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Mix Roundtable: Should design be more people-centred?

In partnership with Invictus, we explored why fostering relationships is essential, charted our changing connections with commercial spaces and considered if design is ever successful if it doesn’t put people first.

Feature in partnership with Invictus® Luxury Vinyl Flooring

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Our collection of design industry leaders were assembled at Brewhouse Yard, home to BDP and a late 19th century former brewery. Fitting, then, that a venue once designed to produce a social lubricant would play host to a discussion all about people – what influences us, what motivates us and what role the spaces we inhabit play in making us happier and more productive. And just as beer and the settings that trade in it have traditionally played a part in connecting us, so too does that role now fall on designers, as they grapple with the need to create workplaces centred on collaboration and hospitality destinations focused on community.

“Of course, believe it or not, designers are also people,” quipped M Moser Associates Gurvinder Khurana, who recently segued from running her own business into a director position at the global workplace design agency. After all, in order to better understand how designers design, it’s arguably essential to understand why they design.

“M Moser was founded by a woman and that was important to me,” continued Khurana. “I just don’t feel that there’s enough being done for diversity: for inclusive design and inclusive leadership. People need role models coming through. We have a young generation of women who need to know that it can be done and that it’s not out of their reach. I want to build a world for women and show them it’s possible.”

For BDG’s Adam Childs, there’s immense joy to be found in the act and art of creation: “Making things, willing things into existence; the process of transforming nothing into something and being a part of that journey is hugely satisfying.”

As managing director at DesignLSM, Holly Hallam doesn’t consider herself a designer. “So, what I really like doing is looking at a client’s main objective for a space and exploring how design can help influence that, from a commercial strategy perspective,” she explains. “I believe in moulding elements together to make a space live, breathe and work effectively.”

Diversity, creativity and strategy: all pillars supporting the work of our speakers. Some of these themes they have in common, others are individual inspirations. To what degree then can design service that which we have in common, while also taking into account the areas in which we diverge?

“Everyone’s happiness is different,” surmised HOK’s Luke Henry-Powell. “So, in many ways it means creating spaces that resonate differently with different people.”

Continuing, Shh’s Smaro Kirmelidou posited it’s often easiest to start with commonalities and work from there. “We all have the same three needs,” she explained. “There’s the physical need to be warm, the second need is mental satisfaction and the third need is spiritual – not necessarily in a traditional sense, but in terms of how we express who we are, what our ethos is and how those subjects get reflected in a space.”

Of course, discussions around wellbeing in the workplace have, in recent times, been elevated. While it seems, in the UK at least, we’ve finally hit a turn off after two years hurtling along the COVID motorway, it hasn’t left us unchanged. Our ways of working are altered, and power balances have shifted – it’s no longer enough to deliver workplaces that function, they should support; not enough that employees are productive, they should be fulfilled. These are not necessarily new conversations, but they have become more urgent in the almost post-pandemic age. But before considering the projects devised for others, it’s worth considering those devising the projects. Do happier designers ultimately deliver better design?

“Working teams are just like any other relationship,” suggested MF Design Studio‘s May Fawzy. “It’s so important to work with people you like and share synergies with. Just like family or friends, no one wants to be in unhappy relationships. Happiness at work means freedom to express.”

Agreeing, BDP’s Sheela Shukla jumped in: “That freedom to express and be confident is so important and an environment can also support that. A happy environment and happy designers definitely produce better designs.”

Offering a more temperate perspective, Hallam emphasised the need for balance: “Because if it’s not balanced, you have no business. Anybody who goes into a job must, one would hope, understand that they’re there for a function and that if the business isn’t profitable, they don’t have a job. So COVID brought a positive disrupter in that people have actually just stopped and reset. Then again, it’s all very good sitting in a field in the south of France with a laptop, but if your WiFi isn’t working, then it all falls down at that point.”

For Clare Debney, Woods Bagot, flexibility is most effective and happiness-engendering when it’s coupled with personal choice. “It’s actually the choice that people value,” she explained. “We work from home two days a week and on the days we come into the office, there’s freedom to arrive and leave when you please, as long as you get your work done.”

Of course, flexible modes of working and the ability to offer employees a greater degree of agency are also possible now, as Invictus’ Mark Darnbrough highlights, in a way they simply weren’t before.

“My parents and grandparents worked in environments that would be hellish compared to how we work now. But they didn’t mind because that’s how it was and, actually, there wasn’t the technology to support anything else,” he said. “So they needed spaces designed for the 9-to-5, because that was the only way to do things.”

In the space of two or so years, the 9-to-5 has gone from the backbone of the working world to a vaguely parochial idea. Today, few offices are expected to be occupied for the entirety of the working day, even fewer for the entirety of the working week. A change, then, in function. But what of form? In creating people-centred spaces – not just for today, but tomorrow – what can the world of hospitality teach the world of workplace, when it comes to designing for comfort and community?

“There are workplaces that always prioritised productivity,” offered Childs, “because that was what was being asked for. The world has changed, and the two worlds of workplace and hospitality are starting to merge. One of the big things that workplace takes from hospitality is the comfort factor. Workplaces need to attract people back in, not force them. Bars, restaurants, those kind of social hubs, are becoming really important parts of the office. They’re the places where people come in after working remotely to connect.”

Shukla saw another parallel in the overlapping of home and office: “To get people back, the workplace needs to be compelling. So, yes, we’re seeing more hospitality elements but it’s also interesting that, even as more and more people are setting up home offices, that the office itself needs to be more of a home.”

To what degree the ‘homeification’ of the workplace is warranted, however, is a source of some debate. Fussball tables, informal breakout areas, rest nooks: all features of workplace design both pre and post-pandemic and, yet, to what degree are they actually utilised? In creating people-centred environments, to what extent are designers actually catering to human need?

“The most successful projects I’ve worked on have been those with an emphasis on engagement,” said Debney. “We really asked what people needed. With breakout spaces, for example, it’s not that they don’t get used but that they’re sometimes unfit for purpose. It can’t just be a couple of desks and a sofa, it needs to consider how a particular team works together and it should be adaptable, it should include elements that make it function well for that team – even if it’s just having a pinup board.”

For several of those at the table, a shift of culture is also required, with Shukla suggesting that employers need to trust their employees more if fussball during working hours is going to become a habit; with Darnbrough noting that increasingly young management means more progressive practices becoming accepted; and with Khurana hoping that workplace design will become even more inclusive. “You can’t design by committee,” she said, “but you can design engaging with a wider group of people.”

Fawzy emphatically agreed: “We don’t want some kind of designer democracy, but it has to work for everyone.”

 

On the sea change in the design industry, Henry-Powell noted that people-centred design doesn’t need to do anything other than what it says on the tin and, yet, this is perhaps more radical than it might seem. “For a long time people-centred design has actually been business-centred design,” he described. “We talk about wellness, but the workplace generally is quite degenerating for the human mind and body. So, right now, we’re looking at how environments can assist businesses when we really need to look at how to respond to the human psyche and body. We’re detached from the natural environment. Perhaps we need change on an even bigger scale.”

With the Clerkenwell skyline now bathed in the glow of dusk, we turned to closing words. For all the discussion and shared ideas what, in the end, is the key to people- centred design? Well, for Darnbrough, it’s the need to develop meaningful relationships; for Kirmelidou translating a spiritual, emotional ethos into a tangible space; while, for Childs, it all comes down to doing good.

“As designers, we’re incredibly lucky. We can make people’s days a little bit better and that’s hugely motivating. So, I think people-centred design is a desire: to want to make people’s lives that little bit better through your influence.”

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