biz ladiesLife & Business

biz ladies: creating great window displays

by Stephanie

today’s biz ladies post comes from artist, designer and fellow D*S editor kate pruitt. a former display coordinator for anthropologie stores in the bay area, kate now offers freelance interior design and display services for local clients.  today she’s sharing some insightful advice on how to design and execute a creative and eye-catching storefront window display. thanks kate for a peek into the window display process! –stephanie

CLICK HERE for the full post after the jump!

I don’t know what’s going in your neighborhood, but in my city of Oakland, it’s been a bittersweet and fascinating couple of years for brick and mortar stores. Long time local shops are closing their doors while exciting new ventures are popping up in tiny alleyways, catching major local buzz. I want to say that I deeply admire and envy you shop-keepers, and I imagine that nothing beats the feeling of walking into the physical space of your business every day and making it your own. I also know from experience, however, that because you are in there, everyday, it can be hard to see the space with fresh eyes and give your displays the wow factor they need. Here are some tips I find helpful when I design displays for stores big and small.


Inspiration: You probably keep on top of finding inspiration that will drive your products or services, but look at those sources for your displays as well. Art books, awesome design blogs (um yeah THIS one!), and magazines are useful. But don’t rule out travel magazines, movies, cookbooks (good styling inspiration!), and stores (hardware stores are great – pick up some paint swatches and play with color stories). If you plan to include new merchandise in your display, gather a little family of products that create a cohesive narrative. Who owns these products and where do they live? What color unites my new line of products? What season are we celebrating? These are all great jumping off points for a display idea.

Thinking Outside the Box: You may run a business with a storefront where you wouldn’t consider putting display: hair/nail salons, restaurants, massage therapists, etc. But challenge yourself to look at your window as a customer would and think about what they see when they look in…is it compelling? Consider investing in a beautiful hand painted sign or sandwich board, or placing an unusual or amusing display in your window that relates to your services. There are two mom-and-pop stores in my neighborhood – a grocery store and a hardware store – that manage to thrive against their big box competitors – Safeway and Home Depot – which reside almost next door. I’m convinced it comes in no small part from the fact that they both have a rotating monochromatic display of mundane, everyday products that creates a strong graphic impact and charms the customer. Crowds gather to see these windows…at a grocery store! Don’t underestimate the power of visual impact on the average passer-by.

Make Lists: Sometimes the ideas just don’t come, and that’s when I like to pull out some of my handy lists to help spark my imagination. Create lists of materials that you like to work with (or that you know are cheap!) and materials that work with your store’s identity. Is your aesthetic organic? Eclectic? Vintage? Sophisticated? Whimsical? Write down materials that fit your aesthetic (canvas, light bulbs, ornate picture frames, etc.). Create another list of objects, themes, ideas that appeal to you and compliment your store vision (1950’s colors, forests, flowers, rococo, etc.). If you feel stumped, try putting items from the list together and see what you get…pictures frames in 50’s colors? An organic arrangement of canvas flowers? Hmm…Stay true to your store’s vision to maintain a unified feel; you don’t want customers to expect one thing from your display and enter to find something completely different.


Identify your viewer: The “viewer” in this case is the crowd that passes by your space and needs to be lured in. Is your shop on a busy street with lots of meandering walk-by traffic? Are you on a street with lots of cars passing bay? This will help determine what kind of displays you want. Drive-by customers need immediate impact; they won’t see a tiny bird on the rim of a teacup. Bright color, high contrast, and something easy to see from a distance will make the most impact on drivers. Street customers can spend more time studying the displays up close, and marvel over vignettes and little details. If you have both types of viewers, employ both in your design. Also consider whether your space gets a lot of after-hours viewing; are there bars or restaurants on your street? If so, add light to your display or leave your window lights on at night to delight the night crowd and make your space stand out.

Composition: There are some simple rules to design that I use when planning a composition. Asymmetry (placing the focus off center) and the rule of odds (grouping objects in odd numbers) will usually make your display more interesting and dynamic (although symmetry can be beautiful in displays as well). The wikipedia page on composition in visual arts is actually quite a useful summary of visual elements. When it doubt, sketch it out!

Make a reusable sketch:  Between installing displays, take a photograph of your windows when they are clean and empty, and have it laminated at a copy shop. This way you can sketch compositions with a dry erase marker many times over. It should last you at least a few years, depending on how may times you change your display. It’s also a good idea to have dimensions of your windows, floors, etc. on a sheet so you don’t have to re-measure.

