Rich experiences for the izzy+ team in Nicaragua

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Editor’s note: The following is a post from Brandon Reame, izzy+’s Market Development Strategist. Brandon is leading our second annual “giving back through design” trip to Nicaragua, November 8-13, 2013. The designers on the trip with him won the opportunity during the 2013 Valentine’s Day promotion. Look for another post about the trip soon, and read about last year’s inaugural trip here!

Many people join a company to do a job. One of the things that’s exciting about izzy+,  is that our employees and collaborators are interested in more than just a job. They’re eager to make a difference, both within the company as well as the outside world.

During the next few days, Melissa Huff (from our Chicago team) and I, along with the help of Grand Valley State University, have the pleasure of hosting six interior designers from around the country as we work together to improve elementary schools in one of the poorest corners of the world.

We are in Ometepe, Nicaragua, a pair of volcanic islands found in the heart of freshwater Lake Nicaragua. Ometepe is the largest volcanic island inside a fresh water lake in the world. Additionally, Lake Nicaragua is the 19th largest freshwater lake in the world, and 9th largest within the Americas. The climate is tropical, and several varieties of monkeys are found throughout the area.

During our flight, I asked our participants what they are most excited about. Here’s what they said:

“I am really looking forward to being inspired and helping people through design.” Eda Muco, Dyer Brown Architects, Boston

“I can’t wait to experience a new culture and have the opportunity to work on such a unique project!” Katie McCarthy, Perkins+Will, Minneapolis

“To be able to make a difference in one school that could turn into so much more is a legacy I wish everyone could experience. I am grateful for izzy+ for allowing me to be a part of this wonderful opportunity with a great group of people.”  Carrie Estock, Little Diversified, Charlotte

“I’m looking forward to experiencing a brand new culture and having the opportunity to share the joy of design with people across the globe—working hands on with them, in their environment.” Will Jenkins, HOK, New York City

“I’m most excited about how this trip will empower others, as well as myself, to continue to help people in need. Not only do we need to use our resources at hand, but we also need to provide new resources for the overlooked.” Justin Martinez, OZ, Denver

“I am excited about another opportunity to work with talented young people on a project that thinks about and does something for education and children. It gives me energy and motivation. And to do it all in a culture and surroundings that are so very different than the US is most stimulating. I’m excited that younger people show an interest in other cultures and in wanting to contribute in helping others less fortunate.” Waltraud, GVSU/AGII, Holland

“I’m excited about new ideas, new puzzles, and new ways of viewing the world learned from new friends in two languages. This is a dream to work on projects that impact educational change from the formative years. The can-do spirit of izzy+ is always exciting to be around. Thank you Chuck [Saylor] and all at izzy+ who help!” Dr. Lane, GVSU/AGII, Holland

“I am most excited about this trip offering me the opportunity to experience a culture and place of the world I have never been, and more importantly, to make a positive impact on a community of people. To be able to put our knowledge and creativity to use to bring learning and socialization tools to children is definitely the most rewarding part of this trip. I’m truly grateful to izzy+ for taking this on and believing that people matter most.” Melissa Huff, izzy+, Chicago

It’s always fun exploring a new country and culture, especially with a new group of travel companions and collaborators. While on paper the country can be described as poor, the opportunity to live and work side by side with the local Nicaraguans is a very rich experience. This beautiful country is rich in culture, history, and its people are dedicated to improving the lives of their future generations through education.

We will be sending updates throughout the trip via izzy+ social media. Be sure to add, like, bookmark, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook!

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5 lessons from the classroom—for the workplace

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There’s no doubt that today’s school designs are taking many cues from today’s workplaces. But are there also important lessons we can learn from teachers and students, about work? We think there are!

For starters, here are five truths great teachers know that translate to the workplace. Once you get going down this road, you’ll probably think of even more. Share them with us in the comments!

1. Different people are, well, different.

Teachers have long understood that different kids learn in different ways. Most researchers refer to three different learning styles: Visual, kinesthetic, and auditory.

