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Millennials and Office Environments

Millennials generally get a bad rap as a poor generation of office workers: demanding, under performing, and over entitled. That said, I am generally considered one of them (although I am in the oldest of the bracket and can sometimes be considered a young Gen Xer) so I’m often intrigued by Millennials and their treatment.

In a meeting the other week, I met with a gentleman who travels the country and visits different workplace environments as part of his job with the International Facility Management Association (IFMA). He had an interesting comment on it that caught my attention. Of course, like it or not, Millennials are the young talent in the workplace and savvy companies to need to attract and retain that talent.

To paraphrase, he stated that Millennials are looking to have a smaller workstation.

That particular phrasing struck me as counter intuitive. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the balance between the traditional partitioned cubicle workstation (often an 8 ft by ft nominal footprint with worksurfaces on 2 sides and as much storage as can be fit) and the new wave wall-less benching workstation (generally as small as 4-6 ft wide with 1 worksurface and minimal storage). I had been starting to think that the natural solution for most offices was a balance between the two; a need for partitions between users at a visually restrictive height and a smaller space and moderate storage. My colleague’s statement suggested I was being too generous and the Millennials are drawn to employers providing the most modest of spaces; definitely something that runs counter to the assumptions that Millennials are a needy, demanding lot.

I asked for him to further describe the trend he was discussing. He did; what he has been seeing, even in the most traditional of companies is a shift from a focus on individual spaces and towards more collaborative environments. That lounge and meeting and cafeteria spaces and their amenities are of a greater importance to young talent/Millennials and a shift towards more focus on these spaces is more likely to attract and keep this workforce.

The statement also suggests that despite popular opinion to the contrary, that Millennials know there’s no free lunch. That bigger, more lavish café/lounge is offset by a smaller personal space. The other hand in this relationship is work transportability and technology. The young generation knows if they get a small space, but are issued a company laptop, maybe they can do some of their work sitting in that café/lounge (or at home).

This actually dovetails perfectly with my husband’s recent experience moving offices. He just transferred jobs internally with his company and moved to a new office across town. Like me, my husband is the oldest bracket of Millennials and after years in a standard issue cube he was hesitant about his move to a benching system with no walls, no privacy and no space for his personal reference library. A month in and he is happy with his desk. The trade off for cutting edge conference rooms, huddle rooms, free coffee in the break room is all worth it to him and despite his concerns over the noise (a worry prior to the move), I haven’t heard any complaints. Granted, the other part of the trade is a boss that lets him work remotely. As I type in my more standard issue cube, he is working from home today. The flexibility of his ancillary spaces is well worth a small personal space for him.

The trend towards collaborative and more relaxed space has been gaining a groundswell in the last few years and really has taken the commercial environment on. If my colleague’s assessment is anything to go by this is a coming wave and one that will not reverse.

Design Hack

In seeing an article titled How to “Hack” Workplace Design splashed across my inbox, I was immediately intrigued and trepidacious.  As a designer, the thought of someone “hacking” my work is deflating. Generally my colleagues and I do considerable research into a client’s needs and office culture to consider the needs of an end user in our work. We both ask the client what they need in storage, space, size, and technological components and take that into account when designing workspaces. To have someone else “hack” them after all that might suggest we’re unnecessary or missing the mark.

In reading the article I found my assumptions about it were wrong. This was not a criticism of designers, but a panel discussing way to embrace individuality, flexibility and universal design in workplace environments. Providing a space for all the staff is one thing. Providing a space for all staff that gives them the opportunity to tailor the space to their unique needs is another. It goes back to the need for personal space and personalization. This is about energizing new ideas and collaboration with end-users in a way that is flexible and engaging.

It suggests that designers need to look beyond the components of modular cubical systems and stretch the capabilities of these systems to their edge-points and push for further opportunities. It makes me think of Ikea Hackers, a website that shows off folks who take the modular components of Ikea Products and tweaks them for new or ingenious solutions. Some improve on the existing product in its original use. Many take a product and use it for a completely out-of -the-box solution.

How the Office became what it is today

In commercial environments we often grapple with tough questions regarding productivity, technological integration, and (now more than ever) employee satisfaction and well being. Due to the speed of ever-changing technology, the shape of workplace environments are in a constant state of flux. The days of cookie-cutter office solutions are over if they ever really existed.

