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Stand Out

By Janet Liao

The business of design may be second nature to you, but mind-reading surely isn’t your business, especially when it comes to predicting the hidden motivations and priorities of potential clients. As a designer striving to improve the quality of the profession and better satisfy customers, you must get inside the C-suite thought-process to differentiate yourself and your work. Are you presenting the right information? And are you conveying it in the right way?

Perspective assembled a roundtable of design end users — representing the corporate, residential, hospitality and healthcare fields — to answer these need-to-know questions:

During the design firm selection process, what information are you most interested in receiving from designers?
Deborah M. Kuo: When we went through the process of selecting a design team for our new headquarters, naturally we didn’t have a whole lot of information in terms of costs or materials or anything that could be of real use to the prospective design team. [Exelon recently consolidated its Chicago locations in a landmark building with 220,000 square feet of office space on 10 floors. The building, designed by Chicago-based Interior Space International (ISI), part of A. Epstein, is LEED-CI Platinum certified.]

So as we looked at how they were presenting to us and what they were presenting to us, a lot of it had to do with their approach. One of the major things we focused on was the designers’ methodology used to come up with the design concepts that ultimately get implemented. As a very large company, we pay a lot of attention to approach, methodology and process. So having a design team on board that either thinks along those same lines or that has a proven methodology for delivering successful designs — and ultimately implementations — is key.

Iñigo Ardid: For us, the most important aspect when someone is pitching a project to us is enthusiasm — that they know the project, that they have a lot of ideas and that they are easy to work with when you give them recommendations.

Through designers’ presentations, we want to see their creativity and their desire to create something different and something that hasn’t been seen before — something that pushes the envelope.

Cheryl Herbert: The overall deciding factor when we chose the design firm for Dublin Methodist was chemistry. [The newly constructed Dublin Methodist Hospital designed by Columbus, Ohio-based Karlsberger will open in 2008. It has teamed with The Center for Health Design to research how design affects staff turnover and patient care.] We chose a firm we thought would work well with us. We felt the mix of personalities on the design team matched the personalities of those working on our side.

Where does personality fit into the mix for everyone else? Would you ever consider hiring a designer with whom you had no chemistry?
Kuo: The personality of the team is very important, especially on a large project because you’re basically living with them. For our headquarters project, it was two years from the time the team started the design to the time we finished the construction. It’s hard to judge chemistry based on a couple of meetings, but certainly you want to have some level of comfort that this is a group of people with whom you’ll be able to work through issues and solve problems over the long run.
Iñigo Ardid is Vice President of Key International, a real estate investment company in Miami that specializes in high-end residential and commercial facilities. He has been involved with projects such as the South Beach Marriott; the Ivy, a 45-story glass tower designed by architect Luis Revuelta; and Mint, a riverfront condominium that began in the fall of 2006.

Iñigo, has there ever been an instance where the chemistry was lacking and you had to pass over a good design firm based on personality conflicts?
Ardid: Yes, that happens. Because our designers must integrate with our sales and marketing team, there must be good chemistry there. During the project, you don’t have time to waste arguing. Our sales and marketing team is the same from project to project. And we switch design firms a lot — just to get a different look for every project.

Herbert: In reality, it’s all about the personality of the individual designers more so than it is about the firm’s reputation. If someone has a bad experience with an individual from [a particular] design or architectural firm, then they’ll automatically say that firm is a bad one. And that’s not necessarily the case. I don’t pay enormous attention to a firm’s reputation unless there’s overwhelming evidence against it. I don’t put a lot of stock in anecdotal feedback.

How important is it that designers have done their homework and understand your business and the project?
Ardid: It’s very important for us. I want to work with people who really want to work with me. And designers? Those who come in prepared, you know they want the job. They have to be aiming to impress you from day one.

Cheryl Herbert began her career as a registered nurse and has worked in healthcare management for more than 20 years. She obtained an MBA from Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. In 1998, Herbert joined OhioHealth in Columbus, and over the next five years, she provided administrative oversight for multi-million-dollar construction projects at two of the system’s outlying hospitals. In March 2004, she was chosen to head planning efforts for Dublin Methodist Hospital in Dublin, Ohio.

Design is a process, and a lot of times it takes several rounds before the final plan is in place. If you don’t have someone who starts off with a lot of enthusiasm and passion, which I think goes hand-in-hand with creativity, you’re never going to get to the end result with them.

Kuo: I would agree with that. I also think you can put a lot of time and effort into a presentation, but you really have to make sure you know to whom you’re presenting.

For our headquarters, in my mind, there were two firms that were head-to-head. They both approached their presentations very differently. They were both very impressive. In hindsight, it demonstrated to me that as a designer, you really need to understand who your audience is and who the major decision-maker is going to be.

One team did a CAD presentation with a virtual tour of how the members envisioned our new space. The other team brought a more traditional presentation — the board with hand sketches and sample materials that you could touch. The design concepts were different and impressive — there’s no question. But the audience they were presenting to felt more comfortable with one version versus the other. Had both firms taken the same approach, the outcome may have been different.

Ardid: Definitely know the company to which you’re presenting. And identify the person who makes decisions concerning design. Usually there will be one or two people who feel very strongly about design in the company. As a designer, try to quickly determine who those people are.

Herbert: For me, it’s a mix of bringing in new ideas and understanding what we as a company are trying to accomplish. It’s important to know the design team is listening to you while they’re presenting to you. They have to understand our goals and objectives and present ideas about how they can help us achieve them. While it’s important for them to have a healthcare background, I don’t necessarily need to know all of the details of other healthcare projects they’ve completed. I want to see how they can take past successes and apply them to what we want to do.

Is it mandatory that a firm have ample experience in your particular industry?
Herbert: We have a very strong bias for firms with healthcare backgrounds, mainly because healthcare is such a complex world to work in. You have to know what’s going on to work in a healthcare facility.

Deborah M. Kuo is Director of Real Estate for Exelon Corp., an electric utility and generation company based in Chicago. She is responsible for portfolio strategy, asset and transactions management, lease/records administration, occupancy management, property management and property tax management. Before joining Exelon, Kuo advised corporate real estate organizations as a Senior Manager with Deloitte.

Kuo: I think it’s important to make sure we choose a team that’s experienced with the type of project we’re contemplating. Ultimately, that’s what definitely gets you to the table. And that’s what keeps you at the table.
When we chose the firm for our new headquarters, finding someone with a portfolio of green projects was a huge consideration. Because we began the selection process three years ago, there weren’t as many firms with this type of experience as there are today. As we went through our qualification process, we tried to identify firms with some level of experience with the kind of project we were trying to deliver. If they didn’t necessarily have the depth of experience, then we made sure they assembled a team that could round out the areas of their weakness.

Herbert: During the selection process, finding a firm that was an advocate for evidence-based design [making choices framed around the best available research] wasn’t on our minds. But if I were to do another project, I would be looking for a firm that really got it. Some firms will tell you they use evidence-based design, but you have to do some work to tell if they really understand what that means. That would be one of the top factors.

Kuo: Firms stand out when they can give you information not only based on their own experience, but based on reaching out to other firms and conducting independent research. It’s helpful to know benchmarking information — where corporate end users are going and what results they’re seeing. If we can apply that research into our space, that’s absolutely valuable.