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Thinking Beyond COVID-19, Part Four: Design & Experiential Innovation

Brady Mick

Question: How can specific human experiences enhance innovation in a post-COVID-19 world?

Welcome to the fourth installment of our series on post-COVID-19 design. After looking at efficient focus and effective collaboration, we turn to the third aspect of living, working and learning that will be as necessary – and dependent on one another – after the pandemic as before: experiential innovation.

Design Innovation

First, let’s consider the word, innovation: the process of imagining and delivering new results that may or may not be directly dependent upon past results.

The most dramatic examples of innovation are those that are so new, so seemingly “out of nowhere” that the world, or some portion of it anyway, was disrupted. (Think for instance, of electric light.) Of course, most innovations are less pervasive and more iterative, resulting in evolutionary versus revolutionary change. (Say, the latest smartphone variation.)

Before COVID-19, workplace design was on a mostly evolutionary path. Questions about deriving the most value from workspaces resulted in relatively minor alterations to such standard, ubiquitous elements as individually assigned cubes and dedicated rooms for team meetings. The advent of co-working centers had begun a minor revolution in the way remote employees would sometimes work in more non-traditional settings. And, there had already been an iterative and careful adoption of remote-work experiments occurring in isolated pockets across companies and industries.

While the pace of workplace innovation seemed slow to design strategists, many aspects of innovation at work were in full revolution. Businesses were crying out for new ways of thinking. Past forms of problem-solving were not delivering results as quickly or efficiently as staying competitive in the 21st century has come to demand. Company leaders were beginning to appreciate just how much workplace design can be a catalyst for both inspiring and enabling innovation across the enterprise.

Human Experience in Design

That leads us to the word, “experiential.” What is not likely to change due to COVID-19 is the need for a quality human experience in design. The places in which we live, learn and work impact each of us to our core. Four design criteria will continue to affect the value of design in creating a great experience:

  1. Design’s five best friends: Space continuously triggers our five senses. When I ask people in focus groups what qualities of their workplace most invigorate them, typical responses include natural light, color and comfortable chairs.
  2. We’re better together… Work and learning now focus on shared experiences. The depth and breadth of what we need to know to function and innovate exceed the capacity of any one of us. While social dynamics can sometimes be emotionally challenging, we are better together than apart.
  3. …But we still need time alone. Thinking is a prerequisite for productivity and innovation. While schools and workplaces have prioritized collaboration, the need for solo think-time still exists. We all benefit from comfortable places to go to be alone with our thoughts.
  4. Creative inspiration: While not all of us do work that’s dependent on delivering outwardly creative results, we are all nonetheless creative in any number of ways. The design of places to learn, work and be in community with each other directly inspires creative thinking.

The most significant experiential innovation can happen in the worst experiential places; likewise, the most fabulous design can result in limited innovative results. So, we must take a step back and create an inspiring design process. An inspiring design process possesses the inherent potential to build new knowledge, enhance productivity, improve innovation and generate the highest, most aspirational human results. It is not likely that COVID-19 will change this truth.

Did you miss a post in the multi-part series? You can catch up on the first three articles here:

Thinking Beyond COVID-19: A Five-Part Series on Post-COVID-19 Design

Thinking Beyond COVID-19, Part Two: Design & Efficient Focus

Thinking Beyond COVID-19, Part Three: Design & Effective Collaboration

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