The Guide

From Blank Space to Your Space

August 31, 2017

Matt Vaile and Brian Waters, Shopify’s in-house environmental designers, dish on how to turn a blank canvas into a pop-up masterpiece.

Defining an environmental designer is no easy task, but then, it’s no easy job either. Think of the role as many different disciplines rolled into one with a designer’s day-to-day—including anything from interior design, to graphic and web design, to motion graphics, to events, to product development with a side of lighting and audio work—and all that before lunch, some days. It’s a nearly impossible balancing act that’s made worth it thanks to the fun of the challenge (plus, the JD includes shopping on a regular basis).

Or so says Matt Vaile and Brian Waters, two key players on Shopify’s Environmental Design Team which encompasses event marketing, event direction, environmental design and UX. They like to call it, “the IRL team”. They give Shopify merchants the tools they need to turn the retail experience into a work of art—whether that is through Facebook, ecommerce, brick and mortar, or their specialty: pop-ups (including Kylie Jenner’s in both New York and LA).

Both Vaile and Waters have a theatre design and production background, and now use those skills to turn retail spaces into a performance of their own, with customers acting as the audience. We couldn’t think of two people better suited to give entrepreneurs the tips they need to create a killer pop-up experience out of a blank slate.  Read on to learn how to take your pop-up to the next level. 

Location, Location, Location

Consumers are drawn to a visually interesting store, if you find a space that is not typically built for retail but suits your needs, take it. By using a space that isn’t associated with commerce, you give your brand a memorable story.

Know your neighbours and other businesses in the area. It helps to look for trends in the city so you can bring the environment into the space—your brand won’t feel layered on top but rather integrated into the community.

Know Your Space

Once you’ve chosen your space, schedule a site check. Bring a camera and a measuring tape so that you can take your own photos and measurements. You will want to create a to-scale render of the space to see how furniture, fixtures, and your product will all fit. There are many computer programs to help with this but for first timers all you need is graph paper, a ruler, and a pencil. If you’re looking for a basic computer version, both SketchUp and Room Sketcher are great tools that don’t require a class to learn how to use them.

Be Moody

Create a mood board with your colours and theme, and have a pie-in-the-sky high-level brainstorm. Pretend you have an unlimited budget and visualize what your space would look like. This helps you unlock creative ways of thinking and looking at your brand. During this phase, spend some time wandering through other retail spaces for inspiration, and clocking hours on Pinterest to stay updated on the latest trends in design. Once you have your dream shop visualized, start paring it down to what you actually need, what will fit in your budget, and where you can get creative.

Get Personal

Your brand is an extension of you. There’s a good chance you already have a number of items in your home that you can use to make a space your own. And if you don’t, your friends might, so don’t be shy about asking.

Get Your Greens

Plants are always a welcome addition and can make any space fresh. Look around for potted plants, florals, fake grass mats to cover flooring, or even twigs in a jar.

Stick It To Them

Vinyls are a great way brand an entire space on a low budget. Go big and bold and you’re more likely to get social shares, making any printing costs well worth the investment.

Don’t Fixate

People are not there for the fixtures—they are there for the product. If the IKEA or thrift shop piece fits your product, you can paint it to fit your brand. Look at creative ways you can use what you already have: Can the cardboard boxes that a product was brought in be painted or wrapped in a sheet? Do you have an old ladder that can act as a shelf? Rental companies are also an invaluable resource.

Have Fun

It is going to be stressful but it should also be fun. Try to find the joy in the experience. It’s a huge risk to be an entrepreneur and start your own company but you get to create whatever you want. Don’t feel limited by space, time, or money—those will always be factors—but if you’re having fun your customers feel it through the energy of the space.

Fun fact: thisopenspace is partnering with Shopify to bring your favourite brands to a brick-and-mortar space near you. Watch out for cool initiatives coming soon. And in the meantime, get inspired by Matt and Brian by following their work online.


If you’re feeling inspired and looking to curate space for your next pop-up, event, meetings and or photoshoots you can start your search right here. Go ahead and get started!