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VIII.1 Jan-Feb, 2001
Page: 23
Digital Citation

Design: Building vocal space: expressing identity in the radically collaborative workplace


Authors:
Kate Ehrlich, Austin Henderson

Editor: Tell me about the design of the current office space. What are some of the design innovations people are most likely to notice.

Marylyn. Bob Gett, Viant’s CEO, proposed our current model. Bob’s concept was based on his vision for Viant, a professional services company, to be organized around a team-based, non-hierarchical and egalitarian philosophy. The space reflects the culture of our organization. It is based on an open office plan with many adjacent meeting rooms. The plan provides clear views of the office and lots of flexibility. Desks can be reconfigured based on project work and expanded or contracted based on team needs. There is a sense of being able to be part of everything that is going on. Conference rooms have glass walls so meetings and their participants are visually accessible. Sliding glass doors provide an ability to gain access by degree; there is a sense of feeling free to join in. There is a central kitchen and eating area that is a social gathering place and an area for serendipitous knowledge exchange.

Hani. Conference rooms are typically arranged along a path. Those very clear representations of a path, exposes the person walking along the path to the majority of the conference rooms. The purpose is to make visible upon arrival, the teams that are working together.

Editor: Did you involve users in the design process? How? What did the process tell you?

Marylyn. Users were involved right from the get go. We did a round of workshops to understand the needs of teams. We also did a company wide on-line survey to learn how individuals felt about the workspace. We had an impressive response rate of over 60 percent to the survey.

Hani. It was a lengthy and thorough survey. We left open channels for people to communicate with us at any time about spaces they had seen. We read each and every suggestion and used it to explain our needs to the architects. We were like the channel to the architect.

Marylyn. All the new offices will begin with an in-office kick off where wish lists are developed and team needs are understood and captured.

Hani. We did an analysis to gauge where people were at any given moment in terms of how space was being used. We tracked people at 1/2-hour intervals by asking them to keep a diary. People spent much more time at their desk—about 60 percent—than they perceived or than we previously thought. Although people are highly mobile; what we discovered is that in the existing Viant space the teaming needs were focused on the conference needs. We needed to bring a greater sense of identity to the teams.

Hani. The way space design now celebrates teams, sends a message that the company revolves around teamwork. What this survey told us was that while that was a positive thing, people needed to identify with their teams through other means and other kinds of work places. That led to the development of the "heads down" spaces, informal lounges, and loose conference rooms with multiple settings within them.

Editor: What works and what doesn’t work about the current design? How are you building on and expanding these earlier ideas?

Hani. What the survey very much captured and what we instinctively believe, is that people need a variety of work settings to support various needs. This was expressed as a need for a place to get away to do some focused activity but to stay within the crowd. Although they wanted privacy they didn’t want to be cocooned. Looking for a place within the crowd where they could shut themselves out.

The other thing that came out was the war room. On further investigation we tried to understand where that came from. Is it to lock up stuff, be dedicated to the team and identify with the project as it progresses, or to proudly display work or as an area for privacy for the team. Our solution for the war room was threefold.

  1. Better use of the walls we have today either by putting whiteboard on them or organizing team parts, a projection wall for hanging up work. We want to use the wall as an architectural feature.
  2. Use columns. We are looking at columns as a place to store foam core sheets that teams currently use to hang up designs they are working on and to use the outer casing as another display area, like we have in the innovation area, where it is quite attractive.
  3. Design a custom piece of furniture that allows the constant display of information for the team. Like an easel but more of a museum display unit. When the top surface is tilted it displays information. People work on it when standing. At the same time it doesn’t obstruct views across the space; it is horizontal not vertical.

However, we feel that the cry we are hearing is that teams need a way to express identity in big open environments, to define territory, even if temporarily. A sense of pride and belonging comes from the psychology of display allegiance; all of these are ways to do it. Spatially we can provide multiple work settings where this work can go on. But it is up to each office to develop its own protocols for how teams use the war rooms and conference rooms.

