Why Design Matters

Nicole our intern from Boston shares with us some of her observations about the difference a bit of thought and furniture reshuffling can make.

“Form follows function.”

That’s a design principle that was hammered into my brain over and over again in my operations technology and management class last semester. It seems simple enough, and yet it is so often disregarded.  When creating something, whether it be a new product, a presentation or a fictional new service business (as we were doing in our class), it’s made for a specific purpose, to be used in a specific way. So, naturally (one would think), you design it in a certain way so that the form of the product follows the desired function.

It applies to everything. If it’s a product, it’s the physical form the product will take. A PowerPoint presentation? It’s what colours, font, and theme you use to give the impression you want (whether it be professional, light-hearted, quirky, etc). A room? It’s the furniture, lighting and layout you use to mold the room into what you want it to be. Design - especially spatial design - is all impactful. It affects how you approach a product, how you view the person presenting, how you see a room. The design of a space changes how it will be used - it alters whether people feel energized or sluggish upon entering, whether they’ll just walk through or stay, whether they’ll sit silently or converse with people around them.

Don’t believe me? I’ll give you two examples, occurring thousands of miles away from each other in rather different settings: the lobby (commonly referred to as the atrium) of a business school in Boston, Massachusetts and the entry way at the BizDojo in Auckland, New Zealand. This is what the atrium in Boston used to look like:


It only ever contained students if they were awkwardly milling around, waiting for a lecture to start in the auditorium, and even then there weren’t very many of them.

This is what the atrium looks like now:


Unless it’s before 8am, and even then sometimes, there are always students around. They’re doing homework, socializing, meeting in teams and sometimes even practicing for presentations. It’s rare that I walk through without running into someone I know.

So what changed exactly? What caused such a difference in how this space is being used? 

For starters, the furniture. Instead of having horribly uncomfortable wooden benches surrounding awkward trees facing into the ether of the atrium, there are now comfy couches and chairs with places to put your laptop (or your feet up if you’re me). Plus, the chairs are pretty easy to move. So if your team wants to meet, you can actually arrange yourself so you’re facing each other (groundbreaking right?). What else? The carpet of course! Instead of everything you say echoing off the marble flooring, the carpet absorbs some of the sound, making you feel like you can have a conversation without everyone else hearing. Last but not least (although this does have to do with the furniture), the colour! Before nothing really caught your eye, there’s a neutral coloured floor with brown benches. Now? There’s bright colour everywhere, energizing you as you walk through the door and inviting you to sit down. 

The space was completely transformed from being an unused lobby to a utilized high-commodity seating area just by changing a few things in the spatial design. 

Now, on to example two - the reception area at the BizDojo @ GridAKL. I started interning for the BizDojo about a month ago, and when I got here, the reception was to the left of the doorway by our storage room without much other furniture aside from a couple of rarely used chairs. As their intern, (among other things) I spend a lot of time at reception, greeting residents and guests as they come and go. People rarely said hello as they entered and even more rarely stopped by to chat for a minute unless they needed a stapler.

Then, we moved the furniture around and something changed. It now looks like this:


Reception is on the right of the doorway, the chairs are in a similar place (although they get used more often), and more often than not there are people sitting in the waltzer couches. Guess what else happened? People say hello as they exit and enter. Throughout the day, I have short chats with people checking in and learning about their day and how they’re doing. 

This change in behaviour may seem small, but it’s impact isn’t. Saying hello and goodbye and these small chats go a long way to building a community. Moreover, they completely alter the mindset you start and end your day with. Instead of walking into a building and getting straight to work, you’re now greeted by a friendly (often dancing) face, ready to provide a little motivation as needed.

And all we did was move some furniture. 

Moral of the story? When creating a space, whether it be an office, a lobby in a business school or your living room, think about what you’re doing, who you're doing it for, and why. Don’t just buy a couch because it seems okay and the price is right, or hang up your art on the wall because it has to go somewhere. Decide what you want that space to do and design it for that. You might be surprised the difference it makes.