Category Archives: Jennifer on Design

A Virtual Conundrum

Jennifer Busch

As retailers look for ways to keep shoppers in physical stores, design has an important role to play.

Digital menu boards integrate technology into the in-store experience, as seen in this concept that Big Red Rooster designed for White Castle Blaze Modern Barbeque. Photographed by Mark Steele Photography.

In recent years, the intense attention paid to unemployment and housing statistics as a measure of economic recovery has somewhat eclipsed another important economic indicator…the health of the retail industry. Retail sales are an important predictor of GDP in the U.S. because consumer spending contributes as much as 70% of economic growth. And right now, despite a macroeconomic picture that remains uncertain, consumer confidence is at the highest level in five years and retail sales are on the rise. This is happening in a way that will both challenge and provide growing opportunity for retail designers.

According to Kiplinger, a leader in business forecasting, 2012 retail sales in the U.S. are on track to post a 5.5% gain over 2011, mostly owing to what is turning out to be a robust holiday shopping season. Yet the simultaneous 3% decline in year over year department store sales during the holiday shopping season through mid November reveals another side to the story, and throws into focus one of the biggest challenges being faced by bricks and mortar retailers: online shopping.

MediaPost, an online resource for advertising media professionals, reports that as of mid-December, e-commerce spending was up 13% to $35 billion, compared to the same period last year, according to comSource, a global leader in digital business analytics. Some important milestones were hit during the period of December 10 to 16, which marked the first weekend in history where online spending surpassed $7 billion, and four individual days that exceeded the $1 billion mark. When added to 2011 results, the trend becomes even clearer. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, total nominal sales for the 2011 holiday season were up 6.2% compared with a year earlier, well ahead of most forecasts. “Normally such an increase would qualify as a stellar season, but few retailers would characterize it as such,” notes the 2012 Annual Retail Report produced by FTI, a global business advisory firm. Non-store sales accounted for as much as 22% of the holiday season sales, up from 20% in 2010.

The proliferation of online-only retailers is mounting serious competition for traditional retailers, but those with physical stores are also competing with themselves. By all accounts, one of the most significant trends sweeping the retail industry today is “showrooming,” whereby customers visit stores to have a look, touch and feel, and try on the merchandise, but then go home and order online. For retailers with real estate who are anxious to keep these wayward customers coming in and buying, design has never been more important.

During the 2012 DDI Forum, an annual retail design conference produced by Display & Design Ideas magazine, key attendees offered their perspectives on the virtual challenge.

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Dean Rubin, CEO of Rose Displays Ltd., made special mention of the threat of online retailing. “In retail design we’re seeing a move toward experiential environments,” he said. “We’re seeing retailers find the need to grab customers and keep them in stores. In order to keep them away from the online alternatives they have to find something that is exciting, new, fresh—it’s experiential as opposed to something that’s transactional.” Retail design icon Denny Gerdeman, CEO of Chute Gerdeman in Columbus, Ohio, also noted that customers are getting information and making decisions about what they want and where to shop before they even get into a store. “They’re so well-prepared, and how we then tailor the merchandise offerings, and how we present the product in the store is really going to be key moving forward.”

Big Red Rooster also used digital menu boards for this design concept for Tom & Eddies. Photographed by Michael Houghton, STUDIOHIO.

But for Rubin and Gerdeman and others like them who see challenge as opportunity, the world of retail design has never been more interesting, as it moves away from simple branding and merchandising exercises toward immersive experiences for customers. “There simply has never been a more exciting time for retail than right now,” says Christian Davies, executive creative director of Americas for FITCH, a global retail design firm. “Everything is up for grabs, from when and where people will shop, to how they will do it.”

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Davies is quoted as such in DDI magazine’s annual Portfolio Awards report on key retail industry luminaries, where he and several others were recently honored for “unparalleled creative excellence” in the retail industry. Fellow honoree Harry Cunningham, senior vice president of store planning, design, and visual merchandising for Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, said physical shopping should be fun, above all else. “We want to add a bit of fun and interest to both show windows and interiors. I want displays that will excite you, windows that cause you to stop and smile. Then, we will interject technology in interesting and unexpected ways to be part of the total experience.”

