Some things were meant to go together. Strawberries and shortcake. Cookies and milk. Diego Burdi and Paul Filek.
The two partners behind Toronto-based design firm Burdifilek have, over the past 18 years, built one of the most lauded design firms in the industry, creating brand-centric retail, hospitality and exhibit environments for companies such as W Hotels, Holt Renfrew, Neiman Marcus and Davids.
As creative partner, Burdi drives the firm’s creative efforts toward what he calls “the obvious elegant”—solutions that paint each brand at its best. As managing partner, Filek takes the lead in client relationship management and new business development. Burdifilek’s 40 employees work in teams that combine experience in fine arts, fashion, architecture and many other disciplines as each project demands. “We have different types of projects with different needs coming in all the time,” says Burdi.
Living the Dream
Burdi and Filek met while they were both interior design students at Ryerson University. The two realized a synergy between their personalities and strengths. They shared a similar design aesthetic—as well as a similar perspective and goals. “We knew early on that eventually we’d work together,” says Burdi. After graduation, they ended up at the same design firm. And just a couple of years after that, they launched their own shop.
The pair made its big leap in the middle of a recession—something that in retrospect, they don’t recommend. “We were young and naïve; we thought the phone would ring,” says Filek. When it didn’t, the two hunkered down and learned to promote themselves. They quickly became adept at marketing and in pursuing clients—skills that have kept the firm going strong through several recessions since.
Nearly two decades later, Burdi and Filek remain both friends and business partners. They place a premium on communication and make a point of sitting down together every Saturday morning to reconnect and review what’s going on in the office. Employees say that the comfortable dynamic between Burdi and Filek permeates the work environment and makes Burdifilek a very comfortable place to work. Occasionally the entire team plans an activity together—such as a recent afternoon spent outdoors relaxing—to facilitate bonding. “They take the work seriously; we all do. But we make time to laugh too,” said one employee.
Although every Burdifilek project has a unique aesthetic, there is some similarity in how they approach their projects: For starters, every project has a clear focus. Then the firm seizes unplanned opportunities that come up. As a rule, the firm strives to identify what aspects of a client’s current program still work so it can evolve the brand language only as much as is necessary to update the story. Overall, Buridfilek environments incorporate generous amounts of negative or blank space. And the firm is always selective regarding the incorporation of media.
In terms of clear focus, Burdifilek projects always have a strong element or form that commands attention first—the visual draw, so to speak. “Projects need an overall point of view,” says Burdi.
The firm accomplishes this by incorporating an element or series of elements that will catch attention in just three or four nanoseconds; a broad stroke that hits visitors right over the head from the get-go—a volume or message that is simple, clear and bold. “We ask: What is it that we want the client to see from 100 feet away?” says Burdi. Part of this challenge is simplifying the message down to its most important point.
One example of this approach is the exhibit Burdifilek designed for BlackBerry at CES (built by another red-hot Toronto-based outfit, The Taylor Group). The dramatic design centered on tall, curved walls that defined the space sculpturally and created distinct rooms within the space. “The form was powerful from a distance and ignited visitors’ sense of discovery. It captured customers’ interest at the lease line,” says Filek. And because that shape and form were very different, the exhibit stood out from the other exhibits on the floor.
“That’s all it takes, one or two strong elements to push it out there,” says Burdi.
The structure, created from extrusion infrastructure and covered in fabric skins, was something Filek says was much easier to do in an exhibit than it would have been in a retail location. “Exhibits are a dream stage. You don’t have to be concerned with the constraints of permanent construction,” he says.
In terms of content, the open space of the exhibit focused primarily on the launch of the BlackBerry PlayBook, which enabled customers to immediately focus on what was new. Visitors then encountered the smartphones in round pod-like rooms—but only after being exposed to the primary PlayBook message.
Seize the Opportunity
Another Burdifilek trademark is looking for—and capitalizing on—the unanticipated opportunities afforded by space and location. Burdi says that in retail, sometimes the space itself will offer new possibilities—more ceiling space, a historical column or beautiful brick wall. “When you pry off the layers others have added, you never know what you’ll find,” says Burdi.
An example of leveraging the attributes of a space to drive design is the Corporate Presentation Centre that Burdifilek designed for TELUS. This installation is located in the main floor lobby of TELUS headquarters—in a space that is two and a half stories high and visible through an equally tall set of windows. “It’s like looking into a fish bowl,” says Filek.
The client’s initial request was to do a retail kiosk-type installation. “But the opportunity was so much more because of the ceiling height and windows,” says Burdi. The solution was to approach the space like an exhibit and create a series of tall circular silos. From the exterior of the building, the silos make a dramatic, sculptural statement—especially at night. On the interior, the silos function as product pods—small rooms where products are on display. The clever inclusion of pocket doors facilitates evening lockdown.
Sometimes You Need Evolution
Another area where Burdiflex is expert is in figuring out what clients really need versus what they think they need. Like other firms, they take time to understand the client and the brand. They get a wish list from the client—but then they interpret it. “We read between the lines, try to look at it in a different light,” says Burdi.
