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Design in the Digital Age

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Globalization has made the world smaller. Must it make design smaller, too?
Globalization has made the world smaller. Must it make design smaller, too?

Globalization can have many connotations. At its best, it brings us together to address worldwide challenges like the fight to rid the world of COVID-19. At its worst, globalization ushers in all sorts of problems of its own, such as exploitation, inequality and even war.

What we’d like to discuss today is a subtle, though malignant, version of globalization and why now—amidst a global pandemic—is the perfect time to fix it.

The issue is one we all participate in, whether we realize it or not. We’re talking about the commodification of thought and the dilution of creativity that comes to us courtesy of globalization in the Internet age.

Woman Scrolling On Phone 1900

Global Following

Today almost 4.57 billion people, 59 percent the world’s population, are online. And although the Internet promised to make us smarter by introducing us to new ideas and concepts from across the world-wide web, it’s easy to make the opposite argument. The Internet has turned us into thumb-swiping followers who are less ambitious, less curious and less willing to question.

That’s particularly true in design, where the same ideas of what a building or space should look like get posted online for all the world to see, “like” and mimic.

Take, for example, the global ideal for a tech company workplace. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine what such an office looks like.

Pinterest Tech Office Clean Crop

If you’ve spent any time on Instagram, LinkedIn or Pinterest, you’re probably envisioning the same things we are: an open-plan workplace accented with splashes of bright colors, a sunlit common area with espresso machines and lounge, and a rec room with the requisite beer fridge and foosball table.

Now think for a second: How is it that each of us—even those who’ve never stepped foot in the offices of a tech brand—basically see the same thing? The answer is globalization and, with it, a turning away from the individual and regional influences that make design exciting, personal and meaninful.

As the world takes a pause to focus on COVID-19, we propose also using this time to reconsider our design strategies. Beyond infection control (which will, of course, be a larger part of design going forward), what can designers do on a functional and aesthetic level to create spaces that best fit the needs of an organization, its community and its individual employees?

We could start by looking beyond the industry norms.

BBC Worldwide Headquarters Stairs 2

The Case for Regional Nuance

Today the aesthetics of many workplace interiors are influenced by benchmarking metrics and trends impulsively shared and applied globally. In following this approach, designers reapply the banal on a global scale—creating uninspired workplace designs that draw from a composite of industry norms and say little about the people and culture that define a place.

In the past, this approach has made some sense. Since the dawn of global trading companies in the early 1600s, multinationals have sought ways to establish a simple and cost-effective design strategy across their many outposts. Workplace design standards that mandate a defined look and feel across an entire portfolio offer an easy and inexpensive solution. What these standards often lack, however, is nuance, regional relevancy and, one might argue, empathy and imagination.

International Trade Historic Painting 1900

In contrast to the “one-size-fits-all” of standards, workplace design guidelines recognize the importance of injecting a level of local culture, variety and control while still adhering to a firm’s overall design aesthetic and brand.

The guidelines approach is particularly relevant today as companies must incorporate local health conditions and protocols into their business strategy. We’ve found that guidelines also provide significant mental health benefits demonstrated in greater employee satisfaction and productivity.

The reason for this is simple: People who feel more comfortable and empowered in their environments tend to be happier and more engaged.

AstraZeneca SSF Lounge 1900

Appropriate or Appropriated?

As the design community literally goes back to the drawing board following COVID-19, we hope it will do so with more open and inquisitive minds focused on local needs, customs and ideals. A renewed curiosity and interest in local culture and community might even bring more regional voices and design philosophies into the global landscape.


Imagine applying the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi to the tech company workspace discussed earlier. The designer would incorporate elements whose imperfect beauty lies in their well-worn nature, imbuing the space with an authenticity not seen in most corporate workplace design.

Wabi Sabi 1000 Final
Hygge Final 1000

Now think about using the Danish concept of hygge, a “quality of coziness and contentment,” to guide the design story of that same tech office. The designer would use warm materials and accents to create an enveloping, safe space.

Channeling the spirit of gemütlichkeit, a German word that roughly means “cordiality and contentedness,” the designer would create an environment with an eclectic mix of colors and curated objects that promote a sense of comfort and relaxation.

Gemulichkeit 1000 Final
Feng Shui 1000 Final

Then there’s the ancient Chinese philosophy of feng shui, literally translated as wind-water, in which a structure or site is “chosen or configured so as to harmonize with the spiritual forces that inhabit it.” Designers guided by feng shui might divide the workplace into quadrants, each with design elements intended to create different experiences and energies that contribute to employee health and well-being.

What these design approaches have in common is a sense of simplicity, health, warmth and community, a.k.a., ideals that span cultures, oceans and continents.

As part of a global design firm, HOK’s design teams get to see firsthand how regional aesthetics and customs can influence the built environment within their native cities and nations. We also have the privilege of considering how they might be applied elsewhere.

Some might call this appropriation. We call that shortsighted. As global citizens, there is nothing wrong with being aware of and appreciating how people elsewhere lead their lives and how those same values or ideas might enhance our inclusive workplace designs for clients.

WPP Openmind Lobby 1900

Global Mission

As designers, it’s our job to understand how global and regional aesthetics influence people’s interaction with spaces and to balance the two. We need to be mindful of global branding, benchmarking and best practices while recognizing the importance of local and regional customs.

Whether we’re designing for a company with existing international presence or one that may not even have global ambitions, we must ask ourselves and our clients: What are the needs of the user? And irrespective of the latest fads and trends, how can we create a solution that makes the most sense for their individuals, culture and region?

Vacation Prints
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