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Designing Space to Create Human Connection

July 26, 2019
  • A&D

KI and IIDA are hosting a six-city panel discussion focused on Community as Strategy. The emerging topic centers around how the idea of community is shaping design in various markets and locations. Each event features a panel of designers, clients and academia and is hosted by Cheryl Durst, IIDA’s Executive Vice President and CEO. This blog features the most recent event.

It was during the energetic buzz of networking and socializing that we noticed a group of young professionals shaking hands and embracing moments before the start of our most recent Community as Strategy panel with IIDA in Washington, D.C.

The group were graduates of the Interior Design program at Marymount University in northern Virginia. Even after graduating and following different paths, they still felt a warm connection to each other and the school - a testament to the long-lasting influence of a common bond and identity.

There’s meaning and power in community, and an increasing awareness that is bringing it to the forefront of client and professional conversations. It’s also the central topic of the panel discussions that bring together experts and industry peers from across the country.

Hosted at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, KI's most recent conversation included: Jevelle Branch, director of operations at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts; Jill Goebel, design director and principal with Gensler; James Kerrigan, design principal of interiors at Jacobs; and Douglas Seidler, chair and associate professor of Interior Design at Marymount University.


Effective design sparks an emotional connection between people and place, but it takes planning and understanding. It begins with discovering a client’s wishes and ideas about community early in the process.

“If you don’t have those conversations at the beginning, and bake them into the design, you’re just making another box,” Jill Goebel said during the panel discussion. “You can make a pretty box, but if you want to create something with meaning, and something that can propel an organization forward, you have to have those conversations.”

Creating a building with meaning was at the center of her work with Nestle as it relocated its U.S. headquarters to northern Virginia. From the outset, Gensler’s team worked to tell a deeper story about the company and its purpose - and present it in a manner that resonated with employees.

The result is a headquarters where the cultural touchstones of health and wellness are expressed with kitchens on each floor. Interactive exhibits, like an Instagrammable photography wall designed to emulate a kitchen refrigerator, encourage staff engagement. The global impact of Nestle is reinforced by photos and stories of farmers working with the company.

Nestle didn’t just focus globally.  With a desire to be part of the local community, it hosted a culinary food festival for surrounding neighbors in the summer 2018.

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The Power of Community as Strategy

This is the future of design - places that create a sense of purpose and show people their personal impact of being part of the experience.  After all, if you can do your work from home or a coffee shop, why go to the office? That reality highlights the importance of creating an enticing experience in a corporate office or a college campus.

“I think the office, in the traditional way we think about it, is going to shift. If it doesn’t, they won’t continue to exist,” Kerrigan said. “People want to see value in going to the office. The idea of community, and a reason to come to a place, is going to be key.”

Offering a reason to go to the office is particularly important to the next generation of workers, especially Gen Z, who put a premium on face-to-face interactions and connections. They also happen to be part of an increasing pool of workers seeking a variety of environments mirroring the work spaces they grew accustomed to in college – from park benches and lounge areas to stairwells.

Higher education institutions are paying close attention to what’s happening in gathering spaces, too. Marymount University has created a campus-wide focus on community spaces and activities designed to compel students to stay at the university.

“Studies clearly show when you create community on campus you improve your retention: Your freshmen come back for their sophomore year,” Seidler said.

Several years ago, the Interior Design department at Marymount swapped one of its traditional computer lab layouts for a leaner and more flexible digital design studio. The studio is used to teach computer programs like AutoCAD and Revit, but it includes unscheduled time where students are free to use the space as they choose. Some work. Some eat. Others hang out.

“It’s full. Students are going there because they like the space,” Seidler said. “Our student body is always changing. We constantly have to reimagine this space to support these connections and we have to be nimble enough to listen to what the students need so we can reinvent it for them every two or three years.”

The Marymount Interior Design Program has cultivated one of the highest student retention rates on campus, including the group of friends-turned-professional colleagues who attended our panel.

Upcoming IIDA Community as Strategy Discussions

Elements of community have long been part of design, but they’re coalescing into a more established practice and discussion point as organizations across all markets craft spaces built around creating experiences and a sense of belonging.

We’ll continue to explore these ideas and real-world examples at upcoming events in New York, Boston and San Francisco. To conclude the discussions, we’ll compile our findings in an executive summary highlighting the key takeaways from across the country.

You can follow along across the country on social media using the hashtags #ispyki, #kifurniture, #iidaiseverywhere and #iida_hq.

Click to learn more about our kick-off event in St. Louis and another in Chicago.

by KI Furniture 

KI manufactures innovative furniture and wall system solutions for education, workplace, healthcare and government markets.


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