So what makes us think that we outgrow our natural learning styles when we become adults? Or that all adults work best in the same exact way? Workplaces, just like classrooms, need to consider different learners when designing their spaces—especially kinesthetic learners who need movement for their brains to function at their best.

For more teaching tips for all three types of learners, check out this post.

2. Energy is a positive thing—it shouldn’t be squelched.

Teachers know better than anyone that there are certain children who have trouble sitting still. And we all know there are certain times of day when it’s hard for almost anyone to sit still. Just reading the following description of a traditional classroom format is enough to make many (if not most) of us fidget and squirm:

Peek into most American classrooms and you will see desks in rows, teachers pleading with students to stay in their seats and refrain from talking to their neighbors. Marks for good behavior are rewarded to the students who are proficient at sitting still for long periods of time.” (The Atlantic)

But today’s best teachers, like Dawn Casey-Rowe who wrote the Edudemic post “Avoiding Back to School Brainfreeze,” know it’s possible to harness all that that energy rather than fight it:

By planning active classes, the can’t-sit-stills use their energy and add to the class…. Positive energy can be harnessed into learning.” (Or working!)

3. Spaces have the power to promote engagement.

Educational research shows that how the classroom is designed, and how much freedom children have within that space, can make all the difference in student engagement, which can make all the difference in student success.

In fact, according to a FastCoDesign article, research found that “classroom design could be attributed to a 25% impact, positive or negative, on a student’s progress over the course of an academic year.” 

Workplaces should take a cue from the research and consider how the design of our workspaces might be impacting engagement—and success—at work.

4. Offering choices increases ownership.

The link between “ownership” and “learning” is often overlooked, but it’s important, as Annie Murphy Paul explains in her post “Designing the classroom to enhance learning.”

“Design features that allowed pupils to feel a sense of ownership towards their classroom also helped them to learn…. Pupils benefited from a range of activity zones within a single classroom, allowing different types of learning to take place at the same time.”

In workplaces, offering a variety of choices of where to work is becoming increasingly important. That sense of choice and ownership impacts people in a variety of ways, from physical wellness and concentration to collaboration.

Another recent article at the website Edudemic encourages teachers to ask questions like these when they’re arranging furniture and setting up their classrooms:

“Is your management style and space designed to keep students quiet and in their place, or does it give permission and ownership to the students? What choices do students have about where and how they work? Do you want your students to feel free, creative and enabled? Or, structured, restricted and rule-bound?”

Those same questions might be good ones to ask within the workplace, as well—just read the above paragraph again, replacing “students” with “employees.”

5. Movement is the key to health—and learning.

“Give students the chance to get out of their seats. Movement does wonders for the brain!” says a fifth grade teacher in an Edudemic article about engaging students in the classroom. 

“Movement is the key to learning,” another article explains. “Students cannot sit still for very long before the blood and oxygen flow to their brains significantly slows down, thereby slowing down the learning process.”

And a 2008 study found that many children actually need to move to focus during a complicated mental task.

As we grow into adulthood, we definitely get better at sitting still, thanks to cultural norms and our slowing metabolisms. But that doesn’t mean we are completely different creatures than we were as school children. We still think and learn in different ways; we still have energy that can be channeled for good; we still like having options and ownership; and the spaces we spend most of our days in still impact our bodies and minds, for better or worse.

Most importantly, our bodies still function in the same general ways: Movement increases blood flow, which sharpens your mind—whether you’re five or 50, in a classroom or a workplace.

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Two companies learning & growing together, across the miles

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What does dog sledding have to do with seating ergonomics?

Or what does a manufacturing plant have in common with a herd of reindeer?

And why would two furniture companies based more than 4,000 miles apart decide that a partnership is a great idea?

For more than eight years, izzy+ has been making treks to visit the Norwegian side of its family and uncover answers to those questions and more, firsthand.

