Focus on Leadership - December 2011
Interview by Kemp Harr
A senior vice president at HOK, Pam Light has an enthusiasm for design that started in early childhood. She excelled in art in high school but was drawn specifically to design, rather than fine art, as a career; her passion is founded solidly in creating interior spaces that make life better for those within them.
To achieve this, Light emphasizes that designers must listen to and empathize with their clients, stepping into the client’s shoes to create a design that suits their needs, not the personal artistic goals of the designer. For her work, Pam has won numerous awards, including being inducted into the International Interior Design Association College of Fellows, the highest honor bestowed by the institution.
Q: How did you choose interior design as your career passion?
A: I don’t think I ever had a choice. My mother says that when I was four and would come home from playing with friends, I would tell her how I arranged the people’s houses, rather than what dolls I played with.
Q: Tell me about the first jobs you had in the interior design business. Who gave you your first chance, and how did that help determine where you have ended up?
A: My first job was as an intern with a firm that did both graphic and interior design in a small town. I was debating between the two professions. One day the designer looked at me incredulously and said, “Have you looked at the way your face lights up when we work on interiors?”
Q: Talk about your career growth that led to your current position as senior vice president with HOK.
A: It’s interesting to me that I’m a senior VP. I didn’t set out to be anything other than a designer. In fact, managing looked pretty boring to me! But along the way, I found I challenged myself to continue growing. Some of those paths took me into mentoring; joining IIDA; speaking on my passion for design; project management; furniture design; multiple project types (entertainment, corporate, healthcare, etc.); working with anthropologists (speaking at Harvard was a real highlight!); and many other avenues. HOK saw that I could wear multiple hats. They allowed me to cut my own path and by doing that lead others in our practice. It is a great partnership.
Q: Other than the ability to be creative, what other attributes/skills does a successful designer need to have?
A: The ability to listen, empathize and communicate! If the designer is only designing for themselves, they are really an artist working with their own tastes. The ability to immerse yourself in someone else’s life (at home, at work, in a hospital, etc.)—in other words to “wear their shoes”—so that you design a space that the user will enjoy, thrive in, and function in really makes a person a designer in interior design.
Q: How do you keep your employees motivated in the midst of the day-to-day grind?
A: Good question, especially in today’s world. Employees need many things to feel motivated (salary, of course, being one of them), but I think some of the really important ones are the ability to grow, feel valued and feel they are contributing to something larger than themselves.
We try to encourage that to happen, even if the current project is a little redundant. We have multiple community outreach programs that we participate in. We have at least two, if not more, speakers/specialists come into the office every week to speak on multiple topics. We encourage participation in an industry group, and we support anyone who wants to spend time on something they are interested in, as long as they share it with the rest of us.
Q: What design project are you most proud of?
A: I love complicated projects! And I love customer care/call centers! Complicated projects are interesting because they often require multiple disciplines. E! Entertainment, the television broadcast studio and offices, was one of my favorite complicated projects. It required engineers, information technologists, studio integrators, acousticians, as well as collaboration with a marketing group to brand the space.
I am also enjoying a current project for Edwards LifeSciences, another complicated job. We started looking at how its campus could be updated—and ended up realizing a wonderful environment with gardens, green commons, a central cafeteria with outdoor seating and a museum. In both cases, it takes a great client that understands the value that great design can bring to their people.
With call centers, the employees are on the phone continuously, often having discussions that are not always pleasant. The ability to design a space that helps them feel more upbeat, and therefore feel better about themselves and their job, is important work.
Q: Do you think it’s easier for a woman or a man to lead change in today’s society?
A: I don’t think it matters. I think passion and compassion are the keys to successful change.
Q: How do you think the success equation differs for women and men?
A: You know, I just don’t see it…and maybe that’s why I’ve been successful at breaking through glass ceilings. I have never felt they exist. I have, of course, seen all the data that says there are fewer women executives and women are paid less (and I’ve met people I wouldn’t work for), but when I’ve experienced inequities, which have been with both men and women I’ve worked with, I’ve always presented my side as my skills/talent, knowledge and commitment, and the companies I choose to work for have always respected and acknowledged my work.
Q: What do you consider your greatest career success?
A: Interesting question—there have been a number of wonderful experiences that have made me thankful that I selected this profession. The one that currently comes to mind is a conversation I had with the then head of human resources for E!. We had just finished the project, and she and I were discussing the large walkway that connected both sides of the building. We’d spent a lot of time on the open ceiling and lighting, colorful custom stripes in the carpet and accent paint colors so that the corridor didn’t seem so long. She said that she sometimes just walked from one side of the building to the other through the corridor because it made her happy. I love making people feel better; design is so powerful. And I love the great client friendships that come out of it.
Q: What is the secret to your success?
A: Love what you do!
Q: Who played a key role in making you who you are?
A: There were so many wonderful people that encouraged and taught me along the way, starting with my junior year high school art instructor, who selected only five of us to receive a winter scholarship to the local art college, Silvermine College of Arts in New Canaan, Connecticut. It was the first time I thought maybe my mom wasn’t just telling me I was good in art because I was her daughter!
My first boss let me charge ahead and was there as a back-up when I made mistakes; several lovely senior designers took me under their wings; IIDA taught me how to speak and manage committees; and many others, including my father, a chemical engineer, who taught me not to expect to be promoted until I was already doing the work!
Q: What is your ideal work environment?
A: A loft with great views, great coffee and my dogs nearby.
Q: What do you do to relax?
A: I’m lucky. My husband lives near Santa Barbara, so weekends are usually spent up there, walking on the beach with my dogs, barbequing with neighbors and checking out the wineries. I also love to read and shop, and I must go to Pilates twice a week!
Q: How do you balance your personal life and your career?
A: It’s really hard. I enjoy my work so much that I tell people I would still do it if I won the lottery. I end up working long hours if I need to during the week and then just relaxing on the weekends—except for Pilates, of course, and going to the gym. I find that if I don’t exercise my energy lags.
Q: What does the flooring industry need to do to be more relevant to the design community?
A: I think the flooring industry is doing a wonderful job of being relevant. It has stepped up to the plate in finding yarns and methods of construction that give good aesthetics and good wear for a price clients can afford. It is providing multiple viable options in addition to what we have considered as standard carpet and VCT in both hard and soft products. Over the last few years, the woven goods, wood products, and flat woven vinyls have allowed us more design expression.
Other products I would love? A new hard surface, easy to clean, acoustical flooring, and a slip-resistant, surface-applied product that really works on shiny surfaces.
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