For me the next question that then follows, if our clients do see interior design (or architecture) as a product, or if we do, is that a problem anyway, and does it change the way we design?Last time I wrote I compared some aspects of the workplace to a Chanel handbag, but it wasn’t actually connected thoughts that lead to these questions and title of today’s post. The musings in this post are based upon some comments at Sydney Indesign’s WorkLife day held recently as part of the new and expanded design festival that used to be Saturday InDesign (for some highlights of the more traditional showroom side of the event, visit yellowtrace). The WorkLife day was subtitled with what has become the most popular seminar/talk theme this year – of course it was “The Future of the Workspace”. It was the third event this year I have attended with a similar title (and I missed the recent similar event hekd at the Museum of Sydney – which despite being over $400 for the day apparently sold out). I’m very pleased to see so much focus, discussion and education happening around workplace design in Australia right now, and I thought that having a more formal program alongside the indesign showroom and exhibition event was a great idea. I will say though whoever holds the next workplace design seminar probably needs to think of a different title – I will suggest you could use the “trend” key words collaboration, serendipity and authenticity instead perhaps? Certainly if you are directing your message at an industry crowd.
The format of the day was a series of 4 panel talks with time in between for networking and exploring the exhibition hub of Sydney Indesign – Galleria (at Australia Technology Park, Eveleigh). Whilst the amount of time for the sessions was fine for panel talks (around 45 mins), I felt that towards the end of the day the panels were losing focus and perhaps we could have gotten more out of the day with more prepared presentations or specific project images and discussion, in order to give the panels more to focus on. The line up of Australian interior designers and other workplace consultants was impressive including team members from most of the large ABW projects completed here in the last 10 years or so. (For the full program see the WorkLife website) Paul McGillick from Indesign did do a good job at keeping the panel members talking and trying to get contributions from everyone involved, but there are times when even the best moderators can’t stop those determined to put out their own message (We don’t really want to be sold product at these kind of events). The format of the event didn’t really lend itself to a narrative blog post summarizing each speaker and so I’ve been pondering over the last week in what format I would share it with you.
In the end, one of the discussions that has stuck in my mind the most, was during the first session of the day – “Who’s Afraid of ABW – Is the Party Over?” – with Matthew Blain (HASSELL), Rosemary Kirkby (formerly MLC, NAB & GPT) & Stephen Minnett (Futurespace). It was Rosemary who raised the suggestion that there is a danger that the term Activity Based Working has now in Australia become popularized and many organisations wanting to define themselves as progressive will start to say to their designers – yes I’ll have one of those thanks. Stephen agreed seeing that we are in danger of jumping to another stereotype. The old stereotype was open plan workstations, low partitions and a breakout area with “kindergarten furniture”. He believes that ABW will fail if done as a copy paste, within conventuals time frames without engaging with business leaders and HR. It will fail if drive by the “wombats” in FM and procurement. (I loved this comment and was very tempted to use a wombat image for this post – and in case there are any of you in FM and procurement reading – I would say the fact you are reading a blog about interior design means you can rest assured that you are not one of the wombats).
It is really from these points that my own thought process starts to take over, influenced by other comments and discussions throughout the day as well as my own experiences with clients and designers. At some level, no matter how we feel about it, I believe design is a product. Particularly to our clients. Our clients are engaging us to provide solutions to their problems – and at the end of the day – more often that it these solutions are physical spaces. This is partly because of the procurement process – if we don’t provide a physical space we don’t earn fees, but it is also because that is what we are trained in, and what we know. Sometimes as interior designers and architects we can make the mistake of thinking that design can lead a greater program of change, be that at the office of the city level. I going to be bold and say, it can’t. It can’t lead such processes, but it can be a key part of successful change. We as interior designers don’t have the business background or the necessary skills to lead our clients in changing their workplaces or their technology. If at the end of the day, they don’t engage in the idea that ABW is about their business processes at a much bigger level than just a new office – we can’t make them. As designers, we can’t change their IT systems or their management structures, or their workplace culture. We can educate and influence them perhaps, but they need to come to the party (and bring their whole management team, HR,IT, FM and the rest along with them) if they want a successful ABW solution.
Like Le Corbusiers Unité d’Habitation which inspired so many inferior copies that became the model for apartment slums, are we in danger of the same thing occurring with ABW offices – design solutions which take the physical appearances and funky furniture settings of ABW environments – but not the business change, the use data and the problem solving behind the design. Will these be the workplace slums of the future (this is an idea I’ve had tucked away for ages and had been looking for the right blog post to share it in!) I guess the real question could be, is that any worse or any different to how workplaces are designed today? As Stephen point out, ABW could be next in an already long line of trends.
I thinks perhaps this is not so much a danger, as an opportunity. Yes, ABW could end up another trend, but this is perhaps more due to clients attitudes than things we as individual interior designers or architects can control. Our clients frequently treat workplace design as a product – separate from their business. So many of them do view it as “buying a new office”, a task best left to facilities and procurement – not HR and management. Perhaps sometimes it becomes something management wants to be involved in, and they start to treat it like buying a new car or their own home. Whenever we are engaged because we are the cheapest or because the client wants our practice for their name or their brand – we truly are a product. But to me, at our end, if our firms talk about”house styles” or we specify something just because no one else has it yet, we see ourselves as a product. If we don’t understand that our clients are buying a product and we give them what we think they need without questioning or engaging with them and their business needs, then we are giving them an inferior product. If though at the end of the day, we give them a design which meets their current perceived needs, then that’s ok too. That’s a product they want to buy. If we can work with them to deliver an amazing design solution that enhances wellbeing and productivity, it doesn’t matter if we call it ABW or something else, then that’s a great outcome, but at some level – it is still a product.
Being a product isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If its a crappily designed and produced product that people don’t enjoying using and want to send to landfill the next week, then yes it is a bad thing. But consider that the iPhone is a product too – and is both revolutionary and great design. I think I’d be happy if my next fitout was compared to an iPhone – wouldn’t you?
by i k o