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Chair's Message - November 2016

This month’s message is the result of an ambush. Joseph Cephas, the ASID VP of Communications, visited my office when he was in LA, saying innocently that he wanted to try out a new format for the November Chair’s Message.

But rather than having the laid-back discussion I’d envisioned, he pulled out his iPhone, hit Record, and proceeded to lob questions my direction. I freaked out, as you might imagine, but he assured me that I had information in my head that needs to be shared with the ASID community. I still don’t believe him, but let’s see if he was right!

Question one: what are some of your biggest challenges as a workplace designer?

- Joseph

"You are seriously going to make me do this, with no preparation?!" [Nod and devilish but encouraging grin from Joseph.]

"Two things come to mind. First, everyone is jumping on the bandwagon of the Silicon Valley look. People say, 'Make my office look like Google!' but they’re not Google. We have to convince them that concrete floors, an industrial ceiling and a bunch of beanbag chairs – or even an indoor skateboard park – won’t instantly make them cool and successful. The challenge is to dig deeper to identify what makes their business unique, understand what in particular they’re trying to achieve, and design spaces that support those goals."

"Which leads to the second challenge: making office design not just a matter of minimizing real estate costs. The open office (or Dilbert’s “cube farm”) was great for packing in people but not for working with teams, taking a phone call from your doctor’s office, or focusing on difficult problems. And that means we need more types of spaces than a one big sea of workstations."

"This is really challenging. Having different areas where you can choose to work means you need to rent more space. But as we now know, having this palette of workspaces can not only help productivity but it can also attract and retain talent and serve as an embodiment of a company’s brand. It can also improve your health. ASID and groups such as the Institute for Human Centered Design and the Center for Active Design are exploring ways in which our workplaces can go beyond places where work gets done to ones that actually inspire and delight us, and support our physical and mental health. So we’re asking questions not just about projected headcount and storage requirements but also, more importantly, “How do you want your firm to be strategically positioned 5 years from now?” and “What type of staff do you need to get there?” That’s a far more interesting conversation and it leads to an ultimately more successful project."

- Charrisse

As an organization, ASID believes that Design Impacts Lives. You’ve mentioned health and wellness in your previous answer. How has the emphasis on employee health changed the interior design profession?

"What good is a beautiful, well-equipped space if it makes you sluggish and sick? Making sure that the paint and carpet pad don’t off-gas is only the first step; now with innovations like the WELL Building Standard (From the International Well Building Institute), we know that the decisions we make can impact employees’ health, morale, and productivity. 

This is personally exciting to me because I’ve always been interested in what make people tick. When I was a pre-med undergrad student, I learned how our bodies function physically. Then in business school, I learned how an organization’s structure and its marketing efforts can influence people’s behavior.

This is personally exciting to me because I’ve always been interested in what make people tick. When I was a pre-med undergrad student, I learned how our bodies function physically. Then in business school, I learned how an organization’s structure and its marketing efforts can influence people’s behavior.

Now, as a designer, I’m fascinated by how physical spaces bring all those influences together. Our designs can encourage people to work together better and steer them towards making healthier choices, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator.”

- Charrisse

See this isn’t so bad! Next question, you’re a Principal at Steinberg and the Chair of ASID, which are huge career milestones. Did it click at some point and you told yourself, “I’m ready for this, I’m ready to be a principal”?

"Ha, that’s pretty funny because as a kid, I never thought of myself as an artist or a leader – I wanted to be a surgeon. I never imagined doing anything artistic or business related."

"Going into interior design was really intimidating because I could barely draw stick figures. But at UCLA Extension Interior Design program’s open house, the advisor promised that they could teach us how to draw. She also said that design is more about problem-solving than beautiful drawings. Later, an instructor said that you don’t need to be Michelangelo to be a good designer, you just had to draw well enough – and in your own style – so that you can get your ideas across. Both were very reassuring."

