After over 20 years at Rockefeller Center, Gensler New York traded in skates for the bright lights of Broadway and a new office space. For a few members of the team it meant more than a new address or new desk; it meant a big opportunity (and keeping the design a big secret).
Bright Lights, Big Reveal
The new office space in the Theater District was no secret to the Gensler New York staff, but the forthcoming placemaking and wayfinding design for the office most definitely was. The clandestine branding project began with assembling an internal team consisting of several layers of leadership and two lead designers with different approaches—a strategic choice intended to encourage multi-level and multi-directional critiques.
While also playing a critical role in development, the leadership of Gensler New York was essentially the client, as the project was kept a secret from the rest of the enormous 600-plus-employee and 20-studio-office for nearly a year. The project kicked off with a brainstorming session with Global Creative Director John Bricker and Interiors Design Director Mark Morton, where the overarching themes for the work emerged.
Designing for designers was no small task, however. “At some point every architecture or design firm ends up doing their own office—it’s a tricky business. The design needed to be recognizable, engaging and memorable for both one-time visitors and the daily encounters of employees,” says Audrey Strom, senior associate on the brand design team. “It also had to have staying power; it couldn’t be too trend driven.”
Inherent in this particular challenge was also keeping the process a secret. “We’re used to pinning things up, having critiques and conversations openly and often. In this case it was good to have two design leads so that conversation could occur, even if that conversation happened in secrecy,” laughs AJ Mapes, brand design lead and associate. “It made it a little difficult.”
The brand team endeavored to create a layer of identity that reiterated and celebrated the Gensler attitude, ethos, creativity and collaboration in the context of New York and, more specifically, Broadway. The office space is across the street from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and affords floors two through six sweeping light-filled views down Broadway in addition to contiguous interconnected space between floors.
As part of their preparation and in collaboration with the interiors and leadership, the brand team performed extensive research, interviews and a live poll. The results of the live poll conducted among principals revealed that 60 percent preferred an open office plan. They developed programming utilization studies, recorded how employees used the space during specific times and held visioning sessions that asked the next-generation leadership for their office preferences. Additionally, each of the design studios generated a statement about their work style and culture and departments were engaged in one-on-one programming interviews. This research informed the decision to provide an abundance of amenities, conference rooms and specialized meeting areas in an effort to maximize innovation and creativity.
In terms of experiential graphics, what surfaced was a desire to show how the concepts they encourage their clients to implement work in their own space, indicating Gensler’s confidence in the approach and inspiring trust. The primary concept addressed is that creating a brand-specific space that isn’t an overt celebration of the brand or a rote interpretation of brand guidelines can still effectively achieve a brand’s communication goals.
There was also a need to create a strong visual connection with the locale and celebrate Broadway culture in the context of a Gensler space through design elements, scale, fabrication partners and room naming. “Moving to the Theater District just north of Times Square, we wanted the system to have a little bit of that neighborhood energy, as well as be a celebration of New York and design,” says Strom.
A key consideration in taking this approach was that the workspace unfolds vertically through five floors, so the team needed to keep scale and visibility in mind. The branding team wanted to create a unified yet unique look and feel on each floor and planned to create distinct variations through the use of color. Some spaces are workspaces for creativity, while others are client facing for meetings and external guests, so the “volume” of messaging was an important factor as well.
Creating flexibility for employees to express themselves and feel connected to the team, the brand and the space were also taken into account. The team carefully considered their partners’ role in the project as well. They broke up the project’s scope into multiple packages to use multiple vendors, with the express goal of providing a showcase for their work in a client-facing environment.
The design process was the same as with a typical client project, as Andrea Plenter Malzone, graphic design lead, says, “We didn’t shortcut anything; in fact it was quite the opposite because we had so much more input from this client group.” Between the clients and design team, there were a lot of opinions that sometimes differed, but always were well informed and met with respectful, thoughtful discourse. Iterations, explorations, critiques and budget discussions led to a distillation of the focus of the project and identification of important design elements. “We were definitely pushed to think about things differently,” says Mapes. “But ultimately, once the options were on the table, the stakeholders largely gravitated toward one direction.” To which Strom adds, “The final result was decidedly stronger because of that process.”
As the brand and interiors team were working on the design, a change management program was designed to introduce the new idea of a literal and metaphorical new work space, encouraging the adoption of new ways to organize, work and think, in addition to setting expectations and providing neighborhood context. “The program provided a wide range of information about the move and how to integrate with the neighborhood,” remembers Mapes. “And people knew, of course, what kinds of monitors and desks they would have, but it didn’t discuss our scope except for the marquee and only in a very vague way.”
