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You're Speaking My Language

By Judi Ketteler

When David Meckley, IIDA, talks to corporate interior designers about why it’s critical to become well-versed in business acumen, he asks them one question: “Do you know what a comptroller is?” At times, Meckley is met with blank stares and the implied question, “Why would I never need to know that?”

For Meckley, Senior Associate with Huntsman Architectural Group, San Francisco, and past Corporate Forum Advisor for IIDA, this exchange is indicative of some designers’ lack of basic business knowledge. “Many interior designers are not taught about business [in college curriculum]. Current interior design education programs incorporate little to no focus on basic business principles,” he says.

However, interior design can really affect business goals, and designers who learn to speak the language of executives have a better chance at selling their ideas — and becoming partners with their clients.

Know the Business

Designers should understand how a company’s organizational structure functions. The C-Suite includes the chief executive officer and the officers who report to him or her, like the chief financial officer, the chief operational officer and the chief legal officer. And by understanding the role of individuals like the comptroller (or controller), you may find that he or she is the person who signs off on the budget for the entire project.

Designers also should familiarize themselves with the inner-workings of the client’s business. “Learn about the company culture, understand the business goals and objectives, know the competitors, research current trends, and understand the importance of corporate brand and how it might influence design,” says Katie Parr, ASID, Workplace Business Partner providing coverage for Global Sales and Services for Sun Microsystems, Menlo Park, Calif. “Most importantly, partner with the client, listen and become a trusted advisor to up the level of conversation.”

But perhaps above all, clients are concerned with ensuring the bottom line is protected, and that return on investment (ROI) and business risk are considered at every turn.

"Learn about the company culture, understand the business goals and objectives, and know the competitors."

And since design plays a huge role in ROI, it’s the designer’s job to show the C-Suite how it relates back to the numbers. After all, smartly designed spaces can attract and retain high-caliber staff and reinforce a company’s brand.

“It all seems very basic, but if you can demonstrate that you understand how their business functions and understand things like risk, you can better align with the client,” Parr says.

Mind the Budget

Many of today’s designers are changing the mindset that budgets represent limitation. By doing this, they can truly partner with their clients.  “Budgets are there for a reason. It’s about the financial health of the company,” says Beth Davis, IIDA, Chicago-based Vice President of Corporate Real Estate for global executive search firm Spencer Stuart. “The budget has been carefully calculated based on capacity of the relevant profit center. I want to see designers be more proactive about the budget development process.”

Designers and architects are the ones in the trenches — they know what things realistically cost and where clients can potentially save money. For example, when dealing with long-standing clients, designers should familiarize themselves with the client’s planning process, finding out when budgets are drafted and staying in tune with the client’s process. That way, when it’s time to crank out the numbers for the year or the quarter, designers can offer assistance.

Davis urges designers to have an appreciation of the client’s position. “Is it a brand-new office or a well-established one? A client will be appreciative when they see what responsible, budget-minded design can bring to a project,” she says.

It’s also crucial that designers understand that clients must justify every expenditure, Parr says. While a client contact may love a particular design concept, chances are that he or she has to justify it to his or her boss. And there may be several levels of approval, including the controller, vice president of finance and the CFO.

Make the client contact’s job easier by providing him or her with the rationale — not just a line item of accounting for capital and expenses, but also how it relates back to the bottom-line business goals. Today, the practice of evidence-based design — or the practice of making design decisions based on research and measurable results — is showing executives the quantifiable benefits of design (See “Show Me the Evidence,” below).

Talk the Talk

Engaging with C-Suite executives means addressing the issues they face daily. Corporations, for example, must devise ways to cope with aging, multi-cultural and multi-generational workforces. Today’s companies also have to deal with high turnover, as empowered employees make more frequent moves to advance their careers.

And with all of it, executives are being pushed harder and harder by their boards and stockholders to be more profitable at every quarter. “Executives are balancing all these issues, and additionally dealing with how branding and culture fit into the puzzle,” Meckley says.

But designers aren’t always formally taught how to properly present ideas to clients. “Some designers seem timid or uncomfortable in making presentations, which in turn makes them seem as if they’re not comfortable and confident in their work,” Davis says. Presenting is a skill that can be learned and should be practiced. Young designers can benefit from giving mock presentations and attending seminars and practice sessions.

A designer who knows how to negotiate the issues important to the C-Suite is an asset to executives. For example, when working with a client wishing to reinforce a brand that is hardworking and sophisticated, but not ostentatious, the designer should offer reasons as to why certain materials have been chosen. He or she should explain that simple, classic materials like wood and stone reinforce the specific qualities the client wants to portray.

“You must explain it in their terms,” Meckley says. “Make every aspect of the design relate back to the client’s expressed business goal, versus just talking about aesthetics.”

Designers who learn to do this will be elevated in the executive’s eyes from simply a creative type to a true problem-solver and change agent — one who understands the client’s brand and bottom-line needs.

Show Me the Evidence

Healthcare design is on the forefront of the evidence-based design movement, and for good reason. The way hospitals are designed — from signage and the layout of nurses stations to the materials used in patient rooms and the management of waste — have very real effects on whether patients stay sick or get healthy.

According to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report, about $200 billion will be spent on new hospital construction in the next 10 years. “We are faced with the unprecedented opportunity and challenge to use what we know to design better, more effective hospitals,” Roger Ulrich, Ph.D., Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, says in the report.

“Corporate design is a little behind retail and hospitality design,” says David Meckley, IIDA, Huntsman Architectural Group. “We haven’t done a good enough job articulating design value and how design directly impacts a corporation’s bottom line.” He suggests designers follow four new rules of engagement:

  • Shift Discussions. Focus on business goals.
  • Target Relationships. Find the person in the organization who can answer the larger questions.
  • Take a Positive Posture. Approach clients with solutions based on research, experience and current business theories.
  • Enable Informed Decisions. Provide clients with all the information they need to make a decision and to justify it to bosses.