Now that there are three to four kinds of areas where people can meet, the conference rooms themselves with desks and fancy chairs may not be as appealing as a lounge. A team can occupy a conference room over a period of time because no one is interested. In this way we are responding to a need without dictating the solution. Right now people have to be in a conference room because there is no other option available.

Marylyn. We are changing people’s experience of the space starting with the lobby. We looked at how people use the lobby over the course of a day and saw peaks in the morning and evening. It was not really used as a space for gathering. Rather than a lobby space, which has a gatekeeper kind of function with a looming receptionist desk, we are creating an active space that is more like a hotel than a corporate lobby. There is seating for groups of people, not just single chairs for tense recruits, but people actually sitting and meeting. There is a communal table and juice bar which gives access to food and beverages, for sitting down and collaborating, a resource area like a library to borrow books about our industry. There is an area for interactive media where we’ve instituted collaborative relationships with artists both inside Viant and from the local community. There are also installations that give access to what is happening in other parts of the office and other offices. In this way people are encouraged to use the lobby as a place to gather and interact rather than just a waiting space.

Hani. In the lobby we are introducing mailboxes to identify people. So when you walk in you feel proud to be a member of the team. There will be a multimedia display with a creative way of displaying peoples’ names. The sense of belonging and permanence has to happen in the entry threshold. So when you come in you instantly feel like you belong.

We will introduce texture, color and options for every employee and curvature to furniture so that there is a more ergonomic feel. We are looking for systems that will allow people to personalize their workstation by having a rack or panel that is integrated with the desk rather than with the floor. We have eradicated the low partitions and made them part of the desk where people can use them to put up stuff.

We are investigating what we call a "heads down" room. We appreciate and understand what Dorothy Leonard called the incubation phase in the creative process and we listened to the majority of people who said they need a way to get away from the openness. Heads down rooms are basically designed for those moments when people need to focus, to stay with the crowd but get away, to have visual connection and privacy control—be encouraged to participate rather than be in a cocoon. Heads down rooms can double as spaces for interviews, so they need a special appeal that reflects the Viant culture. Rooms are designed to be attractive and comfortable for two people. They are furnished with an eclectic assortment of proposed comfort and efficiency objects like, sand floor, lounge chair, fish tank, refrigerator, lava lamp which have been chosen randomly from the wish lists for the office.

Editor: How do you think the new design differs from other contemporary space design? What is unique?

Marylyn. What is most unusual is that we are designing a space that reflects a culture that already exists rather than using the space to create culture.

The space we are designing on the West Coast is by itself a very dynamic space. We have worked closely within the dictates of that space to come up with something that is inventive both visually and experientially. We used space sculpturally, as well as making it work practically and functionally. For example, several of the conference rooms are dual levels so we have the ability to have a meeting on top of an existing space that gives a view of the surrounding area. As people spend more time at work and strive to be highly inventive in their work environment, we know that having diverse contexts encourages individual creativity. There are lots of spaces that will appeal to different personalities and needs.

Hani. The approach we took is quite different because of the dynamics of teams. We are steeped in architecture and art and understand the construction process and how, at a fundamental level, the Internet economy is changing the way we work. We wanted to challenge the status quo while drawing from rich knowledge. We didn’t want to be iconoclastic but didn’t want to presume. What is unique is our radically collaborative culture. The way we differ is that while we value the aesthetics, we wanted to create an environment that supports the creative process. One of our insights is that furniture is not mobile but people are. So we provide multiple work settings even within the same room.

We are inspired by a hotel lobby to rethink the entry experience for every employee and visitor. We emphasize form not because of an aesthetic but because we want the experience itself to be rewarding. For example, while some may use terms such as a media wall, at Viant what is important to us is that the media wall supports the culture. Our media wall is a wall of faces that are integrated into the design of the mailboxes. It reminds people checking their mail of others in the company—from across the company, not just that local office. The media wall is not just a visual model but part and parcel of an experience that raises awareness of your colleagues. It has a social function in addition to the visual and technological function. So for us it is the physical, social and technological perspectives, which are integrated in the end.