The challenge is that many clients don’t know how to describe the real issue so the design firm has to translate. Burdi says that sometimes a client asks for an entire new design program—even when they don’t need it. Often established brands have strong base programs, what he calls “phenomenal bone structure,” which need an update, not a rework. The only thing that needs updating is the art program, or the fixtures or the finishes. “The designer’s job is to recognize that. See what’s working, tweak it to keep it current—but fix only on the parts that need fixing,” he says.
Burdifilek’s path to this end is to engage in fact finding, exploration and conversation. Often they find it helpful to review the case studies of companies who have been in similar scenarios. Reviewing what action was taken—and how that company’s customers responded—provides a designer with a huge amount of insight into what sort of changes are likely to succeed or backfire.
The philosophy of never fixing what isn’t broken was as important to the TELUS installation as the decision to take advantage of the ceiling height and windows. While the silo forms were entirely new to TELUS’ previous rectilinear vocabulary, everything else in the space followed existing brand protocol. This included colors, messages—and even graphics.
Another bonus of doing research is that the designer often uncovers additional needs and opportunities. “[During discovery] we always find out something new that the client didn’t initially communicate,” says Burdi.
…And Sometimes a Revolution
For the flagship Bell store in Toronto, Burdifilek went beyond evolution, revolutionizing everything from product display to graphics to the way selling takes place. At the same time, the store remained squarely in line with the established brand. “Even when something needs a complete overhaul, you have to keep the brand in mind as you design,” say Burdi.
The process started with a study of both the look and function of the old store. Through observation, the Burdifilek team revealed several opportunities to make the store more appealing and user friendly. “Product was displayed on the wall, so when you went into the store, you saw people’s backs,” says Burdi. It was hard for customers to find what they wanted and the entire environment felt cluttered—and overwhelming.
Burdiflek responded by moving the product displays to pedestals located in the center of the room and accessible from all sides—which improved the sight lines immeasurably. New graphics identified categories, simplified way finding and made the product displays more approachable.
In addition, the in-store color palette was simplified to white and blue. And a supersized illuminated logo was adhered to the now open wall. The result is totally new, yet totally true to the Bell brand. “It feels like you’re walking through a TV ad,” says Filek.
One of reasons that the new incarnation of the Bell store works so well is the incorporation of “visual down time”—areas in the store where nothing is happening—or where what is happening is very simple and can be understood intuitively. “When there is no time off for customers’ eyes, they don’t know where to focus,” says Filek.
“Customers need a little bit of pause to appreciate the environment, so everything doesn’t just become a blur,” says Burdi. In this project, Burdifilek accomplished this by eliminating all but the boldest messages from the perimeter wall. And by selecting a dark floor, which basically just disappears.
In the BlackBerry exhibit at CES 2011, Burdifilek incorporated visual down time by leaving open space around counters, and finishing walls in either solid blue or in a geometric pattern created by repeating the BlackBerry logo mark. In the TELUS installation, the ample white space gives visitors time to process their surroundings.
Another excellent example of Burdifilek’s skill in using negative space is its work for Canadian retailer Joe Fresh. When you visit a Joe Fresh store, it’s the clothing—not the store design—that stands out. The clean, minimal backdrop draws attention to the retailer’s collections. Meanwhile, the fixtures, all finished in a unified palette of crisp white, light oak and soft gray, fade into the background.
Burdi says that the design’s success is augmented by the fact that Joe Fresh has communicated the design intent to its store teams. “The merchandisers understand the nuances of the system—and leverage it to its fullest,” says Burdi. The result is a highly transformable environment where summer looks distinctly summer, fall looks distinctly fall—and it’s all undeniably Joe Fresh.
Media vs. content
One final sensibility that separates Burdifilek from many other designers is its attitude toward media. At a time when many designers look to digital displays to be the big wow of their environments—Burdifilek takes a more restrained and thoughtful position. “Media should be one point of access, but not the hook. It needs to compliment the central element,” says Filek
“We always ask: Does media accomplish what I really want to do?” says Burdi. When the answer is yes, a second question is raised. “Does the client have the content to support that?”
By “content to support that,” Burdi means do they have enough content that audiences won’t feel like they’ve seen the same thing over and over.
“It can be a little bit like Groundhog Day,” adds Filek, referencing the 1993 movie starring Bill Murray. At a three-day trade show, it’s important to have rich and varied content. If someone passes your exhibit two or three times, you don’t want them to see the same thing every time. For retail, he suggests changing out media every six weeks.
Filek also stresses that quality of image is equally important to content. “You shouldn’t blow it up big unless it’s going to look good big,” he says.
Burdifilek’s process has earned the firm awards and press coverage—both on the exhibit and retail sides. But in keeping with the firm’s belief in never saying or doing more than is necessary, the partners sum it all up quite simply. “We take a brand or product and give it a new life and skin,” says Burdi. They make it sound painless, obvious, easy. But we know it’s not.
As usual—quite an understatement.