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The Power to Innovate

By Steve Hendershot

Design, in its grandest sense, is practically a synonym for innovation. There is design and there is Design, and the latter is intrinsically innovative — it implies the vision and artistry of a skilled professional who sees what others cannot, creates beauty and function from shapelessness and obstruction, and helps others to express themselves in ways that those people would not have achieved on their own.

The power of design isn’t limited to the innovation of the designer, however. There is also the innovation of the user, the client, the “experiencer” of design. And while innovation isn’t always conveyed from one person to the next, it can be encouraged, it can be stimulated, it can be drawn out.

“Physical space, in and of itself, doesn’t bring about change. But it can get in the way. What that means is that you have to get the physical environment aligned with where you’re trying to go,” says Rick Perkins, Ideation Lead at Haworth, Inc., a workspace manufacturer based in Holland, Mich. “Physical space is one of the largest canvases we have to paint on, so it’s an important symbolic representation to your entire organization that ‘We’re trying to go here.’”

Industrial and Interior Designers have developed several strategies to help their corporate clients be more innovative. Those strategies range from creative thinking about offices and even the definition of a workspace, to applying design thinking to business problems — a strategy that can even benefit design firms themselves.


Not only are design firms and manufacturers confident they can help clients become creative and productive by equipping them with more collaborative work environments, but the clients themselves believe it, too. When the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based office furniture manufacturer Steelcase, Inc., launched a new line in 2008, it expected that the early adopters would be edgy companies such as Web startups or boutique ad agencies. Instead, Steelcase made early sales to a food chain and a financial services company, and those companies didn’t just want to purchase the products — they wanted capital-D Design.

“The recession has forced more and more companies to reevaluate their missions, and then they come to us and ask, ‘What models are working?’ They are open to innovation in the way they do business, and in turn that’s helping Steelcase reinvent itself as a strategic partner in helping these people to reinvent their companies,” says James Ludwig, Steelcase’s Global Vice President of Design.


In addition to building collaborative workspaces in offices, some designers are also focusing on creating more productive and distributive work environments — where some or all members of a team work in different locations. Because off-site work environments also require less workspace on a company’s main campus, and thus consume fewer resources, distributive work constitutes an efficient, sustainable practice that’s attractive to corporations.

“A lot of companies are discussing mobile work right now. The technology is there to enable it, it’s less expensive than it used to be, culturally it’s more acceptable, and organizations see the opportunity to reduce their real estate footprint,” says Jan Johnson, FIIDA, LEED AP, Vice President of Design and Workplace Resources for office manufacturer Allsteel, based in Muscatine, Iowa. “It’s a chance to be opportunistic — to see a cost reduction and also align your workplace strategy with how work is happening now, to make sure you’re supporting work in the best way possible.”

Perkins agrees, but also says that mobile work isn’t always conducive to innovation. For creative, team-based projects, he still prefers to get people together. “If my team is undertaking a complicated, we’ve-never-done-this-before type of project, that’s where I think co-location is more effective. The ability to come together, at least periodically, is powerful.”


Distributive work environments are just one example of sustainable design practices that can help businesses solve problems effectively and efficiently. Weetu, a multi-faceted Chicago design firm that specializes in interiors, architecture, branding and marketing, emphasizes energy-saving green-building features and paperless marketing solutions to its clients.

“Sustainability is always part of the equation in Weetu’s approach, as opposed to a specialty category. It’s not just about specifying eco-friendly materials or implementing a recycling program. It’s also about examining whether your business is running as effectively and efficiently as possible,” says Carly Cannell, Weetu’s President.

Sometimes creative sustainability means limiting the scope of a design project by emphasizing reuse.

“Sustainability issues are coming up on almost every project. With the recession, that often means companies want to reuse more of what they have and incorporate more of their existing furniture stock in a new design,” says Aaron Eggert, IIDA, LEED AP, Director of Sales at S&T Office Interiors Group in St. Paul, Minn., and Industry Chair of IIDA’s Northland chapter. “It forces us to be more creative. We find ways to complement what they already have.”


The recession hasn’t been kind to office manufacturers or Interior Designers, in particular, because some clients have pushed re-designs to the back burner while focusing on the bottom line. That has hurt sales volume, but has also created opportunities. That’s because a difficult economy also challenges companies to re-examine their business practices.

“Companies are absolutely being more efficient, and they’re also being judicious. They’re not getting slammed [with business], so they have more time to think about [design issues],” Perkins says. “That gets them thinking about different ways to do things.”

That is where design can help, not only by changing physical spaces but by addressing business issues.

“Design thinking is about solving problems. It’s a way of looking at a situation and imagining what the result could be,” Johnson says. “It’s a highly integrated process where we take disparate thoughts and resources, then synthesize them; it’s a way of applying methodology to a problem.” Allsteel has first-hand experience with the possibilities of applying design to business issues — the company makes numerous tweaks to its factory processes every year, and those changes have netted substantial savings over the last few years.


Innovative business efficiencies aren’t limited to the factory floor, either. Manufacturers and designers are looking for more ways to collaborate on projects, in hopes of delivering more tailored, individual solutions to clients. Interior Designers start there intuitively — “You have to have a deep understanding of how things work before you can get to, ‘This is a great idea, let’s do it,’” Cannell says. In contrast, manufacturers often design products based on workplace trends and then hope they fit the needs of individual clients. But by working together, manufacturers and designers can deliver more powerful solutions to their clients.

“The best projects for all of us [manufacturers and designers] are when companies come in and say, ‘We see space as an opportunity to reinforce our values and to make improvements to our culture,’” Ludwig says. “Those are exciting projects that we share with design firms, and they are surprisingly frequent because of the pressures our customers are facing — they see the value in positioning themselves for the future. Everyone is changing right now — we’re changing, Interior Design is changing, but that’s the natural state of things, and it’s strategic.”

It’s also innovative, which is something uniquely suited to Design.

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