We’re all suckers for the new and the cool. Well, at least, I know I am. Latest Smartphone / Smartwatch, CHECK (with new Apps); Super sleek new Apple Laptop / iPad, CHECK; Brand new music album from that weird, quirky artist nobody has heard of, CHECK; Booked tickets for the 3D Hobbit film, CHECK.  All part of the new and shiny, ‘I want one’ society.

From fashion to tech, jewellery to alcohol, each and every market sector wants to promote their latest thing, create a buzz, elevate their product above the competitors. We live in a consumer society after all. Inevitably the workspace design and FM sectors are as much a victim of this psychological trait as any other sector. The trick (if there is one) is being able to separate the cool and trendy from the new and valuable.

Picture the scenario, we’re at the launch of a new product hailed as the ‘next big thing’. It’s a new workspace task chair, heavily and carefully researched to appeal to users who want to implement agile working or hot desking, with high levels of adjustability, durability, it’s even built in part from recycled parts of bicycles. It nails the prevailing zeitgeist. The marketing and PR campaign creates a fantastic, and genuine, story to support the launch. The product price falls well below expectation. It’s an immediate sell out.

But (there’s always a but) it’s a product designed for a unique set of users with distinct and relatively specific needs. It’s now being specified for users inappropriate to the intended group, with the eventual consequence that it fails, sometimes with significant consequences. It gets specified in 24 hour call centres, where staff complain of stiff backs due to lack of lumbar support. It gets specified in a start-up mega successful media firm, but gets replaced within 12 months as it gradually loses its zeitgeist. It gets specified in a scientific laboratory workspace, but can’t be cleaned to the correct environmental or statutory standards.

And why?

Because someone influential in the decision making hierarchy has been drawn irresistibly to the cool, trendy look of the product regardless of the fact that it has been designed for a specific purpose unsuited to their needs. It is a classic hurdle that has to be overcome by consultants and advisors in all walks of life. How to gently educate and steer the client - because after all, the client is often the decision maker obsessing about their favourite, albeit inappropriate design - towards a specification choice that is sustainable, aesthetically pleasing and, most fundamentally, fit for purpose.

All too often a workplace concept starts out with the client informing the designer (and sometimes even the facilities team as well) about exactly what they want their space to look like, with little consideration at this critical early stage of the pragmatic issues needed in the end result. It is only by learning about the business from those involved directly in the hard and soft factors, HR and FM teams, for example, that we extract the relevant, unique and often vital factors that discipline and moderate the final design. Convergence between HR and FM through the integration of this shared knowledge is an important factor to allow this model to succeed.

It's probably ok to splash out a couple of hundred quid on a smartphone that looks fantastic but might be compromised due to its cool looks. It's a completely different issue when specifying a couple of hundred thousand pounds worth of furniture or fit out.

A brief for the workplace is great to receive - but it must be aligned to an organisation’s values, its purpose, the character of the individuals using the space and expectations of clients using or visiting the space. Gathering and understanding that information is not a 10 minute or 1 hour, iterative process sat with the head of finance, it takes time and research. And at an early stage, it is not yet about the colours, the furniture, the shape or wall hangings or shelving. it is about making the space effective, productive and efficient - as well as one that motivates and engages the people working there. The focus must be substance.

Style comes later. But you can only achieve both by focussing on what you really need to happen within the workplace. To do that you must connect with the various back office teams supporting the workspace such as IT, HR and FM. You must listen to the users of the workspace - find out what is important to them and let them lead you to a stylish design, but one that is of real substance and fit for purpose.


Title Photo by Ali of A Noble Savage