Editor: How do you see the relationship between space design and organizational design? Is there any connection? Should there be?

Marylyn. The CEO based on his vision of an egalitarian, scalable, professional services organization, proposed the design of the existing space to the architects. The element we are expanding on is the notion of innovation in the company. We are not designing the space to make the company more innovative; the innovation is there. We are creating an environment, which will enhance the flow of invention.

Hani. The organizational space is tightly linked to the physical space. A successful business environment reflects faithfully the culture of that environment. At Viant, we are integrating the social functions, the physical expression of them, with a seamless technology infrastructure. Whereas Viant was founded on a strong collaborative culture, the challenge has been to find architectural solutions that are equally rich.

Chiat/Day, for example, designed by Gehry in the 80s and, based on the whim of Jay Chiat, introduced the idea of hot desking. No one was assigned a desk, you got your equipment and chose your desk on a first come first serve basis. It was an enlightened approach because it was supposed to create an egalitarian culture. Architects support that behavior in the hope that such an environment with multiple work settings and wacky aesthetics will encourage people to behave in an egalitarian way. But what is interesting is that while the space was completely redesigned the organization was fundamentally not. According to John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in their book, The Social Life of Information, it turned out that the hierarchical structure at Chiat/Day manifested itself in the most negative light to the point where the executives were calling their assistant to come in early to reserve their space. So it turned out that people with the highest pull were able to get the best space and people were actually clamoring and competing and had become territorial to the demise of this approach. The point is that while the physical change happened, the organizational change did not reflect it. It was an artificial imposition to an established culture. So for a business environment to succeed it has to go hand in hand and be faithful and receptive to the reality of the organization culture.

Editor: Hani and Marylyn, you have both been very actively involved in designing the space for the new Viant offices. How and why did you get involved?

Marylyn. It was a very natural evolution for both of us. My background is as a visual artist. I’ve produced over 20 public installations and public sculptures and commissions worldwide. I taught a course in architectural installations at Parsons for many years as well as being the founder and developer of several artists loft spaces. I also had my own digital design and development company before joining Viant, so it was a natural evolution to be involved in the space design process at Viant. There was also a desire on the CEO’s part to have us provide the internal creative and aesthetic input into the design process.

Hani. In my case it was sensing opportunity and urgency for an overall design strategy that would preserve the culture of the company. Basically the CEO entrusted both Marylyn and I to develop a strategic vision for the Viant work and environment. Having worked for nine years as an architect in the Boston area in various roles, working for boutique architectural shops or having my own firm doing urban design consulting and studied with Rem Koolhaas at Harvard and understanding the importance of rigor in conceptual thinking in good design, I applied that design to Viant. I joined Viant as a creative consultant, a designer, not as an architect. Because of the open culture I was able to articulate the need and lead the effort to make that need visible.

Editor: Tell me something about how you look at space. What do you see in the existing empty spaces, for instance?

Marylyn. I relied upon my intuitive sculptural sense when we did a site visit on the West Coast. It is a very dramatic open space with double vaulted columnless space (50,000 square feet), which called for a three-dimensional approach. Something we brought to this project was passion and a visceral sense of how space is to be experienced from an artistic and user sense. We included volumetric shapes and natural light into this huge space. In many ways I drew on my experience as a sculptor.

Hani. My approach is to postpone judgment on form. What I am looking for is the thinking behind it. What is the message that the space is communicating? How is the space made coherent? How is it rigorously built into the process? How do the details, say of the glass joints, reflect the thinking? The space forms have to be beautiful, but the logic has to be beautiful too.

