Missio interviewed Nathan Klose about his work designing spaces as the Creative Director of Books-A-Million / 2nd & Charles.
Adam Joyce: What makes a good space? What does a good, as you have said, “visual grammar” look like?
Nathan Klose: A good space is a contextual space. Environment is the provision of contexts, because when you walk into a space and want to know where something is, that something must have an apparent destination. As I encounter the contexts that my company has built in their stores, I’m struck with the quandary of store variety to work with: no one Books-A-Million is created equally. Everyone in the company that can have a say, then, will have a say in the context that is important to them in this store. The department of people at corporate that buy cool stuff to go into our stores—those books, toys, tech, etc., we offer in each location? One of my many jobs, as Creative Director, is help design spaces that help that department of people have what is important to them be equally important to anyone looking for it. I’d call it destination-making. So a good space is a contextual space.
The visual grammar of every space is a little different. Each context is made of statements. One statement may be, ‘Lookah All These Kickin’ Sweet Books That Are On Sale For Summer That We Picked Out For You.’ Another statement may be, somewhere else, ‘Lookah All These Supah Tasty Drinks We Have In Our Cafe That We Made Up Recipes For Just For You.’ The statements, of course, are not so literal. They are depicted visually by signage and other displays so that people understand what we’re trying to say, you know, without saying it to them literally. No space should demand, command, or administrate a customer. Spaces should present the freedom, the mercy, of choice. So we’re merciful to people in our stores by allowing them to understand their destinations through these visual elements. Each visual element is a component in the grammar of the statement we’d like to make, then.
To do so mercifully, with kindness, is another task altogether. That’s always to be learned.
AJ: What specific instance of your work on a space are you most proud of?
NK: Oh, sheesh. It’s easiest for me to describe two recent endeavors.
Right now we’re re-branding our cafe, Joe Muggs, which exists in most Books-A-Millions. We’re working hard to deliver a means of distinction between this “store within the store,” and a lot of that has to do with how people feel when they enter into a Joe Muggs.
Joe Muggs, in most stores, often has no boundaries around it to distinguish it from the rest of Books-A-Million proper. This is a problem, because people don’t feel protected from the rest of the visual grammar in the store, struggling with destination-making. What we are testing most recently is modes of distinction. There are test stores with Joe Muggs that are doing this, and we’re pleased with what they are doing and hope to push what they are doing out to the rest of the stores. Books-A-Million is the second largest collection of bookstores in the United States, so we do have to experiment.
Another example is the most recent summer sale we had on some wonderful books. The sale needed to be a destination, again—and we provided a visual grammar that spoke that statement. Everyone that works at corporate has an intriguing, often passion-brimming, say in how we layout the stores for different purposes. It’s fantastic.
Our summer sale was laid out down the main drive, where people enter the store. To ensure this didn’t operate as what I would call a ‘hallway,’ we needed to state the area’s importance. We did this, of course, with signage and displays, but we also considered the non-considerable real estate: we wrapped tables with a visual grammar toward the larger statement of the sale, brought elements from the design and arced them over the tables, and pretty much bathed that ‘hallway’ in an architectonic celebration of the deals we had made available.
AJ: Why are you proud of them?
I’m proud of both of these because they simultaneously calm the anxious shopper mind (in that they provide easy destinations) and help people celebrate what we find important in our stores.
AJ: How have you developed your own sense of calling and theological language for your work?
NK: I have worked out some language. As I am new to this position the language I have worked up alters as I become ‘less new.’ That may be an obvious progression— the scope of what we know alters how we speak about it—but I don’t think dismissing what is obvious makes it less imperative. It is good to be reminded of what is obvious, because obvious things become forgettable and forgotten.
I find myself under the tutelage of men and women that have been working in the book industry for many years, my CEO and his VPs especially, and they have an otherworldly sense of direction, decision, and narrative for Books-A-Million and 2nd & Charles. As a Creative Director here, myself, for both those brands, I stand confident in my skills and I stand humbled also by the skills of those who have come before me. In one way, it’s lot like looking to the Saints as examples of appropriate action and appropriate thought. In another way, there’s a humility required to become more effective at providing what I would call ‘natural mercies’ in spaces (a marriage of my visual, creative know-how and the know-how of others with more experiences in this industry). I am reminded of the need for failure, kindness, and direct speech between people moving in a direction. Honesty and vulnerability are what make a company flexible, easily directional—not muscle or power. The story of a company is best worked out when the story is open and understood by all. And to become an effective Creative Director here, I must become a communicative servant to meet the needs of those that know those needs best. That, in itself, is very humbling. I am no hotshot. I am simply a man that wants to work so hard, just like the men and women that have worked so hard before me. Words like humility, mercy, honesty, vulnerability, failure, kindness all are words I speak to myself when I consider my own actions. As that language becomes more mine, and I become “less new,” I suspect the words will not have to be only words. They will be the actions. They will become like a visual grammar, if you will: the elements that make up the larger statement without directly stating it, and eventually the destination.
Nathan Klose is also an editor with The Curator. He lives in Birmingham, AL, with a small farm mutt named Molly. Molly snaps at horse flies and moths around the house.