Concept designs need air & light to flourish

Every idea has to start somewhere. In that sense, every furniture and product design begins its life as a “concept piece.”

But Joey Ruiter of Jruiter + Studio, an izzy+ product design partner, says there’s a big difference between working on concepts behind closed doors and getting them out where they can get some air and stir up a response.

“When I design there’s always going to be a concept stage of some sort, but something great happens when you get a chance to show the concepts to the public,” Ruiter says. “People are more likely to share their input and opinions when they know something hasn’t been finalized yet. They have a stake in it and know they can impact the final product. For a designer, that’s open-source learning at its best.

That’s exactly the process Ruiter and izzy+ founder Chuck Saylor decided to follow when they set out to design the Nemo Bar and Trellis. The design team was able to absorb and process two years’ worth of feedback before finalizing the design for production: First, the concept pieces were introduced at NeoCon 2010, then tweaked and brought back for more feedback in 2011. The polished form was presented at NeoCon 2012, where it took a NeoCon Gold Award.

“It all goes back to my belief that being transparent about idea-sharing—especially in a very spontaneous setting rather than a controlled one—is an incredibly important part of the creative process,” says Saylor. “The broader the feedback is and the more viewpoints you get, the better your final design ends up being.”

Ruiter agrees. Transparency in the design process can feel risky, but true creativity and innovation require going out on some limbs.

“If you know you’re going to take a design and make it into a product right away, it’s a lot harder to do something really new and innovative,” says Ruiter. “You end up playing it too safe and take fewer risks when you know exactly what someone wants you to design, and you’re on a deadline to get it into production.”

In the case of the izzy+ Nemo line of concept products, Saylor’s challenge to Ruiter was to imagine and help shape the future of work, at a moment when workers are rapidly becoming more mobile and collaborative than ever. To really get out in front of trends requires a sense of creative freedom as well as engagement in a broader conversation. Ruiter says that’s because people usually only think they know what they want or need. Often there’s a better, more forward-thinking solution out there, if designers are given the freedom to dream and explore.

“As humans, our imaginations tend to be so limited unless we really push them,” Ruiter says. “To see a company like izzy+ let designers like me and Chuck (Saylor) and Allison (Roon) experiment with concepts is great.”

And sometimes, bringing new ideas from concept-to-market means breaking out of existing industry grooves and expectations. It might even mean a clear category doesn’t yet exist for this new thing you’ve made.

“I think it’s great that [the Nemo Bar and Trellis] got a [NeoCon] Gold [Award] in the Systems category,” Ruiter says. “It’s funny and ironic, because it’s so different from a furniture system, but there wasn’t really a category for it. What the award says to me is that interior designers are ready for something different.”

Clearly they are. The feedback Saylor and Ruiter heard most often about the Nemo Bar and Trellis was along these lines: “We want these—how fast can you produce them?” Well, how about now? izzy+ began taking orders for the Nemo Bar in September 2012, and the Trellis is in development for a fourth quarter launch. In other words, the time to start working and learning in new ways is now. Thanks for being a part of the conversation as we design the future!

The Nemo Bar & Trellis as a touchdown/charge up station in the Merchandise Mart lobby, NeoCon 2012.

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Chuck Saylor and Joey Ruiter chat under the wall-mounted Nemo arbor concept at NeoCon 2011.
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The shift away from teaching and managing (toward something more inspiring)

Quick: Think back to your favorite teachers or professors. What made them so great?

We asked this question recently on Facebook and Twitter. Here’s some of what people said:

– “openness to the ideas of others”

– “more interested in posing interesting questions than handing out answers”

– “encouraging, challenging, motivated and inspired”

– “caring, fun, motivating”

– “sense of humor and sardonic wit”

– “believed in me more than I believed in myself”

– “challenging projects that were quick and unique”

– “he lives the story, constantly challenges the norm, and believes students can accomplish anything”

A variety of views are represented, but there is a red thread to be teased out: Great teachers seem to be characterized by interaction with their students, not authority over them.

That’s exactly what izzy+ founder and CEO Chuck Saylor remembers about his favorite teachers, and it’s exactly why he thinks we need to reconsider the label “teacher” altogether.

“I’m not sure I believe in the idea of any one person ‘teaching’ people anything and then walking out of the room,” says Saylor. “It doesn’t fit with what learning means in the 21st century. The era of expertise is over.”

The Move From One-Directional To Multi-Directional Learning

More and more, the focus is shifting away from the teaching and toward the learning—in other words, away from an idea of a knowledge center or authority. The same sort of shift needs to happen in the workplace, where Saylor has a similar aversion to the word “manager.” Teaching and managing are one-directional, Saylor explains, while learning and growing are multi-directional.