Budget and Materials:  Plan out your display as fully as you can. Write down a full materials list and do a little research on cost; you’d be surprised at how quickly those craft supplies add up! Think about materials seasonally – if you need to buy an item in bulk, can you use it in a display several months from now? Can you buy holiday items on sale and save for the next year? Some materials are always great to have on hand: small nails, a glue gun, window cleaner, a tape measure, and blue tape are examples of mega-useful stuff.

Prepare for the elements:  If your window gets bright sun, you may have noticed that any product you put in the window fades or gets sun damage. Plan ahead by placing the product in a protected spot, or be prepared inventory-wise to mark out the product from stock if it gets damaged. If you want to paint on your windows, paint on the inside! It’s easier to clean and alter, and won’t require as much maintenance.

Manpower:  We can’t all create the gingerbread fantasy at Bergdorf’s or a post-it mural like the one at Barney’s. But intricate displays that show how much work went into them do make an impact, and tend to amaze and delight. If you want to create an elaborate display, but feel that time is too big an obstacle, consider throwing a party with your crafty friends and buying them pizza. Or better yet, make it a community event. Can you team up with an art class or an after school program and teach kids how to make paper flowers? I know what some of you are thinking: exploitation of those little hands. To which I say, you are too cynical! Provide some juice (we have unlimited juice?!) and all the supplies, and I guarantee the kids will have an awesome time. Plus, they get to see their work on display (please put a sign crediting them in the window). You get a chance to be involved in your community, and they get to know you and your business better, which is how local commerce should work. That being said, simple displays also have a powerful beauty to them. Switch it up to keep you customers coming back to see what’s next!

Budget Conscious Display Tips:

Paint:  You would be amazed how much impact a little but of paint can make. I know you might be picturing tempera paint santas, or garish pumpkins on the windows of your local drugstore, but with stenciling, stamps, and creativity, painting designs on windows can look very sophisticated and dramatic. You can use contact paper (used for lining drawers) and a craft knife to cut out detailed stencils or lettering. Simply draw or trace the design onto the contact paper, peel off the backing and smooth the paper down onto the window, cut out the shape with an exacto blade (which will not scratch your glass unless you press REALLY hard), roll over the design with water based paint (latex house paint works well), and peel off the rest of the contact paper when the paint dries. This will produce a crisp, beautiful design that you can scrape off easily. Or you can create a cheap stamp out of cardboard (I used this method in this diy project from last year) that mimics a woodblock print. This is great for creating large scale patterns that will really make your windows pop. Total cost for these projects is usually under $15, including the paint!

Paper:  Grace has shown some amazing paper artists over the years, and I have gone back through and selected a few of my faves:

stephen orr + johanna burke

handmade photos by impactist

zoe bradley at kate’s paperie and zoe bradley update

mia pearlman

There are many great inspirational ideas and techniques to be discovered from looking over their extraordinary creations. If you practice your skills with an exacto blade and scissors, all you need is a roll of butcher paper (and time) to make an amazing window display. Try mixing neutral papers with swatches of old wallpaper or wrapping paper to create a visual pop of color or pattern. Play with the structural qualities of paper for windows with depth, or use a thin layer of glue or spray adhesive to adhere silhouettes or other paper designs to flat windows to draw in your customer. Total cost on these is usually around $10-20, depending on the amount and type of paper you use. Remember, many an amazing display has been created from humble old newspapers, too. Cost: free!

Rethinking Everyday Materials: There are a lot of mundane (and inexpensive) office supplies or household items that can be reworked to create awesome displays. Always keep your eye out and think about what works with the style of your shop. If you need a graphic, modern display, consider using tape to create abstract, linear designs. Masking tape now comes in an array of colors, and has anyone seen the work Rebecca Ward did for the Kate Spade store in Tokyo, with gaffer’s tape? Wowza. If you need something with an organic feel, consider using cheap raw fabrics like muslin or burlap, or items with nice texture like egg cartons or salvaged wood. If your display needs to be vintage or whimsical, think about using old school pencils that you can buy in bulk, or finding old clothbound books at thrift stores or recycling centers. Sometimes prowling ebay or yard sales for great props (old crates, vintage jewelry or kitchenwares, a vintage dress form, etc.) will pay off; you can re-use them in multiple seasons and if you plan ahead, you have time to wait for a really good deal. Sometimes a great prop can even become the cornerstone of your store’s identity and inspire your logo if you are just starting out. No matter what your style may be, there are some inexpensive materials out there to fit your aesthetic and compliment your products/services if you keep your eyes and mind open.