Marylyn. You were focused on what was there. I was focused on what was not there. Which was how we got into this thing of needing a wall that was there with a wall that wasn’t. When we came together it was so powerful.

Hani. What you brought was an element of emotional connection to the place and what I was adding was intellectual rigor, which was why the architect was so attentive to our need. They saw this as an opportunity to do something they have never done before.

Editor: Whose work do you admire and why?

Marylyn. Andy Goldsworthy, James Turrell, Bill Viola and Robert Irwin are artists for whom context is extremely important and who use untraditional, often ephemeral, materials. The medium and sense of place provide unexpected pleasures, which are dynamic and engage the audience on many levels. The active involvement with the viewer is the kind of interaction we are looking for with the media technology we are installing.

Hani. I admire the work of Rem Koolhaas with whom I studied at Harvard. We actually used some of his approaches for urban design for the design of the West Coast office, which required programmatic invention like the lobby. We especially looked to his thinking of various functions as horizontal layers, which we used to break up the functions. It is a seemingly rational and scientific approach to determining the most primordial choices. For instance going in with a light meter and measuring the light and placing skylights in darkest areas helped us understand where were the governing clusters. This had huge architectural implications. The layers also juxtaposed all the information together to create a richly programmed environment with unprecedented intersections. The layers are consistent with Viant’s horizontal approach—by combining layers we get intersections in unexpected places, which is where invention happens. Designing by layers becomes very interesting. It is a methodology Rem Koolhaas developed that is appropriate for Viant’s structure. Obviously, I am also influenced by the architecture of Philippe Starck. I am convinced that the best architects are those who do not see themselves as such, so they can transgress the boundaries. In fact, while on the West Coast, we took the entire design team to experience Starck’s Mondrian Hotel, and drew a lot of lessons, especially in the social power of his work. What’s is remarkable is that his work is driven by a social agenda. Sure, the forms are beautiful, but the meaning lies not necessarily in the story that he is telling, but in your reaction to that constructed fiction.

Authors

Design Column Editors

Kate Ehrlich
Viant
89 South St, 2nd Floor
Boston MA 02111
(617) 531-3700
kehrlich@viant.com

Austin Henderson
Rivendel Consulting & Design, Inc.
P.O. Box 334
8115 La Honda Rd. (for courier services)
La Honda, CA 94020 USA
+1-650-747-9201
fax: +1-650-747-0467
henderson@rivcons.com
www.rivcons.com

Figures

UF1Figure. In all the Viant offices, the transparent conference rooms are arranged along a path, so that at any moment, you are aware of what teams are doing, and are encouraged to participate. Gensler, architectural design. David Wakely, photographer.

UF2Figure. We focused on bringing back identity to a radically collaborative environment. We are addressing the need for expression at an individual, team, and office level. This matrix provides nine areas to focus our architectural solutions, which will result in rethinking, inventing, and building on what we found out in the surveys and focus groups.

UF3Figure. The lobby typically is a transition space, where there are peaks of activity when people walk in and out of the office. We are interested in making the lobby a destination, and are inserting inventive programs in traditionally iconic space. We see this as an opportunity to rethink the lobby experience so that people actually use it as a work setting, and ensure that there is activity throughout the day, rather than be symbolic of power and control.

UF4Figure. A surreal approach to furnishing the "heads down" rooms, where we ask the local employees to list things they need around them when they are working intently. We pick and choose at random three items from each column. The result is a beautiful and unique set of rooms that whimsically represent extreme diversity and are themselves a physical manifestation of the brainstorming process. Furniture: Luminaire.

UF5Figure. By breaking out the various elements on separate layers, and designing them with their own integrity, the design solution emerged from the simple act of collapsing these layers on top of each other. We could not have imagined the beautiful results had we been more deliberate in our approach. The most exciting moments are those when there are unexpected intersections of forms and programs that we couldn’t have thought of on our own.

©2001 ACM  1072-5220/01/0100  $5.00

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