team together and enables them to "check their capes at the door." Setting out to change the world by the work you do is not a goal for the faint of heart.In the design profession, those committed to improving the lives of the clients they serve know that their goal is lofty, but one that is attainable. More importantly, perhaps, they also realize that they aren't superheroes who can do it all by themselves.FIRM Values
The culture of The Environments Group is based on a strong client service focus and an internal emphasis on core values. These simple yet powerful statements guide the daily behavior of the firm's leadership and staff:
- Be fair
- Make it fun
- Tell the truth
- Be passionate
- Don't be afraid
- Do whatever it takes
- Keep your end of the bargain
- Teach what you know to others
- Be positive in attitude and action
- Take your responsibilities
- Respect yourself, your colleagues and your clients
Though any of the four principals at The Environments Group (TEG) could arguably stand alone as examples of great designers or architects, they choose not to. In fact, the last thing you will find at this Chicago-based firm is a problem with egos, and perhaps surprisingly, not even the typical rivalry among the architects and designers who happen to work side by side at the same pay scale, the same size work stations and who are given the same leadership opportunities. In short, they've adopted the attitude summed up in an expression that Managing Principal Fred Schmidt had years ago: "Check your cape at the door."
While some firms, or individuals, might have jumped at the opportunity to be featured on the cover of a prominent trade magazine, Schmidt admits the team did quite a bit of debating whether or not to be featured on the cover of this issue of Interiors & Sources because of a shared sense of modesty and, he added, "I really do feel that we represent all the people who have been principals or members of the firm in the past and in the future. We're just sort of the current principals of TEG." If this attitude sounds refreshing or unusual for a design firm, it's probably because it stands in stark contrast to a problem Schmidt sees as a focus on the individual that seems to permeate the industry, within both firms and the press. "Part of what I think is wrong with our profession is this 'cult of the individual' thing we have going," he says.
It is precisely a lack of self-centeredness, if you will, that draws talent to the firm—a fact that Principal Cary Johnson credits to the open and friendly "we play nice here" culture Schmidt helped to create. "If you interviewed our youngest employees (who came from) other firms, they sought us out because of that." He says that while TEG is well known for being a good design firm, "There are other firms that are doing more cutting-edge design than we are, but they're not as enjoyable places to work."
If you consider the firm's design philosophy, however, it would be difficult to argue that the team does not produce innovative work given their measures for success. "Our philosophy is born out of the need. There are no stylistic, preconceived notions,"explains Joe Connell, principal. "If ever someone opened our portfolio and said, 'Now that looks like an Environments Group job,' then we've probably failed. There should be an Environments Group quality, or maybe an approach, but stylistically, it should look like, feel like, smell like the client's brand image and identity."
Presenting the positive experience begins with matching up the right team members with a new client, first at the principal level, then with the remainder of the staff. "When we get involved with a client, the first thing we do is figure out who's best suited to handle the assignment," Schmidt explains. In some cases, it's very clear-cut; in others, it's either not so clear or the team might make a switch later. More typically, he says, one principal will augment the services and the delivery of another.
For example, he says that Connell is very knowledgeable about issues of brand and is also the resident expert in sustainable design, while Schmidt's personal skills set is in the arena of programming and master planning—the pre-design services. Often, principals will join each other's team as a specialist on a project. Case in point: Connell says he's had brokers come to him and ask, "Will you work on this law firm?" to which he
responds, "Sure, but I'm going to bring Cary in because he's done a lot more work on law firms than I'll ever do." He notes that with egos in check, they are able to come up with good ideas without the threat of a turf war, and since it's a top-down mentality, this attitude is seen across the studio.
"We don't have a lot of privacy here," Connell says. "Things are done out in the open. It is a place where teams get together frequently and everyone is on multiple teams. We do not have lines of practice, so we have a lot of crossover," a strategy that differentiates TEG from many traditional design firms. "Our accounts that correlate to directors and principals are really based on good chemistry and the interest in relevant experience for the nature of that business."
Another distinction that sets TEG apart is the level of involvement by the principals. Johnson says that this often surprises clients. "They've been down this road before where they met the principals at the interview and never saw them again. And when the experience (with TEG) is over, they're always surprised that they saw the principals and senior people through the whole process." He admits that the balancing act can be tricky, because being involved without squelching or being overbearing on the design team's creativity and entrepreneurship is a delicate balance. But as Berndt points out, bringing in senior level expertise that is often unique and different can help bring about the right solutions.
As a principal and senior director, Johnson is a senior client contact and maintains overall administrative responsibility for guiding projects within
established qualitative and quantitative parameters and expectations.
Johnson is a leader in the design community. He is a past president of the International Interior Design Association and also served as the vice president for Government and Regulatory Affairs. He also guides the Illinois Interior Design Coalition as a member of the steering
committee. For over seven years Cary served as a member on the Illinois Department of Regulation Board of Directors for Interior Design. In 2003, Johnson was the honoree at the Illinois IIDA Chapter's annual leadership breakfast recognizing his lifetime achievement as a practitioner
and supporter of the design community. He is also on the FIDER Board of Directors as the liaison to NCIDQ.
Johnson holds a Bachelor of Science from Iowa State University and currently assists
the school by participating on the Dean's Council, College of Design. He has also recently presented on at the IIDA
Mexico City Design Congress, NAIOP and NeoCon. Johnson joined the firm in 1994. He has brought insight and extensive experience to many of the firm's largest and most prestigious engagements.
The Environments Group303 E. Wacker Dr., Ste. 800
While that may be a difficult pill to swallow for those who seek to quantify and measure the results of their work on, say, productivity, Connell agrees and says they've yet to find a way to effectively measure it. "It's really an under-funded question," he says. What can be measured effectively is satisfaction and dissatisfaction of the space. Connell explains: "In post-occupancy evaluations, sometimes the greatest influencer on satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the space is commute time. It has nothing to do with our work. We can't influence that."
What the four principals at The Environments Group can and do have influence over is the way they run their firm and the people they bring on board to serve their clients to the best of their collective abilities. For TEG, that means keeping a fresh perspective by nurturing diversity and creativity within their team.
"There aren't many rules here," Connell says, "but one is to maintain intense curiosity. We want people who are really curious. We're sixty-something people, and if our next hire is just like so-and-so, we haven't added anything. Every time we add somebody here, we want to bring something new to the table."
Chicago, IL 60601