Hospital common area interior, people sit at chairs, behind them there's a view through the windows.

Designing for Productivity and Equity

A Think Tank panel discusses how interior design can have a positive impact, from universities to offices.

It was all Perkins&Will, all the time: Three principals from the New York office of the major architecture firm gathered on October 7 to discuss “Designing for Productivity and Equity,” with Avinash Rajagopal, editor in chief of Metropolis, serving as the panel’s moderator. Each participant brought a specialty: Brodie Bain, principal, planning and strategies, had a higher-education bent; Jennifer Graham, principal, focused on corporate interiors; and Carolyn BaRoss, also principal, shared health-care expertise.

“Whether you’re working at a community college or in the Ivy League, come with big ears and a small ego” was Bain’s initial advice on working in higher education. “The word ‘facilities’ is based on the word ‘facilitate,’” she added. “Try to think about the world from others’ perspectives. What’s great about a campus environment is that people are there to improve themselves.” She recounted a story of a college that, like many, is building housing for minority students.

“It’s important for people to have a place to be with people who share their experiences,” she continued. “But that does nothing to improve empathy and sharing among groups. Our solution is to create more neutral spaces, places where all people can come together.”

Rajagopal invoked the acronym JEDI, which stands for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. “These are proud human values we aspire to,” he said. “Design has a great opportunity to shape spaces in which human activity occurs. It all boils down to justice—allowing everyone to lead their best full and dignified lives.”

colorful hospital lobby, people sitting at couches and interacting with staff behind desk.
A cheerful and welcoming lobby at the Medical University of South Carolina Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital and Pearl Tourville Women’s Pavilion, designed by Perkins&Will, is one part of a design plan that’s aimed reducing stress and improving outcomes for a wide range of patients. COURTESY HALKIN MASON PHOTOGRAPHY

Picking up on that idea, Graham stressed the importance of understanding “how environment affects diverse groups. With corporate interiors, we want to ensure that the experience is as equitable as possible.” She spoke from experience: Graham told the assembled group that 35 years ago, starting her career in architecture and interiors, she was “the first and only person of color in the firm.”

She also brought up the idea that a designer’s responsibility goes beyond their project’s users and clients—they need to be aware of their products’ sources. “Was a chair built exploiting people in a particular place on the globe?” she asked. “When you start with the premise that we’re all human, you become aware of the supply chain, and of asking yourself whether it is an equitable manufacturing process.”

BaRoss, the health-care expert, invoked the Hippocratic oath, asking: “Are we doing no harm?” She continued: “Are we thinking about what certain products do to health? Are we incorporating ease of access? We try to bring an open mind and curiosity to health-care commissions.”

She went on to say: “Gather insights from people who use our facilities. We can get a broad range of feedback in designing facilities that encourage people to use them.”

As the conversation wound down, Bain offered advice that could be applied to any design commission, regardless of project type: “The goal is to bring people together. We have a serious responsibility in our work. These environments are going to be in place for a long time. There’s a real impact on people.”

The Think Tank discussions were held on October 7, 14, and 21. The conversations were presented in partnership with Arc-Com, LX Hausys, Versteel, GROHE, and Arden Studio.

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