Respect for the User

COLLIN, YOU HAVE DESCRIBED YOURSELF AS A “SOFT MODERNIST,” A RIGHT AND LEFT BRAIN DESIGNER. WOULD IT BE CORRECT TO USE THE WORDS RATIONAL AND EMOTIONAL TO DESCRIBE THAT DIALECTIC? AND IS THERE A NEW EMPHASIS ON THE EXPERIENTIAL ASPECTS OF INTERIOR DESIGN? 

Not universally, but yes! At one time, the approach had everything to do with financial metrics and that’s changing. User-centric design is gaining traction. Personally, I’ve learned about how design can influence the way people feel in a space—and how they behave—in my work over time. It’s not something that’s taught in design school. It should be, but at least in my own case, it wasn’t.

When Gensler was hired to renovate Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport, part of our design brief was, “let’s put the delight back in the airport experience.” We all know that making our way the airport is rarely a delightful experience. No one enjoys waiting to go through security, being divested of your shoes, your coat, your watch and maybe being patted down. So, how do you put the joy back in the traveler’s experience? That was the big question and it bled into everything we did in designing that terminal.

SO, IT SOUNDS LIKE MUCH OF YOUR INSPIRATION COMES FROM USERS.

Right. Our job was to think through the entire experience. We thought there should be a place where people can sit down in comfort and peace once they get through security. There should be good, healthy food—including places where you can grab a fresh sandwich to take home on your way off the plane. We designed the bathrooms with high quality finishes and fixtures. They’re the bathrooms of a 5-star hotel. And it’s interesting that people respect that. Those bathrooms have not been defaced or damaged.

I often fly out of terminal two — and it is a very comfortable and pleasant place to wait for your flight, even if it's delayed.

You don’t have to belong to the Admiral’s Club to have a good experience. We designed the lobby with interesting art and the Virgin America lounge has those red Arne Jacobsen Egg chairs where you can relax near your gate. Again, the furniture gets a lot of heavy use, but it doesn’t get vandalized because people can feel the care and thoughtfulness that has gone into the design. We wanted everyone who passes through the terminal to feel cared for—it helps to alleviate any anxiety.

Respect for the user has immense impact. Designers have to remember that’s who we’re working for and it’s easy to forget because there are so many factors you have to consider and issues you have to address. A lot of credit goes to the client who said, "I want something that’s really visionary and human-centered." From there, we actually work-shopped through the design process to reach some kind of consensus.


What about the challenges of designing for the workplace? for a long time workplace design seemed to be driven PRIMARILY by technology but PERHAPS there's been a shift.

Very much so. In fact, it’s more about how can design help people to be healthier and happier? And how can we exploit technology to make our lives better? How can we integrate technology into the design of buildings, of the office, to make our work easier, more creative?

When we go in to design a workplace now, there’s a real partnership not only with corporate real estate, but also with  HR and the  CTO. One of the things we talk about is how to leverage technology to create a more seamless experience. Let’s say that when I arrive at work my security badge automatically opens the door and immediately my phone tells me that I’m expected on the 4th floor this morning. When I arrive at my desk or office, the lighting adjusts to my needs; the desk height adjusts to my preference and my cappuccino machine makes coffee for me right away. Technology will be able to merge what is now disconnected into something seamless, streamline work processes and simplify tasks—or hand them over to artificial intelligence. At its best, it will be almost invisible.

We recently worked with a Chief of Design and  CEO who stated, "We want technology everywhere, but we don’t want to see anything. Don’t make the technology the hero—make the focus on humanity, on the people." It’s an approach that respects the user. And, again, your people will model positive behaviors if you treat them well. Respect generates respect.

We didn’t design it, but there’s an office in Amsterdam, The Edge, which is designed to be responsive to very specific individual demands. Each desk has an air vent so that each person can control the temperature and the air—and it’s a little weird because people are sitting pretty close to each other. So, we have to be thoughtful about what’s possible and what actually needs to be done.

you've mentioned the word "respect" several times are you saying that, if you expect people to do well and express that expectation through design, they will step up?

Yes. We are now seeing workplace design that’s more intelligent. For a while, especially in the tech sector, interiors were all about reclaimed wood, deer antlers and kitschy wallpaper all over the place. But these are intelligent people—why not play to that?

With Pixar, we were designing a workspace for some of the most creative people in the world. And we knew that the people who work there would fill the space with their own ideas and fantasies on top of ours. So we created a very restrained design that would allow the employees to do their own thing. We used a lot of white and furnished the space with classic modern furniture. And the minute Pixar moved in there were igloos and tiki huts and one office right out of "Mad Men." It works for Pixar because that’s the culture and you want to give the artists—and the technical people, too—permission to get creative. They are free to be themselves—which can certainly contribute to happiness.

so, the culture creates a context for your approach, your strategy.

