A Sense of Place
Just recently Universal Mind’s Grand Rapids office not only moved their location but also had the opportunity to completely redesign the new space from scratch.
In our old space, there were no defining characteristics that gave it any sense of identity. For all intents and purposes, it was just an office. For the most part it felt a bit disorganized with no sense of aesthetic appeal or visual consistency, and the overarching flow of the space was not well considered. So when we were green lighted to move into a new space we had to make sure we didn’t fall into the same traps. The only way we could ensure this was to put a process together that made sense to us. This article is the byproduct of the process we went through in designing our new space.
The new redesign came with some interesting concessions. The first being that all the employees at this location would have to work from home for the better part of two and a half months. Seeing as how we were born as a digital company, most people were already comfortable working from coffee shops, local eateries, and out of their homes. Another concession was that we were told that we (people from the Grand Rapids office) had to design the entire space ourselves — a serious design challenge put in front of a group of people that, for all intents and purposes, never had “interior designer” as a bulleted item on their resume. And if that wasn’t enough, we scheduled an ‘invite only’ open house party to reintroduce Universal Mind to the greater Grand Rapids area which ultimately produced an unmovable panic induced deadline for our merry band of designers.
The focus of the UX (user experience) practice that we all belong to in the Grand Rapids office was a great mental model to introduce into our space planning process. After all, when you walk into a space, it’s all about the user(s) experience. What do they feel like when they walk into the space? What’s the flow? How is it organized? How does color help to guide the experience? How do you interact with the space? What are the visual artifacts that help give a user context? All of these are hallmarks of the user experience practice. So, we took off our digital hats for awhile and looked at the design of our new space as a UX problem that needed to be solved.
We broke the process into six parts.
- Flow diagrams
- Mood board
- Feedback and iteration
We first started with interviewing the Grand Rapids crew to get a sense of what worked in the old space and what they would like to see done better in the new. Immediately we began to see patterns emerge as the questions opened up a floodgate of opportunity. Here’s just a couple of the recurring themes that bubbled up to the surface through the interview process.
- We want it to feel “designed,” like creatives live here.
- We would like an area of the space to feel like a library or lounge so we can feel more at home and less at work.
- Can we devote some space to private rooms so we can individually have a place to take a call or disconnect if we want some ‘head down’ time?
- It would be great if we had the option to sit or stand at workstations.
- We want it to feel like the grown-up version of who Universal Mind is. Something more mature that we can all be happy with and want to spend time in.
The interview process, as it should, took bias out of the design process and gave focus to what was really important…the needs of the users.
After the interview process we synthesized our findings and then began to develop several architectural footprint concepts in order to get a sense of the possibilities and, as always, we validated all of our thinking and concepts with the team.
Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment… — Eliel Saarinen, Finnish architect 1873–1950
After several iterations, the architectural layout came together and more importantly, it took into account the needs and desires of those who would be inhabiting the space on a daily basis, myself included.
In order to really get a sense of the space, and in all honesty because we’ve never done this before, we took some of our old furniture and began to prototype out the space guided by our “approved” architectural concept. For us beginners in the interior design world, this gave us some much-needed perspective related to scale as well as overall layout and placement of the furniture. And where there was no furniture, we took out our trusty tape measure and masking tape and began to block off areas of the space in order to get a more realistic footprint of the layout. Of course, it would have been much more efficient to use cardboard artifacts as a representation of furniture instead of tape based on how often we moved things around, but we’ll remember that for next time.
At this point, several team members came into the office and worked for a couple of days, just to see how the setup felt. What didn’t feel right? Should we move this over there instead? Should we turn that around to face this way? We did all of this as construction, painting, and several other renovations in the space were well underway.
