Back at art college, my life drawing tutor was none other than John Constable. I may be old, but this J Constable was the great, great, great grandson of the original, but nonetheless passionate about the world around him. Young JC was a fine draughtsman and appropriately eccentric too, as he paced among the easels in the chilly studio with a small hand towel wrapped around his neck. We never asked as to the reason for the towel, but as impressionable teenage art students I’m sure we all considered adopting it at some point.
Our favourite muse was the mighty Mrs Vincent, who stood no more than four feet something and weighed in at a good two hundred pounds. Her comely curves were indelibly etched onto each of our innocent minds. The shock of seeing a big, fat, naked granny never failed to titillate at first, but eventually JC taught us how to look past our infantile distractions and see what was really there: the shapes, textures and negative spaces that Mrs V created as she posed on her drafty podium.
Fast forward to a couple of years ago, when a friend called to unleash a tirade about some vile human being who’d apparently dumped an unwanted sofa on the pavement outside his house. In an attempt to ease his apoplexy, I gently asked what his six year old daughter thought of the matter. ‘What the hell are you on about??’ was his considered response, but I persevered to explain that, stripped of all its projected emotion (chain smoking, foul-mouthed, fly-tipping slag etc), all that really existed on the kerbside was a big, bouncy, squishy thing.
This technique, of seeing a problem through a child’s eyes, has been very useful over the years, particularly in retail. Ignore what you know about the brand, forget the footfall figures, the struggles you had with the head of merchandising, convincing the board and the fights with the shop-fitters…and just look. Stand there quietly for a few minutes, in short trousers if you wish, and simply see what your store really is, what it says, what it asks you to do, what it thinks it’s about. Becoming a six year old liberates us from all the warped preconceptions we learnt over the years, the limescale of experience that builds over time.
My final short tale begins at a meeting with a major department store. I arrived early, so decided to wait in their customer café, rather than in their dentist-like reception. With time to kill, I switched into six year old mode, and simply observed. What I saw was a bit of a revelation. This busy café, located alongside a mother & baby department, was a perfect pit stop for stressed mummies juggling push-chairs, shopping bags, screaming kids and social media. An experienced eye, one belonging to the manager for example, would see a bustling café with a healthy queue, a decent stack of pastries and enough free tables if only they could be cleared more swiftly.
But my six year old saw something very different. He saw long lines of agitated mothers balancing trays of boiling water on pram handles above their babies’ heads. He watched the four-point turns the buggies were forced to endure to negotiate the metal balustrade alongside the servery. And worse, he saw an army of staff avoiding eye contact as they lasered in on dirty saucers like robotic magpies.
(I’m pleased to say not long after my meeting, this café was replaced by a very nice restaurant with table service and a pram park)
Six year olds may be cute with button noses, but they are also beautifully equipped with fresh minds, untainted by convention and unburdened by experience. They will ask poignant questions like ‘what’s this for?’ and ‘why did you do that?’ If we can start to address some of these simple issues then we’re really onto something.
High street retail is in a quandary at the moment. It’s not quite sure what it is and where it’s going. So, the new year is the perfect time to slip on those shorts, stand at the entrance to your store for a few minutes, and ask yourself some innocent little questions. You might just get a glimpse of the future.