Inside The Modern Design Office

From building a corporate culture to integrating technology in intuitive ways, here’s how three leading design firms are redefining the modern office.

01/01/2014 By Adam Moore and Robert Nieminen

Designers have always worked in spaces designed for collaboration and experimentation, whether it's a dusty shop or a paper-strewn studio, and it's a background that has seemingly preconditioned the field to embrace new and different ways of working together. That, in turn, has uniquely positioned the design community to steer the ongoing redefinition of the office, as many clients and corporations seek to capture that same spirit of energy and innovation in their own workplaces.

Many design firms have taken the step of using their own spaces as prototypes in the search for what works and what doesn't in the modern office, and it's these redesigned and re-envisioned spaces that give us the best glimpse into the future of work—as well as some ideas for how to maximize our existing investments. So what will you find in these next-generation design spaces? We spoke with three firms with new offices, including Ziegler Cooper in Houston, Cannon Design in Chicago, and Quadrangle Architects in Toronto, and found that, while each firm took a different approach to creating its own space, a few constants remained.

clear values by design
In the same way that tech companies are using open office plans and exciting amenities to lure talent away from their competitors, successful firms are designing their offices to visually convey the values and culture of their organization, all in a bid to boost everything from employee recruitment to business development.

For Scott Ziegler, AIA, senior principal with Ziegler Cooper, the move to a new building was indicative of a number of big milestones. "We felt like this was a pivotal point for the firm to move to another level in our profession, in our niche, and in our region," he says. "We wanted to create an inspirational space that uplifts the human spirit, and expresses the creativity and craft of the firm."

The new office, built in a lobby space that had been vacant for 15 years, features 65-foot high cathedral ceilings over a highly open and collaborative studio—a fitting inclusion for a firm with a well-known and growing worship design practice. "There's a kind of 'Aha, wow' moment when people walk in," Ziegler says. "They're not expecting to see a 65-foot-high ceiling."

The design of the new space has also had a noticeable effect on employee recruitment, according to Ziegler, even though it has only been open for a year. "Recruiting has always been tough in Texas, but I'll say that since we have moved in here … there's not been one recruit that has come through here that hasn't said, 'I want to work here.' We've hired 35 people this past year, and it's nice to have that leverage."

For Cannon Design's new Chicago office, which we first covered in October 2013's "Top 10 LEED Projects of 2013" (pg. 58), the intent was to capture the firm's position at the global intersection between architecture, design, engineering, and consulting practices. "[The firm's] culture, if you will, is one that's very cohesive across cities and countries and borders," says Mark Hirons, AIA, IIDA, LEED, design leader for corporate interiors with Cannon Design. "It really doesn't have any barriers."

The resulting space works to immerse visitors and employees in the creative process as soon as the elevator doors open. One can see from one end of the office to the other, and individual lines in glass wall panels represent individual thoughts and ideas; as one progresses toward the center of the space, the lines activate and interconnect, expressing the dynamic sense of collaboration found within Cannon's creative process. That dynamic energy is also captured by a 40-foot projection mural depicting stories, projects, and a commissioned video installation by renowned video artist Thomas Gray. A spacious café area and research library, both of which are located just beyond the reception area and open to all, adds to that feeling of transparency and openness.

"We allow [clients] into the space, so they can see how people are interacting, they can see the inspiration wall, they can see what's beyond the café area," Hirons says. "We're inviting them in to be part of a wonderful journey."

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