Most recently, in March, it was a group of 11 izzy+ sales representatives who traveled to Norway, where HAG has been based since it began designing and making workplace seating in 1943. izzy+ founder Chuck Saylor met HAG leaders in early 2004, when izzy+ was just three years old, and the two companies announced alliance at NeoCon that June.

“The corporate culture and beliefs at izzy+ and HAG are so much alike,” says seating product manager Nick Fernandez, who has visited HAG twice since starting at izzy+ in 2012. “When you’re at HAG you hear the same types of stories, and see the same passion for the same things. It’s also laid back like izzy+—they don’t take themselves too seriously on a day-to-day basis, but they take what they do really seriously, just like izzy+ does.”

While the commonalities of the two companies sparked the partnership, it’s their differences that inspire such a vibrant collaboration—and make these regular treks to Norway so important—according to Rune Akselberg, a native of Norway and Vice President of Sales and Market Development at izzy+.

“The culture in Norway is quite different than in the U.S., especially when it comes to caring for the environment and general health and wellbeing,” says Akselberg. “It’s a much stronger lesson when you can experience it for yourself—when you see the elk and the reindeer drinking from the stream right outside the HAG plant, you understand that everything is connected. The choices a company makes have a broad impact, well outside its doors.”

The Norway trips, which include time in Oslo, where HAG is headquartered, and Roros, the small mountain village where HAG’s main plant is located, are all about learning through active participation in the culture, not passive observation.

For instance, at the Oslo Opera House, izzy+ groups see another type of Scandinavian design, experiencing how form, function, and people come together. When they visit a dog sled camp, they learn basic dog sledding techniques, then harness the dogs on sleds and go on a thrilling ride into the mountains. After dog sledding, the group convenes around a big fire in a teepee, where they eat, drink, and share stories—perfect object lessons in HAG’s focus on movement and izzy+’s Better Together philosophy.

“Dog sledding is an experience like no other, and it perfectly demonstrates the HAG philosophy around balance, movement, and the environment,” says Akselberg.

Laura Connell, who is based at the Chicago izzy+ showroom, says immersing yourself in Norwegian culture really makes a difference. She uses the word “profound” to describe her experience in Norway this past March.

“Norway is the healthiest country I’ve ever been to. The culture is all about balance and movement, and how our bodies are supposed to function,” says Connell. “Everything we did on the trip tied into something we were learning about HAG. At HAG they have a very holistic approach to everything—the environment, corporate responsibility, ergonomics, design—it’s all there in every chair. It was great to see it all in action, both in how they work and how they live.”

Seeing HAG’s beliefs in action has really stuck with Fernandez, who says, “No decisions are made randomly or by accident at HAG. Every decision is held up against their brand standards. It doesn’t matter how cool something is or how easy it would be to sell. If it’s not up to all their standards, they won’t make it.”

More than anything, Akselberg loves seeing groups of izzy+ travelers return home with stories to tell and a deeper, more passionate understanding of HAG, their Norwegian family.

“I think this relationship with HAG has played a huge role in how we understand and talk about important issues like the environment, and health and wellbeing at izzy+,” Akselberg says. “Learning together, experiencing something new together, is a really powerful experience. izzy+ and HAG have so much in common, but also so much to learn from each other because of our different perspectives and cultures.”

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Pictured at the top of the post is the izzy+ group that traveled to Norway in March (photo by Stacy Marcus). Below are photos of the izzy+ group preparing to go dog sledding; people congregating and walking on the new Oslo Opera House (both photos also by Stacy Marcus); and a recent outcome of the izzy+-HAG collaboration: HAG Capisco Puls seating, pictured with Dewey 6-Top tables.

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Making space(s) for inspiration

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“Inspiration”—it’s one of those words most of us are drawn to but can’t easily define.

Of course, if you look up the word in a dictionary or on the Internet, you will find definitions, but they might prompt more questions than answers.

For instance, is inspiration rooted internally or externally? Is it a pull or a push?

Can you impact inspiration, or only be open and wait for it?

And does inspiration work the same way for all of us, or is it an individualized experience?

