MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

Where architects may fail – and how to avoid it

photo by hoanmy1 via by Jim Meredith

We had a conversation recently about a project to design the new workplace for a large engineering company. I asked a young architect on the project about how the proposed design might affect the experience of the people who would be working there. He answered. "I don't know. I am not an engineer."

Every day architects design buildings by translating the client's program of functional and spatial requirements into form. Every day that a building is finished, it opens its doors to a lifetime of experiences for those who enter it but it without architects ever having thought about those experiences.

There are layers and layers of factors explaining why architects work in separation from the experience of the people they design for – the way the history of the art is told, the focus of architectural education, the nature of practice, the client's project managers, tight fees, architect-led architectural awards programs, and more. The result is that the work of the architect is devalued in the eyes of the client, and the principal value that the architect measures is his own experience, his personal pleasure with a satisfying composition and the accolades of his peers.

There are signs of change in a number of architectural firms, however. Having discovered that immersion in the client's life actually helps define a better problem statement for design and a more satisfying design result, these firms are incorporating methods and toolsets borrowed from the world of product design, a place usually more attentive to the value of great experiences. These tools include ethnographic observations, surveys, diagonal organizational interviews, focus group workshops, scenario planning, and visioning sessions. The more of these that are brought to the project, the deeper the understanding of the problem to be solved and, more significantly, the more hard data and anecdotal information to inform the designer of the lives she is affecting through her design.

For the engineering firm's project, the next tool the architect uses might be the development of "avatars" or "personas." These are pictorial, narrative and graphical depictions of individuals who will work and live in what the architects design. As an example, a product development engineer might be represented by his age, background, ethnicity and role as a way of getting to characterizations of generation, culture, workstyles and interests. His avatar might be expanded by graphical profiles of how and where he spends his day to uncover patterns of solo work, group work, workplace socialization, learning from others and coaching others, his internal and external networks, and how he connects to the larger world in which his products exist. The avatar might also depict some of the unique events in his work life including special projects, challenges, searches and accomplishments.

In a recent design charrette on a similar project, I asked that the team not use any term that currently defines the components of the workplace. I wanted to avoid using labels like office, conference room, workstation, lab, workshop, or cafe because each of these has such embedded formal language that we end up simply styling the artifacts of the workplace rather than critically designing for its experiences. When we instead describe the space by articulating the activities and interactions of the representative avatars and how we can respond to their needs, we then design more openly and completely. We design, in other words, in thoughtful connection with the experiences of the users of the building. The result for us, and for our client, was a new type of space designed to foster a transformation in the culture, behaviors, interactions and performance of the organization and its people.

Using these and other methods, that young architect with the engineering firm's project can now have a rich depiction of the life of the engineer for whom he designs. He'll now able to stand confidently in front of his client and connect every design move he makes to how it may improve the value of that company's work and the quality of the experiences of its people.

And, if he later obtains an award from his peers, it will be because of the innovations that were derived from a deep understanding of the experiences of those who will be drawn to work in the places and spaces he designed.