A Look at a Designer’s Workplace of the Future

Design student mentoring event shares scholarship opportunities and a tour of Gensler’s new downtown headquarters 

By Tom Collom

Private offices, large conference rooms, formal presentation spaces are fast going the way of the flip phone. Flexible and open plan office areas, with spacious employee breakout rooms complete with wine-on-tap, are the workplaces of the future, according to Gensler, one the world’s largest multi-disciplinary and cutting-edge architecture and design firms founded here in San Francisco by Art Gensler and his wife Drue in 1965.

Gensler’s brand-new San Francisco headquarters office recently hosted a design student mentoring event including a firm tour and student portfolio reviews open to all Bay Area interior design students and emerging professionals. The event, co-sponsored by NEWH, Network of Executive Women in Hospitality, also outlined several generous scholarship opportunities open to all interior design students, including international students, with awards starting at $5,000 (https://newh.org/scholarship/).

Many of our School of Interior Architecture and Design (IAD) students are applying for this generous monetary offer of support to put towards their ongoing design education. Two of the graduate students, Cassidy Williams and Jacqueline McCoy, both currently enrolled, have been hired for two coveted design positions at Gensler. Willams shared her secret to how she got the job.

Foam presentation boards of work hung off pegs in Gensler’s new downtown office. Photo courtesy of Katie Valkuchak.

“It is very important for you to have your skills but it is also just as important to be yourself in the interview. When working in a design studio, especially at Gensler, we are like a family that has to work [as] a team,” said Williams. “It is scary presenting your portfolio in an interview for a position you really want, and you think that they will want to know every single detail but it is best to have the most important information. That way you can keep their attention, and once one of the projects sparks their interest, you can spend an appropriate amount of time elaborating on the specific project.”

With almost 40 of our Academy of Art University IAD students in attendance at the firm tour, eclipsing other attending schools, our Gensler hosts were impressed by the IAD students’ enthusiasm and interest in the event. IAD Director Katie Valkuchak noted, “We demonstrated our design program is committed to engaging students in industry events like this that lead to great design careers after graduating from our programs.” As the night went on, it became evident how important it is to have emerging professionals understand how design firms operate and get a taste of professional life outside of school. Valkuchak followed up by saying, “On behalf of all of us here tonight, I would like to thank both NEWH and Gensler for sponsoring this incredible event in this beautiful space.”

Due to our large turnout, IAD students were split into color-coded groups, rotating through either getting professional headshots, portfolio reviews by design professionals or partaking in the highly anticipated firm tour.

Gensler’s new downtown headquarters is on the 14th floor of a south of Market office building with commanding views of the growing San Francisco skyline. My first impression was a light, bright and cheerful space that was predominantly bathed in a neutral wash of white. This Zen-like backdrop was accented by pops of orange on numerous door and window frames and select furnishings, taking a color cue from the quintessential “International Orange” of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Enthusiastic IAD students and faculty showing their excitement for the event. Photo courtesy of Katie Valkuchak.

Williams touched on one of her favorite hangout spaces in the office. “The office consists of three floors and the middle floor has ‘The Bridge,’ where the kitchen, lounge, and assembly space is located. In the kitchen, there are snacks and coffee galore!” shared Williams. “It is a very cozy but welcoming space to have a coffee in the morning before work or bustling space to have lunch with your coworkers. [The Bridge] really is the heart of the office.”

Our firm tour guide noted that nobody has a dedicated workstation, but all are free to roam to multiple workspace options from standing desks to comfy low-slung lounge seating areas. It became abundantly clear that the myriad workspace options are designed to support and adapt to the changing workplace needs of the designers and not the other way around.

Client presentations are planned to occur anywhere in the office. Omnipresent orange pegs on rails along the periphery of the office spaces, akin to the classic Shaker style wall pegs for hanging up chairs off the floor, allow for lightweight presentation boards to be hung off these pegs to create a presentation wall or space instantly. Williams added, “These are there so designers can place large floor to ceiling black foam boards on the pegs to pin up drawings, trace sheets, notes, renders—anything necessary to have a meeting with a team member or just display your studio’s work around the office.”

IAD students had their portfolios reviewed by design professionals at the event. Photo courtesy of Katie Valkuchak.

Gensler has found client presentations are more engaging in less formal settings instead of in large boardrooms and conference rooms. When there are activities and discussions going on around in the background, clients are far more likely to contribute to the conversation in this type of a less intimidating setting. Hence, the lack of large enclosed rooms at Gensler.

Private offices are also a thing of the past, with Art Gensler being one of the few who still gets one, allowing for a more egalitarian office environment supporting a teamwork atmosphere where junior designers work side-by-side with the most experienced design directors. It benefits the project team experience and the quality of the project itself, Gensler has found.

Although the office seems, at first glance, almost too clean and simple, it becomes clear that this is intentional. The office space does not compete with the all of the beautiful process sketches and renderings of projects gracing its walls. The projects really become the focal point of the area, and the neutral office environment seamlessly supports that effort in the background; indeed, the whole point of this innovative design office of the future.