In parallel to all the space prototyping and construction, we were in the throws of brainstorming the aesthetic vibe we wanted when you walked through the door. Because if you don’t get this right, there’s no do-over. This discipline of hunting and gathering furniture and office space pictures followed me around every waking second of every day for the better part of three months. I was constantly evaluating every space I entered to see what kind of furniture they had. Every show I watched, every website I looked at, every restaurant and coffee bar I entered, I looked at through the lens of furniture and overall aesthetic. It became such an obsession that advertisements for furniture began showing up on all my feeds and frequented websites. But this was one thing that had to be right. If the furniture fails to elicit a cohesive story or an emotional connection, then the entire experience falls short. Furniture is the catalyst for the entire experience in any given space and as famed German-American architect, Mies van der rohe states, “God is in the details.”
So how were we going to collect and organize our thoughts and ideas so these details wouldn’t be missed? Enter Pinterest!
In short order, we created a Pinterest board where we could “pin” furniture and offices spaces that we believed had something interesting to offer. At first, we were all over the place with what we liked. Some items were very industrial with bold levers, cranks, and pulley’s that would raise and lower the desks while others seemed ultra modern and bright and way over the top for our liking. After several weeks of exploration, we found ourselves adopting a mid-century modern aesthetic and suddenly our mood board had this cohesion and a look and feel that felt right for our space as well as for Universal Mind.
If you know anything about the furniture industry in Grand Rapids, Michigan, you know it is the furniture capital of the world and has deep roots in classic office furniture design. Knoll, Herman Miller, Steelcase, Haworth, Izzy Design and a myriad of others call West Michigan home. So with an office in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, you have to take extra precautions when adopting a more classic design approach because it’s in the very DNA of the people that live and work here. So the Pinterest mood board approach helped us to build cohesion visually amongst the various products that would be calling this space home.
At this point we really looked at ourselves as outside contractors and part of our process as a service provider is to invite the client into the conversation before we get too far down any one path. This ensures that we’re not too far off the mark from what they’re expecting and what we’re delivering. So we built out Keynote presentations that cataloged every room in the space with rough costs of each piece of furniture. In some cases, we even built out two concepts for the same room based on high and low budgets. This process helped us to collect items, present to the group, synthesize feedback, iterate, and pivot design and even costs — the iterative design process at its best.
Once we solidified the furniture details, we created a google doc that had every piece of furniture budgeted and itemized as well as contractor, shipping, and actual costs, accounted for. Then came the unnerving practice of actually having to purchase the furniture.
Buying furniture for your home is one thing, but when you’re playing with someone else’s money, the stakes get higher and the pressure of making the right decision becomes one worthy of cold sweats in the middle of the night.
Design in this context is a bit of a misnomer because most people view “design” of this nature with the aesthetic of the presentation but, for us, design was only a small piece of well-choreographed handoffs between finding furniture, ordering said furniture, tracking the shipment of an unreasonable amount of orders at the same time, waiting and waiting and waiting for the big day when a single box could “potentially” show up, being available on the delivery day even if that may be the day before they said it would be there, the day after, or sometime in the near or even distant future that may keep you guessing, having to build some of the furniture when it shows up, checking your inflow and outflow of dollars to make sure you’re not spending more than you have budgeted, then, and only then, when you’re out of energy and only days until the big open house, do you get to play designer again and organize the space as you’ve envisioned it for months.
At Universal Mind, it’s not a requirement to come into a physical office every day, even though we think what comes out of such a daily practice helps to create a sense of ownership and loyalty to not only the company but to one another. We learn better together, we collide with different perspectives, we strip away the seclusion of self by being inclusive of others, which garners a sense of belonging. We learn to communicate, play, inspire, and elicit new ways of thinking, doing, and making as we come together. Of course these all seem quite idealistic and somehow a utopian view of the workplace, but I’m a realist as well and fully understand that it’s not only this human interaction that imparts such noble feats of community but ultimately it’s the space itself that nurtures these interactions and helps to facilitate the ongoing conversations that inhabit our spaces.
There are a million different ways to look at your space and a million different processes to make it happen and what I’ve outlined here just happens to be the way we approached it. In the grand scheme of things, it really comes down to valuing your brand as well as your people, and not necessarily in that order.