Virtual Tools, Authentic Design - July 2015

By Calista Sprague


Tricycle, a technology company that has provided sustainably focused services to the contract interiors business since 2002, recently held a panel discussion, titled “Virtual Tools, Authentic Design,” to explore how the interior design process has evolved with advancing technology, post-recession budgets and a new generation of designers. 

Tricycle has been a part of the technology boom, and the firm is best known for its digital sampling product that helps carpet manufacturers reduce costs and material usage in the sampling process, and assists designers with digital samples for quicker turnaround during early round decision making.

The event was held in June at the Daltile showroom in Atlanta, hosted by Sujeel Taj, product specialist at Tricycle, and moderated by Bethany Davies, a marketing consultant. The panelists represent a cross-section of the design community. All are trained interior designers, some working for manufacturers on the product side and others for design and architectural firms. On the panel were Royce Epstein, director of the design segment at Mohawk Industries; Justin Frye, senior manager of design and development at Mohawk Industries; Brenda Dietz, senior interior designer at Stanley Beaman & Sears; Ryan Haney, project architect for Cooper Carry; and Tara Hill, founder and design director at LittleFish.

The conversation began with a discussion about authentic design. Mohawk’s Royce Epstein says, “We’re living in an age where technology has overrun all of us, and we forgot what it’s like to be human.” She asserts that years of staring at cell phones, tablets and TV screens have led to a backlash of people who crave tactile experiences. In design this has translated to greater use of texture, but also to a desire for hands-on involvement. 

“Another trend that’s happening now is personalization, whether you’re buying a car or getting a sandwich,” says Epstein. She cites a rising movement of small batch production for design objects, made of ceramic or mixed materials, that people can make on their own, satisfying the need for both tactile experience and customized interiors. 

Ironically, technology can help give clients the personalization they crave. To individualize a space, designers often create custom carpet or rugs for clients, but sampling can be expensive and time consuming. Technology like digital samples helps designers review custom yarn and patterns without the expense and wait time associated with developing physical samples. Brenda Dietz, designer at Stanley Beaman & Sears, says that sometimes the digital version is sufficient and the client never needs to see a physical sample at all. 

Technology also allows designers to create custom patterns of modular carpet with a few clicks of a button, rather than ordering boxes of tile, paying and waiting for shipping, and then moving them around on the floor. And there are also advanced applications that allow customers to see their personalized carpet tile patterns in room scenes for a more complete visualization of the finished look.

Perhaps even more ironically, technology is also being utilized to infuse a sense of humanity into new design trends. Cooper Carry architect Ryan Haney points out that product machinery is sometimes programmed to include mistakes and irregularities to better mimic handmade items, such as Kuba cloth originating from African tribes. Epstein agrees, referencing Glitch Textiles, a design label that celebrates irregular digital patterns for textiles.

Mohawk product designer Justin Frye adds, “In the carpet industry we are limited to the machinery that we have to make product on, so when we create designs, we have to fool the consumer to think the machine is making mistakes.” He says that the machines are programmed to create looks that appear natural or random, even though they are not.

The concept also works in reverse, Frye says, and sometimes inspiration comes from mistakes inadvertently caused by the technology itself. A designer may incorporate the mistake immediately, or tuck the idea away for use on another project. 

Also, the numerous options that technology offers to alter designs with the click of a button often lead to novel results the designer would not otherwise have explored. “We are in a post Bauhaus era,” Epstein observes. “Nobody is drawing rectilinear things anymore, and that’s because now we have Reddit and CAD and C&C routers.”

Designers are also excited about the developments in 3D and even 4D printing, which open up additional possibilities for products to be customized for individual consumers. 

Despite the efficiencies of the proliferating tech tools, however, designers feel more and more pressed for time. Clients today expect a custom design with solutions for their individual needs, and they expect it immediately, with little or no time for the creative process. LEED certification, building codes, ADA, ACA and other requirements add more constraints, bogging down a process that has already been pushed to the limits with too-short timelines and too-tight budgets. 

“Projects were quick, then they were fast tracked, then they were blast tracked,” Hill complains. “It’s gotten to be where the process is not diminished, it’s almost eradicated.” She says that creating an attractive design on a tight schedule is not a problem, but to design a successful solution that meets client needs, code requirements and all the other criteria takes time. “At the end of the day, design is process,” she says.

