Editor’s Note: The following piece on designing office spaces for startups was contributed by Stefan Bhagwandin, content writer for Share Your Office, a real estate tech startup that offers on-demand listings of offices, meeting rooms, and coworking spaces.
Who doesn’t love looking at pictures of cool offices? Startups, with their iconoclastic ideals and goofy self-image, are infamous for bold office design. The “disruption” that so many companies strive for is tangible in their work environment.
But where do these designs come from? Office design is a broad field. The boundaries between construction, architecture and design feel fuzzy to newcomers; even companies looking to hire a designer have misconceptions about the process.
To answer this question, Share Your Office interviewed Lauren from Geremia Design and Gracie from Gracie Turner Design about what it’s like to design offices for startups and tech clients. In the process, we learned a thing or two about why design matters and where the industry is headed.
Behind the Scenes with Two Designers of Cool Offices
1) What’s the design process like, and how long does it take?
The process depends on the client. Right now, people are “looking for a custom experience,” according to Lauren. Clients, especially in tech hubs like San Francisco, want an office that’s 100% aligned with their brand—and that takes time.
For Lauren’s company, the process is linear. They start by getting to know the client before moving into the ideation phase, where they come up with the “narrative and ideas” that’ll guide the space’s design. Identifying problems is a key part of this step: they take the client’s pet peeves with their current space, and work out a way to fix them.
After that, the team goes over space planning—a necessary step, given the flexibility of startup life. Furniture and artwork selection must take variable team size into account. Finally, the furniture is physically staged in the space. There’s room for creativity in this step; Lauren even calls it her favorite step, because it allows for plenty of experimentation.
For Gracie, the process always starts with “running through a series of images to gauge [the client’s] response on things they love about the space, functionally and aesthetically.” These sample images are the fastest way to get a feel for what the client wants.
It’s also important to ask about the company’s culture. Find out what they want the staff to feel, and what image they want to give off to visitors. “Much of the time,” Gracie says, “I get the same kind of feedback. People say, ‘we want a cool office, we want it to look professional and polished, but we don’t want to look like we spent all our money on the office.'” The designer’s job is to find the right balance.
Time frames can vary wildly. In Lauren’s company, projects with construction can take upwards of a year, while indoor layouts can be completed within 6 months.
For Gracie, the process is faster: “with all the resources available in San Francisco and how quickly furniture can be delivered, you can turn around a project in two weeks.” It’s usually slower (between four and six weeks), but it’s not impossible to get it done in half a month.
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2) Name a few of your favorite offices. What do you like about them?
“I like the Everlane office,” replies Lauren. “I tend to like offices that are a little bit more minimal, so that the people and the projects and the product itself can do their thing.”
As far as minimalism goes, Lauren is a fan. “People can call the work cold or simple, but there’s a lot of personality that my clients bring to the table after I finish a project. I’m designing for payoff and creativity and change and development. Once the clients live in the offices, they definitely look at it differently.”
Gracie’s pick is a coworking space: Bespoke Coworking in San Francisco. “There are no windows in the space but they’ve done an amazing job filling the space with life, energy, and plants.”
3) What’s the most common request you’ve gotten from clients?
“Phone booths,” says Gracie. With open work spaces, it’s more important than ever to offer private spaces for phone calls.
Of course, the usual suspects haven’t gone anywhere. “Plants, art, and flexibility” are all common requests. People want aesthetically-pleasing offices that are flexible and relatively private.
There’s also a clear trend towards health in the office. “People want a variety of food and workstation options, and people have become increasingly interested in ergonomics,” says Lauren. Employees don’t want their work hours to damage their bodies, and office designs have started to take that into account.
4) What’s the strangest request you’ve gotten from a client?
“I get a lot of people wanting me to design trash cans,” explains Lauren. It sounds silly, but there’s good reason for it: when you invest in a deliberate office design with carefully curated furniture, the last thing you want is for standard utility items to kill the vibe. Custom recycling bins, bathroom signage, and handicap signage are a few examples of objects that are easy to overlook but still important to customize.
One of Lauren’s clients had a whole warehouse of fly fishing photos. “He made me figure out how to frame them and make them look cool.” Needless to say, the company had nothing to do with fly fishing. Meanwhile, Gracie has had more than one request for indoor gongs.
Beside that, it’s not unheard of to request dog-walking space and huge yoga rooms.
5) What’s the most common misconception that startups have about the design process?
“Sometimes clients don’t have the same priorities as interior designers,” starts Lauren. “Sometimes designers are seen as service people, who can take all the pictures that you’ve pinned on Pinterest and buy all the furniture for you.”
In fact, designers want to play a bigger role in the process, and it’s difficult for them to do their job without participating in discussions about budget, furniture quality, and time frame. The art doesn’t come through when you’re acting as a service.
Budget is Gracie’s biggest issue. Clients often don’t realize how much furniture costs, and they have trouble accepting what they can get with their budget.
On the upside, startups often don’t realize how quick and easy the process can be. “There’s the misconception that working with designers is a really long process, and that… we don’t ask them any questions about how they work and what their office culture is like,” says Gracie.
In reality, it’s a collaborative process, and it doesn’t have to take all year. That’s a pleasant surprise for startups looking for a small-scale renovation.
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6) How do you feel about the design of coworking spaces compared to private offices?
Gracie is hopeful about coworking spaces. “People prefer different ways of working,” she says. “Some people like standing up, some people like sitting.” The list goes on. Coworking spaces are great because they let you pick the environment you work in.
Coworking spaces have also influenced mainstream office design. A lot of offices nowadays offer a variety of options, whether it’s a rock-climbing wall or a cool kitchen. We’re seeing these hybrid work spaces where traditional offices are borrowing from coworking.
Lauren is more skeptical. “They’re definitely a bit more generic,” she says. “They’re supposed to hold the attention of an industry rather than a product.”
There’s no avoiding the fact that coworking spaces are less personalized. One of the biggest benefits of private offices is that they can be unified by a specific brand or product.
7) What trends do you see emerging in the next 5–10 years?
Gracie predicts that shared desks and open layouts will continue to prevail. Wellness will also grow in popularity, with more rooms for “yoga and meditation”. The standing desk isn’t likely to go anywhere, either.
But for Lauren, the open office plan has been a “big question mark” for a while. “It was very popular, and now everyone’s wondering if it’s a good idea.” Right now, we’re seeing a slight push in the other direction, where people are designing for openness as well as privacy.
“Dividers, sound abatement materials, and better commercial carpeting” have seen improvements in recent years. Product quality is improving, and there are more products on the market that cater to open offices but provide a bit more privacy and noise control.
Lauren expects to see a trend toward high-quality, local furniture. Whether it’s conference tables or art, plenty of office decorations can be bought from local fabricators that produce at a smaller scale. Much like the trend toward locally-produced food, embracing local furniture gives an office design more variance and individuality.
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