The Future Of Gas Stations Will Need Better Design

By Paul Woods, a Los Angeles-based designer and author. He leads Edenspiekermann’s creative and technology teams as CEO, building products, brands, and service design work for clients across many industries. Over the course of his career, Paul has been at the helm of projects for companies such as Red Bull, Google, Faraday Future, The City of Santa Monica, among many others. An advocate for the importance of user-centric design, Paul places a hyper-focus on the user in his work. Paul is also a co-founder of the satirical industry website Adloids. His best-selling book, How To Do Great Work Without Being An Asshole, was published worldwide in 2019 and has been translated into over 10 languages. His follow-up book, Shit They Didn’t Tell You, will be published in August 2021. Check out his website here.

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Just for fun, on a slow Friday afternoon perhaps, go to YouTube and search ‘old gas station commercials.’ My favorites are ones like this from the 1960s for Texaco where attendants (plural) rush to your car to not just fill it up but to double-check everything from your oil and battery cables to your tire pressure and windshield wipers. Obviously, that was a different time in the world’s relationship to cars. Just like air travel, there was a level of service associated with it that is as much a relic of another time, as Texaco gas stations are themselves.

Today, most gas stations are self-service, and if you want your oil checked, you better know how to do it yourself, or take your car to an actual mechanic. The situation for most gas stations today is fairly untenable.

A study in 2019 by Boston Consulting Group found that between 25% and 80% of gas stations could be unprofitable by 2035, and that was before a global pandemic in much of the world’s business suddenly realized half their employees don’t actually need to commute to the office to work. Presciently, the study noted then that ‘fuel retailers must develop a comprehensive response that adjusts the products and services they sell, adapts their network and business model, alters the layout of their service stations and convenience stores, and harnesses new digital tools.”

All of that is a long way to say that gas stations need to stop thinking about themselves as a place people need to go, and rather as a place people want to go to. You see some elements of that in the emergence of convenience stores attached to the gas stations, but that doesn’t make it a destination. Rather, a place people go for an energy drink and a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos while their car refuels. What will ultimately change the profit dynamics of gas stations is designing them as a place where people want to spend 30 mins or more lingering over a good coffee in a comfortable setting, catching up on emails, or just hanging out.

An example of this is a project we recently collaborated on with Houston-based energy company Nacero. Nacero is developing facilities that will produce an affordable new gasoline made from natural gas and renewable natural gas instead of crude oil that can be used without modification in the cars and trucks that remain on the road during the energy transition.

But more than just reimagining their brand design, Nacero also challenged us to reimagine the future gas station experience from the ground up.

The Nacero retail experience will feel different on every level: Designed with distinctly modernist architecture, the station will be more of a destination than a place one runs in and out of. We collaborated with Los Angeles-based firm Amador Architecture, to create a facility that marries natural forms with man-made signature elements to create an ‘Urban Oasis.’ Nacero stations will feature healthy food options, gourmet coffee, sustainable and green, WIFI-connected open areas, and a seamlessly connected Nacero app and smart fuel pumps featuring iconic touch screens.

From a design 101 perspective, the future of the gas station needs to transcend everything we see today – from how the sign looks when you’re driving down the road, to the look of the pump –  the whole customer journey has to be reconsidered. The challenge for a lot of gas brands is grappling with the basic question of what drives (pun intended) their business forward when cars don’t need or need less refueling. What will bring customers in?

Without that bigger brand thinking, the gas station we know today will feel as nostalgic as those old Texaco ads from the 1960s on YouTube seem today.