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Discovering the Power of Words

Just as words have the power to convey a message, the design of a given space does, too.

This post is part of a series of blog posts on Gensler’s 2016 Workplace Surveys.

I have always been a great fan of words and the power they can contain, the subtlety and nuance between two synonyms and the meanings either one can connote. I love how particular combinations of words can express a particular emotion, unfold a particular narrative or reveal a hidden secret.

Words themselves are a coding system that holds no meaning other than that which we attribute to them. A single word can be a cluster of pen strokes on a page or an arrangement of pixels on a screen, but it can hold the power to make someone laugh or cry, insight fury, start wars or encourage forgiveness. Words can describe or state something literally, but also metaphorically. In this sense, they are representing yet another level of meaning that the human mind has to process and assimilate to understand. This is where their potential for expression is seemingly limitless.

The same can be said of interior environments. Either directly or sub-consciously, the design of a given space conveys a message. Sometimes it can unintentionally give a negative message to those that experience it, especially if the design has not been fully considered, but when done well it can be a powerful tool. When the respondents of Gensler’s 2016 UK Workplace Survey were asked to rate the design, look and feel of different space types, the survey’s innovators group gave significantly higher scores for all spaces, from their primary workspace right through to the common areas (and even staff loos!). The reason behind this is that office design is not just aesthetic; like words it has the power to raise the effectiveness of all space types. It visually expresses the values of an organisation, thereby promoting a shared identity. When this is done well, it has the potential to drive high levels of staff creativity and innovation. Within the commercial office environments, the workplace is a physical representation of a company, a brand and its component parts, whether that’s its culture, ethos, people or values. It should act as a 3D business card to attract and retain business and talent. It’s a large investment, which doesn’t occur that often, so it needs to be carefully considered and executed well.

It is our duty as designers to ensure that all of the above has been considered. One of the ways in which we do this is to make certain that we fully understand the brand we are working with and to get under the skin of what makes that organisation tick. This can be done through dedicated workshops and visioning sessions that allow our clients to distil the essence of their brand story. We do this by getting our clients to look at images that have nothing to do with interiors or materiality. They could be anything from a butterfly to a stiletto, but this encourages the client to use words to describe particular characteristics using the images to metaphorically describe specific attributes of their company. This often results in conversations that wouldn’t have otherwise been considered. For example, “Our company is a red stiletto because red is the first colour in the spectrum that you see, and we should be the first company that people see,” or “We stand tall above the competitors.” Having these metaphors that describe culture, values, ethos and people as a reference, we can then weave these characteristics into a narrative that informs all of the design solutions throughout the entire design process.

This gives meaning and purpose to everything going forward. Then, the conversation is no longer about materials or finishes, like whether the client likes wood or hates pink. The client understands that the materiality and the finishes stem from the story that they helped create and endorsed from the outset. In some instances, it justifies the introduction of spaces, which encourages not only innovation but also energy and interaction. It shows that everything has been considered and nothing is arbitrary.

It will convey the story of their brand and strive to create loyal and meaningful bonds with staff. When employees can see the investment in their physical environment they understand that people are being prioritised over simple efficiency - It will have the same power as the written word and will speak volumes.

Chris is the workplace Regional Practice Area Leader for Media. He specialises in intelligently creative projects for a variety of media companies where the workplace becomes the physical manifestation of their brand. Chris believes user experience, efficiency and well-being are key design drivers of every project to invaluably enhance the productivity of the workforce. Contact him at christopher_crawford@gensler.com.