“ … whether individuals are attracted to a particular environment, or satisfied and stable within that environment, is a function of how they perceive, evaluate, and construct the environment.”
— C. Carney Strange & James H. Banning, Educating by Design:
Creating Campus Learning Environments That Work (2001)
“ … Place is a key thing with authenticity. That we view people, things that have a particular place in the world as being authentic; they’re rooted; they’re grounded. But if they’re ubiquitous then they lose that rootedness of about what they are and, in fact, who they are.”
— James Spader, TED Radio Hour: Brand Over Brain (2014)
A design is something purposeful, whether pragmatic or artistic, remarkably unique or painfully generic. Design, at its best, leaves an impression with us or provokes a reaction from us without even being aware that the feeling is purposely engineered; at worse, it leaves no impression at all. Work space, as much as living space, offers us a canvas to convey our thoughts and how we wish others to feel within. But in Higher Education this space gets a little more complicated and contextual. It’s not just about our beliefs, but also the theme which we belong to by representing our schools and the role we play within them. If there’s too much of a disconnect between the office’s theme and those entering it, it may alienate them and hurt our ability to advocate. In addition, it needs to be unique because if it’s not then someone could realize it’s copied and it could undermine what you’re trying to convey with it.
The objective of this post is to help you design an office space that can inspire thought and feelings, but there’s a stumbling block in trying to give such advice. We collectively work in distinctly varied environments, dependent in part on our institutions. We may come from state universities, community colleges, Ivy Leagues, women’s colleges, historically black colleges, small liberal art schools, religious institutions, etc., just to name a few. In addition, we have our own reasons for choosing the paths we’ve taken. I can’t guarantee the impression I wish to make to be the same as yours. Thus, I can’t tell you what to directly put in it, but I can tell you how to discover what to draw inspiration from, if our thoughts have aligned so far.
- First, look to constructed places you find unique; ask yourself why they are different. It could be an old cathedral, a local coffee shop, the school’s library, or a colleague’s office, etc. Reflect on why they work and remember the goal isn’t to copy them, but to begin to understand that uniqueness mechanic.
- Next, investigate your school and yourself; draw connections between the two. Recall what you have in common with your school and the role you play; design with that in mind. If you’re not sure of your own theme, look at your living space, your book collection, your twitter feed, your writings, etc.
- Now, mix them and bear in the mind the office space you have to mix them in. As yourself what impression would this mix leave on students? Faculty? Colleagues? Reporters? Is that the impression or reaction that I wish to make?
Of course these places go beyond advocating a theme or message to relations, but also advocating a state of mind or believe system to yourself. For example, I have a filing cabinet and a file folder standing beside my desk. It’s a frequent reminder to me to keep my vow of staying organized and to use my filing system. It also has, wedged at the front, a Maine magazine centered around Portland to remind me of where I’m from. On the same theme, I have framed an old Newsweek magazine that was suppose to be their last print issue. It is a reminder of my past in journalism and the communication changes the 21st century has brought.
I encourage would-be designers to read Chapter 4 of “Educating by Design: Creating Campus Learning Environments” and, especially, to listen to the third part of NPR’s TED Radio Hour entitled “Brand Over Brain” which discusses conveying messages in spaces authentically. I quoted the highlights at the beginning of the blog, but they are both worth more attention as you work towards finding a balance between your message, your school’s message and your role’s message while creating your office’s theme.