Feb 19, 2013

Short-term Solutions with Long-term Benefits: Talking with Tina Santiago About Pop-Ups


When it comes to revitalizing urban neighborhoods, the prevailing logic has (understandably) often focused on finding long-term solutions: bringing in long-term tenants, creating new buildings and infrastructure, and opening new public spaces like parks and plazas. But increasingly, planners, developers, businesses, and residents are finding opportunity in the form of shorter-term solutions, like pop-up shops.

Deliberately temporary and often enabled by social and mobile technologies, pop-ups have shown the ability to disrupt the retail experience and help revitalize neighborhoods. In urban centers like New York and San Francisco, food and retail entrepreneurs are using pop-ups to bootstrap their way into whatever ground level space they can get. Retail giants like Target and The Gap are also using pop-up stores to create one-of-a-kind shopping experiences. As pop-ups contain to gain efficacy, an important question looms: What are the opportunities for pop-ups to occupy our cities?

It’s this question that Hot Studio’s Tina Santiago will address when she leads a panel at this year’s SXSW Interactive, Pop (Up) Culture. We recently talked with Tina about her upcoming panel at SXSW, as well as how she got involved with pop-ups and how they relate to her user experience work at Hot.

Hot: So, why pop-ups?

Tina: My interest started at a hackathon last year run by Creative Currency, which asked participants to think about how citizens could empower people to revitalize the Mid-Market neighborhood here in San Francisco. My team and co-founders of SQFT (“square foot”), Patrick Keenan, Emily Eisenhart, Melissa Richter and Bonnie Puckett, started by interviewing small business owners in the neighborhood, and we found that one of the biggest complaints was abandoned buildings. The empty buildings were seen as a sign of failure, they made people feel unsafe, and therefore deterred foot traffic. So, we started thinking about how to fill those spaces quickly. Our solution was to connect retail entrepreneurs with empty buildings. And for me, that was the “ah-ha!” moment: pop-ups could be a vehicle for revitalization in a neighborhood.

Hot: It’s interesting to think that something temporary could help pave a path to longer-lasting improvements. What kind of positive impacts have you seen pop-ups have?

Tina: Aside from increasing foot traffic and stimulating the local economy, pop-ups are shifting the assumptions we have about how we use our neighborhood spaces. The temporary nature of pop-ups allow for experimentation, prototyping and testing of new ideas, without the bureaucracy of long-term leases, tenant-landlord agreements, and permit and zoning stipulations. Pop-ups also change the mindset of how spaces can be re-envisioned and redefined, even if it’s only on a temporary basis.

Hot: Is there already a strong pop-up culture in the Bay Area?

Tina: I think we have the right culture for it. There are a lot of resourceful entrepreneurs here. We have a high density of risk-takers. And communities are already set up to support interventions like pop-ups—groups like SF Made, Forage SF and TechShop. When you have infrastructure and community that support creative people, it makes it a lot easier for something like pop-ups to thrive.

Hot: In New York City, another city with a growing pop-up culture, big retailers like Target have made news by opening temporary pop-up stores selling limited-edition items. What kinds of pop-ups are you seeing in San Francisco?

Tina: I think there’s less of a commercial bent here. The ones that get the most attention here are not necessarily the ones that have a big brand name, but the ones that have a compelling story around them. Mission Chinese is a great example of this. Danny Bowien has a passion for authentic Chinese food. He finds a table within a restaurant and creates a special menu. He donates a percentage of sales to charity. He gets a line out the door. Certainly the food is great, but I think the story behind the product is what makes the experience so unique.

Hot: Now, you’re a user experience designer, and you work mostly in the digital space. How does what you’re doing with pop-ups relate to your work at Hot?

Tina: As UX designers, we want to understand all of the touchpoints of a given experience, whether it’s human-to-interface or human-to-human. More and more products and services are moving online, but we can’t ignore how our digital experiences interface with the physical world. Pop-up retail is an interesting nexus of online and offline experience design.

Also, Hot Studio has a strong interest in the role of design in social innovation, neighborhood revitalization, and local business. We’ve done a lot of work with local art and culture organizations, not-for-profits, and local government. We want to continue to use the design process to help solve big problems, especially when we see them in our own backyard.

Hot: What can we expect from the SXSW panel?

Tina: We wanted to get a well-rounded view of pop-up culture, so we invited three different perspectives to the table.

We’ll have Annika Dubrall, from The Gap, who will talk about pop-ups as a corporate brand strategy tool. She’ll also share some insights on how their pop-up initiatives have shifted some of their internal organizational structures.

We’ll also have Brian De Lowe from The Kor Group, a real estate investment and management company. He’ll share his perspective on some of the financial challenges and gains of partnering with pop-ups.

Patrick Keenan, co-founder at SQFT (“square foot”), an online marketplace for short-term leases, will talk about how connecting entrepreneurs with idle spaces for temporary use, can disrupt the real estate industry.

The hope is to synthesize these various points of view—designer, retailer, property manager, and entrepreneur—to show how these parties can collaborate on and benefit from new pop-ups.

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Be sure to register for Tina’s panel if you plan on attending SXSW this year!

Saturday, March 9, 2013 / 3:30-4:30pm
Four Seasons, San Jacinto Ballroom, 98 San Jacinto Blvd.

And if you can’t make it down to Austin, follow the conversation on Twitter by tracking the tag #PopUp. Also be sure to follow @hotstudio and @tinasantiago for more good stuff about pop-ups.

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Tina Santiago's picture

Zak, thanks for your comment.

We're glad to connect with other curious designers like yourself!

We're in the middle of a great transition towards new paradigms, markets and economic structures. The web and mobile technology are shaping new behaviors, attitudes, beliefs and expectations and making indelible changes in the way we live and experience our urban spaces. It's an exciting time to be a designer.

I think we're asking a similar questions. What are the implications for the practice of design and our collective urban experience?

As a user experience designer, I don't think that our human-centered design approach will change much at all. Digital technology is going to continue to evolv, the physical/ digital divide will continue to blurand interfaces will become more and more seamless. Human experience, as we know it, is the constant, and as designers, that should always be our focus.

How might we leverage the pop up to improve neglected environments and underutilized spaces?

As one of the co-foundres of Square Foot, our objective is to connect pop ups with idle spaces and of course that comes with its own set of challenges. But ultimately, our biggest feat is to change minds. As more people are moving into cities, we need new ways to manage our urban spaces. We need to move from a system of ownership, rigidity, isolation to one that one of resilience, openness and community. As designers, we have an opportunity to introduce new possibilities for more fungible and meaningful experiences.

If you're in San Francisco, please make sure to get in touch!