POLLACK: Building a Brand

March 1, 2006
By Carol Tisch • Cover and portrait photography by Liane Enkelis
With a mission to employ design as a vehicle for business growth and worker productivity, the San Francisco-based architecture and design firm, Pollack, has been a catalyst for clients to align their business plans with their identities through the design of corporate workplaces.

By Carol Tisch

If the principles of strategic marketing are applied to the design of business interiors, people will be more inclined to buy from you, work for you and hopefully invest in the future of your brand. Sounds esoteric, until you think it through, get behind the concept and live it the way architect Richard Pollack has.

With the no-nonsense methodology of an MBA strategist, Pollack has made it his mission to research the oft-thought intangible effects of design on worker productivity, business growth and efficiency. He's tested his theories in and disseminated research results to the design community with a zealous grass-roots campaign of writing and speaking engagements that continue to spread the word through the ranks of AIA, IIDA, IFMA and more.
But perhaps most important, Pollack practices what he preaches. In fact, the 20-plus year old Richard Pollack & Associates has just subjected itself to a marketing review and resulting corporate identity makeover—itself living proof that as businesses change, their brand images (everything from logos and Web sites to work environments) should evolve along with them.
"Our management team pulled back and thought about how our business had been changing," Pollack explains. "We wanted to make it clear to staff and the people we hope to recruit that the firm is a unique culture—that we're continually evolving and not just Richie and the guys." 

The solution was found in a strikingly simple typeface and new one-word moniker: Pollack. The company's commitments to the investigative process, to customized design solutions and to helping budding designers become industry leaders are clearly communicated in a finely tuned mission statement. "Pollack is not me; it's the firm," the company founder asserts. "We don't have to say architecture and interior design after the name, because the way we work it's all one thing,"

Indeed, the way they work is a research-based approach to developing highly productive work environments. The process begins with a filtering session in which clients are asked to present their spiel to the design team as if they were potential customers. "At this stage we're not worried about how many offices they want, or how many should have glass," Pollack explains. "We want to develop a passion for the business and clear understanding of where top management intends it to go."

But hearing from top executives isn't enough. The end-users have to buy into a new work space design if it is to succeed. "People want to be heard, and will respond positively if they feel their comments and complaints have been addressed, Pollack says. So after initial discussions with staff comes a formal programming stage where comprehensive interviews are held to collect data such as furniture, equipment and storage needs, departmental functions, inter-relationships and critical adjacencies.

"The solutions to productive environments are specific to each organization," says David Galullo, Pollack's design principal. "Our work is successful because we shut our mouths and we listen. Every organization has a personality, culture and objectives they want to accomplish on both a business and cultural side. If you listen to that, each response is unique."

Recurring assignments for VF Outdoor, Inc. prove his point. In a phased redesign, the 80,000 sq. ft. San Leandro, CA headquarters for The North Face buttress the brand's image with the open feel of the outdoors. The renovation features an 80-foot-long feature wall that incorporates marketing images, various building materials and textures, sliding metallic "barn" doors and punched openings that reveal glimpses of the research and design departments. To foster creativity, the outdoor image is extended to include a lounge with two story-high glass roll-up doors opening to an exterior redwood deck and green space. "The project was completed within a four-month period in three temporary phases, all within occupied spaces," Galullo explains. And he says the renovation was relatively inexpensive because the design maximized existing materials and the high volume of the space. "We don't use a lot of applied materials, and you never see layers and layers of product in our projects." An example of materials saving, he says, was the decision to polish existing concrete stones at North Face rather than applying a finish.

Work for another VF company, Jansport (also based in San Leandro), illustrates the skill with which Pollack designers manipulate visual clues to distinguish one brand from another. The Jansport look plays up the warehouse characteristics of the space with concrete floor and exposed ceiling—this time reinforcing the company's fashion forward, contemporary image while addressing tight construction budget issues. Although both VF divisions are housed in warehouse spaces, the office designs clearly communicate the unique selling propositions that set each company apart.

