A long-read interview with Redbox Creative Partner and web design guru Paul Lewis. Part One of a Redbox series on design in digital retail.
Back in 1998, the online world looked a very different place. Home computers were still uncommon, very few people were emailing and the internet was looked upon as an oddity or fad.
Even so, Paul Lewis was left bemused by the puzzled reaction he received when he brought up the idea of launching a website with a new company he had joined.
“I stood in front of the board members and said, ‘I’d like to create the new website’,” he recalls.
“They looked at me blankly. They didn’t know what I was talking about. One finally said, ‘Who needs a website?’”
The company did in fact take his ideas on board and in a journey that would eventually lead Paul to Redbox as Creative Partner, he would go on to become the creative influence behind the design and inspiration of some of the most eye-catching ecommerce websites in the world, from Lulu Guinness and Heal’s, to Cath Kidston and Paperchase.
He looks back at his first creative role in the industry with the now defunct gift retailer SF Cody’s Gift Emporium, with fondness.
“My first taste of web design was looking after a website that no one really believed in, or understood,” he continues.
“But it gave me a wonderful introduction to the workings of the web.
“We were selling gifts and experiences and became one of the first online gift stores. I spoke to the Russian space agency and soon we were selling tickets for trips around space and for the chance to be trained by the agency in Star City for $20million.
“While no one bought one, it got a lot of exposure which was what the company was really looking for.
“If you can add that creative retail experience with the tech and have them working together, you have a winning combination”
“The design element of websites back then was very much from a bricks and mortar perspective. The home page was the shop window and everything was put in it.
“The form of the ecommerce shop that we know now was already there in embryo. You had the navigation, the product list, the product detail page and finally check out.
“However, they tended to look more like spare parts catalogues than lifestyle retail experiences. I tried to make them look stylish, but we were up against very rigid design limitations.”
With his father creating the famous Chelsea Girl fashion retail concept, recognised as one of the UK’s first fashion chains and a precursor to the later River Island, Paul was surrounded by fashion and retail from an early age. It was in these tentative years that he also had his first taste of the creative side of retail while watching the development of product, imagery, store design and brand.
Iconic brand Chelsea Girl and its creator Geoffrey Lewis
He went on to work with his father and brother in their footwear and accessories business, The City Bag Store and Terra Firma. After selling the business, Paul moved to SF Cody, then on to a tech profile-based start-up, before joining an early ecommerce agency as the creative director.
He recalls: “My retail experience endeared me to clients as they didn’t feel they were talking to someone techy or to a designer, they were talking to a retailer. It made a big difference. You would get very tech-orientated people back then that were good at making the sites but didn’t have a good concept of design or retail.
“On one occasion when something went wrong with the front end of a website we had launched, I said, ‘we have to fix this, quickly.’ But a developer just said, ‘sorry, we don’t have another slot for 10 days, everything’s programmed in.’ I quickly realised tech was only part of the process.
“I learnt how to work, pitch, use web design approaches. No one was an expert back then – we were all learning. I worked with great people like Conran and Cath Kidston. Some great brands, really.”
After eventually leaving and taking on consultancy work for several years, Paul formed his own ecommerce agency, Lewis Creative, and a familiar face became his first client.
Paul Lewis, Creative Partner at Redbox Digital
“I thought ‘could I start my own agency, creative but retail friendly?’,” he continues. “I saw Cath Kidston and told her that I’d left and now that time had passed, I believed I could improve their website and experience from beginning to end.
“At that stage, websites would start looking very old every couple of years. The font would look old; the resolution wouldn’t be great; the navigation would look dated; it would be slow. Yet you only built it a little while ago. But I wanted to update it to a more contemporary, fresher, less busy-looking site. Cath Kidston is very into the detail but we stripped it away and made it easier to find the products. It was cleaner and more efficient and easier to shop.”
