Commercial Leaders Tout the Importance of Connection at NeoCon

What’s on the minds of top designers working in the commercial space? Interior Design editor-in-chief Cindy Allen met with nearly 20 industry leaders during NeoCon June 10 to find out. Seated among the bold graphics of SANDOW Design Group’s DesignScene lounge at THE MART, designers and manufacturers talked through key challenges they are facing, from mentoring young talent to the role of artificial intelligence, and posited what’s next.

“The fact that everyone wants to get together and share means so much,” Allen said, opening the conversation by noting that designers, as creatives, seem to prioritize in-person connection. But when it comes to the office, even those within the design community are facing challenges around bringing people back together. “As more companies get away from the office, it’s much more difficult to create culture,” offered one attendee. Talk of office culture quickly turned to what young designers want and how to create environments that facilitate mentorship and relationship-building. From office BBQs to lunch outings, attendees agreed they are trying to figure out what best resonates with their teams.

Designers and Manufacturers Talk Office Culture, AI, and More

“So much in our industry happens after hours at showrooms and events, so we started to include that in [employee] reviews,” shared one attendee, noting that younger designers need incentives to work after hours. To that, one of the manufacturers in the room emphasized a desire to better understand this challenge in order to create solutions asking: “As a brand, what kind of events can we host at our showrooms that are interesting and attractive to the younger people?”

But attendees agreed that it’s not on manufacturers to “lure” young designers to events. Rather, the drive—and example setting—needs to come from studio leadership. “Many students said they don’t know the value of working in the office because they never had that experience, so they haven’t developed some of those relationship-building skills,” offered one attendee. “If you’ve never made those connections and you’ve only been trained to work remotely, then it’s a rewiring of the mind.” Part of such rewiring involves implementing creative—and fun—solutions, like virtual and in-person sketch sessions, which also reiterates the importance of dwindling skills like drawing.

Cindy Allen with Designers during a roundtable at neocon
Cindy Allen hosts a Commercial Leaders roundtable during NeoCon in DesignScene.

What’s clear is that amenities alone are not strong enough to entice people back. Now, amenities need to be highly specific and reflect company culture with the goal of fostering connection. “People stopped doing fitness centers or the infamous foosball table—you need to right-size your amenity for what you’re doing,” shared one designer.

“Companies are taking the wrong approach to bringing people into the office, either with mandates or a reward system for something that they should be wanting to do on their own,” added another attendee, who noted an increasing demand for refreshing and consolidating existing workplaces. “I think we need to rethink the whole approach to real estate; we’ve got to be together more, for the sake of society as a whole.”

Want the inside scoop on NeoCon 2024? Tune into NeoConversations hosted by Avi Rajagopal, editor-in-chief of Metropolis, on SANDOW’s Surround podcast network.

The Changing Nature of Gaining Client Trust

As the way people work continues to shift, so does the nature of landing work itself. Attendees agreed that architecture competitions are increasingly common to land a job—and many of these are not paid. “There are more competitions than ever to win work; clients are so afraid to spend and competition drives fees down,” said one designer. “One of the things that concerns us is, for the industry as a whole, that really squeezes us.” Another attendee offered a similar sentiment: “Projects are getting smaller, fees are getting tighter, and everyone is confused on culture.” This means the stakes for innovation are higher than ever.

Though there are benefits to competitions, such as showing clients ideas they may never have dreamed up, they also run the risk of overwhelming them with options. “Sometimes there are so many different approaches and then client is so confused,” shared one attendee. Competitions also make identifying the best approach for a client more challenging, limiting the time spent relationship-building at the start. “When we get RFP, we say: This is the problem or opportunity at hand but when you met them, you learn that that wasn’t really their problem and that wasn’t really their opportunity,” explained one designer. “You then need to pull out what they really want and need.”

Designers agreed connection remains paramount to creating impactful spaces, whether that means showing a deep understanding for a client’s needs in brief meetings during a competition or developing a long-term relationship. “Your expertise is the thing—they need that,” Allen asserted.

attendees gather during a roundtable at neocon
Designers and manufacturers share insights into the state of the industry.

Designers Discuss the Impact of AI

While artificial intelligence is not out to take design jobs today, the technology is shifting how designers work, from creating visualizations of spaces to in-depth research. “Everyone in my office is concerned about copyright related to AI,” said one attendee. Another in the room said that their firm is offering AI training for staff, enabling them to understand how new programs work in order to find the best uses for them organically. “We’re focusing on image generation—how do you use AI in story-telling—there’s a huge potential there.”

But many cautioned that firms need to be strategic about how their teams use AI. “The whole value of a designer is our experience and our ability to be curators of the information and to be discerning, and right now AI is in the hands of everybody,” said one attendee.

“I wish we could use AI for things other than creating designs we love,” said one designer, noting that these include insights into firm blind spots or how to create more efficient carbon neutral buildings. When it comes to AI and the state of commercial work more broadly, attendees agreed there is much to learn—and gain. “There are big creative moments where something is so foreign that we can’t quite understand it. Look at [Jean-Michel] Basquiat—we had to learn how to recognize the genius behind his work,” shared one attendee. “I’m excited about how much is going to change; clients want us to deliver what they want in ways we do not yet fully understand.”

A very special thank to our Commercial Leaders event partners: American Biltrite Flooring, Artistic Tile, Framery, Garden on the Wall, and Mannington Commercial.

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