Dietz recalls when design schedules allowed for more client involvement. “We used to be able to take time with our clients and discuss the entire process and walk through beautiful design and have one or two options. Now it’s like we no longer have schematic design. You come to the table, and what you’re showing almost has to be everything that is going to be built.”

Hill says that she feels compelled to tell clients that they must allow more time for the design process. Although clients do not always respond positively, she sometimes says that she can deliver the design fast, but in order to deliver a customized solution that will meet the client’s long-term needs, the process must be extended. 

“When the team gets cut and the fee gets cut and the time gets cut, guess what, you’re not actually designing anything,” Epstein explains. She says that designers pushed to unreasonable timelines and budgets end up pulling details from previous projects, essentially “collaging” a design together.

The designers discussed the “Amazon effect” that sets consumers up to expect an array of options that can be delivered immediately. Epstein believes the flooring industry is a part of that movement. She points out that Mohawk, among other suppliers, has purchased multiple flooring companies in order to offer one-stop shopping for its customers. For both designers and end-users, time is precious, so shopping from an array of products that are grouped for color and design coordination help speed up the decision making process. 

Dietz says that clients want to see finished options and bypass the traditional design process. She says that early in the process clients expect to see perspectives fully modeled with furniture, and then expect the looks to appear almost exactly the same in the final design, down to the color of individual chairs. 

“They don’t realize that we are starting from scratch every time to tailor it to them,” Haney says. And Hill adds, “We’re committing to design so early in the process, before we’ve really had the chance to do the research and the legwork.”

Ideally, the design process should include multiple conversations between designer, client and end-user about the functional needs of the space and the preferred aesthetics. An extended visioning phase helps designers narrow in on aesthetic preferences, and schematic drawings or digital representations help hone the space plans. In addition, research time is needed to identify furniture, materials and finishes that meet the client’s needs, sustainability and code requirements, as well as budget constraints. All these steps traditionally occur before a final design is presented. 

Hill emphasized the importance of the traditional design process with the example of a client that had been replacing carpet every six to 12 months. She made a presentation on performance carpet fibers and backings, so that when carpet salespeople came in, the client was able to ask informed questions and make better decisions for vastly improved lifecycle expectations. With truncated deadlines, however, time for such informative presentations is eliminated, and clients ultimately pay the price.

After a couple of preliminary meetings, many clients want to see two or three options, make a decision and sign off on a design. They are much more likely to latch on to products seen in the visioning or schematic process, expecting to see exact replicas in the final design. Perhaps influenced by television shows that portray designers renovating houses in a weekend or by inexperienced designers who use sophisticated software to show “complete” 3D designs overnight, clients seem to lack patience and understanding for the depth of a quality design process. 

All the designers agree that client expectations have become unrealistic. “There’s an expectation that I’m going to ideate, create, implement, execute, promote and sell by tomorrow morning, maybe by the end of the day,” Frye says. 

Adding to these pressures, designers often have to please more than one person, so design decisions must be discussed, weighed and approved by a roomful of people, rather than a single client, a concept the designers refer to as “design by committee” or “democratic design.”

Haney says that between tight deadlines and lengthy design meetings, designers are left to steal creative time where they can. “If we’ve been in meetings from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., well, I’m going to be there from 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. to do some actual work that you will expect the next morning so we can talk about it all over again,” he says. “I personally still need that individual time.” 

This schedule is far from ideal, however. “I think that design suffers a lot,” Epstein admits. “If you’re in meetings all day and you are doing your design work in off hours, maybe you’re picking finishes in the dark—we’ve all done it. You’re tired; you’re making mistakes.”

Hill thinks clients don’t understand what they’re missing. She says that given time, even under stringent LEED platinum constraints and tight budgets, talented designers can source attractive, affordable and innovative materials to give clients everything they want in a custom space with solutions to fit their needs. But given too little time, the design will be less sophisticated, and even more important, the space will not function as well as it might have otherwise.

Copyright 2015 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Fuse, Mohawk Industries, RD Weis, Fuse Alliance, Daltile