Dictionaries don’t answer these questions, yet somehow when we encounter inspiration we know it—without a doubt. And the effects of being inspired seem mostly universal: Our minds start buzzing, energy levels spike, and time seems to stand still. We’re able to be more creative, more productive, and more focused.

In other words, the feeling is great, and so is the outcome. We’d all love to be under inspiration’s magic spell every day. So what can we do to get more of it?

An informal survey around the izzy+ office and on Twitter revealed two factors that seem to consistently impact how inspired we are: people and places. Our interactions with others, and the spaces we live, work and relax in, play important roles in how inspired we are.

Since all our interactions with others happen in spaces (and since we at izzy+ happen know a thing or two about spaces), it seems safe to boil it down to this truth: Our environments play an important role in inspiration.

Just think about the spaces you gravitated to as a child: A nook under the stairs, a window seat in an alcove, a fort in the branches of a tree. As adults, we might have a favorite table at a coffee shop, a chair on a porch, or a bar in the kitchen where everyone seems to gather at every party. Each favorite space may be somewhat unique to us, but the characteristics often overlap: People are drawn to spaces that are cozy, intriguing, out of the ordinary and fresh, yet familiar. We want alternatives to our typical office-and-desk settings.

“Even as adults, you still need a space to get away and change your point of view in,” says interior designer and izzy+ consultant, Allison Roon. “Different scenery and different people can inspire you, and help you stay engaged in whatever you’re doing.”

The recent article “Purpose: A Discussion on the Future of Office Design” also links creativity and inspiration directly to the design of spaces:

“Instead of seeking space to simply house workers, companies are now seeking spaces capable of serving and fostering communities of creative problem solvers.… In place of a generic working environment the new workforce is looking for spaces that are authentic and personal.”

Today’s workers and learners clearly want spaces that go beyond utilitarian purposes.

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This year’s annual Valentine’s promotion at izzy+ is all about inspiration—finding and sharing more of it as a key way to be Better Together. And the new products we’re featuring, the Nemo Bar and Trellis, are all about creating spaces that inspire, much like the tree fort of our childhood did—spaces that are cozy, intriguing, out of the ordinary
and fresh, yet familiar.

“When I was a kid, we built a fort in a stand of big trees and kept expanding it,” says izzy+ founder and CEO, Chuck Saylor. “All the guys in the neighborhood hung out there—it was a gathering place.”

That favorite childhood space definitely played a role in inspiring the idea of the Nemo Trellis, Saylor says.

“Trellis gives you that sense of going outdoors while you’re indoors, this space within a space. And when you see it, in the midst of this sea of sameness, all of the sudden you’re attracted to it and your tendency is to immediately go and explore—and hopefully to be inspired.”

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What spaces inspire you? What design elements make spaces more inspiring? We love hearing what YOU think!

Be sure to visit our Valentine’s mini-site to hear more stories about what inspires izzy+ designers, to find out more about the Nemo Bar & Trellis, and to enter our Trellis design competition. There’s also information about registering to win gift cards or a giving-back adventure to Nicaragua.

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The Nemo Bar and Trellis set up as a recharge/refresh station on the first floor of the Merchandise Mart at NeoCon 2012.

A design industry give-away that gives back

As everyone in the Architecture and Design world knows, swag and give-aways are fool-proof ways to catch your market’s eye. But what would happen if the give-away was also a give-back?

This was a question izzy+ started asking a year ago as we made plans for our annual Valentine’s Day promotion, which introduces a new izzy+ product to nearly 5,000 interior designers each February. Sure, the event should include colorful izzy+ bags and custom-made chocolates (it is Valentine’s Day, after all), but what if instead of doing a drawing for something flashy, like plane tickets to anywhere in the world or the newest Apple gear, we gave away something that would support our corporate values around giving back?

“The big prizes we had done the last couple of years were flashy, but there’s no substance,” says Brandon Reame, izzy+’s Market Development Strategist and learning expert. “We wanted to promote the ideas we care about most, like giving back, supporting relationships, and offering opportunities for unexpected learning.”

