It Was the Best of Times?

Steelcase’s vice president for global design reflects on the fragile state of the contract-furniture industry.

For the contract-furniture industry, the recession represents a kind of bad-news/good-news scenario. Western Michigan’s big three haven’t been hit as hard as their automotive counterparts across the state (thank God for that), but they have experienced layoffs, declining sales, unpaid furloughs, even plant closings. And the good news amid all this economic pain? The companies have been through downturns before and often used them to rethink their businesses in ways that allowed them to emerge stronger once the economy rebounded. According to James Ludwig—the vice president of global design for Steelcase, who oversees product and showroom design for the Steelcase and Nurture brands—tough times like these present unique challenges as well as fresh opportunities. Ludwig, a trained architect and an industrial designer, recently talked with Metropolis’s executive editor, Martin C. Pedersen, about the recession, the role of research in a down economy, and the importance of corporate values.

How has the recession affected your role?
As head of the design group, I have a perspective that is a little different than, say, the CFO’s. We’re not unique in the fact that our business has shrunk, that a lot of our customers are struggling. But at the same time, for the design group this does create a fascinating situation where people start to question the nature of what work will look like in the future. These are the seismic shifts and fundamental changes by which we’ll mark history. I find these times full of opportunity. Our customers are also looking at ways to reinvent themselves. We have expertise in making the stuff that creates their work environment, but we also have some deep insights from studying behaviors of successful organizations around the world. And they want to tap into that. One thing is for sure: the quality of the résumés coming across my desk is getting better.

In the near term, it does seem as if we’re looking at a lot less new construction. Will that change your approach?
People are looking to leverage their real estate assets as well as their human capital in more effective ways. So we developed a whole program around creating great small spaces. But the basic approach doesn’t change. There are three components of creating work environments—a social, a spatial, and an informational one. We’re not sociologists, who study it as a scholarly exercise, but we’re gaining our insights and applying them to the world of work. So if you look at those components, all of them are changing. There are different technologies around the exchange of information. We launched media:scape because we understood that people bring their laptops to meetings, slap them open, and information gets a seat at the table. But the problem was, how could you turn that i-device or “my” device into a “we” experience without turning your laptop around and having everybody get up and huddle around it? That was a social behavior intersecting with an information technology, and we created a product around that.

“One thing is for sure: the quality of the résumés coming across my desk is getting better.”

How is research conducted during an economic downturn? Does it become longer range, more blue-sky? Or does it operate from project to project?
Like a lot of companies, we set our strategic plans, roughly speaking, on three horizons. And they can vary from cycle to cycle. A couple of years out is the first horizon. These are immediate issues that we’re studying, products we’re developing based on the insights and needs that we’ve identified. The second one would be in that three-to-five-year sweet spot, where we see some inkling of things on the horizon. It might be predictive technologies or trends that will start to give us some sense of the opportunities available.

And the third horizon, the one furthest out?
That’s where we work with some of the best think tanks out there—the Santa Fe Institute, the MIT Media Lab, IDEO, the folks out at Stanford—asking: “What are you guys seeing? Tell us how we might model chaos theory around future notions of organizational development. How are companies growing around the world?” It’s amazing to tap into these big networks of brilliant minds. We have an in-house research group that spends a lot of time developing and fostering and benefiting from those relationships. And that work gets distilled into directing our research agenda and eventually becomes actionable insights in the future. I haven’t seen us slow down or get too short-term focused because of the downturn. We’re convinced that the companies that haven’t become too paralyzed and can move forward, even a bit, will look like they’ve moved miles when everybody comes out of it.

So early research is about observing behavior and dis­covering a need?
Yes. And media:scape is a great example of that. It came out of a horizon-three technology road map. We were trying to understand everything that was going on with the technology interface of work. How are people exchanging information? How is wireless evolving? When will laptops intersect with desktops? When will flat-screens supplant big boxes on desks? Those were hor­izons-two-and-three studies back when we started conceiving of the product. And then when we debuted it at NeoCon last year, showing that final product form, it moved right into horizon one, becoming a traditional, very tangible design-and-development process. But nothing ever stops or slows down. Those horizons just keep moving out.

The U.S. Green Building Council is coming out with a new version of LEED. How will that affect Steelcase?
There are two aspects to that. One is how we deal with our showrooms. All Steelcase-branded spaces have to be LEED certified, and we’re always shooting for Gold or Platinum where possible. As the USGBC comes out with these new guidelines, there are also BIFMA standards. Our industry organization is trying to define a standard for sustainability in products. So we made a com­mitment that all of our products going forward would be Cradle to Cradle certified. That can be a tough thing with, say, power systems because of the PVC involved in them, but we said that we were going to do it anyway. We also have people on the boards and panels that are helping to create those regulations, so from my perspective this is where regulatory guidelines begin intersecting with our values.

You talk about corporate values quite a lot. Why?
I think we’re seeing a redefinition of what a value is. It’s not just about getting more for less. It’s about customers and users aligning the concept of value with their own personal values. People—especially young people—want to work for companies that connect to their own values, and they’re less tolerant of a disconnect. Now, during this economic downturn, people are reinterpreting how they express that. They’re not jumping from job to job, because those jobs might not be there right now, but that sentiment is not going away. I applaud the people who challenge us to prove that our products and services not only adhere to our values but to theirs as well. I think that’s a great development for the world economies.

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