The Kids Are Alright


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How the past shapes
the present

truly, the archives of the past influence the present. the experience of men and women in one GENERATION REAPPEARS in those that follow. once century's disruptions emerge in new form as "hacks" in the next. there is a continuum. and there is little doubt that those on the leading edge of the MILLENNIAL wave are, at last, beginning to mature. the kids are growing up—leaving behind what has been a kind of extended adolescence, and beginning to adopt a new set of values as they navigate the demands of adult life. concurrently, fledgling start-ups have morphed into market leaders and as a fast company post noted, "in 2016, office design grew up and put on a tie."

I’ve always felt that there are constants in human experience. Circumstances change, of course, but some things persist. When my daughter was born, I had a sort of epiphany. I figured out—on the way home from the hospital—why my parents were so weird. It became immediately clear to me that words like accountability and stability had real meaning—and that they applied to me. My world had opened up and I was no longer the center of it. I think that the same thing is happening to today’s thirty-somethings who are now accoutered with a mortgage, children and other responsibilities.

To borrow a phrase from my youth, I think, “the kids are alright.” This young, maturing generation is made up of passionate, purposeful and highly intelligent men and women who are not just tech literate, but tech natives who are wonderfully equipped to make good use of the most innovative technologies. It’s as if mobile, cloud and social technologies are not simply tools, but rather an extension of their biological nervous system—embedded in that complex network of nerves and cells that carries messages to and from the brain.

During the time I taught at cca, I quickly learned that my design students could master any software almost immediately. There was no learning curve. A student with no prior skills in Photoshop or InDesign would simply say, “I’ll figure it out.” He or she was not at all intimidated by the technology—no more so than learning to wield a pencil. The current crop of young people has an intuitive grasp of the tools of connectivity and, happily, a hunger for purpose and innovation. They comprise a workforce that’s adaptive and aspirational; serious about engaging in meaningful work for companies that live up to their stated mission and values.

In 2016, Business Insider surveyed a number of Apple employees, who reported that they liked working at Apple because, “the work environment is more mature….” To quote one individual, “There are no “Nerf guns” or “slackers.” Employees also noted that Apple employees get to work with “really, really smart people” and are given a great deal of autonomy, the “freedom to do their work.” [02] In other words, they are treated like adults. Not surprisingly, another reason employees want to work at Apple is the feeling that you have a chance to do something big, to be a part of the company’s mission, as once stated by Steve Jobs, to “make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.”

Almost everyone can remember having had tastes that have changed with growth, education and experience. And naturally, many formative companies started out as bring-your-own computer enterprises in spaces the size of a shoebox—or a garage—haphazardly furnished with quirky odds and ends. But for too long, tech-chic resulted in offices reminiscent of a college dorm or frat house. At the same time, start-ups sold employees on a culture of “cool” complete with bean-bag chairs, foosball tables and free food and drink to counteract long, late hours cranking out code. But as people mature, ambitions change, and there comes a time when one doesn’t want to be at the office 24/7, even if there’s volleyball court and a rooftop bar. Smart companies are no longer making an ethos of adolescence. And office design is becoming more thoughtful and considered about how to create a work environment that people can feel good in—and do good work, too.

I am not the only person to observe that there seems to be a new direction in office culture and office design. “Tech companies are growing up,” echoes Heather Nevin, regional director of Gensler’s technology practice. Companies are becoming more thoughtful about giving workers “meaningful choices” that go a long way towards keeping people happy and productive at work. Office design can still speak to a culture of creativity and cool. It can say, “we’re communal, we’re energetic, but we no longer fly by the seat of our pants. We’re serious about our mission and you should be, too.” 

On a recent trip to New York, I had the chance to talk with a number of interior designers and architects about changes they have observed in office design. Almost all reported a preference for a quieter palette — dove grey and charcoal grey — and other neutrals that have a calming effect. No more pops of color. Why this change? The modern, open office is often buzzing, creating an uncomfortable sensory overload and, as a result, designers are looking for ways to “quiet” the space through more subdued colors, greater simplicity and a calming sense of order. The intent is to create a backdrop conducive to focus or conversation—neither distracting nor dull.

