A Return to the Roots of Banking

Something big is happening in banking.

You might not notice it, of course, if you’re standing in line inside a tired looking lobby waiting for help. And you definitely won’t notice if, instead, you’re sitting on your couch snapping a photo of a check for mobile deposit while also watching Netflix. You might not even remember the last time you stepped foot in a bank.

If that’s the case, then you don’t know that there’s been a shift—a whole movement getting ready to shake up banks and credit unions everywhere.

Banking is the industry most likely to be transformed by future generations. Banking is no longer somewhere to go; it’s something you do wherever you are. Instead of dropping by a local bank or member center, you’re using online tools for daily transactions, severely limiting the valuable face time bankers once had to build meaningful, long-lasting relationships.

Not long ago, financial institutions were a place of opportunity, a place where people mattered. But today, people see banks and credit unions more aligned with Wall Street than Main Street.

If there’s one person who’s had a front-row seat to all of these changes, it’s Don Tate, AIA. As principal of our financial design studio, he’s built his professional life around the banking industry, even spending a few years working as a facilities manager for a bank.

He tells a story: long ago, people were considered worthy of a loan not just on numbers alone, but by their character. “Our managers could approve loans based on a relationship,” he says. “They not only knew each person’s financial situations, they also knew if the person was good for it.”

Then, things changed. Beefed up regulation restricted this previously trust-filled exchange. “Instead, the bank was required to build out a new operations space for the sole purpose of receiving loan applications through a fax machine. Applicants were scored, and those scores determined if a loan was approved. There was no longer an emotional connection between a branch and its customers.”

Somewhere along the way, banks and credit unions forgot how important that emotional connection is. They forgot that money is scary, and that the people they serve want guidance on their path to financial security.

This way of doing business hasn’t gone unnoticed—one in three Millennials are open to switching their bank in the next 90 days, and 33% believe they don’t need a bank at all. Yet more than 80% of new accounts are still generated in the physical branch, proving that the branch is not dead, it just needs to be redefined.

And that’s where good design comes in. Today’s model bank artfully blends the technology of tomorrow with the principles of yesterday: the art of listening and creating a meaningful emotional connection. More importantly, this design shift focuses on crafting spaces that put people at ease, helping them feel valued and heard.

“No one is going to open up about their financial situation while sitting in a drab room with flickering florescent lights, stained carpet, and antiquated furniture,” says Alan Davis, AIA. “People need a personal connection.”

As an architect and associate principal in our financial studio, he’s led the charge for many of our financial clients looking to shake things up. He’s spoken at conferences around the country on this topic, urging community bankers to take note and make changes.

“As designers, our job is to inject that personal connection back into the physical branch,” he says. “Every part of the design should make that happen.”

So how do we do that? Glad you asked.

Nix the Teller Line

More and more, we’re suggesting that banks and credit unions do away with teller lines altogether, says Alan. That physical barrier separating a bank employee from a customer symbolizes something much larger—a divide between two people.


Instead, financial designers are moving toward dialogue pods, which put a banker and a customer on the same side,
working out the person’s finances together, both literally and figuratively. That’s a powerful sentiment.

“This also opens up the space, giving banks and credit unions more room to create a warmer, more hospitable environment,” Alan says.

Amp up the Hospitality

Call Federal Credit Union, one of our longtime clients, is taking their model in a whole new direction given the financial industry’s tumultuous shakeup. Instead of oversized, freestanding member centers, they’re moving toward smaller, more efficiently designed spaces that encourage people to be the hero of their financial life story.


Our design focuses on creating an environment that exudes warmth and hospitality and moves beyond making members feel welcome. The open, flexible floorplan allows members to come in after hours for meetings and events, giving them ownership of the space. Instead of a typical coffee station, there’s an actual bar and cozy seating, too.

Call Federal’s employees are trained to fill all roles, allowing the staff to rotate in and out of one of the most critical positions: ambassador. This operational shift in customer service creates an immediate connection between members and staff.

Convey Transparency

“You’ll see a lot of glass in banks and credit unions these days, both inside and out,” says Alan. “That’s not a coincidence.”


Glass is an important material choice for a number of reasons. To start, it lets natural light flood a space, and that’s always a good thing. (Who isn’t happier when sunshine is around?)

More importantly, glass communicates a level of transparency and openness. Instead of tucking bank employees away in closed off offices behind mammoth desks, we’re creating work zones that people can see inside. Nothing is hidden, and that creates trust—the main ingredient in developing a personal connection.

Offer Flexibility & Financial Literacy

CommonWealth One Federal Credit Union was looking to create a one-stop spot for financial literacy at a university’s student commons. The high-tech, high-touch space is designed to appeal to the student demographic. By creating a variety of flexible-use areas, we gave the credit union ultimate control over how to use their space—right down to the furniture, which supports adaptability and encourages member engagement.

“A bar table and stools is the perfect setting to teach students about credit scores over pizza and a great place for intimate chats about loans,” says Alan.


Another key element to this design is the branding behind the space. CommonWealth One wanted to integrate into the campus without pushing its own branding agenda. Our team created a plan that artfully balances the two brands and showcases school pride. We looked for fun ways to bring the university into the design—the color palette incorporates school colors, and artwork highlights the inherent beauty of the surrounding campus. Bleacher seating along one wall of the member center evokes game-day spirit, while also offering students a place to charge their devices or listen in on a financial seminar.


Ideas, happenings, press, and perspectives.


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