"At my first job, I was lucky enough to work with generous, patient senior designers who helped me develop my design skills and translate them into a built space. I think I’ve become a pretty decent designer. But I’m still awestruck by the work of many, many others whose creativity and imagination are mind-blowing to me. Which leads me to this realization:"

"To be a good principal or to run your own design firm successfully, you have to be more than a great designer. You also have to know how to get the best out of your teams and to work well with clients. That’s like being a triathlete, and my brother Sherwick is a great example. He’s a world-ranked Ironman who’s gone to the Kona world championships a bunch of times. He once said to me, 'I'm not the fastest swimmer, or the fastest cyclist, or the fastest marathoner. But when put all three together, and then add mental discipline to the mix … that’s what makes me a really good triathlete.'"

"So when Steinberg’s CEO asked me to start a new interiors practice for his firm, I knew I was ready … terrified but ready. Now, a year and a half later, we have an amazing team and we’re working on some fantastic projects. And thanks to all the designers, principals, and business owners I’ve met through ASID, I have a wonderful network that I can call on for advice. And ASID offers tons of online and in-person courses on business strategies, project management, sustainable design, etc." 

- Charrisse

Interior design is not just your second career but your third. How did you make up for that lost time compared with people who went straight into design after college?

“When I interviewed for my first full-time design job, the studio director asked me a blatantly loaded question: “Do you feel that with your past careers, we should bring you in at a higher level than other entry level applicants?” Of course I had to say no, but I also meant it. I told her that I needed to start at the bottom and go through the same learning experiences as everyone else. But I also said that because of my past careers, I felt I could take on responsibilities at a faster pace, so I hoped they would give me those opportunities. And that’s exactly what they did.

Now of course there are lots of young people who are comfortable dealing with clients and have great business judgment too. But, there is something to be said for being able to pull from past experiences to inform current decisions. So to other designers who have changed careers, I say never apologize for those careers because you can pull on any sort of life experience to help you relate to users and develop your design empathy. But you can’t expect design responsibilities to be handed to you just because you’re more 'seasoned'. You have to earn it."

- Charrisse

With your unique path and ascension to principal, was there anything in particular that your ASID membership did that benefited your career?

"Yes, absolutely! At UCLA Extension, I helped resuscitated a student chapter that had been dormant for a couple of years. At the time, I didn’t think of myself as a leader at all. I hated speaking up in class, making presentations. I still don’t like crowds or being in the spotlight. But because I was thrust into becoming the student chapter president, I was forced to think like a leader.

I had to think about what made UCLA Extensions students unique and what would make them join a student chapter. I had to figure out how to recruit other students, first to form the chapter itself and then to grow its membership. My brothers and sister would say that as their big sister, I’ve been bossy my whole life. But in reality, it wasn’t about bossing anyone around, it was about rallying a bunch of people around a common goal. And it was ASID that taught me how to do that."

The other huge benefit of ASID is that I’ve met so many wonderful people at ASID events: past national presidents and board members who became my mentors; other career changers whose stories are remarkable and inspiring to me; remarkable students and emerging professionals who will lead our profession in the future. I can’t put a price tag on the sense of community that I get from ASID."

- Charrisse

Last question. Is there a mistake you made early in your career that still haunts you today?

"Geez, where do you want to start? I’ve made a ton of mistakes! Here’s one I share with students all the time. If you have two refrigerators side by side, double check your clearances extra carefully because you have to make sure the doors in the middle can both open at the same time. Duh, right? I will never forget showing up at a construction meeting and the super says to me, “Charrisse, you need to come see this.” And there were two French door refrigerators, one installed where it should be, the other at an angle because it wouldn’t fit. The stuff of nightmares. They had to break open one wall and completely rebuild it. Thank goodness for construction contingencies and sympathetic contractors. Which leads to another lesson: always fess up and deal with your mistakes head on, and don’t try to cover them up. It never works in life and especially not in design."

- Charrisse


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