The Lessons We Learn
Real-life stories teach valuable lessons about the power of interior design to shape human experience.
by Katie Sosnowchik
As young children, we all eagerly awaited the introductory words, "Once upon a time . . ." We knew that what followed would transport us to another time or place by setting our imaginations in motion. Most of us can probably recount many of these stories years later. Why? Because somehow in the course of the storytelling we made a personal connection to the characters involved and the situations they found themselves in. We imagined ourselves into the stories, and came away learning a valuable life lesson or two—whether we realized it or not.
Recognizing the value of the storytelling process, the FIDER Research Council has implemented these techniques into the Strategic Stories™ project, a program that successfully communicates the intangible qualities of design. Since its inception three years ago, the Strategic Stories project has aimed to uncover the wisdom of professional practice through the study of workplace design. It has collected a compendium of real-life stories that illustrate the power of interior design to transform not just environments, but lives. These are true stories of real people in actual work settings who have experienced something meaningful as a result of their physical interior space. Something that has not only affected their performance, but perhaps even the quality of life or philosophy of work.
In the stories, voices from the business community speak about the role of design in maximizing intellectual capital, recruiting and retaining the best talent, facilitating knowledge transfer within the organization, shifting organizational cultures to accept change, and creating agile organizations. The designer's voice tells of the impact of technology on communications, the changing nature of design services, and provides tangible examples of creative problem solving.
These Strategic Stories are more than a collection of anecdotes, though. They are invaluable teaching aids because they provide the means to both teach and learn through systematic analysis; rigorous qualitative research methods and multiple interpretations of the same case study.
To further support the educational purpose, a collection of "lessons learned" follows each story. Through this mechanism, invited experts from academia, design and business respond to the narrative and interpret the relevance of the story to business, professional practice or design education.
Meanings embedded in each story vary as a function of the background and experience of the reader. Different audiences, therefore, learn at different levels. The design student, the professional interior designer or an individual with an interest in creativity and the design process all can enjoy the stories and come away from them enriched and rewarded.
Although she has worked on the Strategic Stories project since its inception, Sheila Danko, associate professor at Cornell University and a member of the FIDER Research Council, admits she is continually amazed at the power of stories to communicate issues of design and leadership in daily life. "For over three years I have intentionally tested their limits, presenting the strategic stories to audiences of professionals and students both young and old, both within and outside the field of design," Danko says. "The stories have been read by people of all ages, from seasoned professionals and grad students to high schoolers, each person revealing a unique and important perspective on the story and their 'lessons learned.' With each trial, I have seen the stories touch some deeply rooted passion within individuals, helping them grasp a deeper sense of their own leadership abilities and the role of design in supporting them. This is the power of strategic stories to shape lives."
Indeed, working on the Strategic Stories project has greatly influenced the work of one of the Research Council's own members, Christopher Budd of STUDIOS Architecture. His consulting work, Budd describes, is based on uncovering the values, assumptions and beliefs of his clients in order to determine how best to leverage people and the environment to help their organization. Much of this work is accomplished through a systematic analysis of narratives to reveal patterns in attitudes and perceptions.
" The Stories Project has validated for me the impact of language and the ability for it to express or reveal much more than what is communicated on the surface of any communication," Budd notes. "What Stories demonstrates is the relative lack of introspection fostered by other methods within our arsenal of strategic planning tools. Much of the quantitative analysis we do in terms of how people occupy and use space has less interpretive value than narratives and often is utilized to provide somewhat prescriptive remedies often associated with management consulting."
The ability to listen, debate, reflect and understand the nuances of human motivation are critical to developing workplace strategies that leverage human capital, he continues. "While it may be easier to consider only measures of time, hours, dollars and square footage because they can be expressed in discrete units, none of these can begin to size up the complexity and nuances of human beings. This still involves interpretation, judgement and critical thinking. The beauty of Stories has been the ability to get under the skin of organizations and create a meaningful dialogue.
" When I lecture to interior design students, I always emphasize four areas of practice that need to be advanced: development of interior infrastructures, workplace transformation, design research and 'envisioning the future.' Strategic Stories and the methodologies it has spawned play an enormously important role in how I approach these areas of my practice," he concludes. "Without a mechanism to uncover and illustrate the values, assumptions and beliefs of the user, there can be no thoughtful advance of the profession."
Another Research Council member, Dr. Joy H. Dohr of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also reflects on how the Strategic Stories project has influenced her approaches to teaching and communicating, as demonstrated through a recent presentation that she gave for the UW-Alumni Day on campus. Her topic was "Creativity and Civility in Design" and she posed questions such as: Why the concern for civility now? How does creativity and civility link to design? How will we know it when we see or experience it?
" Rather than approach the presentation as I might have before my involvement with the Strategic Stories project, I structured four stories of past, present and future designers, leading out with Bill Stumpf's work as told in his book on this topic," Dohr explains. "The next three cases were from my own or our work. Each story included a profile of the person, their products and their processes of thought, seeing and making. I then analyzed and summarized the creative and civil qualities, characteristics and knowledge gained about design and its social contributions."
The response she received was extremely positive. "Of interest to me were the stories participants shared with me afterwards," Dohr recalls. "It became apparent to me that they identified with the topic, pulled and related stories in their own lives and, most importantly, it told me they got the message. They understood and would go on to see creative and civil design in new ways."
The Strategic Stories project has received overwhelming acclaim not only from the interior design instructors who use the vehicle in their own teaching methods, but also from national and international professional audiences at research conferences and industry events here and abroad. It has also helped teach leadership skills at various executive development courses, including some provided by the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, The Center for Arts Education/NYC and the Executive Development Leadership Program at the University of Vermont.
Danko was especially struck by the comments of one student, Hedy Lee, from Cornell University's College of Human Ecology's new Leadership Development course entitled, "Collaborative Leadership." Lee summarizes her recent reaction to a strategic story presented in class this way:
" We all have a story to tell both individually and as a collective whole. We must understand and recognize that we can respect each other, find meaning in our existences and find meaning in what we do together. Until we recognize our purpose in life, both as an individual and collectively, life has no meaning. You cannot lead change. It's the difference between puppets and people."
The Strategie Stories project is funded by the following sponsors: Joel Polsky-Fixtures Furniture/FIDER Endowment Fund; Joy H. Dohr; FIDER; ProgressiveAE; and USG.