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The New Role of the Designer

The design profession is more complex than ever before, and this has forced designers to acquire new skill sets and adapt their processes. Conde Nast, One World Trade Center. Image © Garrett Rowland

During the early years of my design career, companies reacted to financial upswings by rolling out growth strategies. When business boomed, corporations asked for bigger offices, retailers sought larger stores in more prominent locations, and airports looked to accommodate a greater number of passengers. Design firms interpreted upticks in the market and rosy outlooks for economic growth as signs that work was about to start pouring in. Our output directly correlated to the health of the global economy.

That simple paradigm changed drastically in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The damage inflicted by the stock market crash of 2008 and the ensuing economic contraction changed how companies in all market sectors—professional services, retail, transportation and urban planning—thought about their businesses. It injected a necessary dose of caution and forced executives to consider growth strategies in more nuanced terms. Expanding during boom years and contracting during bad times no longer sufficed. A less predictable business climate necessitated a more subtle approach to long-term planning.

The aftereffects of the Great Recession and the business thinking it introduced helped create the new economy in which we are currently situated. Today, companies don’t just worry about growth and size. Those measurements still matter, but there is just as much of an emphasis on working smartly and more efficiently. Technological advances, such as the introduction of smartphones and advanced analytical tools, have given companies new means for creating valuable deliverables at minimal cost. “Work smarter” is the vogue mantra of the business class, and this newfound focus on efficiency and intelligence has significantly changed the way designers work with clients.

JetBlue Rooftop at JFK International Airport, New York, NY. Image © Paul Rivera

More complex design

When companies responded to growth by simply looking to expand, designers served a narrow purpose. A client wanted a larger space, so we designed it. Our purview rarely extended beyond that. We spoke directly to the client and few others. Aesthetic considerations and ideas rooted in tradition dictated the direction our work took. Commercial office spaces provided senior staff with private offices, while administrative workers sat in open areas. Retail spaces showcased items to as large a crowd as possible. Airports got people to and from the gates with little fuss.

Today, design is far more complex, as evidenced by the proliferation of public and privates spaces that are rich with ambition and far reaching in terms of scope. Designers are no longer hired hands who produce renderings and drawings and then get out of the way. We now work as part of a larger collective and seek to improve our clients’ business strategies. Designers sit at the same table as lawyers, consultants, and bankers. We all help clients understand how they can achieve greater levels of efficiency in day-to-day operations. Design, as opposed to management strategy or financial engineering, is the tool at our disposal, and this has made us increasingly relevant in a world where design can profoundly impact people, organizations, and communities.

Capital One Pavilion, New York, NY. Image © Garrett Rowland

The intersection of design and performance

When clients seek greater efficiency and a smarter approach to business strategy what they are really looking for is that sweet spot where physical space becomes a tool for boosting human performance. Great design’s unique offering is how it facilitates desired outcomes by augmenting user behavior.

The workplace is a prime example of this. In the past, workplace culture was predicated upon hierarchy and tradition. Designers segregated workers in offices and prioritized privacy. Today workplace culture is flat. Companies seek the right balance of privacy and collaboration. They want all employees to achieve the exact blend of interaction and focus that fuels creativity and eliminates distractions. Contemporary workplace design reflects these changing mores. Because the physical layout and overall ambience of a space affects how workers use it and interact within it, workplace design can promote creative problems solving.

Sam Edelman, New York, NY. Image © Garrett Rowland

Performance-based design solutions are not limited to workplace. The retail landscape, for example, has completely changed in the past decade on account of online shopping and the technological advances sustaining it. As consumers have become more accustomed to buying at the click of a mouse, physical retail locations have adapted. Retailers now offer unique, curated experiences that shoppers can’t find in the online realm. Brick and mortar retail used to emphasize showcasing and storage; today retailers want to elevate the shopping experience to a plane of fun and excitement that was previously unimaginable.

Airports are another building type that’s undergone radical changes on account of the new economy. In the past, airports ferried passengers to and from gates with little fanfare. Contemporary security measures make such quick passage impossible and leave passengers clamoring for adequate spaces just past security where they can recompose themselves and their belongings in a dignified manner. A dearth of public funding for airports and the fact that airlines no longer offer as many flights has diminished formerly robust revenue streams. Forward thinking airports are compensating by integrating more sophisticated retail and hospitality elements into terminals. The airport experience no longer hinges upon impersonal efficiency but springs from a desire to introduce leisure and fun back into the equation.

Designing for each of these space types and ensuring every space functions as smartly and efficiently as possible requires a very granular understanding of the businesses and clients that will occupy the spaces we touch. Designers can no longer afford to stay within the narrow silo of design. We have to possess a strong understanding of our clients and the economic factors affecting them. And while individual designers often spend their entire careers gaining expertise in one building typology, the playful combination of disparate elements, like retail shops within an airport, and the growing influence of mixed-use design requires individual designers to collaborate at unprecedented levels. A work project might require the input of a branding expert and a retail expert to ensure the finished product fires on all cylinders and helps the client achieve their business goals.

Syracuse University Image © Robert Benson

The new role of the designer

While this level of complexity may sound intimidating, it’s a welcome challenge for the design community. The increased focus on specialization and intricately coordinated spaces means designers can constantly help clients improve their spaces and the ways they work within them.

So while the current economic landscape teems with uncertainty and perpetual change, design firms continue to bring value by staying focused on specialization and finding ways to create smarter, higher performing spaces. Our dedication to helping our clients has remained steadfast throughout my career. What’s changed are the tools and methods at our disposal.

Robin Klehr Avia’s 39 years of design experience, 35 with Gensler, have set the foundation for her role as Chair of the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors at Gensler and Managing Principal of the Northeast and Latin America region (overseeing more than 1,000 people from offices in New York City, Boston, Morristown, Toronto, Sao Paulo, Costa Rica and Mexico City). She has directed award-winning projects that include the New York Times headquarters and Condé Nast’s headquarters at One World Trade Center. She has received numerous design awards including Business Week/Architectural Record Award, the International Interior Design Association’s Decade of Design Award and top national awards from the Society of American Registered Architects. Avia’s work has appeared in numerous publications including Interior Design, Contract Design, Architectural Record and World Architecture. She was recently profiled in The New York Times. Contact her at robin_klehr_avia@gensler.com.

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