Ray Ehscheid, senior vice president of store design and merchandising for Bank of America (who rejects the notion that retail banks are uninteresting) was quoted as advocating a customer centric approach to design. “I want someone who walks into one of my projects to understand intuitively the space and how to find their way to complete their tasks,” he said in DDI. “Moments of unintentional delight on that path—new discoveries of a material, a piece of furniture or an element of lighting that strike their attention—are the touchstones to me of a successful environment.”

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Also honored in the DDI Portfolio Awards 2012 report, Aaron Spiess, co-founder, co-CEO, and president of Big Red Rooster, a multi-dimensional brand experience firm based in Columbus, Ohio, talked about the need to combine technology and physical space “to bring stories to life” in the retail environment. And global retail design icon Giorgio Borruso, founder of Giorgio Borruso Design in Marina Del Ray, Calif., talked about challenging the customer’s point of view and understanding of space to encourage exploration and interaction with the environment. “Desire and interest should be the driving forces moving us through the space,” he said. “It’s about engaging all the senses.”

Gone are the days when the retail environment expressed branding two-dimensionally, and attempted to recede in deference to the merchandise. Now a successful design must offer an experience that differentiates the retailer from its competition, and provides value that cannot be found online. As Cunningham notes, “You can’t touch a dress on an iPad.”

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Developing the Renaissance Mind

Jennifer Busch

According to the Program for International Student Assessment, K-12 students in the United States continue to track flat on academic achievement tests while other countries—most notably Singapore, Finland and Canada—post modest gains year after year. The net result is that the U.S. is experiencing a slow but steady slip in the ranks of the world’s best-educated school-age populations, which does not bode well for American competitiveness on the global stage in the years to come.

According to Steve Turckes, Principal and K-12 Education Global Market Leader at Perkins+ Will in Chicago, this troublesome trend is all the talk among educators and school administrators, and is heavily influencing how and what—and by association where—we teach our children. The school of tomorrow will be focused on preparing our youth to hold their own in a highly competitive, global workforce, while giving them the knowledge and critical thinking skills to be well-informed members of society. “There is an interesting dialogue going on about what it’s going to take to get there,” says Turckes.

A multi disciplinary approach to learning—and facilities design

Many education experts have already concluded that the level of educational excellence required of the future work force cannot happen in the siloed, single-disciplinary approach to elementary and secondary education that characterized the design of our schools throughout much of the 20th century. Some are now suggesting that something more akin to the old-fashioned, one room schoolhouse—with multiple grades and subjects interacting in communal space—offers a better model for schools (albeit minus the dusty chalkboard, and with a lot more technology thrown in). The changes sweeping corporate America might also hold a clue to the ideal form for the “school of the future.” Turckes cites one recent Perkins+Will school project called CAPS (Center for Advanced Professional Studies), which is part of the Blue Valley School district in Overland Park, Kan. “During programming we were looking for other school models that we could learn from,” he explains. “Ultimately we realized that we were looking in the wrong place.”

Blue Valley Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) in Overland Park, Kan., designed by Perkins+Will. Photographed by Steinkamp Photography

Most business environments today embrace a collaborative, multi disciplinary approach to problem solving. By contrast, most schools are still “hanging on to a silo approach,” says Turckes of the single-discipline focus of moving from one subject to another in 50-minute blocks throughout the school day. “But the world doesn’t really work that way. We all bring different skill sets to the table as we need them.”

To better address the need for these types of multi disciplinary and critical thinking skills that are increasingly valued in the workplace, today’s learning environments need to create opportunities for collaborative, project-based learning—in the curriculum and supported by the physical environment. Math, Science, Literature, Art, Music, etc. must be treated with a more integrated approach, not as separate, unrelated subjects. “A new project offers a great opportunity to have a conversation with the client about what education should look like in the future,” says Turckes. “The school clients that get it also realize that the change is pretty profound.”

