Living the principles

May 07, 2018

Honoring your clients’ business success above all else will enhance your firm’s reputation and bottom line – without compromising design.

This is the third installment of a three-part discussion on the topic of job success, which started with “How to Find a Job.” In Part Two, I addressed “After Landing the Job,” introducing the notion that job success goes beyond great design and producing the best work.

In this last post, I discuss the five guiding principles that defined my 34-year career at Gensler. Here are the five principles and examples to demonstrate how they worked in practice:

1. We’re in the business of using design as a business tool, not to win awards.

Western States Bankcard Association: Gensler was hired to do a new operations/computer center. I was assigned the call center. This may seem menial, but it led to many other call centers after its successful completion.

But first, imagine the existing facility. It featured long lines of 30-by-40-inch single-pedestal desks, lined up so each person was looking at the backs of the people in front. Employees worked a half-hour on and a half-hour off, punching a time clock at each rotation. At breaks, they went to the lunch room that featured a bank of refrigerators, each smelling of week-old sandwiches. Average longevity in the call center was a dismal 7.5 months.

I proposed to the manager that a business goal for a redesign would be to create a more pleasant working environment while increasing efficiency and reducing the turnover rate. The manager said, “You can’t take one square foot of space more than we’ve allocated or spend one dime over budget. Good luck.”

Our solution used the prescribed footprint and came in on budget.

  • We created three-sided surrounds for each desk using four-by-eight-foot burlap wrapped panels ($4.99 a piece), sliced in half horizontally.
  • We rotated every other desk 180 degrees so people had a place on each side to pin up pictures of family or a pet.
  • After I asked the manager if she cared when the staff worked, I had data processing develop a computer algorithm, allowing employees to check in and check out online at their desks. As long as the employees work four hours a day with four hours off, she didn’t care.
  • This gave supervisors flexibility to manage times on the computer according to call volume, which they had a reader board to monitor.
  • We moved the break area to the work room, separated with a cluster of trees and featuring lounge seating and refrigerators that were cleaned daily.

The results may not have won design awards, but it was published in a design magazine and the business ROI was significant for both the client and our firm.

  • Average longevity at the call center went from 7.5 months to 13.5 months.
  • Caller satisfaction improved, which allowed a reduction in staff.
  • The cost of recruiting and training was cut in half.
  • Gensler subsequently got a lot of call center work.

2. We should make each design solution suit our client’s culture, both for the employees and their clients or customers. The example here is the Delta Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International Airport. Delta chose Gensler to do the interior design.

At the first meeting, we asked the client how they would define success. Delta’s answer was simple: “We will be successful if Delta gains market share over United and American, with whom we compete for the same connecting routes from LAX to Honolulu and Mexico.”

We got Delta’s and the airport’s permission to interview passengers. Here’s what we learned:

  • No one remembered their outbound flight; it’s the return experience that mattered.
  • A typical response was: “I’ve been on the beach all week. I’m tan and happy. I enjoy a couple of umbrella drinks on the return flight. On arrival, I’m drowsy and confronted with a search for the connecting gate, a low-ceiling concourse and mercury vapor (blue) downlights that make us look like cadavers.”
  • Waiting for the connecting flight might entail a stop for a last umbrella drink at an airport bar with low lights and no ability to see the connecting gate, resulting in missed connecting flights and an overnight stay in Los Angeles and, perhaps, a missed day of work.

Our solution was higher ceilings with warm-colored, indirect lighting, allowing passengers to look and feel as good and healthy as they did when they left the beach. And we moved the bars close to a cluster of gates, making it easier for passengers to see and hear the call for connecting flights. We surrounded these areas with kentia palms, and Delta named them Delta’s Oases.

The results: Delta’s market share for those important routes increased by 15 to 20 percent. Subsequently, Gensler got heavily into the airport business.

3. We asked everyone to adopt a collaborative attitude, using the aggregated talent of the firm for each client. We believed the “expert” in the firm on a subject, regardless of location, should be part of the project team. As a result, we had people traveling to other offices frequently. Team camaraderie was seamless because we instilled the habit of working across office boundaries.

An example was General Motors, which asked us to make a proposal on relocating the corporation’s Detroit headquarters to the Renaissance Center. Following the initial interview on a Friday, we were asked if we were to receive a call on Saturday, could we have a team in place Monday morning. We got the call on Saturday. We mobilized 17 people from five different offices. They were on the job Monday morning. Because they had the practice of collaboratively working together, they hit the ground running.

4. We were all in this together with a common goal – the best business solution that met a client’s needs and goals. Our focus on addressing our clients’ business needs did not stop us from delivering aesthetically-pleasing design solutions. We stayed very close to this by studying sociology. We wanted to know how a physical space would affect behavior, and we encouraged anyone interested in this to become well acquainted with the subject. We brought in a number of experts in the field, and those lectures were either broadcast or made available to the entirety of our design staff. The results of this effort showed up repeatedly in design approaches and client/customer enjoyment of the spaces we created that were consistent with our client’s businesses.

5. We carefully documented our client’s performance goals. Up-front metrics and continual measurements against those metrics became a given with every project. Along the way, we could sense our clients’ pride in what we’d accomplished. We credited much of our success to this documentation and measurement reporting. Our clients told their peers about what they’d learned about “real design.” Because metrics and documentation against the client’s goals were required for virtually every project, the case studies were endless. We had happy clients, proud employees and an expanding business because of referrals.

Whether you’re a new employee or a seasoned veteran, promoting and living the principles of a firm that values clients’ business success above all else will guarantee your teams’ satisfaction and enhance your firm’s reputation and bottom line – without compromising design.

Edward Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at

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