“Is That All There Is?”
That’s what runs through my mind every December when the Pantone Color Institute reveals its “Color of the Year.” If you haven’t heard, in 2020 it was “PANTONE 19-4052 Classic Blue”—a deep blue shade that’s ideal for promoting “relaxed interaction” in your next office design project. Last year it was “vibrant, yet mellow” PANTONE 16-1546 Living Coral. But really, Living Coral? That’s so 2019! Admittedly, this is a brilliant marketing ploy by Pantone and the color of the year will inevitably infiltrate much of the world around us—fashion, retail and home products—as well as the furnishings, finishes and products that designers specify. But I also believe that, as much as I love Pantone and its colors, crystal ball pieces like this may be contributing to the slow death of authentic interior design.
Like many of my colleagues, I read these trend pieces. I follow social media influencer accounts—even the ones I hate. We need to stay informed. But we don’t have to blindly agree with them. As I see a new Instagram post pop up from one of these influencers, I’m nearly always haunted by the suspicion that the emphasis on surface-level impression over depth makes them more foe than friend.
That feeling is compounded when one of our designers picks something like millennial pink as the feature color for a space. I say, “Let’s stop here. Which idea does this color tie back to? How does it support the program, spatial concepts, context and design story?” If our designer simply thought it looked cool, that’s the wrong answer. If it’s because the space is for a cosmetics company and Millennial Pink directly relates to its beauty products, then bravo for embedding something meaningful!
What’s the Big Idea?
Authentic design—the kind that creates a memorable, iconic space rooted in an organization’s core values—is not born out of perusing trend pieces or imitating others’ ideas as a starting point. It’s influence-agnostic.
Designers are the product of our experiences. We are conscious of the zeitgeist we inhabit and what has come before us. And though we can’t completely shut out external influences, we must continuously push against letting them contaminate our design thinking.
I start each project by turning off my iPhone and laptop. I grab my pencils, colored markers and tracing paper and sit down with the space program and a floor plan. I may also have notes from an early visioning workshop. I think about the program, the building context and the opportunities to tell our client’s story. Then, without having looked at any images for inspiration, I draw.
More often than not, that initial sketch, no matter how rough or gestural, provides the seeds of a unique concept that guides the team’s development of the project. That “big idea” emerges from the program, the context and my experience. It’s a combination of knowledge and intuition. Later in the process, other influences and people will inform the design. If we do it right, though, they will always support that original idea.
Filtered Through 6 Pillars of Design
Technology and the internet have enabled the democratization of design. Everyone has easy access to examples of wonderful interior spaces. Without applying more rigor to the process, though, a design can only be rendered superficially.
At the foundation of authentic design are six pillars that together enhance people’s experience in a space. After we settle on the big idea for a project, we use these pillars as filters that shape how a three-dimensional space should look and feel. None stand alone. They are interrelated, and intersect to form architecture.
1. Scale and Proportion: How do we create the right balance (or deliberate imbalance) between program elements that serve as the building blocks for the space and begin to establish the journey, cadence, layering and spaces that support discoveries and destinations?
2. Shape and Form: How can the different shapes and angles in an existing space support our clients’ multifaceted needs? For example, maybe there are sharp angles in the building corners that we can incorporate into the experience to reinforce the program and connections between the inside and outside, travel and rest, or lateral and vertical. Each decision leads the team toward another vista and idea.
3. Flow: How should we structure circulation: the ways people arrive, proceed, make decisions about how to navigate and move horizontally or vertically through a space, and ultimately exit to continue their journeys?
4. Contrast: Can we provide variations in contrast by juxtaposing different colors, materials, textures and light levels? Lighting brings focus to hierarchy, function, wayfinding and beauty. It enhances shapes and styles to create visually interesting, memorable spaces that elicit authentic reactions from people.
5. Texture: What should the feel and consistency of the surfaces be? How do the type, scale and frequency of a texture express a brand, inspire people or inform their emotions? Should the furniture, as objects within a space, be sublime or statement-oriented? Should this furniture look and feel comfortable? Should wayfinding elements be clean and simple? How can the texture of the furnishings and finishes contribute to the desired mood? In a world that is increasingly focused on both sustainable design and the needs of a growing neurodivergent population, texture is a key ingredient.
6. Color (or lack of it): What should the color palette be? Admittedly, we often find ourselves thinking about color early in the process. Yet color selection is more iterative. It begins to naturally emerge as we define elements like scale, proportion, shape and form. As one of the most dynamic pillars, the role of color becomes prominent only after the three-dimensional design begins to form.
In the Mood
“Make our space look like this!” All of us who use mood boards and red-dot/green-dot exercises to help establish a design vocabulary and stylistic point of view with our clients have heard those words. One of our clients kicked off an office project by giving the design team a 500-page catalog of images they liked. Another really wanted to plop down a classic Chesterfield sofa in an ultramodern space.
But these design exercises are meant to enhance client engagement and collaboration, and should not be confused with ‘speed dating’ an image. Instead, this is an exercise in courtship and union toward a long-term, meaningful experience.
"Make our space look like this."
We can’t let the tail wag the dog by allowing aesthetic preferences to shape a design. It’s the job of the designer to decipher how these predilections can improve the outcome. The big idea, filtered through each design pillar, needs to anchor our early design decisions. Only after we go through this process—not even during early planning and visioning sessions—should we employ mood boards (and consider whether a Chesterfield sofa is the right fit for a space!).
In these mood board sessions, we ask clients to explain what they like about the images that appeal to them. Is it the colors, materials or shapes? The overall look and feel? If, through these conversations, we can understand what they like, we can apply that design language—even in abstract ways—to every element of the space in ways that support the big idea.
My favorite outcome from a mood board session is when a client says something like, “I love those beige and white spaces. I’m not asking you to make my project look like that, but the level of brightness is right for our environment.” Then we can design a space that relates to what they like in a way that fits their culture and needs.
I have seen colleagues get frustrated with a client who did not agree with the team’s carefully selected material or color palette. Then, instead of engaging them in a discussion, the designer simply agrees to do something else and moves on to the next decision. That doesn’t work. We need to finish those conversations. Go down that rabbit hole and ask your client to talk about the very thing you hate—even if it’s putting your ideas at risk. As you probe your client’s likes and dislikes, unpack what they’re saying until you understand it. Then you can rebuild your idea with the client alongside as creative partner. At the other end of this journey is an opportunity to reinforce the power of your design story.
Later, as we go into schematic design, we often show clients other examples of our work to illustrate best practices. If a client needs scrum spaces, for example, we’ll show them six photos of different agile workspaces. We’ll talk about how we provisioned them, how we decided on colors and levels of brightness, and how each specific client wanted them to look and function. The best comment we can get from our client at this point is, “I hate that color but love how the people are working.”
Authenticity From Rigor
Many of our clients have never gone through the process of planning, designing and building a new space. As our partners and co-creators in this endeavor, their input is vital to creating a truly authentic space that meets their people’s needs, engages their senses and taps into their emotions. This is designing for an experience.
When we’re walking the space with clients on move-in day, we want them to experience a visceral understanding of how everything they encounter relates to the big idea we developed together. We want the aesthetics to make them feel a powerful sense of place.
We owe it to all our colleagues and clients to do our best to avoid the paint-by-numbers uniformity that comes from chasing trends and to demand a more rigorous approach to the design process.