At a time where there is a constant need to move forward, we do occasionally need to look back on where we came from to get here. Not only are office changing now; but they have been doing so for the past century.

This Stylepark article provides a nice overview of commercial space history and some of the factors, individuals, and technologies that have driven the change in commercial environments.

Sample board or Rendering

FullSizeRenderWhen working with a client  we will meet in person multiple times to bring drawings and plans of a space and also material finish samples for what will go in the space: carpets, ceramic tiles, paint chips, grout colors, fabric swatches, wood samples, laminate chips, the list goes on and on. I like to bring loose samples, sometimes with pictures of how a large piece will look in a space, especially with carpet. But at some point the we go from making decisions to  giving a sense of what the final product will be. With drawings the final product is still represented in a drawing, either printed, digital or both. But with materials there’s a choice: Sample (or presentation) board or Renderings. (Or both, but that’s a rarity in our office)

IMG_0802A sample board is a foam core board with actual physical samples used in the space tacked to it. Many clients use these in combination with drawings for showing final selections of Board members or teammates who weren’t involved in our meetings and to give other stakeholders an idea of what is coming soon. This post was inspired by my colleague snapping a picture with his phone of me standing on a chair to take a picture of a presentation board before giving it to the client.

On the plus side here, you have the actual sample of the materials to know how they will feel and the exact color that they are for the space. It’s also a little less time consuming so it can be done more quickly. On the down side, while we often label what materials will be located where, it may be hard to visualize how the space will look for some people. There’s usually only one copy as well. This is a good solution for more simple work and small spaces where 3D images are hard to create effectively.

ETC-CISC3-Wkspace-PR5Renderings are the other option. Instead of mounting all the materials on a physical board of materials, the selected finishes are grafted into the space in a drawing. This can be done on a plan, an elevation of a wall, or a 3D drawing for the space. Before computer rendering this would be done by hand. Now it’s more often done in programs like SketchUp, 3DMax or Photoshop. With these programs digital images of materials can be uploaded and fit into their locations at the proper size. Shadows and light can be added with algorithms that will correctly interpret how light will bounce off different material types and reflect in the space. The result is a very strong impression of what the final space will look like. This is a great option for large projects, clients who have trouble with visualization, or who are spread out over large distances, since computer files can easily be shared.

The down sides are that these are generally more time consuming and therefore more costly to produce and the color may not be perfectly correct for what will be the final space, depending on printer, monitor, and other color corrections.

If you are the recipient of one of these tools, there’s a few things to keep in mind. First, this is a step that’s best taken when most decisions have been made or are very close to be final. Redrawing takes time and rendering multiple times is also time consuming. On the flip side, these tools are a snapshot in time and you still can make changes after they are delivered. Treat them like a final check that this is indeed what you want. Finally, enjoy your tool. These are definitely one of the fun take aways from working with design professionals.

Trade Shows, Magazines & Blogs

I have admitted on this blog that I don’t often make as much time for reading trade magazines as I used to. It’s also way harder for designers in the Philadelphia region to make it out to trade shows like NeoCon or ICFF (although having NeoCon East in Philadelphia this year will make a difference). Both of these losses are to my detriment as a designer and I want to take a little time to explore why the new, as found at trade show, magazines, and blogs/Pinterest/Houzz is so important and why I am constantly struggling against my inertia to make time for these things.

IMG_5115It starts as a source for ideas and inspiration. Inspiration is everywhere but you need to sometimes seek it and embrace it. If you never going looking for ideas you’re not always lucky enough for them to find you. A few weeks ago my husband and I went on a date night in Middletown, DE. It poured buckets and while my husband pulled around the car I found this lovely arrangement under the stairs. While it’s not something I’ll need in my bag of tricks on just any job, I snapped the pic to keep it fresh because you never know. This kind of inspirational find is more my exception than the rule.

Trade shows, magazines and blogs – while condensed, occasionally overwhelming, and maybe missing your current needs – are great spaces for inspiration, especially since in those environments a designer’s mind is looking for ideas. When you are engaged in looking, more active connections are made. I always walk away from a trade show having found great ideas both future and current. While the cubical curtain I adore from NeoCon East last year still hasn’t panned out I feel like I’m just one project away from it being exactly what I need.

