50 Beyond: Designing for Designers – Where To Begin?

6 June 2019

One of the first steps we take at the onset of a project is to build consensus among key decision makers. Sometimes this is 1-2 people from the firm’s leadership team, sometimes it’s 10-12 design committee members from various departments, and sometimes it's an entire 50-person staff. The LEAN-inspired exercises we’ve honed and now implement with our clients during the Visioning phase—whether it’s for a tech start-up’s first workplace or a new community space on a college campus—are meant to evoke responses that can be translated into physical space. But, what exactly does this process look like when you get 50+ architects and interior designers in the same room? (insert Grinning Face, but Nervously Sweating emoji here)

We believe culture drives design.

One of the biggest contributing factors to our most successful projects is having full engagement from staff to gain an understanding of their culture. If our new office was going to be a success, we wanted to work the same way we work with our clients, especially when our resources are talented designers and project managers. We wanted everyone’s voice heard to reach consensus early on, and “teasing out” people’s thoughts and opinions was a daunting, yet very useful task. We conducted the following firm-wide LEAN-inspired design exercises through both semi-anonymous, anonymous, and in-person feedback:

Surveys and Current State Assessment

To kick things off, we gathered data from our coworkers on a personal level. We polled the entire firm on different topics, including their thoughts on the old office, personal space and storage needs, productivity, desired amenities, branding and messaging, the behavior of our new office, and what trends should or should not be implemented to further reflect our culture. Since location was a significant factor, we circulated a survey to find out everyone's perspective of our current office building and the neighboring construction zone for Winthrop Square Tower.

Fun, low-pressure activities stationed throughout the office helped us gain valuable insight into our colleagues' wishes. For example, we posted "culture sliders" in which people could provide anonymous feedback on current office culture versus desired office culture. We also asked for feedback on free address (no assigned seats) and if people want the ability to do everything at their individual workstation or select their workspace based on task.

Activity-Based Thought Starters

Next, our 50+ coworkers gathered together to participate in a group exercise. Using multi colored Post-it notes and a black markers, ideas and concerns were shared in real time. These exercises were used to analyze what features our staff wanted to highlight and downplay within our new office, helping us develop our thesis statement for the project—something we could turn back to during the remainder of the process.

In one exercise, we asked everyone to partner up and rank seven images—indicating what image would best represent Dyer Brown’s new office. These four sets of conceptual images, ranging from animals to food, served as inspiration for a group discussion (i.e. If this animal emulated the new space, what characteristics does it personify?)

Throughout the entire charrette, the team could visually see the conceptual threads tying each exercise together. No idea was too big or too small! People threw out any suggestion that they had for the new office (Kittens in the workplace? Sure!). They could be silly, but we tried to understand what people had on their “wish list.”

What stood out to us most during this process?

How open, excited, and thought-provoking everyone was! They gave us some great ideas to work with, many of which sparked the designs and programming we now have in our new office space. It was surprising to see how everyone, for the most part, had a similar perspective on Dyer Brown’s current culture and where we wanted to be ten years from now. We were able to have an open dialogue with one another, ensuring differing views were heard.

One of the soundbites was “cozy, yet professional”—and what this meant to people. The team wanted a space that was residentially-inspired, filled with natural light, and a place where you could feel comfortable. The downsides of cozy were strong—the team didn’t want a space that was too home-like where people were walking around in their socks or lounging in bean bags. They wanted to have structure in a professional setting, but not an austere and clinical space. This concept was reiterated in the animal exercise group discussion. The peacock was the highest rated image because it was an elegant, colorful animal that was open to new ideas. The llama, on the other hand, was goofy and hard to take seriously.

Looking back, we are proud to see that after many iterations and design charrettes, we created a space in which the original goals and concepts developed by our 50+ coworkers were met. We kept turning back to the documentation we created and are thrilled to say that the design was created by fluidly responding to the ideas harvested from the office. There aren’t any kittens or puppies in our new office (although we do have a cow, a giraffe, and a flamingo 😊), but give it some time… we’re only two months in!

Post authored by

Dyer Brown Architects

Karen Bala AIA LEED AP
Director of Design
Dyer Brown Architects

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