To accommodate these new ideals, the physical environment might look more like CAPS, where true, project-based instruction takes place in multidisciplinary teams in flexible space featuring dedicated collaboration areas, borderless classrooms, state-of-the-art technology integration, marker boards on walls, and storage areas for 2D and 3D media.

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Creativity and Innovation

One important theme that frequently rises to the top in conversations about the future of education is “creativity and innovation.” Not coincidentally, these are often the same words used to describe successful individuals and enterprises in the business environment. As Trung Le, a Principal in the Chicago office of Cannon and a key leader in the firm’s education group explains, “The corporate office is turning into a learning environment, rather than a working environment. Today we need to be lifelong learners. Everything is pointing toward the Renaissance mind.”

Le agrees that there is a strong trend toward multi disciplinary teaching, which leaves behind the notion of square classrooms repeated over and over again throughout a school building. Increasingly, adaptable classrooms that can be reconfigured in real time for a variety of learning scenarios are preferred. Cannon’s recent project for North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, Ill., features “learning studios” with sliding glass panels opening to project/research spaces that can be utilized as needed. “It is a dynamic, studio-like environment,” Le says.

“People can no longer afford to have isolated expertise. Learning comes from a collision of disciplines, more than a pure discipline.” Consequently, schools are turning into project-based learning environments that emphasize experiential learning. “This is not a new concept,” he says, “but it has been re-discovered and relabeled.”

Booker T. Washington STEM Academy, Champaign, Ill., designed by Cannon Design. © Steinkamp Photography / Cannon Design.

Another emerging pattern that Le predicts will become more prevalent in the future is the “flipped classroom.” In flipped learning environments, students absorb lessons independently by various means outside the classroom—for example through self-directed learning or a videotaped lecture—and class time is reserved for homework or project work related to the subject matter. The teacher’s role during class time is to facilitate individual students’ learning on a one on one basis. “This goes on throughout the day in class and during blocked hours after class, giving students the ability to be supported when they need it,” he says. This type of radical change—which does not come without its skeptics, and the need for a strong group of first adopters to bring the rest of the community along—is reflective of a general trend toward more individualized teaching that accommodates different learning styles and speeds.

“This pattern further calls into question the concept of the self-contained classroom,” observes Le. “What is needed is learning spaces of different sizes and scales. You may need a place of solitude, or a place where teachers of different expertise are aggregated together.”


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The Evolving “Library”

One area of the education environment that has undergone tremendous change is the library—now more often referred to as the “learning resource center.” In Le’s flipped classroom model, the learning resource center might be the site for teacher aggregation, but even in more traditional models, the library as we knew it throughout much of the 20th century is quickly becoming a thing of the past. “We are seeing the reinvention of the library,” agrees Stefan Hastrup, a principal at Turnbull Griffin Haesloop in San Francisco. “Books are still important, but schools have gone from about 80% hard copy to 70 to 80% digital media.”

The learning resource center has become more than a space to house materials and support quiet, heads-down work, as schools try to respond to the differences in the ways students learn. “Many schools don’t have places where meeting can happen,” says Hastrup. “Instead of being an isolated, quiet environment, the LRC might be an impromptu gathering space, or a place where small groups of students can break out to work on projects.” Mary Griffin, also a principal at Turnbull Griffin Haesloop, notes that multipurpose rooms are also popular for this purpose, with mobile technology expanding the range of options.

School in Ross, Calif., designed by Turnbull Griffin Haesloop. Photographed by David Wakely.

Griffin observes that sweeping social and technological changes are also influencing the design of other spaces throughout school buildings. Labs are receiving particular attention to address the dearth of Americans educated in science and engineering. Better and expanded weight rooms and fitness centers—once accessible to athletes only—are being made available to general student populations to encourage physical activity and address issues of childhood obesity. Schools are trying to maximize the use of outdoor teaching and gathering spaces, especially in hospitable climates, and edible schoolyards teach lessons in proper nutrition and supply school cafeterias. A focus on sustainability is also prevalent. “There is an awareness of the need for healthier environments,” says Griffin. Increasingly, the building itself becomes a teaching tool, as students are encouraged to interact with their physical environment and learn from its sustainable features. “Schools are searching for a way to bring tactile experiences amidst all the technology,” adds Hastrup.