For Those of You New to Display:

If you are new business owner, or are considering opening a shop, you obviously have a mile-long to-do list and a zillion creative and operational decisions to make. If you have your identity decided (logo, sign, business card, etc) then your aesthetic has already taken shape; your displays should compliment that aesthetic, so make a list of descriptors to help you flesh out the identity of your store and what materials, images, or design styles should be incorporated in your windows. Use the brainstorming tips to help you sketch out ideas for your first display, and definitely get the specs of your space written down so you have a visual to work with. Plan ahead so you have time to experiment with materials and prep everything before you install the window. A little secret in the display world (that you may have already experienced) is that customers get excited to see employees working on new displays. I don’t know what’s going on psychologically, but customers will come over to see what you’re doing, shop straight off your utility cart, and desperately want to buy whatever it is that your fiddling with in the window. So don’t feel like you have to work in the middle of the night or be invisible. However, you don’t want your store to look like it’s under construction or be messy for any extended period of time, so budget time and hours if you need help installing.

If DIY display isn’t your thing, there’s something to be said for contracting the display work; you hire accountants, graphic designers, PR pros, etc. and the visual presentation of your store should be considered an equally high priority. Hiring display artists, or even graphic artists and fine artists, can bring a much needed vision to your space. If you can’t afford the full services, you could consider a paid consultation for preliminary ideas, then do the production work yourself. For those on a super tight budget, who live near an art or design school, consider hiring students to collaborate with and create designs. A local clothing boutique in my area, Pretty Penny, collaborates with students at FIDM in San Francisco to design window displays and runway décor for a local fashion show it holds every year. The students get portfolio work and recognition, and the store gets great buzz and display on a discount. Remember to be fair – definitely cover material costs and agree on fair compensation- because students aren’t slave labor! But it’s a great opportunity for both parties.

Remember, the purpose of display is to enhance your shop’s identity and product. The window display will be the first thing a customer sees. You want it to draw the viewer in and deliver on whatever story your amazing display has promised. Always keep your vision in mind, and only use displays that compliment your style, rather than confuse it. Use a critical eye and edit when necessary – don’t get too messy! When in doubt, ask a trusted friend or employee to provide a second eye, and always try to step outside and view your display through the eyes of the customer. Stay on the lookout for inspiration – it’s everywhere! – and have fun, because creating displays should be, above all, in my humble opinion, mega super fun.


In addition to Kate’s tips, we got some additional tips from great designers with window experience. Thank you to everyone who shared their advice below!

1. Laura Unverferth

*Laura is an art director at Moosylvania in Saint Louis. For the past few years she has had the opportunity to conceptualize windows in NY and LA for Grey Goose Vodka. She enjoy designing windows and would love to collaborate!

Show, don’t tell.

Catching the viewers attention, from a distance or up close, like the detail decor in Bergdorf Goodman retail displays determines the success of your window. The interpretation of a window is much like the art in a gallery. A message is portrayed visually. If you want the viewer to leave with something specific about a brand or a product…introduce typography. Use the glass as a tool. Vinyl window decals can be applied to inform viewers or be used to create layering effects and depth. Incorporating mannequins can add a level of personality. All of the details in a window display are essential, that is why it is important to ensure your execution is meticulous. If you can’t do it yourself, hire a professional.

Be in the spotlight.

Whether in the daytime or at night, your window needs light. Photographic light boxes or LED lights are a few ways to enhance elements in your window, even on sunny days. A lamp or chandelier can give the space warmth. Lighting can also define a focal point and help hero specific elements or products in your display. Try to avoid harsh shadows from things nearby.

Push the boundaries.

Look at it from a different perspective. Why not upside down? The goal of  the window is not only to sell or inform, but to entertain. Utilize the entire space, inside and out. Integrate cutting edge technologies or guerrilla marketing techniques…they always generate buzz. Place graphics in unexpected places, like the sidewalk to engage the viewers. Collaborate with a local artist. Think about scale…go big! Don’t contain yourself…go beyond the window an exceed the audiences expectations.

