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Design in the Digital Age

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Design under the influence
Design under the influence

We’ve had clients ask for “Marie Kondo minimalism” as a design aesthetic. Ms. Kondo, arguably the world’s leading organizing consultant, has a gift for decluttering. I’ve read her books, watched her Netflix show, considered taking her certification course and even purchased a matcha bowl from her KonMari shop. But a few years ago, I never would have imagined that our clients would point to her advice while working with us on solutions for organizing a boardroom’s AV equipment, a hospital’s medical storage closet or an office’s kitchen pantry. Or that they would ask us to emulate the modern farmhouse style of Joanna and Chip Gaines, the faces of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper,” for the design of an office kitchen.

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Rise of the Influencers

A variety of websites, TV streaming services and social media channels like Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and Pinterest provide new platforms that have propelled the rise of the influencer culture.

I appreciate that people like Ms. Kondo, the Gaines’ and celebrities like Lenny Kravitz have been able to shine long-overdue light on the value of design. The rising tide of interest in quality design at every scale has propelled it into the mainstream while elevating our own work. This democratization of design has also engaged our clients, who now bring stronger opinions and more astute insights to interior design projects.

Influencers cultivate reputations as authorities in specific areas—whether it’s organizing, parenting, fitness, fashion, food or design—and then, often in partnership with brands or in promotion of their own products, use their power to impact their followers’ purchasing decisions. And influence all types of people, organizations and product manufacturers they do. Just last December (before the coronavirus), the global influencer market was projected to become a $15 billion business by 2022.

“The aesthetics of a space should emerge from an exacting process that finds inspiration in sources more meaningful than an Instagrammable moment.”

For example, the influencer buzz around skin-enhancing beauty water piqued my interest enough that I bought a book about it. For our design of a new headquarters on a waterfront site, I then had the idea to switch out the traditional lobby coffee bar with a water bar offering fruit infusions and flavored seltzer waters. This idea resonated with our hospitality industry client and ultimately made its way into the final design.

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Interior Decoration vs. Interior Design

How about a complete gut renovation of a home in three days? Home renovation shows like “Fixer Upper,” which often conflate interior decoration and design, can give our clients unrealistic expectations for a project’s process or schedule.

There’s no doubt that decorative elements like furnishings, fixtures or finishes can spark moments of joy. A space should have its own personality and style.

Kitchen 1900

Yet the aesthetics of a space should emerge from an exacting process that finds inspiration in sources more meaningful that an Instagrammable moment. Professional designers derive the look and feel of an environment from what needs to happen in that space, the local context (building and site), as well as fundamental design principles like scale, proportion, shape and form. For a space to truly succeed, it must look great while contributing to our clients’ deeper goals for employee attraction, branding, innovation, productivity, health and well-being.

In the end, the DNA of the most thoughtfully designed interior spaces often contains more strains of disruption than influence. Truly authentic, enduring spaces often are the result of design gestures that run counter to the opinions of outside influencers. They are the product of the designers’ expertise and creative inspiration. They are always true to the time and place.

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Less is the New Luxe

How will COVID-19 reshape influencer culture? Though the effects will keep shifting as this global pandemic evolves, the public will, for the foreseeable future, allocate less disposable income for purchasing items they don’t need. Brands have pulled out of influencer sponsorships and live events have been canceled.

In addition to anxieties around health and finances, people’s home lives have been transformed. Home now is where they eat, work, play and exercise. Many people have simplified their lives in quarantine, gravitating away from frivolity and toward items that nourish and provide feelings of comfort and safety. Exotic travel is out. Online exercise classes and meditation workshops are in. Less is the new luxe.

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As this is happening, new health and wellness influencers are surfacing. Though I have unfollowed some that seem irrelevant in the midst of a pandemic, I’m discovering new ones with more wholesome values apropos of the time: Marie Cornejo, Colovos, Shira Gill, CAP Beauty and Parsley Health to name a few. These new influencers will affect workplace design—now and post-pandemic—in different ways.

Follow You, Follow Me

In this time of coronavirus-fueled change, design firms like HOK and our peers are poised to become even stronger influencers. Our experience and ability to use evidence-based design to enhance health and well-being—within brand standards and aesthetic goals—can’t be mimicked by online influencers who aren’t professional designers. Just because some influencers are skilled at curating cool snapshots of trending design elements—a dash of millennial pink here, a haphazard collection of succulents there—does not make them designers.

Though follower count may cause some influencers to be perceived as authorities, that’s not enough. We need to carefully filter who among the thousands of design influencers we follow as they can, even subconsciously, goop up our own creativity.

My HOK colleagues also are learning how to operate in the design influencer space. Kay Sargent, director of our WorkPlace group, and Dr. Andrew Ibrahim, chief medical officer for HOK’s Healthcare practice, regularly engage with followers on LinkedIn and Twitter. Personally, I’m am a longtime Pinterest user. We all benefit from exchanging ideas with our followers—even more so during this time of disruption. It’s a comforting move away from ‘corporate speak’ to more honest conversations about design and wellness.

Going forward, workplace designers will need to intensify our efforts to develop tailored, branded solutions that more strongly integrated health and safety. Everything, including the influencer market, is up for renewal and reinvention.

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