"The heart of what makes us different is that we are attuned to not developing a Pollack design stamp," Galullo says. "It's about what the space is meant to do, not about architecture that is a monument to us." That philosophy, he says, results in design solutions that take all shapes, forms and aesthetic manifestations.

In the case of Bullivant Houser Bailey, a multi-service West Coast law firm, Pollack was retained to design a new 13,000 sq. ft. office space in San Francisco with an eye toward increasing collaboration between attorneys and administrative support staff. The assignment also involved providing legal assistants with more productive individual workspaces.
The design solution involved a hybridized blend of systems furniture and built-in files and counters for secretarial stations that resulted in cost savings and increased flexibility over traditional custom work stations. Much attention was devoted to bringing natural light through to the interior of the space, and for high impact, the reception area features a custom-designed desk and glass-paneled screen.

"With the advent of computer technology and the internet, the law library has been consistently shrinking," Pollack says. "But Bullivant did not have a centralized library function. Their need for an effective system for access and storage of reference books resulted in the library becoming a critical element of the design." Integrated wood bookshelves were custom designed to open both into circulation hallways and attorney offices, providing an elegant visual solution to a functional business need.

Pollack's tactical approach was also welcomed by PalmSource Inc. in the redesign of its 63,000 sq. ft. headquarters and additional 8,000 sq. ft. of labs and training rooms. "Palm had just split themselves into PalmOne for hardware and PalmSource for operating system/software when we were retained," Pollack says. "As part of that structural change, the software side needed to create a new and forward-thinking culture that would be supported by their new headquarters." The catalyst for the space design, he recalls, was an initiative driven by the CEO to transition from a private office environment to an open office culture.

"His strategy included an egalitarian approach: if there were to be any private offices, they would be on the interior, with staff workstations at the perimeter," Pollack explains. "The space was further configured into neighborhoods defined by architecture that would allow groups to expand and contract, as well as foster a more collegial and collaborative environment."

But helping a client achieve business goals through design relates to financial and scheduling objectives as well as visual appeal and space planning. Working within the constraints of PalmSource's low construction budget, Pollack focused on using color and light in the space to create strong visual impact without the need for expensive materials.

"Because private offices were located in the interior, we painted them sunflower yellow to feel lighter and brighter. And we chose an overall palette that was cool—white walls, gray carpet and blue accents," Pollack says. Cognizant of tight construction deadlines, the design team persuaded PalmSource to use carpet tile instead of broadloom carpet. "Utilizing tile meant that flooring could be laid down and furniture positioned continuously rather than waiting for large sections of carpet to be place before moving furniture in," he explains.

In the case of Intrax Cultural Exchange, the assignment focused on tenant improvements to a new 28,000 sq. ft. office space in the heart of San Francisco's financial district. This fast-tracked project was completed in 16 weeks from start of design to occupancy, helping to improve the company's bottom line during a transition from warehouse type offices in a residential to a more sophisticated downtown setting.

As with Intrax, trends in workplace design are predicated on the type of business, and the firm's own culture, Pollack says. In most fields, however, he's seeing increased demand for flexible designs with fewer private offices, more teaming space and hybrid environments. But not in all cases. "Some literature in law journals clearly indicates that a collaborative environment works better," he says. "That would suggest a reduction in perimeter offices, but at some law firms you know there's not a chance in hell. Still, we bring it up in the first filter—it's a Socratic methodology: listen, challenge and champion."

Rather than come on as design gurus, Pollack's staff prefers to think of themselves as catalysts for the client's business. "Design of the workplace can improve a company's business plan, and we as designers offer a company the ability to give a very clear sense of direction, perspective and brand," Galullo says. "A company can say a lot about its mission through the design of its workplace. When you wrap ergonomics into that and include indoor air quality, lighting and comfort at the desk, you positively affect workers—emotionally and physically," he concludes.

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