Keep focused on your objective, be innovative…if you have fun with it, so will your viewers.

2. Kohli Flick

Think about how are people viewing your window

As you begin to plan your window, think about how people will view it.  Are your windows at or above street level? Is your shop in a walking neighborhood or on a busy street where people drive by?  Does local traffic often stop in front of your store or does it move by quickly?  These questions and their answers will help you determine how complex your windows should be.  If you are at street level and have a lot of foot traffic, your windows should be on a human scale.  There can be little nuances that pedestrians can pick up on.  

If your customers are viewing your window from their cars, the display needs to be less detailed and more big picture.  Seeking a good balance for your store’s environment will probably take some playing with.  Ask your friends and family to both walk and drive by your windows and give you their feedback.  Take all criticism as constructive even if you already thought the window was perfect.

3. Jackie Ellis, Oso Artworks, LLC

Be aware of the space…make sure you are using the right amount of product and do not over clutter your windows. You do not want the customers to feel overwhelmed or confused by your installations.

HAVE FUN WITH YOUR WINDOWS! Make it personal and current. Use a play on words or phrases to create a reaction or thought from the customer.

4. Sarah Gaffney

Create Depth and Illusion

Store windows are just very shallow, oversized shadow boxes. You can create the illusion of depth by using your space in a creative way. Start with the glass, is there an interesting window decal that can help frame your space? Is there a message or logo that you want to include? The glass is the perfect place for messaging and a transparent layer that can add depth to your display. Think of your window display as a shallow stage set or mini diorama, be creative with the space you have to use.

5. Kendra Pearce

Change your windows often. Changing the display and merchandise frequently keeps customers coming back to see what’s new.  Merchandise, especially clothing, should be changed weekly. Displays should be changed monthly or seasonally.

Separate the window from the store. While you don’t necessarily need a wall between your window and store, it is a good idea to create some kind of backdrop. If your customers can only see what merchandise you are promoting in the window, you’ll piqué their interest and they will walk in to see more.

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  • I’d also point out that even if you don’t run a brick-and-mortar shop, this also will benefit people who participate in craft shows. This translates perfectly to decorating your craft show tent or table as well. Think of walking down a row and which booths draw you in… Even if I may not think I’d be interested in what a shop sells, I’ll be more likely to at least check it out if the display catches my eye. For myself, it’s like advertising. Browsers may not purchase that day, but at least they then know who I am. Also, in regards to composition, height is something that should definitely be considered. If there are a lot of people walking in front of your window or booth, is there anything above eye-level that might still pique someone’s interest from afar when the view is blocked? Own your space! Great article.

  • As a former Bergdorf Goodman window dresser, I can say that every one of these tips is spot on!!! This is a great resource to get shop owners to think about this vitally important, but so often woefully neglected, aspect of retail. Well done!

  • I love anthropologie’s windows.

    Also, for anyone looking to hire an amazing display designer out of Brooklyn I highly recommend Zack Sharon of Displayology.com.

  • Great ideas that can also be used when doing craft fairs and trade shows. It really does help you stand out from the crowd and define your style to put in a little extra time and effort in designing your booth. Thanks for the tips!!

  • I’ve had the awesome opportunity to design and install 2 display windows for our salvage center this past year and a half. It’s such a great feeling when someone tells you that they were just walking by, the display caught their attention and they decided to come into the store for the first time ever.

  • I am a set designer, and fellow Oaklander. I am interested in getting into window display design. Do you have any advise about how to get into the field?

  • this is great! i’m a sales rep (in addition to being a blogger) and rep several high profile collections in canada. i send out a monthly newsletter to every single one of our customers who all own independent and/or chain boutiques. my newsletter for may is going to be all about displays, so i’m diffently going to link this article in the next newsletter-thanks for sharing all your wonderful ideas!

  • Thanks a lot for these infos! i am working on a portfolio to present my creativity workshops and I am going to use those same informations! I’m sure it will work well! Have a GREAT day!

  • when i was a child, my mom ran a gift store inside our church. it wasn’t for real profit, because all the money we made selling gifts went to support church missions, but my mother and i ran it like a little business. i got to design the windows and displays. it was as much fun as i’ve ever had.

    this post makes me want to open a store again, just so i can decorate the windows! what a roll of butcher block paper and some creativity can yield! and the looks on people’s faces when they window shop… oh it’s just too delightful to think about.

    thanks for the post!

