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Planit's New Office: Storytelling Through Physical Space

Image © Michael Moran

Daring storytellers often seek new vehicles for their high-wire narrative feats. Such is the case with Planit, a group of energetic digital storytellers who turned to physical space to help tell their own story. Baltimore-born and unflinchingly colorful, this award-winning communications, marketing and interactive ad agency had been encased in a sleek Class-A office building fronting the city’s Inner Harbor. But Planit is not a sleek Class-A office space kind of company. Planit is a company in which the founders give employees skateboard decks as gifts and staff members continuously find new uses for the company pool table. Corporate they are not.

How these heroes of storytelling got from their Class-A digs to their new home—an adapted syrup processing and packaging facility—is a story of a shift in thinking and realization that the time was ripe for a bold announcement of arrival.

Following a period of impressive growth, Planit soon found themselves short on workspace. The company’s initial plan was a sensible and safe 5,000-square-foot expansion of their Class-A office environment. However, Planit quickly came to realize that taking this particular sensible and safe path would result in a missed opportunity. And Planit was in an ideal position to take advantage of a tremendous opportunity.

Along with the company’s growth had come a spate of accolades and an increasing sense that they had come of age. A move to a more visible space, one where Planit could literally hang their sign out front—not to mention one more aligned with their edgy personality and collaborative workstyle—would be a way to champion their moment of arrival and help them build a more immediate connection with the city they call home. Plus, Planit’s current rate of growth would render a 5,000-square-foot-expansion little more than a band aid; the agency would likely find itself needing more space in just a few years.

Image © Michael Moran

In a cosmic act of serendipity, a friend of Planit’s founders pointed them to a property—the former King Syrup facility—that was both seeking a tenant and chocked full of potential: it was located on a highly visible thoroughfare in a desirable downtown neighborhood; it was filled with gritty industrial character; and it was large enough to accommodate the company’s ongoing growth. But there was one problem: Planit needed someone to help them see the full spectrum of possibilities for the space and understand how those possibilities would impact the way they work and brand themselves.

Enter Gensler. Beginning with a visioning session that helped Planit articulate how they saw themselves evolving and how their workspace would support that evolution, Gensler began laying the groundwork for an environment that, in Planit’s words, would make the agency “better, smarter, faster, cooler.”

To create the container for this heightened version of Planit, the design team first addressed the base building—or buildings in this case. Three adjacent structures were stitched together to make Planit’s vision a reality and create a contiguous space that links Planit to its neighboring businesses, many of which are retail establishments. Thus, the project is effectively a repositioning that not only transforms the historic industrial facility that is Planit’s new home but also enables workplace and retail tenants to mix together to create a dynamic new community.

Inside this container is a space that juxtaposes grit and polish (a contrast that is thoroughly in line with Planit’s personality), is designed for disruption, enables collaboration, and functions as a memorable destination. And because Planit is a collection of storytellers, the new space also operates as a physical embodiment of the world’s most universal storytelling framework: the Hero’s Journey.

Image © Michael Moran

Defined by three acts—act one representing order, act two signifying chaos, and act three embodying the creation of a new order—the Hero’s Journey is the template for stories ranging from The Iliad to Star Wars. The use of this archetypal pattern in Planit’s home is not only a nod to the stories that they create every day but is also an allusion to the agency’s own against-the-odds journey from plucky upstart to highly awarded, nationally recognized entity. To mirror the Hero’s Journey, Planit’s new space features a tour path that takes you from the “order” of the account services area, where the design emphasizes a crisp horizontal and vertical linearity; across the symbolic threshold (in this instance a tunnel painted a psychedelic green) into the “chaos” of the creative services zone, where aggressive diagonals reign; and along a return journey that takes you to the “new order” of the viewing room, a cozy and tranquil area for watching newly produced creative material. Such flow is due in to the environment being primarily open and intentionally reconfigurable, allowing Planit to adjust their workspace as business needs dictate.

Planit so embraced the idea of “order and chaos” that they named one of the more unexpected aspects of the project—their public-facing coffee house—as such. While a coffee house might seem like an unusual extension for an ad agency, the venue will actually allow Planit to better connect with the neighborhood and serve as a testing ground for the company’s campaign ideas.

The coffee house will also function as one of several elements that make Planit’s new home a surprising and high-impact environment. This wow factor was necessary given the company’s relocation from a space in which the signature feature was a stunning view of the Inner Harbor. To make up for this loss, the ad agency’s new space needed to be equally if not more memorable for current and prospective clients. Thus, Planit’s new home includes high-impact moments such as murals that evoke the vivid design vernacular of graffiti and the precision of formal graphic design, materials that reference wooden skateboard decks, and bathroom wall graphics that boldly animate an often overlooked space.

The design also preserves many of the building’s original industrial features, including sliding fire doors (which are no longer functional), exposed brick, and concrete floors. In maintaining these historical elements, Planit’s space keeps alive the memory of the King Syrup facility and Baltimore’s industrial past while also serving as an inspiring setting for the city’s modern-day creatives. In effect, the space acts as a linking device, joining the story of yesterday to the story of today and Planit’s fully realized success.

Ehren is an architect, strategist, and product design practice area leader in Gensler’s Baltimore office. As a proponent for dynamic office spaces that can reshape and transform over time, he has introduced new methods that deal with the shift toward corporate offices becoming more open and collaborative. Contact him at ehren_gaag@gensler.com .
Dana is an interior designer in Gensler’s Baltimore office and specializes in making workplaces more effective, inspiring, and creative. Increasingly, her work is focused on helping fast-rising companies in the tech and media sectors create dynamic and cost-effective work environments. Contact her at dana_verbosh@gensler.com .