Lewis grew in size, with next clients including Fortnum & Mason and Lulu Guinness. It was while Paul was involved in the design of the Fortnum & Mason site that he met Redbox CEO Jonty Sutton for the first time – the company looking after the technical side of the build.
“One of the key things in the beginning that was very apparent back then was that the technical people were not visual. I’m generalising, but often they had no sense of style or creative flair. They were good at the nuts and bolts but the work they were producing would often have fashion retailers and the like throwing their hands up in the air.
“So, the first things we looked at, were applying stylish graphic design, lifestyle imagery and injecting some taste into the proceedings. Websites were often trashy looking. When they were being built, they often didn’t have anyone with design backgrounds involved. We were able to provide lifestyle, fashion, luxury levels of taste and brand understanding.
“Secondly, I found customers just wanted to get in and out on the site. They wanted to find what they wanted quickly and then buy it.
“If you end up at the bottom of the page, you don’t want to have to scroll all the way back up. You want some proximity, so where you land, your next task will be in that area. If you were in a cockpit of a car you don’t want all the indicators and gauges all over the place. You want them ergonomically positioned. It’s the same with a website.”
A host of famous brands followed, including Heal’s, Faber & Faber, The Watch Gallery, Paperchase and Elemis, with Lewis shortlisted as best agency at the ECMOD awards, the Paperchase site winning Best Magento Design at Imagine Magento and the Faber & Faber site nominated for Digital Launch of the Year with Retail Week and taking Best Marketing Platform at The Bookseller Awards.
A new chapter would begin when Lewis Creative was acquired by Redbox in 2018.
Paul continues: “Jonty and I worked collaboratively on several projects after Fortnum & Mason, including Heal’s, Elemis and Paperchase – and the partnership worked well.
“I had always wanted to align myself with a tech agency, I wish I had done it sooner. If you can add that creative retail experience with the tech and have them working together, you have a winning combination.”
“For brands partnering with Redbox, they will get a fully-integrated vision that has the functionality, the look, the feel, and shopping journey all in one”
With some 23 years involved in ecommerce and web design – and many more in retail – Paul feels he has plenty of insights to share.
“You can’t separate the technology from the presentation,” he says firmly. “They are one in the same. For brands partnering with Redbox, they will get a fully-integrated vision that has the functionality, the look, the feel, and shopping journey all in one.
“It’s one machine. It’s design engineering. Coming from retail, I have absorbed the engineering side of things and I see it like architecture. If you look at some of those amazing skyscrapers and beautiful buildings, they’re only possible thanks to the architect and the engineers working together with imagination and understanding of each other’s disciplines. They’re working side by side.
“Looking back at the early websites, I can’t believe how boxy and square they look now. The fonts were terrible; the resolution poor; menus would fly across the screen; they were terribly slow. And then later on you had lots of luxury brands’ creatives laughing their heads off at those who didn’t use Flash. I’m always amused at how far behind some of these creatives were in preaching at how HTML-based ecommerce wouldn’t amount to anything.
“Now, customers want something that looks good, but more importantly they don’t want to go through a lot of unnecessary effort to shop or buy what they want. A lot of UX is about ironing out unnecessary steps or processes. The journey must be cleaner, faster and more efficient.”
And for a retail and digital design expert who once battled with a board to get a website built, but has now been at the forefront of his craft for several decades, Paul can’t help but look at the direction the industry is heading.
“I don’t think it will be too long before websites look like something from the past,” he ponders.
“I often think of websites like warehouses. Necessary to gather everything in one place, but the action is all over the web. That’s the way brands have to think. There are new ways of shopping. Whether it’s TikTok, or newsfeeds, or Instagram, or Facebook, or hundreds of other places – and brands must look at the digital experience as a whole.
“I think this will continue. I call it the atomisation of the web. Things will become even more integrated and curated, with what you want at your fingertips when you need it. Everything in one place and even more accessible. As the tech gets better, it will just be filtered in a different way.
“Really, digital and the design processes around it, are only at the beginning of their journey.”