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The Secret to Designing the Ideal Office

Photo: Courtesy of Brooke Cagle

Many businesses miss the mark on meeting all of their employees’ needs when conceiving the design of their office space. We spoke with Holly Feres and Liz Morgan of Oregon-based JHL Design about what to consider when planning the design of your office.

Holly Feres

Principal, JHL Design

What is your process like when designing for commercial spaces versus residential ones? 

Our process is actually quite similar between commercial and residential. For either type of space, we seek to understand our clients’ functional and emotional needs in order to design a space that will suit them. For offices, of course, you have a multitude of needs that are different from residential, such as productivity concerns, but the process is quite similar.

How do you keep ergonomics in mind when designing? 

Pay attention to your client. Their height and mobility affect how they use the space. Of course, for larger firms, you’re aiming for the middle ground. There are standard dimensions and positions that one can find in any book on ergonomics. 

A lot of the office product design is now catering to these needs. But, if you want to be sure, test the products and designs. Sit in them. Use them. 

To optimize functionality and productivity, what should an office consider? Is this true for all commercial spaces? 

An office should consider providing myriad functions for its inhabitants. Since we spend most of our waking days at work, it’s important that we are in a space that allows for alone time to think and ideate, as well as spaces for cross-collaboration and social engagement. 

There are layers to both of these functions but a lot of this can be answered through a designer’s client investigation and intuition. A lot of our human needs are deeply ingrained and quite similar, it just requires forethought and anthropological understanding. 

Liz Morgan

Creative Director, JHL Design

For offices in the middle of making interior design decisions, what would you recommend they prioritize? 

We highly recommend designers meet with the client and inquire as to how they work and what kind of space they wish to work in. This answer may be different depending on who you ask in the company. 

Gather these findings and design a space that can accommodate a variety of needs and uses. Always remember, however, that people seek diversity of space; inhabitants (whether they can articulate this or not) want privacy AND the ability to meet with coworkers casually or formally. People want quietude to think but also appreciate a place where they can freely laugh and engage one another. 

These components are not mutually exclusive. Your job as a designer is to get creative to meet all of these needs in an elegant and interesting way.

Where do you feel offices miss the mark when it comes to creating their interiors? 

There are the traditional office spaces that don’t align with the workers’ physical and/or emotional needs, and are solely focused on productivity (although they aren’t successful because the physical and emotional needs heavily influence productivity). 

Now there are the new office spaces that are designed to be exciting and attractive for client acquisition and creativity stimulation (we see this a lot in the start-up work and tech offices), but they often don’t allow for enough privacy and sound mitigation (due to open office blunders). 

Design firms are learning, however. More focus is being placed on office design and, therefore, they’re being designed more intelligently.

How does the physical space of an office affect employee well-being? 

The physical space’s effect on employee well-being cannot be understated. Lighting, materiality, physical space, desk orientation — all of these things and more can affect how an individual feels and, therefore, how well they can concentrate, how creative they are, etc. 

The field of environmental psychology is founded on this understanding. Our mindset and behavior are shaped by our spaces. It’s the designer’s job to understand how this happens and how we can steer it towards greater health and positive growth.

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