30 Years and Counting

We invite some of the most notable designers we’ve profiled through the years to reflect on where their personal journeys have led them since we last spoke, and how they feel about design's future.

by Robert Nieminen

bonny slater, ncidq, leed ap id+c
Senior Interior Project Designer and Associate

Bonny Slater is no stranger to I&S. She was most recently featured as part of the winning team in Mannington Commercial’s 2013 Design Local contest, and was also one of our 10 Young Professionals we featured in 2006. Having moved from NBBJ to Perkins+Will in recent years, she’s developed a specialty in the field of healthcare design and a sharp focus on the essentials of design.

How have your experiences in the past 8 years changed the way you think about design?
Over the past eight years, my perspective has shifted in terms of what I see as good design.  Early in my career, good design was all about the “big idea,” and a clear concept carried through the design.  Now, although I’m still drawn to a compelling story, I realize that experience is what really creates a brilliant design. Designing to shape an experience goes beyond architecture. It engages all the senses, influences behavior, and has an emotional impact. 

In our 2006 roundtable discussion, you noted that legislation was one of the biggest challenges facing designers but felt that “it’s very achievable in the near future.” Do you still feel that way? Why or why not?
I do think legislation is a big challenge, but the degree to which this affects designers depends on where they practice. I started my career in New York, which has struggled with the advancement of legislature. Although I fully support the efforts of IDLNY (Interior Designers for Legislation in New York), things are different in Washington.

What topics or ideas interest you most these days?
I’m doing a lot of work overseas and am absolutely fascinated by the impact cultural differences have on design. Culture affects how people behave, how they perceive color and light, and the meaning they attach to space and form. If you take the time to explore a foreign culture, you can’t help but ask yourself: what are the architectural implications?

What excites you most about design today? What worries or concerns you?
I think the upcycling of products and buildings is an exciting movement. People are finding really innovative uses for older buildings and neighborhoods, especially industrial ones, and breathing a second life into them. The perception of “new,” equating with “better,” is dying, and I love it.

If you could go back and revisit one thing in your career over again, what would it be? Why is that?
To be honest, that isn’t something I’ve thought about much. Every mistake has been a lesson. The one thing I would revisit is a commitment to maintain my hand drawing skills. I fully embraced digital visualization methods, which pulled effort off of my sketching skills.

Describe the most important lesson you’ve learned over the course of your career?
I have learned to not plan my life around project schedules since schedules will inevitably change. If you keep rescheduling your personal life, you may not have one left when you do finally get a break. 

What advice do you have for designers on their way up?
Work at developing a broad range of design skills and experience multiple project types. Develop your strengths and interests, but don’t become myopic in your focus. In the last economic downturn we saw a lot of experts struggle in their areas of specialization, however those with a strong set of general design skills thrived because they were agile enough to shift with the market.

What do you see as the future of design?
I see designers themselves being more highly valued by the business community. The more we tell the stories of how design has facilitated organizational change and improved business metrics, the power will be recognized in the aspects of design.

 kate ward, ncidq, leed ap 
Workplace Consultant

Kate Ward is among the many designers who have made the leap from the interior design practice to the manufacturing world. Since she was last featured in I&S eight years ago, Ward left her position as project manager and lead designer at ARCTURIS for a career as a workplace consultant at furniture giant Steelcase. Her insights into design thinking have been greatly influenced as a result of this move, which she expands on below.

When you were last profiled in I&S in 2006 as part of our Young Professionals feature, you were still relatively new to the industry. What topics or ideas interest you most these days?
Well-being, in a holistic sense—physical, social, emotional and cognitive. As a career, design can be all-consuming; this focus on finding balance, focusing on things that truly bring joy and satisfaction in my career and life is very personal. This topic has significant relevance for my customers as well since most individuals have found their boundaries between work and life blurred by new technologies, being accessible at all times, the speed at which business is accomplished today, and the increasing complexity of work.

Human beings are spending more time at work, than they do anything else in life. How can work and the workplace start to support the well-being of its employees? It needs to be a wholly different environment than what has been offered to individuals in the past.

What excites you most about design today? What worries or concerns you?
We are experiencing a very exciting time for design, with technology driving so many changes and connections for human beings. So, our places and spaces that bring us together (whether that’s for work, school, socially or other) have to function very differently than they have in the past.  This makes the job of the designer and problem solver extremely relevant. 

In the future, I think the opportunity for the profession is to shift the focus from predominately the built environment and aesthetic components to a more prominent focus on the components that humans interface with the most. Today, I feel they are not given the attention that is warranted, and that is a tremendous opportunity for all of us.

How would you describe the similarities and/or differences working for a manufacturer like Steelcase versus a design firm?
There are probably more differences than there are similarities. I was working for a 100-person design firm that mostly did business in a single market. I’m now working for a global corporation with 12,000+ employees. The business functions themselves are extremely different—it’s been really exciting to be exposed to such a different scale and organizational structure.

How has that change influenced your design thinking?
Being a part of Steelcase has greatly influenced my design thinking and exposure to significant industry thought-leaders from within our company and with the design firms I support. IDEO and their unique partnership with Steelcase is likely the single largest influencer on my growth in design thinking. Steelcase places great value on conducting our own research, following IDEO’s design methods and processes. Our company also has a large emphasis on training and development; I feel extremely lucky to be a part of an organization that cares about my growth and offers us freedom in how we seek out opportunities to learn.

If you could go back and revisit one thing in your career over again, what would it be? Why is that?
With experience, my confidence has grown—however, even now I still struggle with it from time-to-time. I wish I would have started with this level of confidence earlier in my career.

Describe the most important lesson you’ve learned over the course of your career?
Never underestimate the power of empathy. Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes and sharing their perspective. Truly listening to the verbal and non-verbal signals people put off. This single quality is powerful in design, making others feel comfortable trusting that you truly understand them and their needs.

What advice do you have for designers on their way up?
As you put in the long hours and hard work early on, always remember to balance everything in your life. While time brings new customers and new problems to be solved, connect yourself to mentors from a variety of places so that you see new approaches to solving problems. This is critical for your personal development. And, remember that parenting is great—don’t put it off too long due to the demands of this industry!

What do you see as the future of design?
The future of design is in the hands of those who can support creating human-centered solutions that support cultural change.  Understanding what does the organization want to be and how to design that space as an integrated tool, will transform behaviors that drive that cultural change. 

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