Originally published in The Town Paper, Vol. 3, No. 6 - October/November 2001
As mixed-use buildings reemerge as a popular building type, quality exterior design becomes increasingly important. This is particularly true of the ground floor shopfront. For the small businesses often associated with the mixed-use building type, using the shopfront to its fullest potential is the best way to advertise. There are very simple design elements that make a significant difference in the impression a shopfront makes.
The success of a shop, particularly when it is located in a commercial area with a high quality pedestrian experience, relies on the effectiveness of the shopfront as a whole. Its design should be in character with the rest of the building as well as with the street in general. A shopfront with Victorian details on the ground floor of a Georgian style rowhouse will certainly look awkward and out of place. In addition, the elements of the shopfront should be integral to the shopfront as a whole. The door, window and signage should all be part of a single design for the building's ground floor. In advertising the business it houses, the details of the shopfront have three major tasks. They must attract the attention of passersby (both in cars and on foot), advertise its goods to passersby, and draw those passersby into the shop itself.
Signage usually accomplishes the first task most effectively. A key phrase or simple illustration will grab a person's attention, so to be most effective, signage should be clear and simple. A place of business should have one major band sign fully integrated into the shopfront. The signage band is often located on a portion of an entablature on the building. Secondary signage can take the form of a two-sided blade sign or a painted window sign, both of which should be small and unobtrusive to the pedestrian. Four square feet is a good size standard to follow. Lighting also plays an important part, as it makes the signage visible after hours and can give a dramatic effect to the design of the shopfront. Lighting should always be external, mounted to the building, and preferably incandescent -- no glowing letters or neon script. In fact, nothing about a shopfront should be lit from the inside except the shop itself.
Window displays most accurately advertise the goods of a business. For this reason, windows should be given the opportunity to do their work with adequate coverage across the width of the shopfront, around 75 percent. They should also give a clear view into the shop, with clear glass and a relatively unobstructed view through to the back of the store.
Shopfronts should extend the shop into the path of pedestrians in an effort to draw them into the shop. This can be done with colonnades, or arcades, and awnings. When used, colonnades (with square openings along the street) and arcades (with arched openings along the street) should extend across the entire width of the sidewalk and to the edge of the curb. Awnings should overlap the sidewalk as much as possible, be straight across, and have open ends. Blade signs hung over the sidewalk above the pedestrian's head, an eye-catching window display, or outside displays of the business's goods beyond the door can also draw pedestrians. Proper landscaping for a garden shop or café can immediately tell passersby of the business located within. It is important to remember that landscaping, both plants and furniture, should be kept to a minimum. Landscaping should never interfere with a window display by blocking its view or making it inaccessible to the pedestrian. In addition, any landscaping elements or materials used should be kept in top condition, giving passersby a good impression of what they will find inside.