One Year of the Kolar Experience Institute

Read Time: 7 minutes

One year ago, during SEGD’s 2020 Management + Leadership Summit, Kelly Kolar of Cincinnati’s Kolar Design launched the Kolar Experience Institute (KEI™). KEI™ is a new division and organization devoted to economic research to better inform the experiential design process. Read on to learn more about KEI’s mission and vision and the Institute’s first projects implemented over the past year.


SEGD
Hi Kelly! Congrats on the one-year anniversary of the Kolar Experience Institute (KEI). Can you remind SEGD members what KEI is all about and how it relates to your firm, Kolar Design?

KK
Kolar Design is a brand innovation company, and we've expanded our services to do data analytics and strategic visioning. The cool thing about the Institute is that it’s about collaborating with more people. We still have Kolar Design—and Kolar Design is still an amazing design delivery environmental graphic design firm, That is what we do. KEI is why we do it. And that opens up new opportunities for us to collaborate in all kinds of new ways.

SEGD
And, so, what was your motivation behind establishing KEI?

KK
The Institute was started a year ago—almost exactly—but it really is based upon a decade worth of research, studying the impact of place on people. We built the Institute as a research-focused group, exploring the intersection of people, process and place and asking “How does the intersection create a positive impact for our clients and communities?”

SEGD
And how does this research tie into the design work at Kolar Design?

KK
If we could start to triangulate the data around the people that are working in the place and the processes that they use, we can use design as a driver of a more enhanced experience.

For us at the end-of- the-day, it's about having that data driven analytics to inform the design outcome. A lot of times designers do a little bit of thinking upfront or they are already responding to an RFP where the problem has been outlined. But what I have found, in our work from the past three decades, is usually that's a symptom of a problem. It's not really the problem itself.

So, I end up spending my time saying “Yes, you do have a wayfinding problem." That's a symptom of a communication and brand strategy issue that manifests itself as a pain point in wayfinding. People can't find the front door. Well, is that an architectural problem? Or is that a wayfinding problem? At times, I have felt, as an SEGD designer, we're fixing broken architecture, and I'm just at the place now where we want to, instead, really use insights and strategy to know what the right solutions are, so the designers can do a better job—not just fixing an aesthetic problem. So, it's a little bit of a more in-depth approach.

SEGD
So, in terms of research and data driven analytics, where is KEI one year after launching? And how has COVID affected your research?

KK
We launched the Institute with a study about the impact of COVID-19 on people in their workplace. We've been doing a longitudinal study, called the “Compass” project, of workplace environments and how people are feeling about (1) safety, (2) their well-being in the workplace, and (3) the new hybrid remote work environment. How do they feel about the new type of environments in terms of ...
-    working full-time with a 100% return to the office, or
-    a combination or a hybrid model (office and remote), or
-    working 100% remotely.
So, it's been really those three key areas of focus.

SEGD
Aside from research on how COVID is affecting people in the workplace, you’re also looking at the impact of COVID on businesses and business districts, right?

KK
Yes, the second area of focus is also COVID-19 related, but it is more about the economic drivers and the impact of COVID-19 on business districts and our roadmap to recovery. So, we started partnering with Drexel University and a thought leader named Bruce Katz who runs the Nowak Metro Finance Lab. He's an expert in the “New Localism” and the impact of COVID-19 on America. He identified how Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on small minority and women owned businesses.

SEGD
And how is this study funded?

KK
When we started out studying the impact of COVID-19 on small and urban corridors, Drexel ended up getting a grant from Four Partners here in Cincinnati, the (Cincinnati) Port Authority, the Cincinnati Development Fund, and Fifth Third Bank, as well as the Haile Foundation.

Then the murder of George Floyd happened, on top of COVID, compounding and revealing racial inequities and disparities. So that was another game changer. We said to each other, “We already have the impact of the ‘Covid cliff.’ Now the murder of George Floyd reveals even further inequities in economic prosperity.”

So, how to regenerate neighborhoods and come back from COVID-19 and the deepening racial inequity? We studied several neighborhoods here in Cincinnati. And we created a new framework model for how urban business districts can work collectively and use stimulus money and Cares Act funding (in partnership with different intermediaries within our city) to rethink how to regenerate during this unprecedented time in American History.

So, it is evolving into the Cincinnati Regenerator Project. It was recommended to create a new organization, a consortium, which is called the Cincinnati Regeneration Alliance. And they are newly formed with an executive director who's running the program.

SEGD
And, so, when you say “economic recovery for any central business district,” are you only talking about urban neighborhoods?

KK
The model is for economic recovery for any central business district that you need to consider.

We developed  the activation and the innovation platform with Bruce using Cincinnati as a focus study. In the meantime, KEI decided to also focus on the small town, Main Street USA-type cities. And we partnered with Main Street USA and did a study of the impact of Covid-19 across the United States. We looked at 5 cities across the United States like Oil City, Pennsylvania—you know, what our country is made of, the real  Main Street USAs.

SEGD
So, in terms of environmental/experiential designers, what then is their role after all of the research and studies?

KK
So, the work that we are  doing (through KEI) is pretty upstream. It's about funding and fueling economic recovery for the business districts. And part of the assessment is to determine what's needed in the business district. What's missing? If the business district needs a civic brand and a community engagement strategy as a recommendation out of the workshops—I’m thinking about the design workshops that we do—we give them a playbook, and that's where the city then starts. And so traditional architects, landscape architects, urban planners and environmental graphic designers, they would come in at Stage 2 for the activation part.

SEGD
And, so, KEI is doing Phase 1.

KK
Right, exactly. KEI  partners to set the stage for any economic recovery, and then later on, I'm hoping there's a ton of projects for my (design) colleagues as cities do wayfinding projects or civic branding projects or whatever they need to do within the traditional RFP process.

SEGD
So, one year after establishing KEI, tell us how it’s been for you and Kolar Design?

KK
It's been a very innovative experience for us, and it just shows you the power of design and the transformational ability that we have. And I think our Kolar Design team is really, really inspired. Our mission—and our vision—is to add soul to space; integrate positive impact for our clients and community. That's our vision at Kolar Design. And KEI has really given us that opportunity, now, to start to look at roles which really play in helping drive that.

Learn more about KEI’s “Roadmap to Recovery” during our SEGD Management + Leadership Summit next Wednesday, March 24th at 2:15pm, when Megan Haase from Kolar Experience Institute will present KEI’s findings.

New Member Offer

Click to access the 2020 "Never been an SEGD member before" $185 sign up offer

Upcoming SEGD Events

Join us for our first ever Job Fair!
2021 Exhibition and Experience Design
2021 Branded Environments