Retail Transformation by Design: collaborating to build rural business | University of Minnesota Twin Cities
Professor Hye-Young Kim discusses potential logos with design student Amanda Phillips in front of a laptop computer.

Retail Transformation by Design: collaborating to build rural business

Hye-Young Kim and colleagues have created the Joint Retail Assistance Program, which uses the expertise of University of Minnesota students to help Minnesota merchants address retail challenges.

Hye-Young Kim lights up when she talks about the community-engaged work she’s been able to facilitate for students in retail merchandising. And her most recent project was likely her most ambitious.

Last fall Kim worked with her collaborator from University of Minnesota Extension—Neil Linscheid—and asked him for “a problem we could collectively tackle using our experience design approach.” Linscheid obliged and with that, College of Design faculty and students and U of M Extension partnered to create the Joint Retail Assistance Program.

An evening photo of main street businesses in Sauk Centre, MN

Photo credit: Meyers Photography Studio

The initial client was Sauk Centre small-business owner Anita Berg, and the challenge was to help her reimagine the retailing experience for her Berg’s Country Barn—a holiday pop-up store. Kim and her team, which included Linscheid and Hyunjoo Im, another College of Design associate professor, tapped design student Amanda Phillips to lead her own team of students, and they set about working with Berg to create a more uniform branding experience for customers, all before the opening of the store in time for the holidays.

Phillips conducted research on retailing trends, and she and her fellow design students—Cathryn Wunrow, Allison Sterneman, and Natalia Piela—helped to update Berg’s branding on social media with a new, unified logo. They also used recycled pallets to create a distressed pallet wall featuring the new Berg’s Country Barn logo, and added to the exterior of the barn to entice customers to the pop-up store from the road.

People hold drawings of different logo designs
A woman hangs up the sign for Berg’s Country Barn on a wooden wall
Berg’s Country Barn, filled with a crowd of patrons

For Kim and her students, it was a chance to learn from Berg and to use design thinking, which she calls an “emerging problem-solving mode that’s nonlinear and very human-centric.” It also gave the students the opportunity to immerse themselves into the issues rural retailers routinely grapple with.

“In rural communities, retailers are not just commercial places selling products and services; they are more than that,” Kim says. “They perform a symbolic function promoting the identity of the town and defining the character of the town.”

The Joint Retail Assistance Program showed how design education and research can contribute to rural revitalization. And it delivered some unexpected career insight for Phillips and her team—a hallmark of service-learning. 

“Students learn more from this [kind of] project, and they suddenly love the field they chose and think, ‘Oh, I can make a difference in the world,’” Kim says. “That feeling—that sense of civic and social responsibility—that’s really priceless from a student standpoint.”

For the 2018-19 academic year, the core project team of Kim, Linscheid, and Im will be working with a new group of community partners in Kandiyohi County.

Meet the Researcher

Hye-Young Kim
Associate Professor, College of Design
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities