In the most recent Coffee with Cheryl, a webinar presented by KI and IIDA as part of the Community as Strategy program series, a panel of design professionals pondered community building in the time of COVID and what it means to meaningfully engage with community during times of societal unrest.
Last year’s Community as Strategyprogram series took IIDA and KI to six U.S. cities where designers and clients discussed the importance of supporting communities through design and described their unique respective community needs. This year’s series looks drastically different—through the use of virtual technology—but the primary thesis remains: maintaining community is vital, and in challenging times, how will design help?
This iteration of Coffee with Cheryl was moderated by IIDA Executive Vice President and CEO Cheryl S. Durst, Hon. FIIDA, and Deborah Breuning, vice president of A+D marketing at KI, and brought together 16 design professionals to consider our most pressing questions for the future: In a work-from-home world, how can design help maintain community? What will be important designers to communicate within the built environment? How do we continue to engage in community given all we know about the world around us?
Panelists were invited to share their thoughts on ways design can support, reinforce, and engage community, even through times of adversity. This notion of community, given that we are living through the pandemics of both coronavirus and systemic racism, is more important than ever. According to Diana Farmer-Gonzales, IIDA, Assoc. AIA, managing director and principal of Gensler’s Miami office, “We have to be intentional with community and with how we build it.”
Cheryl S. Durst, Hon. FIIDA, executive vice president and CEO, IIDA
Deborah Breuning, vice president of A+D marketing, KI
Abby Scott, IIDA, senior interior designer and architectural studio leader, HDR
Alexandra Bonner, IIDA, project interior designer, FCArchitects
The following is an excerpt from IIDA’s annual Industry Roundtable report, Industry Roundtable 23: The Future of Place, Experience, and Worklife. Read the full report here.
There is no mathematical formula for creating products and spaces that are engaging and compelling—that end-users want to spend time with and in. That said, Holger Hampf of BMW Designworks relies on a set of “power tools” to create designs that have “stickiness”—an attribute that’s getting harder to achieve in our consumerist age of disposability and endless trade-ins and upgrades. “We’re in a dangerous moment where we are able to build excitement for—but not attachment to—objects,” he says with some urgency. “We need to find ways of retaining excitement and building attachment to our designs over time.”
Layering emotive, tonal qualities atop the physical, “object” qualities can enhance the sense of discovery and surprise. It’s an approach that correlates to the workplace, for which we design space around specific behaviors and to foster new types of behaviors. It’s the reverse of starting from an aesthetic style or visual cues. Notions like shape and style come only after first considering the behavior we wish to support, as well as defining the attributes we expect and want the design to deliver.
Another intriguing, if concerning, aspect of our cultural moment is a lowered standard regarding what we consume. “Everything we experience these days is compressed and pixelated”—meaning the music and images that stream through our smartphones and Internet cables. “We have started to accept the low res, which to me, as a designer, is a disaster.” It’s also a design challenge to be solved. “How can we extrapolate and create experiences that don’t feel compressed?” Hampf proposes. There’s the opportunity to create more relevant, authentic, “hi-res” experiences for our clients.
Design is Ultimately Human
“Automation/AI will change every industry, product, and service, including our profession,” says Diana Farmer-Gonzalez, IIDA, Assoc. AIA. Indeed, it already has. Consider the advent of smart test fits. Verda Alexander, IIDA, had a darker take, cautioning that “AI and genetic modification will pose new problems for jobs—and increasing inequality.”
But where we once used to fear the robots, we now want to partner with them. It’s not about man versus machine, but man and machine. Perhaps in the future, there will be VR interfaces and “prosthetics that fundamentally blur the boundary of human and machine—cyborgs,” Susana Covarrubias, IIDA, predicts. “Interfaces that highlight human interactions are what’s most important.”
But for now, we need to work together better. AI is here to stay and will only become more useful and prevalent. Technology is now often viewed as a positive enabler. This is a shift from the usual party line which supports that technology undermines human connection. Technology can reduce loneliness, for example, a cultural phenomenon that concerns many industry leaders. Julia Feldmeier, journalist and brand anthropologist notes, “Technology gives us a sense of rootedness in a culture defined by the failure of institutions, a culture in which people no longer trust religion or corporations or government.”
In the spring of 2020, in response to a rapidly changing world, IIDA developed a weekly series of conversations focused on the impact of sudden change on the design community, and in turn, design’s role in impacting our collective futures.
The Collective D(esign) webinar series saw the curating of dialogues centering on topics ranging from healthcare, hospitality, and workplace design to education, product design, sustainability, and more. As part of IIDA’s 2020 NeoConnect programming, IIDA presented Collective D(esign): Women Lead Design to center the voices of women on the importance of ensuring diversity and equity in the future of design. With an eye on leadership and how women specifically lead, the panel addressed the importance of being able to see yourself reflected in your leaders and managers.
The discussion was hosted by IIDA CEO and Executive Vice President Cheryl S. Durst, Hon. FIIDA, and featured panelists Robin Klehr Avia, FIIDA, regional managing principal at Gensler from the IIDA New York Chapter; Gabrielle Bullock, FAIA, IIDA, principal and director of global diversity at Perkins and Will from the IIDA Southern California Chapter; Sarah Kuchar, IIDA, creative director of Sarah Kuchar Studio from the IIDA Illinois Chapter; and Angie Lee, AIA, IIDA, partner and design director of interiors at FXCollaborative from IIDA’s New York Chapter.
Although the movement for gender-based equality in the workplace is decades-old, the recent “Me Too” movement brought to the forefront the dangers that a homogeneous workplace culture can produce, particularly when leadership roles lack diversity in gender. As society faces current challenges—an ongoing global health pandemic, and a reckoning for an urgent need for racial justice—it’s imperative to act from an intersectional lens and strive to promote leadership and equity across demographics including race, sexual orientation, age, and socio-economic backgrounds as well as career experience.
“I believe that this is an opportunity for us to dismantle the systematic racism that exists, and address and reset our profession to truly, with eyes wide open, embrace, celebrate, and apply unique perspectives through an inclusive and just lens,” says Gabrielle Bullock. She notes that although this movement and awareness may be new to some, it has been the sustained reality for others. By encouraging change in our industry, we can better support leadership from different demographics, and more successfully design with an informed vision for a more diverse and inclusive use of interiors.
“We cannot deny the power of representation—seeing someone who looks like you, seeing them in a critical position of leadership is so important.”
— Cheryl Durst
One of the most effective ways to elicit real change is through recognizing and honoring the differences that exist. Race, ethnicity, gender identity, orientation, and socioeconomic background all contribute significantly to the ways individuals relate to the world around them. To navigate a world, and especially a workplace environment and culture, that doesn’t take these differences into account can be difficult and create roadblocks to focusing on the work.
“Being brought up in a male-dominated profession, culture, and society, the advice that I was given and that I applied to myself would not work out most of the time.” Angie Lee explains, “I had to try everything until I found what worked for me. And it was a little challenging because it took a little longer to find my voice, find my footing.” She notes that although she didn’t always have a lot of women to lean on, she did have male figures that believed in her and pushed her to develop skills and get out of her comfort zone, recognizing that “it was always a model of leadership that didn’t fit me.”
“Give opportunity, and give it young. You might think that you’re [giving opportunity] because it’s a woman more often than you should, but I guarantee you’re probably just not doing it enough.”
— Sarah Kuchar
This process of conforming to a workforce not built for you nor led by those like you creates an added burden for young professionals. Instead of spending time developing and innovating the industry, they can spend years just learning how to navigate these settings. The experience of learning from a leader that you see yourself in and one who knows how to move through the world from a similar background is invaluable and important to remember when you move into a leadership role.
When Robin Klehr Avia was a young designer interviewing at architectural firms, she noted that she only had one interview in which she was interviewed by a woman. “Margo Walsh affirmed for me that it was possible for a woman to be recognized and rewarded. There was somebody in my image across the table and she was in charge and the boss and that had an incredible effect on me.”
Avia differentiates this experience from traditional mentorship, recognizing that although Graham was indeed a mentor, she was more importantly a sponsor. While you learn a lot about the industry and your profession through mentorship, you still need someone to put you in the room. “it’s about a sponsor opening doors for us—it’s about someone putting us in a place where we can succeed. I think that that is really what we need to be for other women. We need to be their sponsors.”
“I see it as a responsibility and honor to be able to mentor, sponsor, share, you know to anybody who needs it and wants it.”
— Gabrielle Bullock
Mentorship is an invaluable part of shaping yourself as a professional. But without a sponsor, you don’t always have access to the opportunities that grow your career. “I was given many opportunities to fail,” explains Lee. She notes that as she looks back she can now see that many of the men she considered mentors were actually sponsors that gave her opportunities to grow. “I didn’t meet my mentors until I joined organizations like IIDA.”
Bullock notes that she recognizes the importance in her visibility and success. “I am a role model to some. An example of what you could be, how far you could go. As a black woman in this industry, I think of it as an honor to provide this for others.”
“I’ve been at this for 44 years. I think the best part is that I can look back and see the structure that others are building upon the foundation.”
— Robin Klehr Avia
For some designers, it’s not enough to work within the current systems and processes. Sarah Kucher started her own business after working in larger firms and finds that being a woman-owned business leader and designer has given her the opportunity to provide the guidance and help that she had received in her career. She notes that “there is a strong movement of supporting women-owned businesses,” and credits her visibility with forming an alliance within the Chicago creative community. “I’ve connected with several female entrepreneurs in the city and creative fields we meet quarterly and we help each other.”
Leading as a woman is inherently different, and Kucher recognizes that “Leadership is about organizing people and getting people in a big group to have and feel purpose.” She reflects that being a successful leader isn’t about being the most technically skilled but rather effectively motivating and creating a collaborative space.
“How we came up through the ranks, what we want to change going forward, and how to help us dream big enough. That’s what I lost along the way trying on these models of leadership that never jogged well.”
— Angie Lee
Bullock recognizes that “there is a difference between management and leadership,” and “navigating that line in figuring out when to be one or the other has been very interesting.”
Leadership can look many different ways, but the most rewarding aspect of leading can be observing the changes that you have actively made, and those that your visibility creates. Being that beacon for younger designers can provide the freedom to carve out their space in the industry and courage to take more risks.
“I can see women that I’ve sponsored making the world a better place; I talk to a lot of young people I work with about placing value on significance over success,” Bullock reflects. “I think it’s important in that significance isn’t like a one-off—it’s not about what you did last week or last month but it’s really about what you do over the course of many years it’s your life’s work.”
Watch the full conversation that further explores leadership and diversity in design, examining race and gender, while looking forward to the future, finding optimism during a tenuous time.
Events of the past centuries, the past decades, and most recently in past weeks and days have painfully and plainly illuminated the disparities in our culture and society. We are at a pivotal moment where we must face great societal challenges that will not be repaired without great collective effort. Confronting racism, injustice, and a need for equity is critical to moving forward, and current events expose how much work needs to be done for us all to really “be in this together.” We know that design is but one small part of that larger equation—so why not start with the change we can most immediately affect?
Design illuminates disparity and helps close the gaps—from healthcare and education to public space and urban planning. Design in all its manifestations is a force for change.
Recently at IIDA, we’ve considered, like so many of you, what “re-entry” and a return to life in a post-pandemic world might be. Certainly, not the same world we left behind four months ago. And definitely not a so-called “new normal.” Frankly, the old normal wasn’t exactly working that well for us. For the environment. For people of color. For the LGBTQIA community. For so many.
So what will we come back to?
Quite simply, the spaces that encompass where our lives happen—the places where we heal, where we work, where we learn, where we gather, museums, theatres, playgrounds, schools, sports facilities, stadiums, civic centers, libraries, concert halls, outdoor festivals—all the places that perhaps we took for granted before, are now places filled with nostalgia. As we re-enter these spaces, let us mandate that they be healthier and safer, but importantly also more inclusive, more equitable—DESIGN FOR HUMANITY.
The power of our collective energy is more important than ever, and we should and will consider how we function as a global design community and how we hold strong to those foundational values. The spaces we envision and create, envelop and contain those values and this time requires a broadened vocabulary of collaboration. One where we are open to learning, expanding our societal and world views, and maintaining a through-line of equity and humanity in all the work we do.
Design and design strategies can develop the tools we need to create our safer spaces. As we head into the future and the inevitable aftermath of this global crisis, public and commercial interiors will be looked at through a new lens. Within interior design, there will be more of an emphasis on the way that people move within a space and how that enables them to interact.
Health, well-being, and wellness, must be at the forefront, and our interior spaces and the furniture, fabrics, and materials will be held to and regulated at much higher standards. It must be reinforced that no matter the neighborhood we live in, no matter where we exist socioeconomically, no matter our race, gender, or background, we all deserve to live with these fundamental design values and with DIGNITY.
Designers have always put humans first, and in a post pandemic world, humans and their safety and well-being are of paramount importance. And for now, for next, and for always, design will do what design does best, support and uplift humanity and culture. Design is indeed the business of life. Now more than ever, the world requires what design so abundantly endows—grace, civility, compassion, clarity, connection, common sense, empathy, well-being, comfort, healing, hope, and EQUITY.
We have to stand together as humans dedicated to the betterment of our society. Let us continue to be a force for good in this world and take responsibility individually and collectively for envisioning and enacting change, progress, and JUSTICE.
Design is forever an act of optimism, and we can little afford in our activism to not be optimistic about our collective future.
All my best wishes to you for peace, safety, good health, and well-being. Stay hopeful and stay strong.
2020-2021 International Board President Sascha Wagner discusses the roles of community and design in the process of evolving through crisis, and the need for adaptability in our environments.
Sascha Wagner, FIIDA, begins his term as the 2020-2021 IIDA International Board of Directors President during a time that is uniquely impacting our lives. As President and CEO of Huntsman Architectural Group, which has offices in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, Wagner oversees a firm with expertise in workplace, residential, and building repositioning design. Born and raised in Germany, Wagner holds degrees from the University of Toronto and Ringling College of Art and Design. He has previously served as IIDA Northern California chapter president, and more recently as vice president and president-elect on the IIDA International Board of Directors. While we are unable to gather in person to celebrate the beginning of his term and to listen to his inaugural remarks, Wagner shares his thoughts on the profession, design at this critical juncture, and on the next generation.
John Czarnecki: You begin your term as the 2020-2021 IIDA International Board President in an extremely challenging time. What are your thoughts and expectations for IIDA as a member organization?
Sascha Wagner: While acknowledging that this is a difficult time for the world at large and the design profession, this can also be a critical opportunity for commercial designers to help shape the future. IIDA has always been a great connector for our professional, student, and industry members, as well as design firms, product manufacturers, and our clients who benefit from good design. Strengthening these links is even more critical now, as we are all likely to work and collaborate from a distance for quite a while. People inherently have a need for belonging and a sense of place, and the role of IIDA as a member organization is more important than ever. I look forward to serving as IIDA International Board President in the coming year, as IIDA continues to provide relevant content and resources, connects members in meaningful interactions, and amplifies our members’ collective voice about the power of design to impact the human experience.
Going forward, human health in the built environment must be our priority. Our profession’s mandate to advocate and design for health, sustainability, equity, and social impact is only heightened. Spaces tell a story of values. Today’s acute focus on disease prevention adds a new dimension, and, as an industry, we are learning how built spaces can positively impact human wellbeing even more effectively. Looking further ahead, we can be hopeful that a post-pandemic future with an added emphasis on the importance of place will help to transcend the economic impact of 2020.
JC: So much is being written about what a return to the office will look like and the ways it may vary based on city and region. While the coming months will be challenging, and the impact may be lasting, what is your expectation for the future of the workplace a few years from now?
SW: We are currently operating in triage mode, retrofitting existing workspaces and adjusting how we use them for the next year or more. How much of this initial response will influence long-term post-pandemic decisions on real estate footprints and workplace design remains a critical question. Designers and clients are being forced to rethink the very nature of interactions between people in the built environment. Making people feel safe as well as besafe will be the key. Organizations will likely become more resilient and agile, and think of their workforce more supportively, I hope. The purpose and function of the office will evolve, and designers will continue to work with our forward-thinking clients to design places for culture and connection.
JC: As President and CEO of Huntsman Architectural Group, overseeing a firm with multiple offices, are there lessons that you are taking from this experience in terms of firm leadership and management?
SW: Every design firm is faced with challenges today, including ours. A crisis only amplifies an organization’s DNA. Our management team has always sought to be as transparent as possible in decision making and in conveying our situation, priorities, and plans to the employee-owners. At a time in which everything is uncertain, sharing information candidly helps to provide needed clarity and trust. As leaders, it is also okay to admit when we do not have all the answers, provided that we listen to others. Maintaining a social fabric is also important: While working from home, we have been focusing on staying connected with all-staff meetings, studio calls, happy hours, and sharing recipes and even childhood photos. We are going through this together, and in some ways, teams across our offices feel closer than before.
“Design is by nature an optimistic endeavor.”
JC: Our design profession is being called upon now for expertise in all commercial interiors, including workplaces, healthcare settings, schools, hospitality, and retail. What is your hope for the design profession overall as our knowledge and skills are in demand in increasingly urgent ways?
SW: The initial response from our design profession, including firms 3D-printing PPE and IIDA members volunteering in their communities, has been incredible. Many designers have openly published ideas and planning strategies for adapting our public settings—offices, stores, restaurants, and schools—to keep people safe. While designers are not healthcare providers, we have a deep knowledge of human behavior in the built environment and we solve complex problems in a multi-disciplinary and iterative design process. Collectively, we will keep learning, sharing, and improving solutions. In the long term, I hope buildings and interior spaces will become more resilient and human health-centric, which is a positive development out of a tragic premise. Design is by nature an optimistic endeavor.
JC: Designers are also strategists and can be at the forefront of multi-disciplinary teams designing healthy interiors with wellness in mind. How do you foresee the role of “designer as strategist” evolving?
SW: I see an opportunity for design professionals to further develop expertise in organizational development, human behavior, and the psychology of design to add greater value when defining future strategies for wellness in the built environment. Design strategy addresses the questions of how people interact with the physical environment as well as why. Physical health, emotional wellbeing, and connection to culture and brand are all important aspects of this relationship between people and place. Organizations are now faced with re-mapping some of these connections. But we are not going to live in isolation forever. The personal experiences one has working in an office, shopping in a store, or eating in a restaurant are valuable beyond the convenience of online equivalents. How we return to more meaningful interactions is a complex challenge to undertake. Designers are well-positioned to help lead this effort, with the input of health experts and others.
JC: Savvy designers incorporate sustainable design practices regularly in their projects. How are issues of sustainable design amplified by this moment?
SW: The concept of a triple bottom line—ensuring human wellbeing, protecting the planet, and economic benefit—remains highly relevant. Ultimately, we cannot let our reaction to this pandemic come at the expense of the environment. As we are now evaluating building systems, products, finishes, behaviors, and even sanitizing protocols from an antiviral perspective, we also have to continue to mitigate any negative impacts on the planet. At a larger scale, looking at work scenarios that reduce commuting and travel—not just remote working from home, but perhaps regional hubs or hybrid solutions—can help to reduce our environmental footprint in a significant way and have a positive impact.
“Being involved in IIDA certainly helped me feel fully immersed and connected in the profession early on, and that continues today.”
JC: Do you have any advice for those graduating from design programs entering the profession today?
SW: Speaking with a group of graduating students recently, I was amazed at their positivity and resilience as they are finishing the school year from home. I would ask students to remember that their chosen profession is an important one because, as designers, they can make a unique contribution to our future world. Even with a potentially delayed start, now is the time for graduates to begin building a network with design professionals and peers in preparation for entering the workforce. IIDA is the perfect platform to connect students and emerging professionals. Being involved in IIDA certainly helped me feel fully immersed and connected in the profession early on, and that continues today. We need that sense of connection, especially during challenging times like these, and that is what IIDA provides.
In response to our rapidly changing world, IIDA brings you a design-focused dialogue on the effects of a global crisis. Watch the ninth webinar in the series today.
Designers are amazing at responding to change, and their ability to unpack what is essential in any issue, including those critical to design, lends itself to an adaptability that is of utmost importance right now. We are seeing designers rush in to lend humanitarian support redesigning and printing face shields, making masks, creating and gathering resources, and even shifting manufacturing processes to meet the needs of those on the frontlines of this crisis. IIDA invited a panel of designers to come together for an important discussion on giving back and coming together.
This webinar is registered for 1 IDCEC HSW CEU. To learn how to earn your CEU credit, visit IIDA.org for more information.