To keep our work updating and relevant. Furniture and design, just like fashion, is constantly changing. In the last 5 years I felt like the Mid-Century Modern driver has gone from a trickle to a full blown stream. You don’t know that unless you’re keeping tabs on what others are designing, building, producing and specifying. No trend works in every environment. But you’ll never know what a West Coast team is doing with other fit outs like yours if you’re not looking. It might be spot on.

To keep the designer from atrophy. We’ve all felt it. As the distance grows from that last healthcare project and the last time you worked the math to calculate rentable space, you feel less confident in that work. What is the code for plumbing fixtures in a business occupancy again? Maybe some things are so deeply rooted you’ll never forget (NFPA 701 !) but others fall away with disuse. While a trade show might not help you remember codes better, it will potentially jog the memory of other long-ago skills and keep you fresh on things that you don’t get to do everyday anymore. My first job out of school I did a bunch of libraries. I don’t do them anymore, but when I see Leland’s latest products it always makes me think of that work.

The Client Inspiration Board

I have had two clients recently who came to their first meeting with us armed with what I’ll call an “inspiration board”. In both cases is wasn’t technically a board: one just had a digital file folder of pictures they liked. The other had a PowerPoint of pictures. I don’t know if the influence of Pinterest is to thank for this, but I love it.

To anybody whose about to become a design client, this is an excellent exercise to engage in and bring to your first meeting with any of your design team: Architects, Interiors, Engineers, everyone will love you for it.

Why is this helpful?

A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. There is no where that is truer than in design. First, it shows me what the client is thinking. Pictures can evoke a quality of space; the grandeur or simplicity or vivacity. I use words as carefully as I can to describe visual concepts to a client. But no matter how careful I am words can’t always express the quality of a space, color, or texture accurately. A picture is always more accurate. I can say “wingback chair” but there’s millions of them and they can look very different, just like the two examples here.

budget-classic-leather-wingback-chair-Z1qysAlex Wingback

 

“Modern”, by the by, is one of the worst offenders as a non-descriptive word. For many people, they say “modern” and mean “current and contemporary”, but for others including designers “modern” usually means capital M “Modern” as in the Modern movement that dovetails with International Style and Bauhaus from the early 20th century. Those are wildly different things. (For a rather accurate visual interpretation of the differences check out West Elm’s new Workspace line; their splash page lays it out in very nice visual representation)

Second it takes out the guess work. Sometimes I don’t attend the first meeting with a client and I’m asked to come, with ideas, to the second or third meeting. If I’ve been given an arsenal of pictures then I don’t have to guess what I should bring. I can make (more) educated and strategic choices that are in keeping with the pictures. This isn’t to say that I can’t get a sense of a client without pictures. I listen to what my supervisors tell me from their previous meeting, I check the client’s website and use my educated best judgement to determine what the client might respond to. But pictures speed up the process.

Get inspired, pin that picture and show us what you want. You can use a file folder, a Powerpoint, a Pinterest board, printouts and clippings old school style from magazines and kept in a folder or notebook. Whatever works for you will work for us too!

Hands On – an Argument for Printing

As we move forward in a digital age, there is a lot of designing done with and by computers. There is very little hand-drafting in our office and AutoCAD is a staple I cannot live without. However, I strongly doubt that design, architecture, and interiors (and probably all its associated engineering) will ever go paperless. We need paper. It’s a foundation of the industry. And there’s one little word to explain it all: scale.

Scale, in architecture and  design, is the rule by which all drawings are produced. It’s the ratio to compare what’s on the drawing to what will be built in real life. If a drawing is scaled at 1/4″ = 1’0″ (1 ft) that means that a door drawn 3/4″ wide is a 3ft wide door in the real space. When drawings are set up and printed, this scale indicates a lot of information to the builders. This is one of the tools that gives a drawing tangible meaning.

