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Apple's wonder designer Tim Kobe on retail spaces that intersect with human touch

In a conversation with STIR, ‘Apple’s best kept secret’- Tim Kobe of Eight Inc. - digs deep into the nuances that create meaningful human experiences in the retail space.

by Zohra Khan Dec 03, 2019

Tim Kobe, who is known as ‘Apple’s best kept secret’, is the man behind the legendary brand’s first store designed in 2001 in New York. It was a simple and minimalistic glass box that blurred the boundaries between physical and digital space, and stirred the retail industry with its arrival.

The founder and CEO of the Singapore-based strategic and experience design firm, Eight Inc., Kobe believes that successful retail design is about connecting with the emotions and interactions of people and in creating experiences that align with the brand values.

His interdisciplinary firm is a leader in experience design that takes on multiple roles such as strategy, architecture, exhibition, interior design, communications, and branding. Over the last three decades, Eight Inc. has created an inspiring repertoire of works executed for brands like Virgin Atlantic Airways, Nike, Lincoln, and Citibank.

03 mins watch STIR in conversation with Tim Kobe | Hyderabad Design Week | STIRworld
STIR in conversation with Tim Kobe Video Credit: Courtesy of STIR

During the Hyderabad Design Week in October this year, Kobe spoke with STIR leaders, Amit Gupta (founder, curator, content director) and Mrinalini Ghadiok (editor) about how holistic experience design is bringing brands closer to their audiences and helping them express themselves better; thus generating more value in the larger scheme of things. He also gave a glimpse of his recent projects as well as innovations at hand and those that are on the anvil and beyond…

Glimpse of an event hosted by Apple | Tim Kobe | Eight Inc. | STIRworld
Glimpse of an event hosted by AppleImage Credit: Courtesy of Eight Inc.

Amit Gupta (AG): You have a background in Experience Design. Do you think, somewhere down the line, we may be losing sensations such as touch and smell that create what we call the physical experience?

Tim Kobe (TK): We are working with a lot of universities and have seen that while we are busy building technology patterns, many of our younger students are equally fascinated by what we consider the old-world analog. Much of our younger audience is far more interested in analog than digital. I think if people are only now starting to realise the negative aspects of the content that we have created - whether it’s real or fake - those negatives will also push us back into creating more balance. I don’t think human interactions are ever going away. It’s the forms we use that may vary based on what serves the need we have.

  • Apple Store, Regent Street, London | Tim Kobe | Eight Inc. | STIRworld
    Apple Store, Regent Street, London Image Credit: Courtesy of Eight Inc.
  • Apple stores are defined by minimalist interiors with a special focus on user experience | Tim Kobe | Eight Inc. | STIRworld
    Apple stores are defined by minimalist interiors with a special focus on user experienceImage Credit: Courtesy of Eight Inc.
  • The product display reflecting technological sophistication | Tim Kobe | Eight Inc. | STIRworld
    The product display reflecting technological sophistication Image Credit: Courtesy of Eight Inc.
  • The design of the stores aligns with Apple's brand values |Tim Kobe | Eight Inc. | STIRworld
    The design of the stores aligns with Apple's brand values Image Credit: Courtesy of Eight Inc.

Mrinalini Ghadiok (MG): We cannot talk to Tim Kobe and not mention Apple. Tell us about your biggest challenge with the brand in terms of developing it, making it what it turned out to be and what it continues to grow into.

TK: We were fortunate because we were working with Steve (Jobs).

The biggest challenge was that it was a relatively small company, though it had a 2.5 billion-dollar valuation compared to today, where it has a trillion-dollar value and there are thousands of other employees.

What used to be a pretty tight, controlled focus on user experience with Steve has moved more and more into commercial business and employment strategy. I think the biggest challenge is that the things that made Apple successful when it was small, need to still be a part of what continues its success.

The glass box exterior of Apple Store at the Fifth Avenue in New York | Tim Kobe | Eight Inc. | STIRworld
The glass box exterior of Apple Store at the Fifth Avenue in New York Image Credit: Courtesy of Eight Inc.
I think the biggest challenge is that the things that made Apple successful when it was small, need to still be a part of what continues its success. – Tim Kobe, Founder and CEO, Eight Inc.

You could argue that they are trying to do it in different ways and that's legitimate, but again the value of technology is what it does for people. If you are just looking at an incremental iPhone 10, iPhone 11, 12,13,14,15…. and so on, then this kind of output is of the pre-Steve world. It’s the industrial era that’s about incremental improvement and consumption society. Steve was trying to help build radical impact on the way we think about making products and then have them create value as a result of incredible passion and loyal followers, but as the company grows and it brings more people from other corporate cultures, things become much more diverse. It’s much harder to keep that kind of synchronisation of vision.

 The extraordinary followership of Apple says a lot about the how the brand has effectively expressed its values to the public | Tim Kobe | Eight Inc. | STIRworld
The extraordinary followership of Apple says a lot about how the brand has effectively communicated its values to the public Image Credit: Courtesy of Eight Inc.

MG: You were responsible for introducing people to the first Apple store – a concept that revolutionised the way we look at retail spaces today. Why did you choose the idea of a glass box for the store? 

TK: The idea of transparency and uniqueness of this location was driven much more around the kind of values that Apple wanted to convey to the public. The glass reflects a level of technological sophistication particularly in a building or in the structure of a system. If you think of that store, it defies all modes of conventional retail. There are no products in the windows and it’s in the basement. These are all the things that traditional retail wouldn’t do. It was a reflection of what Apple as a brand stands for. It’s always about what your values are…

A unique automobile experience for Lincoln in China by Eight Inc. | Eight Inc. | Tim Kobe | STIRworld
A unique automobile experience for Lincoln in China by Eight Inc. Image Credit: Courtesy of Eight Inc.

AG: Are there some projects that you are currently working on in India?

TK: We have had an opportunity to do the Airtel retail programme, which has been rolled out into multiple occasions.

We are also in conversation with a number of other clients. The view of our studio is different from most companies. I think it is good that we have tended to attract those who have a certain level of design sophistication and who think about how design can help India leapfrog some of the old models and develop new innovations. For me it is always about leveraging creativity and have the most impact for the most people and finding how one can fit into that.

There is a tendency for everyone to look from where we are today to where we were in the past, but the other half of the spectrum is the future and there is no reason to go back and emulate the system from Britain, US, Singapore or wherever it may be. There is an opportunity to take this time and leapfrog. 

Hyderabad Design Week (HDW) was hosted by the government of Telangana in partnership with India Design Forum

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About Author

Zohra Khan

Zohra Khan

A formal education in architecture combined with an avid interest in architecture journalism and design criticism led Khan to professionally venture into writing and research. She has worked in design communication for more than two years, generating content for mondo*arc india journal. When not writing, she kicks back by dabbling on social media for STIR.

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