An Office Designer’s Take on How Space Shapes Culture

An Office Designer’s Take on How Space Shapes Culture

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When a CEO plans out a re-design of his or her office, questions of culture surely come to mind. How should the desks and meeting rooms be laid out so as to best reflect the company’s culture? How do you want people to feel when they come to work? If you have a good grip on your ideal company culture, you can help bring that to life in your design.

But interior designers face a unique challenge: interpretation. When your firm is designing office after office for companies of all shapes and sizes, it’s all the more important to understand your client’s wishes in concrete terms. A startup with five employees might be able to get away with designing based on gut feel, but what should a large company do? If design is as important as they say it is, then it’s crucial that business owners understand what exactly they want out of a redesign.

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According to Jennifer Walton, principal at an interior design firm called H. Hendy Associates, the first step in creating a branded office for a company is doing research into what the company is all about. She details her experience designing Kawasaki’s new office: a 200,000 sq ft space with amenities ranging from yoga to an onsite museum featuring the company’s vintage products.

With a project of this scale, it’s clear that you need to understand what feel you’re going for before you start designing. Walton’s firm uses a variety of exercises while brainstorming with clients in order to help them understand what they want out of the project. Through these exercises, the designers can learn what really matters to the company’s executive team. Often times, a company’s actual culture won’t be a one-to-one match with the culture it claims to have. It’s important to understand the team’s real self-image and to know where they want to go. Otherwise, the space will never really “click” with the client, and they won’t be able to explain why.

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The easiest distinction we can draw in office design is between hierarchy and collaboration. Hierarchical spaces and collaborative spaces look drastically different, and in both cases, the space and the culture feed off of one another.

Hierarchical spaces are good at establishing order. Hierarchy is naturally pleasing to the eye: it’s easy to grasp that large signs are important, and that spacious, centrally-located rooms are more relevant than small offshoots. The neatness and orderliness of a hierarchical space might work wonders for a company that requires its employees to constantly strive to climb the corporate ladder. The space shows the reward that awaits.

Collaborative spaces, on the other hand, are more free-flowing. The space needs to allow all employees to bump into each other (sometimes literally) and have impromptu discussions. Central conference rooms and plenty of smaller multi-person tables are likely to be a part of any collaborative space, as opposed to cubicles and large offices.

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With this in mind, it’s no surprise that designing a new office is the perfect opportunity to rethink the state of your company culture. If there’s anything that you’d like to correct, you can work with your designer to come up with a space that’ll help correct it. Physical space guides behavior in a very literal and unavoidable way, so the last thing you want is for your space to work against you.

In closing, Walton observes that companies are starting to change the focus of their interior spaces. She states that “ten years back, people were putting more money into the common areas,” but that now, “companies are more employee centric.” Common areas for guests and clients are still important, but companies are starting to realize that they should invest in their employees, too, if they want the highest returns.