Seth Hanley Interview #2: Unpacking the research powers behind Blitz designs
[August 08, 2017] BY Kazumasa Ikoma
This is the second part of the interview with Seth Hanley, Principal and Creative Designer at Design Blitz. In Part 1, we introduced some of the office designs that Hanley has worked on. In this article, we continue the interview with a focus on the research powers that underpin the designs. What do you need to know to design an office that people actually use? We unpack the secrets of designs that employees appreciate.
Why does design require data?
We start by learning about the corporate culture because our office designs are based on the culture. Data collection is the foundation for getting to know the culture. You could say that design is incidental to the data. In our view, office design provides clients with smart solutions based on data.
This is why research is at the heart of our design process. Clients invariably have some kind of problem when they approach us with a request. They need a design solution that will explore and clarify those problems. This is what sets us apart from designs that are merely stylish.
The steps in the research process at Blitz
There are different levels of research. The most basic one is to poll the whole office by asking about ten questions. The results reveal common points and problems shared across the whole office. If we are working with a major corporation, the end result is, of course, a huge amount of data, but it is still important to look at each of the problems that individual employees experience.
These days many companies have meeting spaces for 3 to 5 people. The photographs are of the SoundCloud office in New York. Many employees told us they wanted such small-scale meeting spaces.
This is the Zendesk office in London. The coffee bar recreates a local pub that was destroyed in a fire. We used charred cedar planks to express respect and the fondness that employees have for the once familiar atmosphere. This is the sort of thing employees share with us when we talk to them.
Next, we bring together the heads of department and other management staff to ask more specific questions. We ask about the working styles of the employees in their own departments and how the employees would like to approach work. We ask the management how they want their teams to develop and how they would like to collaborate with what departments. We ask these questions about the functional aspects to find out how easy it is for employees to get work done in the office. It is relatively easy for managers to ask the opinions of each employee in their departments and since they also have their responsibilities as heads of department and their own ideas about how to work as a team, this is an efficient way to find out both the individual opinions of the employees and the perspective of the company.
We also talk to top management to explore their vision for the company—what is their image of the company; what is their vision of where it is now and where it will be five or ten years into the future; what expectations do they have of the new office compared to offices in other cities; how do they want their employees to feel in the workplace. We ask them a lot of questions that emphasize feelings, but this is an extremely important factor when shaping a design. How to get a company with an insubstantial image to adopt a tangible image, and how to integrate image and form through the design process—this is where office designers can show off their skills.
The Microsoft office in San Francisco was designed around the vision of a global leader among technology companies. The design incorporates a showroom feel based on the latest developments in customer-focused technology and a sense of transparency that allows you to look into the office from outside.
After these conversations with the employees, we survey the office. In addition to getting data from the meeting room reservation system to verify usage of the rooms, we collect data on office equipment usage and sometimes even on snack consumption in the office. When we compare the information in the employee statements with actual data on usage, we find inconsistencies. Employees may tell us that they want several of a certain type of room, but when we look at the data and how they use the rooms, the solution might be that they actually need a different type of room. We can also come up with new solutions by using the data to look at the problems from several perspectives.
It is important to get to the bottom of specific problems when identifying the most important issues in need of solutions, but getting there is a matter of trial and error, zeroing in on data, and listening to the real-world opinions of employees.
This is the San Francisco office of Twilio, a company that develops tools for cloud communication to provide corporations with more innovative environments. The corporate philosophy is to think outside the box and not speculate when solving the most difficult problems, and to seek solutions in a way that is honest, direct, and transparent. We tailored our design to their philosophy by installing the “Un-room” meeting rooms, which are open and transparent without doors and ceilings (second photograph). The office with its neatly arranged lines, bare surfaces, and order-made materials was highly acclaimed as the simple and effective solution that Twilio was looking for.
Never forget that there are different working style trends in industry
So far I have described our in-house research, but we must also have a thorough knowledge of working styles and office trends, which vary depending on the industry. This includes researching what types of offices are typical of a particular industry, how many people typically attend meetings with what types of clients, and so on. This helps us develop a yardstick to understand to what degree it is acceptable to introduce the office designs that are currently popular in the tech industry. As well as learning about companies through in-house surveys, it is also important to understand what is currently happening around the corporations.
Surprises in office design are taboo
The hints we obtain through interactions with the entire company including employees, managements, and the upper echelons are integrated into the design. As a result, the design becomes a means of improving corporate management methods. The relationship is at its best when we show our willingness to incorporate the good things we take away from the talks, and when we see that the employees are putting our design to good use.
Surprises are taboo in office design. They do no good and nobody likes them. You have to communicate what will go where and how it will be used as of the design stages. Ideally, as of the day when the construction is completed and we are ready to let the employees through the doors, we want them to draw out the full potential of the new office, which we have created on the basis of a logical process.
To avoid mismatches between the client and the design proposal, Blitz uses VR to navigate the completed conceptual drawings.
The way the office looks must express how it functions. When the client confirms that the functions contribute to the corporate culture, we know in our guts that office design is closely related to corporate growth.
When clients walk into their office after it has been completed, we want them to have a solid understanding of the reasons for our design decisions. A carefully structured office design based on data is a joyful experience for clients.
(Continued in Part 3)
Writer of this post
Kazumasa IkomaWhile working as an office manager in San Francisco, he posted numerous articles about the office designs, corporate cultures, and working styles on the West Coast. He researches what constitutes comfortable offices for companies and employees every day and puts his ideas into practice at his company.
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