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James Damian, Chairman of Buffalo Wild Wings, is a self-described "failed music major."

Music's misfortune was store design's gain, as Damian went on to be a leader in visual merchandising and storytelling, first using New York City department store windows as his theatre stage, then later completely reinventing and reinvigorating the Best Buy brand. He now finds the balance between the bottom line and creating a meaningful customer experience at Buffalo Wild Wings, where he uses his business acumen to make the case that constant creativity and design innovation are key to continued success.

Damian refers to the real-world theatre where customers experience their shopping and dining in a recent talk at RestaurantSpaces. Citing an eclectic mix of design visionaries from Ralph Lauren to Marshall McLuhan, Damian reiterates again and again the importance of design as it is simple, accessible, and gives the customer what she wants while staying true to the brand's story.

"The designer has got to reconcile and edit and get rid of the stuff that's in the way from telling your story or building your brand, because everybody's going to want to load up, everybody's going to want to have input," he says.

"But the culture of innovation and design is the art of editing."

Simplicity is key in Damian's design ethos. He describes "design thinking" as a "process, not a formula." It is a process that he says holds the company together and helps it to decrease risk and save capital. It is the antithesis of the management-approved tried-and-true. It is disruptive, and it is constantly changing and evolving with customers' ever-changing wants and needs.

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"In order for us to design and create we have to walk in the shoes of the audience, and that requires empathy: understanding the pain points of the audience that you serve no matter in what arena you're working in," says Damian. "Through the empathy stage it helps us define what are those pain points and what are the real life problems we're trying to solve. Then and only then can we get into ideation."

During his talk, Damian shared a statistic that 75 of the Fortune 500 companies that are considered "design-centric" outperform the S&P by 228%.

"Emotional IQ along with business IQ creates stronger economic growth."

With a grin he confesses, "I love understanding what people hate."

When asked to give feedback on the store design at Best Buy, he flatly told them that they were "in the business of going out of business." He revamped the brand by creating "little stages" for this theatre of retail, experience zones for customers to dive deep into the brand and not just be mindlessly bombarded with merchandise.

"The art is to make it simple: show them, don't tell them," he says, and he took that same design ethos to the board of Buffalo Wild Wings.

"My purpose is to change the thinking in the boardrooms for the customer," Damian states. "[Your] higher purpose lives beyond what you do; it defines who you are and what you stand for."

At Buffalo Wild Wings, he says, "The stage is always changing. It's always hitting refresh…Now it's more of a stadium feel because now we've gone from the ultimate guest experience to the ultimate social experience for sports fans. [There's a] little bit of higher purpose there. This is our current higher purpose statement: 'We inspire fun and connect with friends, families, and communities.' There's no mention of wings and sauce and beer… You're trying to deliver fun, joy. You're trying to make that stage their own and then they can play with it."

From there, he says, it's a matter of always anticipating what the customer is going to want next and that is always in motion; it never ends.

Finally, being very much a designer of the theatre of life, Damian ends his talk with reference to Shakespeare.

"We live in a theatre of experiences in a world that is our stage and we are merely members of that cast… We're all members of that cast. And without the cast on the stage there is no theatre, there is no experience."

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Michael P. Owens

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Michael P. Owens is Co-Founder + Managing Partner of influence group, a leading producer of content and events in real estate, technology, design and construction.

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