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As for technology, its influence is obviously profound, and continues to impact both the form and function of the school building. Cables and conduit are disappearing in favor of wireless technology, which enables a more fluid, interactive way of learning, so teachers and students are no longer tethered to physical classrooms. The “computer room” has disappeared as technology is seamlessly integrated throughout the learning environment. But therein lies a cautionary tale, too. “There is a misconception,” says Le, “that if you take any space and add computers, that will make it a 21st century learning space.” What school districts need to be thinking about now is the bigger picture: Curriculum that fosters critical thinking, creativity, and innovation—and holistic physical environments to support them.


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Jennifer on Design: Senior Living Trends

Jennifer Busch

Byron Kuth, a principal of Kuth Ranieri ( in San Francisco, calls it a “demographic tsunami,” and questions whether anyone is ready to meet the demand that is coming—and coming fast. He is talking about the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation (born 1946 to 1964) that is just now beginning. “We are currently looking at 40 million people over the age of 65, and within 20 years that number will double,” says Kuth. “Is anyone prepared for these proportions?”

Kuth Ranieri and two other firms with expertise in senior living—SmithGroup ( and Perkins Eastman (—are among those trying to address the challenge, but admittedly the senior living segment is a slow-moving beast. Currently hampered by the nation’s economic woes, the industry has suffered reduced occupancies, bankruptcies, and a credit squeeze that has stifled new development. And that’s just the business part. Massive cultural shifts are also afoot. “This generation re-scripted how we were raised and educated, what we did abroad, and everything about technology,” says Kuth. “Now it will radically re-script this later stage of living and working.” On the positive side, with numbers like the ones Kuth is quoting, growing demand in the senior living market has no choice but to ignite opportunity for developers, operators, and designers in the coming decade and beyond.

Undoubtedly, our traditional view of senior living—warehousing aging individuals away to play chess and watch television in massive institutional buildings that were plunked down in the middle of cornfields—has given way to an active, enriching, more assimilated version of retirement that is spawning new models for senior living. Consumers of these services are more sophisticated and are living longer, healthier lives, making the goal of the industry to provide options for occupancy by choice as opposed to occupancy by need, according to David Segmiller, a principal in the Charlotte, N.C., office of Perkins Eastman.

Katy Darling, an associate also at Perkins Eastman Charlotte, explains that there is a great demand for amenities and choice–including gyms, movie theaters, grocery stores and other forms of retail, variety in dining options—in contemporary senior living settings, and these provide fertile ground for marketers attempting to attract new customers with a focus on lifestyle, rather than end of life. “This population wants much more diversity, and this will be driven exponentially as the Baby Boomers come along,” Darling says. Segmiller describes “amenities on steroids.” For example, in today’s senior living facilities the traditional beauty/barber shop has become a day spa. “This population is crying out for more sophisticated options that are more about typical daily life,” he says.

The demand for diversity and activity translates into senior living communities that bear much greater resemblance to mixed-use developments than they do to their traditional, institutional precursors. It all adds up to a more holistic way of life for seniors. “Older CCRCs (continuing care retirement communities) had community rooms and exercise rooms as little gestures,” says Joyce Polhamus, vice president and director of SmithGroup’s senior living practice. “Now they are not just amenities for socialization, but are more about purposeful and healthy living.” They also speak to assimilation into the broader community, as entire senior living campuses are being integrated into existing suburban and urban communities with which they share amenities and services.

Other emerging models include the Green House® senior living concept, which emphasizes community-based, family-like “homes” for people who like to live with companionship. “This model serves people in a dignified way, and counteracts loneliness, boredom, and isolation,” explains Polhamus. Residents of a Green House partake in all the typical activities of a family—including cooking, cleaning, and decision-making—and staff are expected to pitch in with many day-to-day activities in addition to elder care. Though the most typical location for a Green House is a suburban neighborhood, urban, high-rise models are beginning to make an appearance.

