Form Follows Future

Shoji screens replacing cubicle walls in the design of government offices? It’s happening. Retail designers watching MTV for cues to entertain shoppers? Sure. Starbucks in a retirement community? Who couldn’t use a jolt of companionship with their caffeine?

All of these trends, and many more, were discussed last fall at the IDA’s fourth annual Industry Advisory Council, a forum that brings together interior designers and industry partners to share insight. The IIDA forum directors who participated represented all disciplines–government, healthcare, hospitality, retail, corporate, education, facility management, and residential design. In 2000, the council’s main topic was (and remains) the darling of trend-watchers: the New Economy and the forces that drive it, chiefly technology.

Technology means not only faster communication, but also more efficient systems that offer manufacturers better quality control, quicker production, and more time to develop products and to shop around for complementary partners. (Furniture companies have led the way in uniting under a single umbrella, but now surface companies are following them.) Or as corporate partner Glenn King of KingMahon Design Partnership, put it, “Today, the fast beat the slow–tomorrow, the fast will beat the big.”

Manufacturers who realize a need to integrate products are talking to other manufacturers. For example, the flooring people are beginning to speak to the wheelchair people, and the cart makers, and the bed makers, and the candlestick makers (or rather, the foot-candle makers). It is time for both industry and design to step out of their own spheres and enter others, to follow the lessons of the VW Bug and the PT Cruiser for which design played a crucial role in development. There’s no time to waste. Modernization used to mean 20 to 30 years, but now it means 2 to 3.

In the stalled economy of the late ’80s and early ’90s, companies returned to their core businesses. Now, to stay ahead, both designers and manufacturers have to be not only technology experts, but also business strategists, futurists, regulatory/code experts (especially if they work in today’s global economy), educators of staff and management, marketers, customer service representatives, ethicists, and management consultants.

Technology is a tool and cannot solve problems in and of itself. It requires innovative thought, combined with creative utilization of people, talent, and time. Clients want personal attention, no matter where they are located. And while designers troll the Internet for resources, their relationship with manufacturers’ representatives remains key in securing information and a sale. “Human resources” doesn’t mean the personnel department. It means people. Retaining employees is crucial for both design firms and manufacturers. The new “knowledge worker” doesn’t have the work-till-you-drop mentality of the baby boomer but demands a better quality of life. Respecting employees’ individuality, business has moved from the hierarchy organizational chart (workers in cubicles, management in corner offices) to the parity organizational chart (workers assigned to the same kind of space regardless of what they do) to the pluralism organizational chart (the right space for the right job).

Evolving from the dialogue between industry and design isn’t a business model but an intellectual one: the think tank. Together, we can harness technology and move into a better future. It is time to put out heads together.

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