  • this is awesome, if not a little heartbreaking to read from the confines of a grey box (inside a bigger grey box) that is my home 8+ hours a day. oh to have sunny store windows!

    also, that buster line is possibly my favorite ever. (:

    great, insightful post!

  • fantastic article! I also worked for Anthropologie for 10 years in merchandising but there are many many tips here that I hadn’t considered before. Very inspiring and practical. Thanks:)

  • I really enjoyed this article. I too was a display coordinator for Anthropologie and have since created my own company, K8 Vision, Inc specializing in window displays and merchandising. It’s been so fun to find others in the same field!

  • I couldn’t agree more around creating a separation between windows and the inside of your store. I am the visual manager for Papyrus and it’s one of my biggest challenges. If it’s unavoidable, it’s best to keep the windows incredibly simple or integrated, allowing them to essentially flow into the store. I agree that composition is the most important factor to keep in mind when merchandising a window; in most cases an off-center/asymmetrical or pyramid-shaped display works best, depending on the space. I’ve found, personally and professionally, that I am most drawn to very focused window displays–be it with color, product category or fabrication/material.

    Such a great piece, Anthropologie’s visual staff are among the best and constantly execute ideas that inspire me!

  • I was nice to see this article here. And it came at a perfect time too. As a former window display artist {pre-motherhood} I miss hiding behind the blinds in the small sun filtered rooms creating sound-proof stories. Right now I am in the middle of getting all my props ready for my first big Clothing Show in Toronto Canada. I found out that there is an award for best booth design, so I am trying to do all that I can to impress, as it is my first major exposure for *chelsy anne* jewellery I want it to be explosive!

    Thanks for the extra tips.

  • Thank You for all the tips… I just had a booth/table @ my local university and had so much fun designing my space. I love using all of the vertical as well as the horizontal space I can…
    oh…and pink spray paint. :)

  • This is a great article with great tips on displays. We do not have a window, we are in a historic warehouse district with roll up garage doors. With that in mind, we will be using vibrant umbrellas hanging from the ceilings as our ceilings are very high and paper flowers and kites streaming. April Showers Bring May Flowers. It is so much fun to see people look up and say “Wow”

  • Thanks for the inspiration. I plan on using some of these tips for my booth at the ARTisan Market this summer! Wonderful ideas!

  • Thank you for sharing this!
    I am a college student and doing Anthropologie displays is just about my dream job! Do you have advice on majors that look good to employers? I have a little bit of background in mixed media as a fine art, but any advice you have would be much appreciated.

  • Thank you for this informative and inspiring piece. I have just been thinking through the process of window displays so this has come in very handy, and timely. Brilliant!

  • what a great post. I found some really helpful things, even if i don’t have a window on the ground floor :-)

  • Karissa –
    I would suggest looking for classes that can provide you with space planning knowledge. It is also a really great skill for life outside of design. Also look for classes that can give you the most variety and knowledge about lots of different medias. Fibers and Sculpture are really great for this. Play around on your own with different items. Make sure to document projects that you feel demonstrate your abilities.
    Good Luck!

  • I too was a display coordinator for Anthro, and the best thing I learned doing it is to be able to re-use materials in as many different ways as possible. To speak to Karissa, I was an Interior Arch. major. They pay attention to creative problem solving and great craftsmanship. And remember, it’s a lot of fun but a LOT of HARD work!

  • Thank you for this is very interesting article! I am going to writing a bachelor work on the subject of window displays design. Do you have any book tips about this topic, pls?

  • Thank you for this wonderful article! It’s always such a treat to go on the internet to do some research and find out someone else has already compiled everything… more beautifully than you could have ever done it yourself. I’m going to share this with my retail clients.

  • This article meant everything to me! As a small boutique owner, I found this to be full of richness!! Being in the store 24/7 it is really hard to look at the window and my other displays with fresh eyes! Just reading some of the ideas, has given me inspiration for an entire window! These resources are priceless!! Thanks again Kate and the other contributors!!

  • Hi, I’ve been asked to create high-end Windows Displays for a luxury brand. It would be changed every season. Obviously an intricate concept would go into each window(installations, crafts, etc). Without the expenses that should be covered. I wonder how much I should charge as a basic fee?On top of that my agency will take 20% fee so it still needs to be profitable for me..
    Thank you