So, during February of 2012, members of the interior design community were given not just chocolate and other goodies, but also a chance to go on an izzy+-sponsored trip to Nicaragua. Over 1,700 designers indicated interest in the promotion, 80 of whom later followed up by filling out a questionnaire about themselves and their interest in the trip. On November 1, six interior designers from around the U.S. flew to Nicaragua, joining Brandon and Jill Horning of the izzy+ team, along with two members of the Grand Valley State University Applied Global Innovation Initiative, which played a key role in planning and laying the groundwork for the trip. The group just returned from their giving-back adventure on November 6.

The main goal in Nicaragua, Brandon says, was helping a group of teachers in the North Central town of Esteli design and build learning toolkits for young students. The izzy+ group had to think through the interior and exterior designs of the kits and how the curriculum could best be organized.

“We’re trying to make the learning experience more inspiring and engaging for the students,” Brandon says. “Designers have great skills and an understanding for what sparks people’s curiosity and engagement. Watching these designers work side-by-side with elementary teachers who make one or two dollars a day—it was just amazing to see everyone work together to really make a difference in such a short amount of time.”

The available resources for most teachers in Nicaragua are so limited, Brandon adds, saying that many schools are little more than metal shacks with dirt floors. Students often have to bring their own chairs from home.

The izzy+ group also contributed to the design of a building that is being converted into a new learning center in Esteli. Leveraging the skills of the designers, Brandon says they reviewed architects’ construction plans then focused on providing recommendations for one aspect of the interior—creating an entrance that would be welcoming and inspiring.

In addition to the design work they did, the izzy+ group toured other schools, visited local markets and a sustainable coffee farming community, experienced cultural traditions like the holiday known as Day of the Saints, and shared meals with many local business people, leaders, teachers and university administrators.

Karin Dax, a designer from Boston, said the trip was an “amazing experience.”

“As soon as I heard about the trip I thought ‘I definitely want to do that,’” says Karin, who is an avid traveler and a fluent Spanish speaker. Helping to design the learning kits was a highlight, she says. “Once we started to understand our role and our goals, and we began talking to the teachers more about what they needed, it was really easy to contribute—we just had to dive in and use our skills to help make their vision a reality.”

And the positive effects of this trip will continue to ripple out—not only for the communities in Nicaragua the izzy+ team visited, but also for the designers back home.

“I think a trip like this puts our everyday lives into perspective,” Karin says. “In Nicaragua, the questions are, ‘Do they have running water and food? Are they able to learn what they need to learn to have a sustainable future?’ Then you come home and a client is upset about a paint color not being quite right. It makes you take a step back and realize all that we have. You reevaluate what’s important, what matters most, and what kind of work you want to be doing.”

As far as izzy+ is concerned, these types of giving-back trips are definitely a part of the company’s future.

“Giving back is a core value that runs deep at izzy+—all the way to our parent company, JSJ,” says Brandon. “And this trip reminded me of an important lesson: Bringing together a creative group of people to help support meaningful causes is extremely addicting. I cannot wait to host a similar trip again.”

Technology and human interaction: better blended together

It happens every day: We’re working through a problem or wondering about a fact, and mere seconds later we have answers. Learning today is easier than ever. Information is at your fingertips when you’re holding nothing more than a smart phone in your hand, and even university classes (like the new offerings recently announced through MIT and Harvard) are readily available.

But as some things about learning become more simple, other aspects become more complex. What do we lose when we replace face-to-face interactions with face-to-computer-screen time? Is information valuable on its own, or are conversation and collaboration required to fully leverage it? How can we make the most of all that technology offers without losing the important interactions that have always shaped working and learning experiences?

“Blended Learning” is an educational approach that strives to answer those very questions—it’s all about finding the right balance between human interaction and technology. In education, the Blended Learning equation looks like this: Face-to-Face + Synchronous Conversations + Asynchronous Interactions = Strong Online Learning Environment (see the Edutopia link at the end of the post for more on that). In other words, online and face-to-face interactions are stronger when blended together than they are apart.

