Why the Sum Studio’s Data-Driven Retail Design Philosophy is a Breath of Fresh Air

At Endear, we know the value of making retail decisions based on actual customer and brand data. The best type of engagement, clienteling, is the product of a marriage of the analytical and the creative. That’s why we’re so enamored with a retail design studio that shares that exact philosophy with us: the Sum Studio.

The Sum Studio - Marielle and Tiff

Written by

Robert Woo, Writer @ Endear

Edited by

Madeleine Anderson, Partner Manager @ Endear


Founded by Tiff Liao (Warby Parker, Kate Spade, Valentino) and Marielle Vargas (A+I, Rosie Lee Creative, Nike RXD), the Sum Studio is the answer to what modern retailers are looking for today from experiential experts in the industry: the ability to leverage ecommerce-levels of data analytics to inform and inspire the creative design choices that go into creating the in-store experience.

We were lucky enough to chat with both Tiff and Marielle about their brainchild.

Hi Tiff, Marielle! Thank you for your time. Tell us about how you came to work together and launched the Sum Studio.

TiffThanks so much for chatting with us! My background has been with companies growing their retail divisions from the first few to upwards of 30-50 and beyond, so I’ve had a lot of exposure and times where I thought about “What’s not optimized in the retail world?” Also having worked in-house and as a consultant to launch and then scalably operate a retail business from design and build, growing revenue, training and team development…the whole process, I’ve always felt the store experience development process could be more integrated and optimized to create something special.
MarielleMy foundations are in architecture, and my path as a designer is led by my interest in the human condition; I am drawn to what people feel when they move through their lives and interact with space. During my time working for architecture firms, I learned about the importance of a core concept, my interior design experience taught me the way that materials, furniture and tactile elements can make people feel, and my work in brand design gave me an understanding of elevated visual design systems and how they can be used in spaces. 

When I started working with Tiff my creative work was activated. The data insights she laid out gave me a framework, an anchor, that the design could then grow from and toward! Now, that structure allows me more freedom to design within, and to go deeper with the design– the result is a more evocative experience.

Tiff: Yes! It wasn’t until we found that energy together did the idea of merging data insights and strategic customer journey with truly experiential design really start to take shape. From there, it’s been an organic progression to the creation of the Sum Studio!

What was lacking in the retail design space that the Sum Studio had to come along? Were most agencies and retail architects not looking to the retail brand’s data to make decisions?

Marielle: From my experience, it is not common for architectural firms or design studios to approach data at the level which we use now. For example, because of the detail expected of architects in spatial design, they are often a bit removed from the business side of retail. Design agencies are often tasked with making things look really sharp and be cool, very quickly, and the design strategy phase is often rushed to meet deadlines. I have respect for both approaches, and we saw an opportunity to enhance design with our merged vision.

Tiff: It always seemed that the design process and retail business side spoke different languages, working in parallel and pulling each other in only at certain checkpoints. But we tested our process and found we can use data to help inform us on what we want the design to accomplish. What does the customer care about when it comes to a specific product? What feelings are we trying to drive when they interact with a store? What can help drive customer conversions and optimize everything that happens in a physical store?

So we mine the data you already have to create a stronger experience and a stronger performance for the store. But we also find opportunities to collect more data that can continue optimization beyond the initial design and launch.

Give us an example of how you’ve used data to make design decisions for a retail space.

Tiff: A good example is Mack Weldon. We created a flagship design for their second location at Boston Seaport. The business had been expanding into a larger lifestyle offering, and when we compared e-commerce data to their first location, we could see opportunities for specific KPIs of store performance. 

The Sum Studio - Mack Weldon

Marielle: We took that, and combined it with what we discovered about their customers’ lifestyles…looked to their social channels to see what was resonating and performing well, and designed the space to represent “a day in the life of a Mack Weldon guy.” Through objects arranged into still life vignettes, the design mirrored customer lifestyles to allow them to see themselves… people want to be seen! When people feel seen it sparks inspiration and connection with the brand.

Tiff: This concept helped make the space visually interesting, but it also created a stage for us to be more intentional and dive deeper into product education that the data indicated were the most important to customers. 

In comp-store analysis, the store saw double digit improvements in those KPIs we specifically targeted. 

Tastes change in retail so quickly these days. What are you noticing about modern shoppers? Do they ask for more from the in-store experience?

Marielle: They want to experience something life-enhancing from the moment they step inside; they want something that connects with their values and that they want to share with their community. 
Tiff: Store and CX employees make or break experiences. We are all too familiar with negative or mediocre store experiences…the really great ones involve the teams creating and building connections. We think about how we can bring more of those interactions into the physical experience and queue up more consistently meaningful visits.

Is there a store design trend these days that you dislike? I know some people are getting real tired of the dedicated “TikTok areas” to take videos.

Marielle: [laughs] Photo moment areas are tough. A backdrop just to take selfies…takes up a lot of space, and they are not often continuing the brand connection or enhancing the space. For me as a spatial designer, I seek to make immersive experiences that transport the shopper and are a continuation of the brand in physical form.

Tiff: That makes me think of the Moments Portal concept at the Monos flagship in Vancouver…

Marielle: Yes! We designed the Moment Portals to evoke the transcendent quality of travel. The portals act as a physical representation of the moments of appreciation while you travel. The small window openings along the refined product wall reveal a vast digital landscape - a meditative and transportive experience… also creates a canvas for brand content, while avoiding sticking screens in the serene space.

Sum Studio Moments Portal

What’s in store for the future of the Sum Studio?

Marielle: We’re manifesting partners who see our vision through this new methodology!

Tiff: Exactly, we want to work with brands that want to connect more deeply with their audience and share their values with their community. We’re excited to show that… data is design’s friend. We should put that on a t-shirt!

“Data is Design’s Friend.” Your first piece of merch!

Thank you to Tiff and Marielle for the chat! To learn more about the Sum Studio, check out their website today or send an email to hello@thesumstudio.com.

More from the Blog...

Strengthen Customer Relationships By Automating Your Retail Marketing