Samantha Delabar and Meredith Payne of BHDP Architecture discuss how design strategists and business leaders must learn to effectively work together to transform workplace design.
For the past half century, design often referred to an individual who asked a few questions about a problem, went away for a period of time, and returned with well-crafted ideas to present as solutions to clients’ problems. Referred to as the master-design model, many architects and interior designers today developed their technique using this process. However, with the ever-increasing advancements in technology, the problems of design are entirely too complex to expect any one person to create the “perfect” solution. Here’s where charretting—the planning and design process where participants work collaboratively to find solutions—can play an important role. Its definition involves any interaction in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a design problem. The structure of each design project comes with a different set of stakeholders on the design side. However, more progressive design firms are expanding their definition of charrette to include stakeholders on the client’s side as well. In practice this form of charretting is a “graphic conversation” between designers and those who are intended to benefit from the design.
It’s common knowledge among doctors that no two heart attacks are alike. This is one reason why they need their patients to play critical roles in deciding the best treatment plan. For comparable reasons, the design process calls for the same level of teamwork. Collaborative sessions are key. The intention is to link the genius of professional designers as closely as possible to the end user’s need, aspirations and behaviors. Getting the right people in the room to define, arrange, and conceptualize a future place to inhabit higher value work is the wisest and simplest answer. Each side (design strategists and business leaders) comes to the table with a unique set of knowledge and expertise to help carry out the charrette. Usually, those representing the client side don’t draw, nor have they been trained to consider a space in terms of work settings. That’s up to the design strategist. On the other hand, what business leaders bring is their intense knowledge about the heart of the company, the office space needs, assigned and unassigned desks, future expansion plans, and other basic elements of what should comprise their office.
Another foundation of charretting is the use of storytelling scenarios to steer clients into the design process. Start by encouraging company executives to recount stories about special events, important meetings, late nights, and other dealings that have transpired throughout the years. Engage in active conversations with leaders so they can understand how a decision like, “Does everyone get an assigned seat?” impacts the outcome. In the end, conversation is translated from the business need to people behaviors, and ideally efficient space is created.
There are two points of challenge with charrettes that, if conquered, seem to drive more successful outcomes. The first stems from whether or not a designer will leave his or her ego at home during the charretting process, and that’s not being stated with malice. Designers should have a strong sense of self-worth and that awareness should be revealed through a potent degree of pride toward their work. However, for charretting to succeed, an attitude of collaboration is essential. In other words, designers need to be willing to share their central role—as the creator—with the other stakeholders. If this can transpire, the charrette likely will undergo an energetic, agile session full of prompts that are intended to unite the designer with the end user’s need. Keep in mind that it’s hard to avoid the uncertain, esoteric graphic conversations that kick off most charrettes. But, they’re normal. It takes the awkwardness of those initial ambiguities to arrive at the right solutions.
The second challenge is trying to get business leaders to realize and accept that they can be creative in design (even if just for a short period of time). By assuring leaders they have this ability, it supplies the confidence needed to produce their ideas through the process. As a result, business leaders shed their expectations that a designer has to ask all the questions, then leave for a few weeks, and return to present the “big reveal.”
BHDP’s client data support why charretting is significant. Throughout the firm’s 80-year history, associates have interviewed clients and learned time after time that assigned work cubicles in the United States are more than half empty at any given point in a workday. These findings suggest that America has moved from the more production-oriented assembly line work to the understanding that people don’t need to be at their desks to get their work done. Although office design is shifting away from assigned to more collaborative spaces, some managers still vie for assigned seats whether they use them or not. For this reason, the change is occurring more slowly than some would like. In the end, coming to realizations about available space demonstrates the value of the charrette. By making a design experience alive and active, it becomes a more visual, results-oriented experience.
In the world of modern design, the industry paradigm is being shattered and designers are learning to yield the pen. Once design strategists and business leaders work comfortably on the same piece of sketch paper—that’s when workplace design will transform offices away from rigid, assigned spaces and more toward collaborative, productive areas. Since the open workplace evolved out of 20 years of increased collaboration, it now calls for replacing the master-designer model with a process like charretting—allowing stakeholders to share in a graphic conversation to create results. It makes good sense because those who have a stake in the outcome are more likely to believe in it—and believing in it means defending it and taking action on it.
Originally published in Workplace Design Magazine.