Windows to photos: Nine lessons I learnt from working as a visual merchandiser

Before I started this interior/prop styling work, I was a visual merchandiser in a high street department store. For 17 years,I looked after how the store looked. I put in window displays and in store displays, I dressed thousands of mannequins and hundreds of beds. I trained folk on the store brands, on styling, on colour and how to merchandise clothing, accessories and home departments. It was fun. Then retail changed and the high street wasn't what it was. And there were less and less of us working in stores. And the focus on how the stores looked shifted. Sadly, it was often more about getting lots of discounted product out rather than inspiring customers. Then I was made redundant. I had, however, been doing a bit of interior styling on the side so this was the opportunity to focus on this work instead.

I've found that there's bungs of crossover in these jobs. Here is my list of important things I learnt from Visual merchandising (or vm as the professionals say) that I use in styling:

1. An eye for display

Putting things together and making them look meant to be was the main part of my old job and I got to practice, practice and practice. My first ever window I dressed was a cosmetics window. We did them weekly, arranging the multi-purchase free gift bag and its miniature contents on a plinth. I was shown to create height, depth, overlap items, make sure they looked connected. Then standing back and checking, tweeking, checking again. That first lesson has really stuck with me and I still use it in work now.

2. Product/ prop selection

Choosing product to tell the brand, trend or seasonal story. Considering scale, pattern, texture. Being restricted to what was available in store. Having particular product that was to be pushed. All of this was practice for sourcing for shoots and homes and working with what I have.

3. Branding

As a department store, we had many brands to work with. Brand definition was a big deal. We had glam brands, cosy brands, cool (ish) brands, stuffy brands. I trained teams on what each brand represented: it's customer, it's look, it's feel and how to dress the mannequins and the space to show this. We imagined the customer who would shop the particular brand and that would help. The same exists in both photographic and home styling. It's all about imagining the story of the brand and dressing to let the customers experience that story too. I love this stuff.

4. Handiness

Visual merchandisers can paint, put up shelves, signage, pictures and glass decals - straight. They can measure, they can draw. They can improvise when things are tricky. They can iron and steam super fast and they can make a very fancy bed. (They can also work up ladders while customers pull on their trouser leg to ask for directions.) All super useful skills to know in the world of interior styling.

5. Organisation

I love a list (as you can tell from this post). And I love a plan. In both jobs, minimal disruption is vital so a smooth-running plan is necessary. Thinking of everything before embarking on the project and the moving of stuff. Also the management and care of props and product. The project management, thinking of each element.

6. Communication/ teamwork

I suppose most jobs need a good dose of good communication. Working in small window spaces with a team has been an important grounding for working on shoots. As well as not treading on each other and the importance of personal hygiene, it's about working together creatively. Using everyone's skills and vision to make inspiring images.

7. Commerciality

Despite the focus on how things look, both jobs aren't just about making things look pretty. There has to be a purpose, whether it's selling product or making a home work.

8. Training

I trained and coached a lot of teams and it was one of my favourite bits of the job. I loved seeing someone learning, growing and creating. Having this language and being able to talk and write about how things look good has been really useful when talking to clients, communicating what I see and what they want to see, showing people how we can make their home amazing.

9. Care

Ultimately both jobs are all about caring a lot about getting things looking their best and always striving for stunning presentation. I really live for this kind of stuff. What about you? Do you faff about making spaces and objects look beautiful? Is it your job or or just an obsession? Can we share tips?

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