One interesting model that Kuth currently is studying, UBRCs (university-based retirement communities) integrates senior living communities with academic campuses, recognizing that these populations share a need for similar amenities within the confines of manageable distances. The idea is that members of each community can contribute to the other in meaningful ways, with the added benefits of inter-generational knowledge and culture swaps.

Stepped care—the ability to age in place—continues to be an important trend, even if the definitions are changing. “Assisted living used to be so close to the skilled nursing units that no one wanted to go there,” says Segmiller. “Now we move AL to the other side of the campus and give the residents access to the same amenities as the independent living people.” This helps eliminate the stigma of moving to assisted living. “There used to be the perception that moving through that one door meant moving to the end of life,” he adds. Memory care, or care of patients with dementia, is also taking on a much less confining and much more active nature, with appropriate activities like wander gardens and other pockets of interest figuring significantly in the architecture and planning of the structures and grounds. According to Polhamus, memory care will be the biggest growth area in senior living for the next 15 years.

Skilled nursing facilities do reflect a more hospital-like environment because of the necessary level of medical care, but across all these facility types the style trends are moving away from the traditional and toward the contemporary. “The style is very transitional now,” says Segmiller. “We are doing work that 10 years ago would have been considered way too modern. Today it is considered accessible.”

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Three Trends in Office Design

Jennifer Busch

It’s hard to define precisely what the “office of the future” will look like, but top corporate designers from around the country agree that it will look nothing like our traditional (and quickly fading) concept of the corporate workplace. Branding—expressing organizational personality, culture, and mission through design—takes center stage as we move forward, so the visual cues, colors, materials, and textures that work for one kind of company—say, an internet startup—might be totally inappropriate for a more established Fortune 500. But variety will be a constant in all of them, from the types of functional spaces found within the workplace to the multi-ethnic, multigenerational workforces that populate them—or not, as mobile working becomes as much the norm in the 21st century as cubicles were in the 20th.

AOL in Palo Alto, designed by Studio O+A. Photography by Jasper Sanidad.

“We try desperately not to use the word ‘corporate’ says Thomas Krizmanic, a principal in the New York office of Studios Architecture. “It’s bad word #1 in our office. It evokes a ready image in our clients’ minds of standards, homogenization, past ways of doing things—all concepts that our clients don’t want to be lumped in together with. A rotary dial phone is corporate. An iPhone with personalized apps is the future space model of the office—flexible, user-defined, programmable, mobile, connect-ready, multifunctional, and cool.”


“We are having a dialogue about mobility programs with a cross-section of clients,” says Nila Leiserowitz, a Managing Principal in the Chicago office of Gensler. “It is a viable way of accommodating real estate challenges, new workstyles, work/life balance,” made possible by virtual tools. Nevertheless, designers and their clients are still evaluating what this means with respect to space, human resources, and project delivery

In the Los Angeles office of HOK, Senior Vice President Pamela Light says that there is a real push among clients to support remote work, to improve work/life balance for employees and reduce real estate costs. Not surprisingly, “The biggest reason is budget,” she notes. “Twenty percent of projects in the last 18 months have asked us for a 20 percent reduction in square footage.” In these scenarios, most of the space savings, she says, are realized through the drop in dedicated workspace.

Early on in the mobility movement—back in the mid-1990s days of the “alternative office”—real estate savings was also the most common, but actually the worst reason to encourage employees to work outside the traditional corporate environment. At that time connectivity was in still in its infancy compared to today, corporations did  not fully appreciate the impact on corporate culture and “connectedness”—not to mention the need for change management—and designers were just beginning to grasp the space implications. But with today’s mobile gadgetry and a workforce increasingly geared toward using it, remote work has become increasingly and intuitively productive—even within the confines of the physical office.