We worked with a San Francisco advertising agency and it all started with learning about their people and their work—who they are and what they do. The challenge was how to distill the business model of the group, how to make design reflect the dichotomy of the creative side and the business side of advertising – or the two hemispheres of the brain, the right side and the left side of the brain. As a background, we used lots of black and white paint, with white standing for the blank canvas of the creative mind and black for the dark suit of the businessperson. The work area and collaborative spaces are white and bright and the client-focused formal areas are black. It’s an edgy look—and paint is cheap, so the client can change it up as they evolve.

it would seem that part of my experience of a room, or how i feel in my surrounding environment comes from a physical response, as well as an emotional one.

We mustn’t forget that we are animals. We have bodies and at least five senses and, as designers, we have to be serious about wellness in the work settings we design. I’ve often said that when design touches us intellectually, emotionally, physically, if we arrive at the perfect trinity – mind, body, spirit – then the project takes on a soul. It might be a tortured soul or a fabulous free spirit. What kind of soul do you want a space to have?

We recently designed a new office building for the world’s largest wine producer. Sustainable strategies were a priority. Not just solar panels and drought tolerant landscaping, but also employee wellness. We took as our mantra, what are the things, based on research, that can make people feel good in this space, can help them to have a satisfying work life?

Now, the employees in this company were accustomed to sit in cubes planned around the different departments: creative services, finance, marketing, etc. it seemed as if a lot might have to happen to pull them into the future and make them fall in love with a completely transparent, completely open space. In fact, there were zero complaints. The employees saw all that beautiful light pouring in through the windows and skylights— and they loved it. The message was clear. “This company cares about you and how you feel. We wanted to give you a beautiful, sustainable workspace, a place where you can thrive.” I’m proud of that project. Everyone feels very positive about the new space and it has a real impact on well-being. It’s got a good soul.

charles eames said, design is about creating more happiness.

It’s a worthy goal. We know that design that is intended for the whole human being leads to a better life and it is incumbent upon our industry to think about sustainability in this way. In the past, sustainability was too often treated as the peanut butter you spread over the real stuff. It was nice if it happened that you could make use of recycled materials or reduce energy use in some way. We take a much broader, a more holistic approach today.

I was in the Post Office yesterday and it was a perfect example of design guaranteed to evoke negative emotions. It’s just awful. The fluorescent lighting, the paint colors, the shoddy furnishings—everything about that environment creates discomfort, unease and unhappiness. Creatives need to lead the way in helping society understand that what we do is not just superficial super cool styling. Design can be responsive and responsible. It can be artful and healthy—attentive to the whole being.

When i was in the gensler l.a. office, i was struck by how inspiring the space is. The grand open staircase is wonderful theater, visually exciting, but it's also a way to get people to move around, to take the stairs rather than an elevator. so it's about health and feeling good as well aesthetics.

The L.A. office is a perfect example. You automatically want to go up those stairs—and the elevators are hidden away so that they are not the obvious choice. Plus, everything is open so that you can see into the offices and conference rooms as you go up the stairs. It’s very transparent and it’s very social. It’s a place where happy, healthy people can operate with ease.

We are social animals. We do want to see other people, to connect with other people. There are those who say that iPads are teaching kids to be lonely adults—so perhaps we need to design spaces that encourage people to actually talk to each other, to connect without technology as the go-between. It’s too easy to get lost in our digital devices.

maybe that's part of the corrective of the maker movement? it's as if people want to connect not only with each other "in real life," but they also want to connect with materials in an authentic way.

I think what we are calling the Maker movement is a strong sentiment against everything corporate, everything that’s generic. It’s about craft and authenticity. And it ties in with sustainability because today we are much more aware of the ecological footprint of every product. Just as people are now sourcing local food—the locavore movement—we also think about where something is made, how far it has to be transported and what is the energy required to manufacture this product.

In San Francisco, we have these great local companies like Pablo lighting and Heath ceramics—it’s great to be able to actually use and celebrate local industrial design. Local artists created much of the artwork in Terminal 2 at  SFO and the local food vendors emphasize locally grown, organic food.

It’s great when you can bring in products that are connected to the local culture and community. I think it shows respect for the identity of the user or the occupant; it’s a way to create a more meaningful experience. Ultimately, everything we do has an impact on how people feel in a given space. I want to make sure that my work has that intelligence built into it because it’s essential to the art of design.

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The True Measure Of A Space Is
How It Makes Us Feel