marketing through our designs.

And then there’s Spark Halo. I’ve loved rising to all the different challenges and answering the what-ifs with some how-abouts — and truly believing that anything is possible when the goal is set high.

What’s kept your passion for retail alive over the course of your career? Why is it such an exciting space to work in?

I love retail (and particularly retail at Context) because it’s a mix of long-term relationships and fast-paced projects. You get a unique blend of intricacy, detail, and design thinking framed within the concepts of shopper psychology and customer experience.

I’ve also always been passionate about setting and rising to challenges — constantly questioning assumptions and resolving those questions in ways that push the envelope and exceed client expectations. It’s just a lot of fun and hugely satisfying.

More questions for Natalie? Don’t hesitate to email her at [email protected]. For any further queries, get in touch with us at [email protected].