How to build an office using the principles of design thinking — architects of IND Office share their experience through the example of the Alfa Laboratory office.

A phenomenon called design thinking has been claiming momentum recently, including its application in office space designing. Whereas earlier the theory of design thinking of the company named IDEO and Tim Brown — its creator and pioneer — was mainly known to near-innovation circles, now this term occurs increasingly frequently.

Architects and designers of IND Office have been applying the principles of design thinking in office space designing for a long time so far. Ere yet we learned that there such an approach did exist, we considered every our project from different angles, took a lively interest in our customers’ businesses, tried to foresee the future — employees’ behavior as well — and offered solutions that could easily adapt to that future.

So what is the difference between “mere” design and design thinking? Not only does design thinking form the exterior of an object — unlike design, where this is the main focus — but it considers its function in detail as well, thus extending the boundaries of a project and taking it to the next level.

Here comes a simple example to illustrate the approach: one day an own gym opened in an office, where typical white collars work. It is a common thing now, but ten years ago it was something extraordinary. Most of CEOs at the time were not really sure it was a good idea. They thought it would demotivate employees and decrease their efficiency. This is a great example of design thinking — the client considered the needs of employees, pushed the limits of what was habitual — a desk and a coffee machine, figured out the benefits for their business, and it worked! Employees began to visit the gym actively, without compromising their performance. Quite the opposite, their efficiency increased, they started to spend more time in the office: employees discussed working moments in the gym! The loyalty to the company increased, emotional setting improved, less quits, more motivation, better financial performance of the business — all the things that push today’s employers to improve their offices.

Design thinking is a broader take on the way things are, not only on their exterior forms.

Style is important, but creation of an interior that reflects a company's business, identifies the company and is its trademark, covers its business values and its vector of development, is overriding. We apply the underlying principles of design thinking in our work. Let’s refer to the example of the Alfa Laboratory office that was opened in the late 2014.

Alfa Laboratory is a special unit of Alfa Bank engaged in electronic business. One of the uniquefeatures of the office is its creativity, which is unlikely for the financial sector. Functional, striking, and innovative, it is a workplace for young and vigorous employees.

When creating an office, architects and designers of IND Office do a detailed research of a project in three lines, which are the principles of design thinking:

1. Being in consumer demand. An office is created for a comfortable work of employees in the first place.

A human being is always at the heart of design thinking. To create innovative products, including architectural spaces, appropriately and effectively, one should be deeply empathic.

First and foremost, we start out from a client’s needs and adjust our ideas to them. An architect works in with the client and creates a tailored project that matches in the best way the requirements of the client and its employees. There are many young and vigorous employees in the field of electronic business where Alfa Laboratory works — these young people are so called “representatives of the Generation Y,” who are really involved in digital technologies. The client and we unambiguously understood that this generation was the core staff, and therefore the office was to be attractive and convenient right for them, so that when a potential (and of course a qualified) employee would come here for an interview, he or she would like to stay here. The office was to look rather like an innovative office of a digital company than like an interior of a financial institution. Alongside with technologies, potential employees were keen on comic books from little up, they liked street art and active sport, and all of these things were included in the interior too.

And the result was a bright office with its design being based on comic books and elements of street design. We understood the nature of the Generation Y and offered the employees not to be bound to one stationary workplace, but to work from different zones. Dynamic atmosphere allows quick and effective completion of tasks by means of functional solutions — employees may write down and stick materials right on the walls; solve tasks sitting on soft poufs at the coffee-point without arranging special meetings; combine leisure and brainstorming in a game-zone — two things that do not always disagree. This office has the feel of informal setting — the interior encourages shifting away from bureaucracy and hierarchy. This is important in this direction, when even a newcomer may come up with great ideas. Even the youngest employee can offer introduction of new products, and in doing so he or she will not face hierarchical boundaries.

Quotes of the great names of history, even an unusual, “rushing” shape of a reception desk inspire, motivate, and accelerate the train of thought. The sense of a center that comes along in the office of Alfa Laboratory is an essential motivation for the staff. Conferences are held and lectures are delivered in the office — a conference hall of Alfa Laboratory may be leased, and the payment that the owners accept is interesting knowledge that speakers can share. But this is not only an image-building solution, for the main resource of the staff is expertise that they enrich with every new speaker.

2. Feasibility. Can a dream office be implemented in view of current technologies and available budget?

We always study confines of a project when creating an office. However, limitations do not constrain us in implementing designers’ or architects’ ideas; they even can expand the project and provide an opportunity to solve arising issues in a novel way. One may think that Alfa Laboratory is a bright and creative office, where there are many perks for the staff, where a conference is opened by a gong stroke — like this is the place where there were little or no limitations. But this was not the case. In addition to various architectural limitations that we were pleased to use to the best effect (e.g., creatively different shapes of some meeting zones come from certain layout peculiarities), we faced quite explicit budget restrictions. The client talks about it with a humorous undertone on one famous web site. Click the link to read it (in Russian):

Thinking outside the box helped us to use low-cost solutions. For instance, the furniture budget was significantly reduced without prejudice to quality. Space-consuming walls were demolished, and additional workplaces were arranged instead. Transparent partitions, a ceiling without “needless” finishing expand the space too. Even heads of departments do not have private offices and work in a reserved area in the “open space.” Every centimeter of Alfa Laboratory fulfils a function, there are no unused spaces and dead areas in the project. The most inconvenient places were turned into storage rooms or rooms for private phone calls.

3. Cost-effectiveness. Every office should be successful and reasonable for business.

If a company cares hugely about its staff, a lot of solutions can be found that will be very convenient for them, but will not work in terms of investments. When design thinking is applied for office design, it is impossible to create a space that does not fulfill business tasks or impedes their immediate execution.

Architects tackle all aspects of a project thoughtfully and offer balanced solutions for density of workplaces or streamlining the communication inter-linkages. Materials used in construction and costs that will be definitely repaid in future have an effect on the cost-effectiveness of an office. LED-based lighting helps to reduce the consumables, hand dryers were installed in lavatories in place of paper towels. The number of printers and their access logistics were carefully thought-out.

Availability of a big number of communication zones: formal — meeting rooms and points, a conference hall, and informal — a game-zone, a porch, coffee-points and other corners in the office, creates an effective environment for quick solution of challenging tasks. The staff of Alfa Laboratory is comprised of qualified and creative people; many of them have expertise in different, IT-adjacent, fields. And it's more than likely that some of them have, in one way or other, faced the issues that occur when working on a project. An opportunity to meet without long gathering of participants and reservation of meeting rooms makes meetings quick, easy and effective. If however one needs a separate meeting room, again there is no need to waste time making an intricate reservation — there is a web-based client, and a reservation schedule is displayed on screens in the meeting rooms too.

If we visualize the three principles of design thinking, we will have three intersecting circles. Therefore, it is difficult to attach any solution to a particular separate principle — things that are good and convenient for the staff contribute to greater efficiency; too expensive and outdated solutions should be replaced with new and cost-effective ones. This again is more comfortable for people and better for a company’s financial performance.

We create effective office spaces based upon the needs of employees, deeply delving into the subject of business processes and prudently estimating risks and limitations. Such office spaces meet the needs of a business and are clearly consistent with a company’s business line. We address issues promptly, pore through business needs, respond to requests qualitatively and are always open to a dialogue.