“It’s not about managing people, it’s about collaborating with them, just like it’s not about teaching people, it’s about learning and growing together. It’s about coaching, mentoring, interaction, and shared experiences. This translates all the way up through life, not just in school. We have to shift our focus and get it right.”

The Role Of Space Design In Learning

One of the most important places to begin this shift is in the design of spaces for learning, working, and meeting. Environments that are set up to allow and even encourage interaction are key to increasing a transparent sharing of ideas and, ultimately, to developing intelligence.

“The more we find ourselves in places that allow us to share knowledge and ideas, the more our understanding grows,” Saylor says. “We are scalable—our minds are scalable. The growth is directly proportional to how much we interact and exchange information with others.”

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For more information around these ideas, Chuck Saylor recommends the book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, by Liz Wiseman. The book’s premise is that “multipliers” are leaders who inspire and stretch others, making them smarter and more capable. Being this kind of leader (or teacher), Wiseman says, involves disciplines like optimizing talent, creating intensity, extending challenges, encouraging debate, and instilling ownership. In other words, it involves inspiring and engaging people, not managing them.

The Dewey 6-Top table by Fixtures (above) prompts interaction and brings people closer together around ideas—in learning settings as well as workplaces.

Many of our concept pieces, like the Nemo bar and arbor pictured above, are all about gathering people in casual “third spaces,” whether they’re working independently or having impromptu meetings and conversations.

Why NeoCon needs more “concept cars”

Every June, over 40,000 architecture and design professionals converge on the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, ready to network and see what’s new in the more than 700 showrooms and booths. The experience can be as overwhelming as it is exciting. When it’s all said it done, what products, of the thousands displayed, stand out?

For many who were commenting on Twitter during the show, the izzy+ Nemo concept pieces made an impression—in part, perhaps, because they are different, but also because they engage people and spark imaginations.

“I’ve always felt that the industry needs to do a better job of showing off what is possible instead of just what is,” says Rob Kirkbride, associate editor of MMQB, the weekly publication that covers the contract furniture industry. “We could learn a lot from the auto industry. Auto companies build concepts to show off what they can do, get customers excited about what’s coming and build brand awareness.”

izzy+’s founder and CEO, Chuck Saylor, has collaborated on designing the izzy+ concept pieces shown in showrooms 1150 and 11-100 during NeoCon. He says he loves exploring what is possible and watching how people react.

“If you really, truly want to gain knowledge and get non-filtered input around ideas, you have to be confident enough to stand in front of the bus and share your ideas,” Saylor says. “You have to be willing to hear all the feedback—the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Showing concept pieces at NeoCon is particularly important, Saylor says, because there are so many people in one place, ready to engage in ideas and conversation. “It’s a thought leadership issue,” Saylor says. “We need to be having a broader conversation in the industry about what it really means to change the nature of work, from an isolated setting to a more communal and collaborative one.”

While “collaboration” is a hot topic in the industry—one that was referenced extensively at NeoCon and explored to some extent through certain products, like benching—Saylor says providing something physical for people to experience takes the conversation to a different level.

“It’s one thing to say ‘We believe in collaboration,’ but it’s another thing entirely to say ‘This is what we think it might look like’—to put something out there as a reference point. The more real and meaningful the experience that’s offered in the showroom, the richer the discussion.”

Designer Joey Ruiter, who has collaborated with Saylor on the Nemo concept pieces displayed in the izzy+ showrooms at NeoCon and also designed izzy+’s Dewey line for the next generation of teaching and learning, loves the collaborative, future-focused nature of putting new ideas out there.

“Concept pieces aren’t meant to be perfect, finished ideas. They’re thought-starters that help other people start imagining and envisioning what’s possible,” Ruiter says. “That’s what the best concept pieces do—they should get you thinking about how you see yourself using it and moving the ideas forward.”

Secrecy often keeps companies from sharing concepts, but Saylor and Kirkbride both believe less secrecy will help energize future NeoCon shows.

“Concepts add excitement,” Kirkbride says. “Office furniture makers in Europe do a much better job of showing concepts at shows like Orgatec and iSalone. And that makes going to those shows exciting. In many booths, furniture concepts are placed front and center at these shows. The companies want feedback, and they get it. They don’t hide the concept behind closed doors.

“I think companies that show at NeoCon are missing a great opportunity to build excitement and brand recognition by keeping concepts hidden away…. It is time to pull back the curtain and build a little buzz in the industry again.”


Chuck Saylor and Joey Ruiter, two generations of designers collaborating on Nemo concepts for izzy+

The Nemo Lounge concept, designed by Joey Ruiter

The Lotus Chair concept, designed by Chuck Saylor

This post was written by izzy+ writer Kristin Tennant