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.

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!

On Hoteling Stations

IMG_7259No matter what you call it, touchdown space or hoteling or something else, there is a need for our commercial clients to have spaces for their working visitors. To understand what this space needs to be you first have to understand this end-user: This new kind of migrant worker is usually a technology savvy, traveling sort probably with a full day’s dockett of meetings, but still may need a space to pound out a report before heading home. What kind of space do you offer that staff member, who usually works at another site (or in the case of visiting consultants, works everywhere) and is in town for a few days at most? They need a space that allows them to function and have all the technological capabilities of their usual space, some potential privacy for sensitive phone calls, but on the flip side, perhaps not as much elbow room as they would get were this their usual space and certainly nothing to encourage their permanent setting up shop.

These dedicated “hoteling” spaces are a great idea for companies that want to keep productivity for their staff high during their spell on the road, but they still need different functionality than their stationary counterparts. What we generally suggest is the following: First, no storage needs. Whatever the worker brings with them is leaving with them, so you definitely can cut down space right here with less or no storage. A place to secure a coat or a purse is a good addition, but often not a necessity. Power for that day’s laptop (in most cases I’ve experienced is it fair to assume your migrant has this rather than not, although that is probably debatable in other cases) and data access is a must. Phone, much like a secure spot for a coat, is probably in the “nice to have” pile, since likely this kind of worker is carrying a cell phone.

So what does this space look like? On one end, it may look very similar to your normal workspace, just un-personalized and pared-down. One extra workstation or office set aside is, for many companies, not that much to ask in a field of cubicles. It could be well worth the investment. Pictured above is a recent oversized cubicle that our company designed for a client who wanted to provide hoteling for visiting staff. It’s a simple solution, but very effective.

inem_2sbar001_loOr, if you want to get jazzy, a benching style solution in a semi-public space with good acoustic control might be a viable solution, especially if every cube is occupied and space is at a premium. When workspace is this flexible there are limitless opportunities to do something out of the box. All that is a hard-and -fast rule is enough space to settle in with a worksurface, chair, power and data.

Many furniture manufacturers have developed fun, funky solutions that carry power and data to address a less orthodox answer to this and other questions of our changing workspace. Check out the one pictured on the right from Izzy+, the Nemo Trellis and Bar. The Bar provides power and data up the the counter height work area, a great height if you really won’t be in place long, and the Trellis canopy provides a sense of some privacy without giving up an office, conference room or cubicle to do it.

Lemon-Tinted Glasses

Designing, like most things, has a lot to do with audience and market segment. There are several specializations to the design world, some of the most obvious being Commercial vs Residential or the subset of Healthcare. There are others that are less apparent, such as Geriatric design, or design for the aging community. There are many special concerns with this community: careful visual and auditory clues to compensate for impairments, adjustments to furniture that make sitting and standing easier, and many of the same concerns that come up with ADA are also relevant such as grab bar locations and wheelchair accessibility. Visual cues such as signage needs to be bold and easy to read so high contrast between lettering and background is a must. One of the most interesting considerations (and surprising to me) has been color.

Color is affected by many conditions in the natural environment. Knowing what light bulbs will be used in a space or how much natural light is available will drastically change how the color looks in the space. But with a geriatric design, there’s another level to understanding color and it’s related to my odd picture of the yellowed glasses. IMG_0060

As the eye ages it begins to yellow. This is a natural part of aging. What it means is that to some extent an older person’s ability to see color is altered toward the yellow end of the spectrum. Whites are seen as creams. As this example suggests, most colors read a little more muted. Reds are seen with a more orange hue. Blues and violets and some greens are turned a more muted color, or even read brown.

In light of this, it’s no wonder that when I talk to residents at the assisted living communities they want to see bright, vibrant colors, that they are tired of brown, and that they seem to be attracted to red. Don’t get me wrong, our committees still like to see plenty of other colors , but there’s something about a full red that the folks I speak to seem to really like. I think perhaps it’s the purity of the color. Maybe it’s also a part of the color heritage of that generation and that Northeastern region of the country we are in. Whatever other factors are at play, it is a perfect choice for geriatric design in terms of the aging eye.

To help keep in mind the affects of aging on the eyes, we keep a pair of yellow-tinted glasses around the office to assist when we’re making color choices for these projects. They are, without a doubt one of the oddest things I have ever worn (they’re a little too small and shaped like “John Lennon” glasses), but they make a real difference in judging what colors might be appealing to our audience. If I’m having trouble deciding what to take to a meeting, these do come out and help in determining which shade of blue or orange might read best to the most people. They aren’t the proverbial rose colored glasses, but they do a nice job at altering my perspective.

Inspiration Everywhere

“Where do you get your inspiration these days?”

This question was put to me and several other designers at a function recently. Magazines have truthfully lost some of their flair in recent years, what with the wealth of online options. Pinterest was brought up as a source, but my colleague was fishing for something fresh. The other designers and I seems to lack freshness when put on the spot. Now I think I have my answer. While both Pinterest and magazines (the slim Contract magazine getting more of my attention than the gorgeous and much fatter Interior Design) do play a role I think there’s been something even more ingrained in my psyche.

I get my inspiration on “field trips.” At one time, when I was in school and studying abroad that meant literal field trips. My Danish Institute of Study Abroad program was huge on visiting the sites of great architecture and seeing it for yourself. Even more so; they were huge on not just taking your own pictures and seeing the places with your own eyes, but drawing it for yourself. What I learned that summer and what I took away from that program changed the way I have approached design since. (I would highly recommend the program to any students). When I returned home I spent extra time to visit places related to my projects and get my feet and hands on the ground. There was a time (still in school and the year or so immediately after) where a staple of my purse was a small sketchbook.

My “field trips” now are more the spontaneous finds in my daily (and not so daily) travels. Today I don’t carry a notebook everywhere and sketch my observations, but I do have a smartphone. When I scroll through my pictures there I have a strange assortment of pictures that often include no people whatsoever. Photos of porcelain tiles, of building columns, of flower arrangements, of a cool combination of colors, of murals, of hotel room bathrooms and dozens of other things that make me happy to look at, remind me of ideas and help shape my latest projects. So I suggest to you to use your phone, not only for selfies and food shots, but to record the details of places as they inspire you.