How Socially Conscious Businesses Will Affect Design
Mariam Safi in Community, Socially Conscious Design, Sustainability

People are flocking towards organizations that reflect a heightened sense of social and environmental awareness. The Sustainability Center at California State University, Northridge. Image © Gensler

One of the prime factors affecting global business is the convergence of social and commercial interests. Corporations are now dedicating significant resources to social responsibility initiatives, and while some see this shift as a public relations stunt designed to curry favor with tastemakers and media doyens, the results of such efforts speak volumes. It’s become clear that consumers gravitate towards brands that align with their personal values, and brands that make social responsibility a key tenet of their corporate ethos tend to evoke strong emotional connections with target customers.

This will be even truer in the future. Johnson Controls’ Smart Workplace 2040 report foresees a “wave of ‘smart consumerism’ and collective expressionism around sustainability values, as a reaction against the strong individualism of the past.” McKinsey & Company states that shareholders’ interests will increasingly go hand in hand with the interests of the broader community; providing value to society will become an integral component of successful business strategies. According to Fast Company, there’s a growing need for greater empathy in design. Brands will have to focus more on how design impacts the consumer experience in a complete manner—one that takes into account emotional, physical, financial and sensory interaction.

Providing affordable housing in developing nations will become a priority in the near future. Image © Gensler

People, the planet, and profit

The newfound emphasis on social responsibility descends from the triple bottom line approach. Coined in 1994 by John Elkington, the triple bottom line places economic, social and environmental factors on par with traditional measures of business success, like profit margins. Elkington’s framework urges businesses to focus on people and the planet, as opposed to just profit, and forces organizations to consider the impact their decisions can have on future generations. Elkington’s revolutionary thinking foreshadowed the rise of social conscience within the business community, and it pushed companies to value clients, consumers, employees, supply chains, communities and the environment, in addition to shareholders.

Social and environmental well-being’s heightened stature within the global business community holds significant ramifications for designers, who now find themselves seeking design solutions that not only reflect the importance of social responsibility, but adequately promote the ethical practices of the clients they serve. When a brand makes pursuing social well-being commensurate with turning a profit, it creates a multilayered identity, one in which those two endeavors become equal but separate constituents of the image they project to the public. The spaces such brands inhabit must be equally multilayered so that they authentically reflect the diversity of the brand’s identity and provide multiple levels of experiences within a single space. This type of design must be cohesive, but it must also furnish opportunities for users to engage with the space and the brand on numerous levels.

One example of a space that exemplifies this approach to design is the San Francisco International Airport, Terminal 3, Boarding Area E. The LEED Gold-certified terminal presents a holistic and multi-layered visitor experience. On one level, Terminal 3 foregrounds environmentally-friendly design through the use of sustainable materials. On another, it highlights San Francisco’s culture via the inclusion of local merchant pop-up shops and distinct design elements borrowed from the San Francisco community. And on another, it promotes personal well-being with an abundance of yoga rooms and natural light.

Underlying sustainability concepts are the backbone of a SMART City scheme in Wenzhou, China. Image © Gensler

Boosting urban sustainability

Multilayered design can also be seen in the trend toward dense, walkable cities that give people multiple nodes for engagement without requiring them to travel via environmentally degrading machines (like fossil fuel reliant cars). The high quality of life walkable cities offer residents and visitors alike benefits society as a whole. And the increased desire for city living being expressed by people across the globe spotlights a growing focus on the importance of community. Brands that embrace this trend and help transform cities into dynamic work, live and play environments will cultivate loyalty with consumers. Designers can play a key role in this process by boosting urban sustainability through mass transit solutions and the championing of vertical cities.

Designers must also be cognizant of how their work impacts the health and wellness of end users, since improving health is a critical component of social wellness. Brands are further integrating health and wellness into business strategies, and spaces that undermine well-being, rather than augment it, are fast becoming obsolete. Pioneered by Delos and administered by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), the WELL Building Standard is a good starting point for determining the health of built environments. Delos WELL Certified spaces improve “nutrition, fitness, mood, sleep patterns, and performance of its occupants.” Designers must embrace it and improve upon it.

As better business and a better world go hand in hand, the triple bottom line approach will go from outlier strategy to mainstream approach. Design firms will have to respond by tackling more civic projects that concentrate on physical and emotional centers in cities; waterfront projects that include natural environments in urban spaces; streetscape projects that encourage social, cultural and community activities; and neighborhood regeneration projects that focus on the influence of public spaces on society.

Mariam Safi is a marketing specialist in Gensler’s New York office. Contact her at
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