Uber is a generation younger than Apple (by 33 years), but this “start-up” now operates in 400 cities and 58 countries and the company is equally serious about its “disruptive” brand—a stance reflected in the semiotics of its San Francisco headquarters. As the designer of Uber’s vast office space, Primo Orpilla, principal of O+A, makes clear that Uber’s striking interiors “reflect the maturation of a start-up.” If one takes a look at the gleaming black walls, veined marble, weathered maple and polished copper, the materiality alone speaks not only to money spent, but also to an intention to create an extraordinarily rich experience aligned with Uber’s “ethos of populist luxury.” The space expresses and celebrates the values of the company in a tangible way—and seduces and inspires any visitor.

Today, the work culture and the physical work space itself, has to be engaging and interesting—not in a superficial way, but in an authentic and meaningful way. If a company is looking to attract bright, committed employees, it has to stand for something that people can embrace; it has to offer a work experience that is more than simply transactional; it has to recognize the significance of architecture and design, the idea that we feel and behave differently in different spaces, that, in fact we become different people in different places—happy or unhappy, creative or stultified.

Happiness is important to the Millennial generation. It’s an important life goal. Speaking for my own generation, most of us wanted to get a good job or succeed in a career that we planned on pursuing for a lifetime. This younger generation is looking for more out of work than a job. Work needs to be a place to create, learn and grow—and workers are willing to scout around and move on to find employment that resonates with their own priorities.

"In 2016, office design grew up and put on a tie."
-Diana Budds, Fast Company

As one matures, a work/life balance takes its place among one’s ambitions. And achieving that goal has become a challenge as people work longer hours than in previous generations. This has been especially true in the tech industry, which is notorious for applying pressure to work marathon, coffee-fueled days and to stay connected 24/7. As compensation for their endurance, employees get a concierge service, on-site chiropractor and a game room. European companies take a different approach, promoting happiness with benefits like 30 days of guaranteed vacation time, universal childcare and other humane practices. A few U.S.-based tech companies, like Adobe and Genentech, now offer five and six-week sabbaticals in addition to vacation time—although only every four or five years.

This renewed respect for the human element has a parallel in the Maker movement. I think that this recent phenomenon is less a collective nostalgia than it is a new way of doing traditional things, a renewal of craft in a contemporary context. Making is a way to reconnect to fundamental experiences, to design, tinker, build and invent using traditional tools—or, to design, prototype and make using a laser cutter and 3d printer.

Some of the great architects and designers of the 20th century—and the 21st—have honored both tradition and technology. Alvar Aalto applied the advanced manufacturing technologies of his time to organic materials, notably to wood, to make “simple, good, undecorated things…that are in harmony with the human being.” More recently, Antonio Citterio combines natural and high-tech materials, 19th century forms with neo-modern shapes, endowing objects with an ageless quality by keeping technology in touch with craft.

Traditionally, the design studio itself has had a look and feel much like what is now considered the modern office. Design has always been a highly collaborative process. Disciplines and functions overlap. And speaking for my own studio, we take our work seriously. There’s a lot of camaraderie—and a lot of very focused, creative work that gets done. In other fields, this co-creative protocol may represent a radical new style of working, but it is familiar among designers, including veterans like myself who started out using pencils, exacto blades, glue and paste-up boards before everyone hopped on the digital bandwagon. You could say we were makers.

We’ve returned to the subject of continuums—or, at the very least, arrived back at the ways that the past informs the present. And, I am foolish enough, in spite of everything, to subscribe to a hopeful and even optimistic view of the future. I see an intelligent, idealistic generation on the threshold of maturity, along with companies attending to enduring human values and design that is engendering a work environment that takes account of how directly design touches us, how subtly it evokes emotion. In an ideal future, all the spaces we enter and use will offer a physical, intellectual and emotional experience that is appropriate and perhaps memorable. It begins here and now.

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


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