Even some of the principals didn’t know exactly what to expect at the unveiling of the space. It was “nerve-wracking” for the brand team even as they took staff on tours of the space, but the comments were all positive and there was one clear indicator that things had gone very well indeed: Employees were posting to social media about the space.
“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it; boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”
The new Gensler New York office brings the street-level energy of the Theatre District neighborhood inside, and allows clients to come “backstage” to experience the behind-the-scenes design, collaboration and spirit firsthand. The space sets a new bar by incorporating the wishes of the client team while aligning with the Gensler culture and values that inspires both clients and employees.
The use of color in the space is immediately evident—dark tones and gray wood are offset by bright pops of color. The color scheme was derived from Gensler’s signature red hue but does not include it, save for a handful of painted bricks. Throughout the space in gray brick columns, these seemingly randomly placed single red bricks are printed with Gensler, New York and design references. One is printed with a little typographic joke about Gensler’s typeface, Kievit.
The logo makes its only and very understated appearance in the elevator lobby in gray metal channel letters. “This space was an excellent opportunity for us to set an example by taking risks and thinking about brand in a non-traditional way, “ asserts Mapes. “We advocate the use of subtle, yet recognizable, branding treatments.”
One of the largest treatments is a typographic mural, “design,” which spans the elevator lobbies of all five floors. The mural was hand-painted by a local company, Colossal Media, who does most of the murals on the sides of nearby buildings. Each level has a different color background, from plum to a vibrant yellow, but the lettering spans multiple floors.
References to New York abound throughout the office. Glass-walled meeting rooms have been outfitted with custom distraction graphics inspired by theater spike marks organized into a grid, and rooms have names like “Studio 53,” a combination of the cross street (53rd) and the infamous Studio 54.
On the second floor, a bike storage area has been covered in gold, orange and red wheat-pasted posters (another clever nod to New York culture) emblazoned with illustrations of Gensler’s 31 practice areas. The graphics double as a visitor education tool. Walls adjacent to meeting rooms also received colorful typographic treatments and ADA signage received a playful makeover.
The real show stopper, though, is the four-feet-wide by 22-feet-tall vertical marquee suspended between floors in the open stairwell that proclaims in a mix of neon and marquee lights “boldness has genius, power & magic in it”—an amended quote from Goethe’s Faust—that not-so-subtly reminds both designers and clients to be assertive and push for excellence. Fitted to the reverse of the sign is a low-res 24-mm LED mesh that cycles through ambient pre-produced and generative content. When in generative mode, input from three cameras mounted to the ceiling prompt content in response to movement on the stairs.
This was just part of the digital programming in the space. The team specifically chose flexible systems that are easy to update and link back to a central CMS. An array of LCD displays arranged in a unique proportion at reception showcases Gensler New York’s latest projects.
In the Work Café area, employee engagement and connection is showcased in the “Gensler people wall.” The people wall was constructed using 48 small digital displays outfitted with Raspberry Pi processors, which show an image of a Gensler New York employee every 20 seconds and rotate through still photos and boomerang video portraits.
Opportunities to personalize individual workspaces within the experiential graphics program aren’t limited to the digital fixtures, though. Studio directors or principals received custom 3-D printed name plates and designers were given a template to create their own workspace identifiers. For the Gensler New York team, the ROI of this project is pride in their office space and how it is a reflection of their behind-the-scenes creativity.
The design of the space facilitates a more creative and collaborative working environment, even for clients. “Our clients request to meet at our office more often and can sometimes be seen taking additional calls or working before and after meetings in our breakout areas. They also frequently reference the design for their own projects,” concludes Mapes.
Project Name: Gensler New York Office
Location: New York
Open Date: October 2016
Project Area: 120,000 sq ft
Design Firm: Gensler
Interior Design/Architecture Project Team:
Rocco Giannetti (principal, managing director), Mark Morton (principal, design director), Ambrose Aliago-Kelly (principal, technical director), Kelly Collini Colberg (associate, design manager), Chiun Ng (architect), Jin Yi Choi (designer), Ana Espejo (senior associate, interior designer), David Briefel (senior associate, sustainable design leader)
Brand Design Team:
John Bricker (principal, creative director), Molly Murphy (principal), Audrey Strom (project manager), AJ Mapes (graphic design lead), Andrea Plenter Malzone (graphic design lead), Robert Cohen (digital design manager), Jamie Carusi (digital designer)
Digital Design Team:
Islay Burgess (digital design manager), Joseph Lee (visualization artist), Victor Martinez (digital design specialist), Chang-Yeon Cho (digital design specialist), Seth Waldman (digital design specialist)
Fabrication: L&M Architectural Signs, Applied Image, Colossal Media
Digital Fabrication/Integration: AV&C, Going Signs
Photos: Garrett Rowland, courtesy of Gensler