When a drawing is on the computer, while there is a scale, you can change your view so readily, that the meaning of the scale to the eye is constantly in flux. Zooming in and out means it can be tough to judge what you’re looking at and how big it really is. That alone is one reason for printing things off: to check that what you see on the screen is what you think it ought to be. Designers and architects get very comfortable looking at certain scales and can understand space very well from those scales that they use regularly. Printing off and looking at the drawing in scale can give a better sense than looking at the screen, even if you’ve got the screen zoomed to the right level.

Checking your work can also be easier when you have a piece of paper to scratch your notes on.  It’s also easier to have a meeting with a contractor over a drawing on a desk (which is the same document they will take onto the building site with them) than on a power point screen. And that’s another one. I don’t think drawings are leaving the construction site any time soon. Laptops and tablets, while ubiquitous, are still too valuable and sensitive as commodities to leave exposed to dust, paint and other debris on a job site, let alone a new construction site where they would also be exposed to the elements.

Design and architecture certainly walks a delicate balance with technology. Like so much of our society, you can’t get anywhere fast without embracing the tools that technology offers, but there’s a trade off in getting too far from those paper & pencil (or pen) roots. We may not be hand drafting so much anymore, but don’t expect that printer to disappear anytime soon either!

Digital Design Basics: What Programs do you Need?

I will freely admit I am a designer who was educated on the inside of the technology curve. My education was heavily colored by learning AutoCAD (also known as CAD, the most prevalent of the Computer Assisted Drafting programs available) and not just AutoCAD but a host of other computer programs. Google SketchUp, 3DMax, Revit, Photoshop, Rhino, 2020 Technologies, and oodles and oodles of plugins to the aforementioned programs all are part of the conversation. I would also suggest that services like Pinterest are more and more a part of the conversation. I learned working knowledge of several computer programs in school or had the opportunity to learn. To anyone who ever thought a design degree (of any type) is a bird course here is your education right now: If you have ever learned Adobe Photoshop, you have an idea of the difficulty of the learning curve on most programs that designers use. If you have not, I challenge you to open Photoshop (Or YouTube a tutorial) and look at all the tools, buttons, filters and options that are available to manipulate an image.

I strongly believe that to be a viable designer in today’s market you need to have at minimum working knowledge of a few of these programs (although I love to think that hand drafting and sketching still has a place). These are not programs that can be learned overnight or in one class, but a certain mastery is necessary. Mastery that is only developed over time and with experimentation with these programs (I personally keep on my desk a little stock of notebooks at my desk, each dedicated to a different programs’ tricks, tool and shortcuts). I also think a certain cross section of these programs are needed, and would suggest at least one from each of 3, perhaps 4 categories are necessary. Bird course no longer when competency in at least 3 difficult software programs is basic entry-level knowledge.

First, A CAD program is a must to prepare professional construction documentation. Many design business are starting to move on to building information modeling or BIM programs like Revit. This has become base line requirement in most design firms, even sole proprietor businesses in Architecture & Design usually have AutoCAD. It’s just too labor intensive in today’s world to have you construction documents done by hand drafting.

Next, to relieve some of the load in creating visual images for clients (so they can “see” what the final result will look like) a 3D rendering program is needed. These run from things as simple as Google’s SketchUp or to photo-realistic programs like 3D Max with rich lighting and robust textural data (and take hours and hours to render). We tend to use a mix from the 3D line drawings developed in the CAD plugin 2020 Technologies, and exporting CAD drawings to renders in Sketchup and its suite of plugins for the most detailed renderings.

Finally, I believe an image editor like Photoshop is the final piece of the puzzle to make adjustments and tweaks as needed. I’m in Photoshop all the time to expand the limitations of my other digital programs, make small corrections and rework information from one format to another.

Additional tools, like Pinterest, Designerpages or Palette App that collect data on possible products, manufacturers, inspirations and organize it are also a fourth group of software that could be and is becoming an important technology asset to designers.

This is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination; just some of what I would suggest have become basic to design in the digital age. A few in our office have become intimate with database software used to help our Facilities teams (who we support as a contractor) manage their space more effectively. We all also use the standard programs Word, Excel, Powerpoint, ect just like every other business out there. Other firms use software that helps write specifications, order products, and streamline other areas of their design processes.

I’m sure in the next 5 years this list will grow and change. Like many industries, keeping abreast of the latest technology available to make workflow easier and faster is and will continue to be an important part of the design industry.