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Building the brand

DFC's Etisalat store has a ‘new age' concept, courtesy of Imagination. By Charlotte Butterfield.

Fluid shapes and corporate colours build the Etisalat brand.
Fluid shapes and corporate colours build the Etisalat brand.

Regional telecoms giant, Etisalat, has embarked on an ambitious expansion programme that will see over 30 new stores opening over the next couple of years, with seven outlets either just opened, ready imminently or poised for launching in the coming months.

After a stringent tender process that witnessed three top design firms pitching to design the seven new stores, the sought-after role fell to Flagship, who brought its associate company, Imagination Design, headed by Alfred Johnson, on board as design consultants and concept designers.

The stores are located in Ras Al Khaimah; Al Ain; Al Qusais; Dubai Festival City; Emirates HQ; DIFC and inside the Etisalat HQ near Trade Centre Roundabout in Dubai. All will retain the same design feel, fluid shapes and corporate colours as each other, while ensuring that each has a certain amount of individuality injected according to its unique location.


Johnson talks CID through the initial design brief that client Etisalat gave to him and his team.

Etisalat's principal aim in opening these new stores was to change the perception of the customer experience of telecommunication in the region and to position itself alongside international telecoms providers such as BT and Vodafone." He adds.

The brief was to position the brand above the competition and enhance its corporate identity. The brief was basically ‘what do you think you can do?' which was a fantastic question for a designer such as myself who thrives on challenges and creating things on a blank canvas.

Johnson describes how the first step was to research the brand and see how it compares to the global heavyweights it pitches itself against.

In order to stand shoulder to shoulder with these massive telecom companies, it's not enough to provide the same sort of products and services; the whole customer and store experience needs to be a pleasant one.

He continues: "I was in Manhattan, New York, and every time I walked past the Apple store it was such a great experience for me and I wanted to create something that would be similar and as good. We wanted to emphasise the product and the brand. They wanted to emphasise that they work for the people.

As the Dubai Festival City branch was the first of the seven to be opened. Johnson took CID on a tour of the space and talked us through the evolution of the futuristic design.

The client knew my background and my interest in biomorphic design and their ideas and mine were quite similar for the space. I wanted to develop this ‘new age environment' with organic shapes and a new approach to surfaces - juxtaposing glossy polyutherane ceilings with bulkheads with smooth edges. The mix is very pleasing to the eye.

Imagination was guided by the corporate green and white of Etisalat's logo and used a mixture of both hues throughout.

The client was clear that it would like to see its brand projected in the appropriate fashion, so we had to include the logos and some of the existing kit of parts that Etisalat had designed and manufactured for these new roll-out stores.

This kit included some workstations, central square display units and wall-mounted displays. "Although we had to work around these pre-designed items, we were able to play with the aesthetics and put our own stamp on the design," Johnson says.

The DFC outlet comprises of 2,000 ft² in total, with 1,760 ft² as front of house retail space. The store's footprint complied with the client's existing plans, which encompasses areas for customer service, displays and retail.

We arranged the layout of the store so that the product takes centrestage. Within 2-3 seconds of scanning the room customers can spot the big sellers - the Blackberrys, the iPhones. These are positioned in the middle so there's no over-crowding round wall-mounted displays.

Due to the store's location in the middle of the Festival City shopping mall, there is no natural light, and yet the store is incredibly bright. Johnson explains the lighting concept: "We had to overcome a vast number of technical considerations.

Stores in DFC have a restricted power supply, which makes it quite challenging when we were devising the lighting concept. You can't have 100 directional spots trained onto the phones, because of the energy, power and heat issue, so we devised light boxes and light screens in addition to lighting sourced from Alpha Crystal and Murano, among others.

By ensuring a combination of matte and glossy finishes, the light is both bounced off the right places whilst the glare is diffused in others. Johnson says: "We used a polyurethene super gloss finish on the ceiling bulkhead to match the flooring, which is a mixture of semi-synthetic materials and marble, both of which provides a soft white glow.

The majority of the walls are painted white and then complemented with interesting accent features, such as Italian mosaics on one wall, and Muraspec wallcovering ‘Allure White' for the top halves of the walls. The wall finish on the right-hand side of the store is fusion glass and then uplit.

Johnson explains: "We call this the ‘future wall'. I was baffled for quite a while of how to bring the message of technology into the space, I wanted to convey Etisalat's corporate message and the line of business it is in, and so I brainstormed how I could interpret this company's vision.

I created a cell on 19 glass panels using the corporate colours, but when you stand back and see it from afar it is very detailed - behind the network of cables you see the undeniable, but subtle message of technology."

Aside from the strict power guidelines that DFC enforced, the MEP considerations also provided a challenge for Imagination, as the main cables all had to be rerouted. But the main headache in the design proved to be the large bulkheads that would provide the organic ceiling shape. Johnson says.

The bulkheads were very time consuming, taking a month to construct, which considering our tight schedule was very tricky!

We built a scaled-down base model to submit to the client and to ensure that our designs could translate from our shop drawings to the factory floor, but with just two weeks to handover I was in the workshop one afternoon and saw the base model and couldn't help tinkering with it further! So on the spur of the moment I tapered the bottom even more by reworking the balance of the structure, then the first cast was made.

It took three further fibre casts to get the pure shape absolutely right. Each cast took 60 man hours to make and as it's made in one piece it is a work of art!

Fusing GRP (glass reinforced plastic) with a reinforced aluminium base frame and MDF cladding, was an intricate operation, made even more complex by the arched shape at the back and the gently tapered front, with groove details.

A high powered dryer had to be specially brought into the workshop to speed up the process or the schedule would never have been met. All the joinery was completed by Sharjah-based Saifee Interiors - a partner company to Imagination, and all the GRP and MEP work was fulfilled by Vali Contracting.

In addition to overseeing the roll-out of Etisalat's other stores over the next few months, Imagination is currently immersing itself in some pretty ambitious concept designs, including one for an undisclosed new ‘city' within the Dubailand perimeter.

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