Successful design is the result of pointing a mirror at your target market and reflecting back what they want to see, according to restaurants, bars and clubs designer Aidan Keane. But how do you reach that magic point? Confidence and cojones are key to such success

As a designer you don’t have the same worries and concerns as an operator. When we design a bar, we haven’t got the nightly tummy rumbling nerves about how many are in and how much they’re spending. When we design a new restaurant, we haven’t got the concerns about pre-bookings and the Christmas figures. When we design a new club, we haven’t got to worry what the door security members are doing or that there’s no one dancing.

As a designer what we have to think about is fairly simple – it’s about what is turning people on. What, in a social sense, is hot and ready to roll out across a nation. What kind of place a person likes to spend his or her ‘hard earned’ in, what sort of space and place they want to be seen in and associated with. A sort of constant and ceaseless observation programme. I suppose, the ultimate social-surveillance programme. These are the things that keep designers up at night.

Creating confidence

Creating a design that works as a one-off project is less complex. Often, by merely ‘giving things a go’, it will create a good response. Creating a design that has national and international appeal can be far harder. So how do designers keep on the money. Just how does a jobbing designer create cut-through and wow?

It’s all about confidence. Confidence that you’re trusted to deliver, confidence knowing you can deliver and confidence you can deliver wholly above expectation. And that has to be the designer’s aspiration. To get a creative brief from a client and, through a constructive discontentment, reinvent the thinking and design a fitting and fabulously smart scheme. One that no one asked for but is absolutely market-right.

Much time and effort goes into finding out just what a particular person wants in terms of the design of their social environs. How the great British public likes its brand and leisure options to be seen and sold. Well, I think that asking questions can only lead to confusion. We have to, as designers, lead projects, lead clients and, in due course, the customer to a better place. It is the designer’s job to inspire and create design energy that has perfect appeal. In familiarity, aspirations, wow and attitude.

This knowledge is becoming an accepted part of job-immersion, employed and promoted by us for a number of years. Put simply, those who are more submerged create better, more inspired results. Others just languish on Pinterest and sell pictures of other people’s things. Bizarre that this would happen, but happen it does.

As an example, we designed and delivered a new venue in London recently called MNKY HSE. Vibe dining to the max. High-end stylish Latino dining that gathers pace and turns into a full-blown, dance-on-the-tables party. Girls in delicate frocks cavorting with those they know and those they don’t. Having fun, late and unapologetically. Fabulous. MNKY HSE is already loved by the rich, the famous and the connected.

On a practical level, however, it is an example of the perfect design process:

■ Loose direction from client

■ Exploration of the market and other players in it

■ Concept written, imagined and shared with client – direction and dreams agreed

■ Name created and captured

■ Design programme started

■ Detail dive with operating team

■ 3D design on site and 2D design out

to media

■ Opened softly

■ Launch

We didn’t plot the design of other operators in the market, we didn’t look over our shoulders at what others were planning. We simply submerged ourselves in the market, absorbed the experience and then imagined what it should and could be like. Imagination – ah yes, it is a magical and liberating friend.

I compare designing a restaurant space or some branding to being a song writer. Everything you create is pored over for hours by the crowd and can define you professionally.

But what happens if you’re an Elton John? No challenge, no discordant notes, just this ‘nice’ vanilla melody. Solid and tuneful but loved by no one. How many bars, restaurants and clubs does this apply to?

Delivering the design

Designers have to know who they are designing for. They have to know why a place is to be used, for what occasion and what time of day or night. This info should be enough for any designer to go off and create magic. We created Bar & Beyond for Deltic Leisure last year and there are now a number of outlets – all working brilliantly, all cutting a completely new design shape on the high streets of Britain.

What I love about Bar & Beyond is that is a totally free radical. When we presented the concept I know there were many people,

client side, who reserved judgment. Waiting to see if something that edgy, that ‘inappropriate’ would have appeal to the mass market. We were convinced that it was perfect and at the right time. A discordant note in a street full of corporate vanilla Elton Johns. Fair play to Deltic. It pushed through and put money firmly where their designer’s mouth was and delivered. We waited with baited breath to see who was right.

Trust your instincts

Bar & Beyond is edgy as edgy has ever been on the drinking circuits of the UK. A sort of post-apocalyptic, artfully ransacked bar. Covered in graffiti and electrical flex, it is the bad boy of British bar life. But for all this, it has a hugely broad appeal. Customer ages range from early 20s to late 40s. People just loving a slice of rebellion, a slice of something exciting. Intoxicating. Groups of girls who’ve been at work in Carphone Warehouse all day, now getting their rocks off surrounded by designer decay.

MNKY HSE and Bar & Beyond operate in totally separate markets. Both thriving, both new and both the result of designer and client confidence. The confidence to create what is right for the end user, and not just designed to make the client feel better. So if you’re a designer reading this, immerse yourself in the market and trust your creative instincts. If you’re a client, make sure the designer you are talking to is immersed in the market, knows the customer experience, but most importantly, has the bollocks to show you change – for that is what every end user loves: Change!

Now, where’s my Elton records?

■ Aidan Keane was the founding director of Keane Brands, which has worked for clients as diverse as Virgin, Emirates, Intercontinental Hotels, Jack Daniel’s, Whitbread, Nando’s, Costa and Pret. Sadly, Aidan passed away in September 2017. Tributes to him can be read here