Not surprisingly, many Blended Learning principles apply to the workplace and to life in general (after all, we never stop learning). At izzy+, we care a lot about this because we’re big fans of learning and technology, and even bigger fans of people. Finding the right balance—one that makes the most of available tech innovations and also makes the most of what it means for people to be Better Together—plays a big part in how we think about designing for the future of work and learning.

izzy+ founder Chuck Saylor says that making the most of available technology and knowledge requires making the time and space to interact with people.

“I love all the ways technology helps us enrich our learning experiences, but I’m not sure the transfer of knowledge and information on the Internet can ever be as powerful as two people sitting down together,” Saylor says. “When people are interacting, they’re compounding all that knowledge by layering in their own experiences and life stories.”

And even though technology makes it possible for us to work and learn anywhere—we are no longer confined to desks, offices and classrooms—at the same time we need to be somewhere. Saylor says we should be more concerned than ever about our spaces. They should inspire creativity, learning, and connection with others, as well as support technology.

“The right spaces are so important when it comes to reaching this Blended Learning balance,” Saylor says. “Spaces that support both technology and dialogue help you maintain that balance—the ability to layer and enrich information and ideas. It’s a powerful learning combination.”

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Want to learn more? Of course you do! (And then you’ll want to sit down with someone to talk about it over coffee, right?)

– For a great overview of Blended Learning in the education environment, check out this Edutopia post.

– For more about the recent announcement of edX, the new nonprofit partnership to offer free online courses from M.I.T. and Harvard, read this New York Times article.

– Here’s a great book to read about how places and spaces affect us: The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions and Actions, by Winifred Gallagher.

– And if you want to learn more about our line of Dewey products (pictured above), visit the “learning” section of our website. Dewey was designed specifically to support human connection and technology in all types of learning environments.

Chocolate, love, and…learning?

Roses, chocolates, romantic candle-lit dinners—sounds like the perfect setting for a business to stay out of, right?

Well, it depends how you frame Valentine’s Day.

While the romantic take on February 14 is still plenty popular, many others—especially younger couples and singles—are opting to simply ignore what’s often thought of as a “Hallmark holiday.” But what if we thought of Valentine’s Day, instead, as an opportunity to celebrate relationships of all kinds—a day that’s all about not being an island, but being Better Together?

At izzy+, we’ve been working to reframe Valentine’s Day since 2006, when Harter began its annual February promotional. What we’ve discovered along the way is that the traditional aspect of giving at this time of year is still essential—we like to substitute the roses with the giving of time and ideas, but some of the other goodies stay (especially the chocolate!). We also think it’s important to add a second component to the giving: learning.

So Valentine’s Day can be about giving, sharing, and learning? Yes!

Learning and sharing, after all, go hand-in-hand. Learning to share is one of the first social skills we develop as children. As adults, we tend to be good at sharing things, but we often overlook how important it is to share ideas, stories, and our time.

When you flip the sentence—sharing to learn—you get to the heart of why sharing can be so powerful. When someone else shares their perspective, it stretches us outside of our comfort zones, helping us see a problem from a new angle and learn in ways we couldn’t have on our own. It’s what being Better Together is all about.

Let’s take all of that sharing and learning to another country!

Lately we’ve been thinking a lot about how, as a company, we can facilitate even more giving, sharing and learning, and tie it all into Valentine’s Day. Our annual holiday event traditionally involves giving back. This year, not only are we sharing the love by making donations to the children’s literacy organization RIF, we’re also giving our customers an opportunity to join members of the izzy+ team on the ultimate learning and giving adventure—in Nicaragua! In addition to learning about another culture together, we’ll spend some time giving to others in need, through service-oriented work. It’s just one more way to bring people together to share and learn.

What are your thoughts about reframing Valentine’s Day and demonstrating Better Together in new ways? However you go about it, we’re glad you’re out there sharing the love! Happy Valentine’s Day!