What does this mean? Mobility isn’t just reserved for remote workers. More and more, it is happening within the office space, and it supports new levels of collaboration, another important trend. “We design less individual space and more people spaces, with ready connect power and internet, in the open and linked to each other to make an ‘experience sequence of spaces,” says Krizmanic. “Work is less desk-focused and more collaborative. The new worker is a ‘thinker’ who feeds off of interaction with people.”


style=”font-size: xx-small; line-height: 13px;”>Bike Shop at Microsoft Building #4 in Redmond, WA, designed by Studio O+A. Photography by Jasper Sanidad.

Leiserowitz agrees. “Collaboration is fundamental to innovation,” she says. “But people are trying to define it in terms of what it means for their own organization. It is happening more formally than informally, and is defined in a variety of different ways.” For example, designers can evaluate how circulation spaces relate to work areas to encourage chance encounters. Work areas adjacent to open office spaces accommodate ad hoc meetings. Conference rooms that encourage standing rather than sitting create new meeting dynamics. Increasingly sophisticated interactive technology creates opportunities to collaborate with remote colleagues. “We are taking a very fluid approach to collaboration,” notes Leiserowitz. “You have to get people comfortable in the work environment to allow these interactions to happen.”

One way to encourage more interaction is to look at the work environment more holistically. “Office space is more like the home,” says Light. “We have living rooms, family rooms; and everybody ends up in the kitchen.” Collaboration areas are reflecting these residential spaces, with lounge seating or big tables around which colleagues can gather, while private offices are like bedrooms; they are quiet, confidential spaces. “There are also fewer formal conference rooms,” she adds. “And most clients don’t want anything fancy…including simple technology that requires no special programming.”

Primo Orpilla and Verda Alexander, principals of San Francisco-based Studio o+a say, “Workplace is lifestyle. You work there but you also go there to socialize. Today’s workplace transcends traditional office use.” And because transparency and democracy are also driving office design, the wide variety of meeting areas includes tertiary spaces that are permeable and see-through. Lounge furniture may be placed in hallways creating simple, casual collaboration areas. Casual and accidental collision between staff is not only increasingly possible, but increasingly open and visible.

Variety and Customization

If variety in meeting spaces is an underlying catalyst for collaboration, it is also the spice of life in the workplace, and can be pushed even to the point of customization for some clients. “Make it different,” says Krizmanic. “Celebrate the uncorporate. Add something local and community-centered. It can be fun or silly…playfulness counts. Clever is good. Ingenious is better.”

AOL in Palo Alto, designed by Studio O+A. Photography by Jasper Sanidad.

Here of course, is where a designer’s creativity can really be put to the test. Orpilla and Alexander routinely embrace this challenge in their work, rearranging “standards” for new uses, and designing and specifying product mash-ups that are carefully documented so they can be replicated in other facilities. And creative variety is not just a strategy to be used on their Bay Area high-tech start up clients. “Some clients need to get the innovation bug back into their culture,” says Orpilla.

Can design really do that? Just ask Microsoft, now a dowager of the information technology sector, which recently hired Studio o+a to renovate a portion of one of its buildings with the goal of reinvigorating its entrepreneurial spirit. Or, as Leiserowitz puts it, “Designers have a responsibility to help create a vital and energetic work force.”

And—lest we forget—sustainability also has a major influence on corporate office design. But the good news here is, having been one of the first and most committed sectors to embrace green design and building practices, the corporate sector in many ways no longer considers sustainability a “trend”, but rather a given that is more and more just expected moving forward. Energy-efficiency in lighting will be the next great frontier in sustainability in the workplace, so look for an ongoing and growing stream of lighting products based on LED technology to enter the marketplace.

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Jennifer On Design: Curves

Jennifer Busch

This is the third post in my Jennifer on Design series, a monthly exploration of the trends and inspirations that are shaping the way designers approach interior spaces around the world. You can read my previous posts here.

Salone Internazionale del Mobile 2011, also known as “Milan Design Week” is one of the largest furnishings and accessories exhibitions in the world. One of the major trends I noticed last April involved curves. We found many examples of furniture pieces and installations where hard angles have given way to gentle curves—particularly where planes meet—resulting in flowing, organic shapes in seating and tables.

Below is a slideshow of some of the great examples of curves we saw at Milan this year.

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