(Not So) Tech Heavy

By Robert Nieminen

Technology continues to develop at a dizzying pace, and it’s safe to say that designers are feeling the pressure to add the latest bells and whistles to their interiors projects, all in the name of capturing that high-tech feeling. However, as James Woolum AIA, IIDA, design principal at HMC Architects, told me during an interview for our story on the new McAfee Executive Briefing Center (EBC), just because the latest technology is showcased in an interior doesn’t necessarily make it successful.

“I think in some design schemes—even very nice ones—the technology almost becomes like artwork. It becomes interesting in that it’s maybe content-rich and it adds liveliness to the space, but if I walk in, it doesn’t necessarily speak to me as a person,” he says.

In the case of McAfee, technology was absolutely central to the programming of the space, and given the client’s brand and mission, it necessitated a much more high-tech approach than what would be required for a typical corporate headquarters project. Nevertheless, the design team at HMC carefully constructed an architectural narrative that enabled EBC visitors to experience the McAfee brand in a personalized way, rather than just relying on the technology to act as eye candy.

For example, each visitor is given a customized USB key to plug into a massive, suspended digital touchscreen “Solutions Table” at the heart of the space—the key enables them to share files across the table with colleagues and download the content they explore via drag and drop. Personalization within the technology, in other words, was as important in the design scheme as the choice of furnishings or materials.

More often than not, the key to striking the right balance between a design concept and the more technical details of a space is to bring A/V and other tech professionals into the process early, so both sides can fully understand how the project will come together—a topic we explore in our feature article “Playing Nice."

“Interior designers don’t necessarily understand or fully appreciate the technical constraints or the costs of implementing their vision,” says Jennifer Davis, vice president of marketing for Planar Systems. On the flip side, she admits, “integrators don’t always appreciate the subtleties of what the designer is asking for: why it’s important that this product is placed exactly where they designed it to be placed, or at the height it’s designed to be placed at or that it’s cladded in the materials that they want.” But this can be a good thing as long as both parties learn to communicate, educate and trust each other in order to arrive at the best solutions.

One example of a successful project that strikes an elegant balance between technical and aesthetic details is a new office concept from American Family Insurance called the DreamBank—a homey, comfortable and tech-filled space in the heart of Madison, Wis., created by retail design giant Chute Gerdeman.

“One of the messages they wanted to get across was that they are on the forefront of technology, but at the same time, we were careful to not make this feel like a cold, computerized place,” says Steve Boreman, senior designer, brand communications with Chute Gerdeman. In order to translate that message without pushing the tech side of the equation too far, the design team created two distinct entrances to the DreamBank—one as a more traditional office setting with a red welcome wall featuring digital frames, and the other, an interactive exhibit area with touchscreen kiosks that allow visitors to access social media.

Of course, we realize that it’s easier said than done to unplug (so to speak) from the immense connectivity at our fingertips, so as long as we’ve all got our faces buried in our smartphones and tablets, why not make some productive use of that time? In our second annual app roundup, Managing Editor Adam Moore has compiled a list of some of the coolest, most innovative and just plain handy apps on the market for both Apple and Android devices that you’ll want to consider adding to your mobile arsenal.

Just be sure to keep your eyes forward while using these apps on the go, and refrain from using them while driving, of course. If I may coin a phrase, “Tech Responsibly.”