Diversity Boosts Design Innovation

August 15, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Clients looking to build or renovate buildings demand innovation and in-depth expertise, which requires interior designers to work more broadly with multiple expert groups.

That demand for innovation calls for a diverse pool of ideas. And a diverse project team, coupled with experts, will result in better experiences for everyone involved in the interior design process, from clients to consultants, contractors and vendors, said Interior Designer Cherie Johnson of Progressive AE.

The goal is to meet the functional and technical requirements of users and enrich their experiences in the building and enhance their performance. That means the designer has to gain an understanding of what the client’s needs and issues are regarding the building or space, including the company’s corporate culture, public image, processes and operational costs, Johnson said.

During the pre-design phase of a project, Progressive AE interior designers help clients identify issues and user requirements by listening to, gathering, analyzing and synthesizing information.

“We gather a broad base of input, which leads to a lot of diverse ideas and helps us come up with more creative and innovative solutions,” Johnson explained.

“We will go out and engage the different constituent groups, so when the space is done it’s very easy to use and fits like a tight-fitting glove. Whether people work or play or worship in a space, the space really impacts their experience. It’s a real problem-solving effort and design is the tool we use.”

Kathleen Stewart Ponitz, senior vice president and client advocate, said project teams are much more interesting today because they include people who aren’t typically associated with design. Depending on the project, a project team could include a sociologist, an HR specialist, a business or financial analyst, a furniture manufacturer, a technology consultant, a lean manufacturing expert, a minister, a physician or an organizational development consultant, among others.

Progressive, in fact, had an anthropologist on its team for the DeVos Place convention center project. The project team also worked with user focus groups and held design charettes to gather diverse thoughts.

“By watching and observing people, you start to understand a lot. Working with an anthropologist, what we did was look for patterns — repeat issues and problems that individuals were having in a convention center experience.”

What they found was that there are six different categories of conventioneers, or six different ways that people “convention.”

“We tried to get as much input as we could so it would appeal to many users,” Ponitz added. “We didn’t make any assumptions about how the space had to be used.”

Similarly, Progressive gathered input from charettes with school children when it designed the Goodwillie Environmental School for Forest Hills Public Schools.

“Certainly, projects are getting a lot more complex and a lot more sophisticated, so we try to bring in the very, very best of all the different elements,” Pontiz remarked. “If the users are different age groups, different populations or different ethnicities, we can design space that has that sensitivity if we have a diverse team.”

She said one of the interesting things Progressive is doing now is looking at how an organization works so the building’s interior can be better designed to support that.

“It may not be a brick-and-mortar solution,” she noted. “We also may want to look at the brick and mortar of the facility and figure out how it can be a more creative place to bring about better organization.”

Creating “healthy” environments is important, too.

“We’ve been trying to encourage and push for sustainability,” Pontiz said. “We look at the triple bottom line in everything we do. There should be an economic return, a social return and an environmental return.”

One of the advantages of putting together the right project team is client satisfaction, according to Johnson. Clients tend to trust a design/engineering company that has the ability to quickly come up with an innovative plan for a new space environment, she said.

Founded in 1962, Progressive AE generates annual revenues of more than $17 million and employs a full service staff of 124, including architects, planners, interior designers, environmental analysts, engineers, graphic designers, surveyors, traffic engineers, cost specialists and construction personnel.

Progressive AE interior designers offer a full range of services, including interior finish selection and layout; furniture recommendation; layout/design and specification; equipment coordination and installation; interior signage; window treatments; interior plantings; and artwork and accessories layout and procurement.    

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