Fail Quick with Cardboard: The Evolution of Office Design

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A Conversation with Cassie Stepanek, Director of Design and Client Experience, Studio Other

Over the past two years, how have you noticed your industry change?

It’s a very interesting time to be designing for the workplace. A couple of years ago, it might have felt like a luxury to get a custom piece of furniture. 

But the pandemic was the great equalizer. We had the shared experience of working from home and seeing what the future of the workplace could be. Today, we’ve become used to doing laundry at lunch or picking up our kids, and everybody wants a work-life balance. A nine-to-five schedule and five days in the office are is now antiquated.

With a workplace in flux, no one has defined what it should or will be.This means customizing an office is not a luxury anymore. It’s more of a necessity, because flexibility is the name of the game.I find that clients are more in tune with our suggestions and offerings since we’re one of the few companies that can be agile and test things quickly. Employers must think in new ways, and we’re helping them. 

How are office furniture products changing?

Before the pandemic, the most important products we made were individual desks for employees, adjustable workstations, and private offices. Everyone would come into the office, nine to five, to a dedicated seat. I used to call the rows upon rows of desks the “sea of sadness.” 

Today, people are starting to think of the office as a cultural magnet and a place for collaboration – not a mandate. Employers are planning for half the number desks, and, in the extra space, they’re including furniture like touchdown tables for collaboration. Or they’re incorporating farm-style tables without adjustable seats that create a “library” feel in the office – quiet spaces to sit and accomplish heads-down work. In other sections of the building, you might have meetings in the open where it’s bit louder.  

We’re making a lot of mobile TV monitors and mobile whiteboards now – and plenty of things on casters. Let’s say you’re in your boss’s office and you both want to talk to co-workers who are at home. Do you really want to walk down the hall to find a conference room? Or would you rather quickly plug into something next to you?  Figuring out how to do that with electrical and building power is the challenge. 

So, yes, the product is definitely changing. We’re still making individual workstations, but we’re seeing less and less of that.

You have a unique approach to the prototyping process.  Can you describe it?

In the recent past, the way to bring a piece of furniture – like a desk – to life was to make a photo-real rendering. It was something on a screen that people could imagine. But people are no longer sure of what they need. Now, the question is: “Is the answer even a desk? Is that the right thing to make?” And imagining something new and unfamiliar can be difficult. That’s why we’re finding it’s effective to work with low-cost materials – like cardboard – and quickly build something in real life, to scale, for clients to view. 

The process of doing this quickly in rapid rounds is what I call “fail quick.” When we involve the client, fail quick might take 30 minutes and $100 to get to the real solution. It’s much better than spending six months, 15 rounds of prototyping, and hundreds of thousands of dollars on something that, in the end isn’t right. Those are very “slow and expensive” fails. 

With its low investment costs, fail quick is the key to building today’s office spaces and furniture. We’ve had such success with it that, if our client isn’t in the LA area, we will fly out to them with our cardboard. 

Are you finding clients open to this idea of “fail quick?” Failure seems like a word to avoid.

I happen to like the word fail. People do get scared of it and ask me “why would you promote that?!”  But, to me, it’s hubris to think your first idea is going to be your best idea. Fail quick is a great way to get at the solution, but it takes someone who is not afraid to roll up their sleeves and wrestle with the 3D world. And not every client is comfortable doing this.

I just worked on a project with Oliver Seil, the vice president of design at Belkin, and, in three weeks’ time we made three rounds of prototypes for a storage unit. It was great – he came in with a Sharpie and scissors and just cut it up and drew on it. He said, “Oh, this should be such-and-such radius. This should be taller.” 

For fail quick to work, a client has to accept the idea of failure and be open to collaboration with us. In design school, we are trained to withstand critique. But clients aren’t used to tough and immediate critiques, or to seeing a mistake. When they learn to trust the process – and even get involved – they see mistakes as useful things that eventually turn into something great. 

What’s great about customization and what does it mean today?

Customization is more human. Everyone wants to be the main character in their life and building a piece of furniture for someone’s particular needs honors that thought. This is especially important when we are in a place of high uncertainty – like today’s hybrid workplace. If employers want to bring employees back – how will those employees feel valued and will they appreciate the office environment? 

In addition, as furniture is designed, it’s more human for people to be able to touch and feel things and have the agency to say “this is not right; this is what I want.” This becoming more important. 

Many people misunderstand the term “customization.” When people hear “customized,’ they think it’s going to take a lot of time, money and personal investment to figure it out. Or they think that we’re a small shop and team “making stuff in our back yard.” In fact, Studio Other works in all 48 states and does tens of millions of dollars in business for some of the largest corporations. So, actually, it’s “mass customization” that we’re doing. 

What do you predict the industry will look like 10 years from now?  

In the future, I think there will be entire digital worlds that we juggle alongside our physical home and work presences. I cannot say what that’s going to be like, but it’s intriguing to consider. The other day someone suggested that I should design furniture for the metaverse – a place where gravity doesn’t exist. So, for example – a chair. First of all, do you even need a chair? Is it a place to rest? Likely the idea of rest would be entirely different. 

More immediately, I do hope we start to build things with more intention. And that we stop mass producing without having a clients to buy the items. The production housesof the world make thousands of products and store them all over the country, hoping people will buy them. I do not think that will be the way of the future. 

I’d like to think people are slowing down and thinking more intentionally. We’re thinking about the “stuff” we’re putting out into the world. Do we just want to make more stuff, or do we want to make what we absolutely need? 

About Cassie Stepanek: 

Cassie Stepanek is Design & Client Experience Director for Studio Other (formerly Tangram Studio). She focuses on national growth for the Studio and develops new approaches that pair client-facing teams with industrial design teams who work closely with clients throughout the design process. Under her leadership, Studio Other is expanding its national presence through rep group and dealer partnerships. Stepanek first joined Studio Other as an Industrial Designer in June 2017. 

About Studio Other: 

Studio Other is a creator of custom solutions for commercial interior environments and workspaces. The company designs custom, scalable furniture solutions that bring each client’s unique vision to life, while meeting their distinct needs and reinforcing their brand aesthetic. The company partners with architects, designers and brands that embrace being different, as well as clients that are emotionally engaged in the process, willing to take risks and ready to roll up their sleeves to help make creative concepts a reality.

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