When Keta Patel heard that she and other students in the Networked Cities Workshop class at IIT Institute of Design would be working on a project for an office furniture manufacturer, she assumed they’d be spending a lot of time thinking about furniture. But she quickly learned that the project was much broader than that. “They wanted us to look more at behavior—how people interact with technology and space,” says Patel, who is working toward a graduate degree in Interactive Design.
The fall 2012 project was one of several that Herman Miller funded as a way of investing in the next generation of workers by giving students the chance to apply what they learn in a real-world setting. “We wanted them to look at business objectives and see how they could use research and design to realize them,” says Shilpi Kumar, the Herman Miller senior researcher who headed up the project.
The nine students divided into groups and immersed themselves in the culture and space of environments that spring from the idea of “the office” as a state of mind, rather than a specific space: coworking spaces, hacker spaces, in-house innovation labs, or design consultancies. “Overall, we wanted to know how the people in these spaces work day to day. What are their values and social norms? What are the work practices in spaces of innovation?” says Kumar.
The ethnographic studies helped Paul Sheetz, who is in a Master of Design and MBA combined program, “figure out how to talk to people in a real way to get information that’s valuable. It helped me understand and develop empathy.” It also gave him the opportunity to experience for himself how ethnography leads to expertise and credibility. Conducting that kind of research “provided something new to Herman Miller, which already knows so much about [work environments],” he says.
Herman Miller didn’t just provide funds; Herman Miller employees participated in the project. After the field research, the students traveled to the company for a workshop in which they shared what they had learned. The purpose of it was to familiarize the students with the company. Through the questions that the Herman Miller professionals asked, the students were better able to understand how Herman Miller might use their ethnographic research. “There was no real problem to solve on this project,” says Kumar. “We wanted to discover more about places that encourage creativity, the places creative people are drawn to and why.”
In the workshop, the students told stories from the field—a kind of “day in the life of” the workers they had studied. Participants learned the kinds of people who would work in the four kinds of spaces and why. Then came a brainstorming session about how Herman Miller might apply what the students had learned.
The “so what” was the big question, says Kumar. “We talked about ‘What does all this mean for the work experience within corporate environments?’ and how to translate it into something useful, i.e., ‘These are the reasons people go to coworking spaces, now how can we bring the essence of that into corporate spaces?’”
Herman Miller was pleased that, in the process of learning about ethnography, the students were able to offer some fresh insights about innovative spaces. “This program is about giving back,” says Kumar, and giving students an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise have. “It’s all about their learning, not ours.”