Great design has the power to stir the soul and encourage greatness.
By Lance Secretan
Editor's note: Lance Secretan will deliver the opening keynote address titled, "Reclaiming Higher Ground: The New Story of Leadership," at EnvironDesign9 in New York City on April 20. A lifelong student of the unique contribution of leaders throughout history, Secretan shares here the power in creating and honoring environments that engage the soul and inspire greatness.
"Form follows functionthat has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union."
Frank Lloyd Wright
I'm in the business of inspiration and leadership. In my many years working with leaders and organizations around the globe, I have studied leadership, researched it, written about it, experienced it and facilitated it. You, as designers, are also in the business of inspiration and leadership. You are the creators of "soulspaces"environments that engage the soul, encourage it to sing and inspire greatness. And you are leaders. This is my definition of leadership: A serving relationship with others that inspires their growth and makes the world a better place.
Many designers see the importance of physical environment in human performance and potential, and many are called to imagine and create the extraordinary spiritual and creative liberation that flows from sacred places designed for the soul. With
soul in mind, designers have transformed airports, department stores, schools, hospitals and public buildings. The possibility of design is to carefully and lovingly create beautiful ambiance for employees and customers, knowing that establishing a connection with the soul is critical to wellness, inspiration and organizational excellence.
GE Healthcare Technologies CEO Joseph M. Hogan recently said this about the evolving importance of design: "Today, when we think about designing, say, a new MRI system, we don't just think about designing the product, we think about designing the whole radiology suite. Design in the next 10 years will move beyond the product. It will move beyond workflow. Hospitals in the future
will have different ways of interacting with the patient. We have to think about setting the course for how design can affect the whole healthcare experience."
When I speak to audiences, I often ask them to imagine that they have been asked to do the most creative work of their livesan assignment that will be their legacy on this planet. Then I ask what physical location they would choose in which to work while accessing their genius and inviting their creative juices to flow. They usually describe places like mountains, forests, deserts, beaches or islands. Sometimes they will name a placethe Napa Valley, Mount Rainier, the Rockies, Hawaii or the Grand Canyon. They never suggest the office.
Nature has no right angles. Humans are part of nature, and we have no right angles, either. It is natural, therefore, that we find the irregular and the curved more pleasing to our sensations. Indeed, because we are part of nature, the right angle is not in our DNA and clashes with our cellular memoryit has no connection to our soul. Yet the default design for our work and living spaces is the rectanglea direct affront to our souls. Suppose, though, that we rethought the design of our workplaces, designing them with curvesno right angleswith round windows, curved walls and irregularly shaped doors, rooms and furniture that are fluid and nonconformist, using natural materials, not plastic; that plants were abundant; that the curves of water and sound were evident; that we could see the sky and the stars through curvilinear skylights; and that we used our imagination to replace linear environments. If we had the courage to "destroy the box," as Frank Lloyd Wright suggested, and lessen our rectilinear thinking, creativity would take a cue from this fluid environment, and brilliance would be invited to flourish in our workplaces.
Creative environments romance creative work from people. Soul-spaces inspire luminous results and leadership. By changing the lines of our environments and the artifacts with which we fill the spaces, we can dramatically enhance personal and, therefore, organizational performance. While I'm not a designer by trade, the work I do with organizations and leaders has helped clients rethink the original designs of their office buildings and influence the structures and décors to achieve remarkable changes in the
performance, inspiration and attitudes of all of the people who enjoy the space.
My own offices are located in a converted log house, perched at the edge of a cliff overlooking a 700-acre wilderness that unfolds into the valley 400 feet below. The offices are wrapped in large curved windows that enable colleagues and visitors to connect with the spectacular views, which change with each magical season and weather pattern. The panorama is breathtaking and the silence extraordinary. Visitors arriving for the first time are astounded by the awe-inspiring views; even regular visitors return to their favorite spot to stand and gaze for a few moments to enjoy the pristine tranquility before settling into the business that brought them to our soulspace. Coming to our workplace is an inspiration each day!
What I have learned is that the efficient and economical yet ugly design is always the most expensive because it stifles creativity and is a barrier to high performance. A recent client spent $10 million adding beauty, curves, natural materials and aesthetic additions to a $180-million hospital. This is the only hospital in that state that does not have a major recruiting problem. People want to work in beautiful places. They will seek you out, and they will want to stay. The result: savings of millions of dollars every year. Who says the "old story" way of designing workspaces is efficient and cost-effective? It costs money to be "efficient," and investing in beauty in our surroundings makes moneythe opposite of traditional, utilitarian thinking. Why? Because it nourishes the soul, and when the soul is nourished, the world wins.
In fact, creating beautiful surroundings may pay handsome dividends, even beyond those reaped by the soul. Ford Motor Co. has created the world's largest living roof by covering it with 10 acres of drought-resistant sedum plant costing $3.6 million. Though this is double the cost of regular roofing, it will last twice as long, and the company will therefore break even on its investment. But there are additional benefits: It will reduce polluted storm-water runoff, and act as an insulating blanket in warm and cold weather by absorbing and reducing rainfall. The air quality around the plant will be improved because the roof will absorb and trap carbon dioxide, and release oxygen into the
environment. And the company will save $35 million that it will not need to spend on storm sewers and storm-water treatment systems because the roof acts as a natural filtration system, sending excess storm water to retention ponds before being released into the Rouge River.
I'm certain that each of you will have numerous stories of your own that reveal the power in creating and honoring environments that engage the soul, encourage it to sing and inspire greatness. I applaud your vision and your mastery. Thank you for being inspirational leadersand for your contributions to making the world a better place.