It’s never easy fighting the established design practices of large companies. Through several decades of marketing, we’ve come to accept that two golden arches indicates burgers and fries, while a green and white mermaid fires caffeine-addicted neurons in our brain. Independent shops are left to create their own symbols to attract passersby, a monumental task that is often at the heart of the matter when a business fails. Such struggles are currently playing out in the United Kingdom, where High Streets — often referred to as Main Streets in the U.S. — are in decline. A recent report states that one in six shops are vacant in the UK, a result of the spread of chain stores and malls. “High Streets must be ready to experiment, try new things, take risks and become destinations again,” wrote Mary Portas, appointee of the Prime Minister to lead an independent review of the High Streets. “I want to put the heart back into the centre of our High Streets, re-imagined as destinations for socialising, culture, health, wellbeing, creativity and learning.”
Design for London, a government-led resource established to improve urban life, is at the helm of a project that pairs young, emerging designers with shop owners in need of a street-view makeover. The setting for the initial phase of the project was the ailing Willesden High Road, located in northwest London. The government-funded project hopes to generate buzz, attracting shoppers who otherwise shop at nearby malls. Through working with individual designers, shops were given unique store window makeovers that provided an overall identity, standing in complete opposition to the placelessness of corporate branding. Known as the New Windows on Willesden Green, the 25 redesigned shops were revealed advent calendar-style, a daily surprise that tied into the holiday season. Additionally, on the weekend of December 17, Willesden was transformed into a series of workshop sites, where designers screen printed, stenciled and wrapped gifts with community members. “By revamping these 25 shop fronts, the designers have given each business a stronger, more appealing identity, but more importantly they’ve brought a renewed dynamism to the street,” wrote Justin McGuirk for The Guardian.
The mayor’s infusion of financial support for the area is seen as a much-needed vote of confidence for citizens who are often overlooked in the greater scheme. “Traditionally, regeneration policies tend to focus on major infrastructural or building projects,” wrote McGuirk. “More modest, ‘window-dressing’ schemes such as the one in Willesden and others across London, which bring a feel-good factor and increase community pride, are taken less seriously.” So what’s next for New Windows on Willesden Green? In the second phase, the more, the merrier; the organization will soon field applications from new tenants to fill vacant storefronts. Hopefully, the story of Willesden will inspire other mayors to harness the power of collaborative brainstorming, encouraging community members to invest in their streets once again.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.