Dc Hero

Designers Get Involved and Inspired at Design Connections

Sept. 28, 2022
Latest i+s event brought design practitioners and suppliers together in Chicago for two days of education, discussion and networking—and a creative exercise for a good cause.

At every Design Connections event, there’s a saying attendees will hear repeated more than once: “This is not a spectator sport!” That’s because this intimate, invitation-only event was designed to get interior designers and suppliers together to hear from industry experts on the trends influencing the industry; to meet one-on-one about the latest product solutions being offered; to discuss the challenges and insights they share as professionals during in-depth roundtable discussions; and to take part in a creative activity that benefits a local charity.

In other words, this is a hands-on experience that opens the door to meaningful partnerships that can lead to lasting change. Case in point: at a recent Design Connections, a group of healthcare interior designers discussed their projects (and what kept them up at night) and realized many were having the same issues with durable coated fabric failures in their recently completed healthcare projects.

They decided to dive deeper into the issues and to find solutions. Within the next few months, the newly formed group collaborated with fabric and furniture manufacturers, upholstery distributors, an environmental services and cleaning/disinfection expert, as well as those from several key trade associations. From these partnerships, the Durable Coated Fabric Task Group (DCF TG) was “born.” (Learn more about the DCF TG here.)

This is just one example of the positive results that can happen when great minds in design get together as they did recently at THE MART in Chicago.

Presentations That Inspire

Design Connections kicked off with a powerful and challenging keynote address by HOK’s Director of Global Workplace Kay Sargent, who explored neurodiversity and inclusivity in the design of the workplace. Sharing data from years of research HOK has conducted on the topic, Sargent said the global firm’s interest in neuroscience and design began with a simple question, “How do we accommodate neurodivergents in the workplace?”

“Neurominorities have neurocognitive functioning that diverges from dominant societal norms,” Sargent explained. “They are wired differently and often their differences can be extraordinary strengths in the workplace.”

But when individuals with impairments find themselves in spaces that don’t support them, it results in a disabling effect. Examples of this in the workplace include:

  • Sensory distractions (sounds, smells, visual clutter)
  • Cognitive distractions (loss of focus, discomfort)
  • Loss of engagement and productivity (presenteeism, poor recall, stress, burnout, dissatisfaction)

The problem isn’t limited to a few, either. In fact, one in seven people are considered neurodiverse, yet fewer than 50% know it, Sargent noted. As such, she underscored the importance of designing workplaces—and by extension, any interior environment—with neurodivergent people in mind. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), physical, cognitive and social exclusion can occur at the point of interaction between the individual and an environment where there is misalignment between them.

“There is a compelling human and business case to be made for ensuring we approach the design of workplaces to help address mindfulness, health, safety, wellbeing and inclusivity,” Sargent added.

Tuesday morning’s general session by StantecAssociate and Interior Design Jill Dexter about short- and long-term flexibility and adaptability was equally relevant. Citing real-world examples of recently completed projects by her global firm, Dexter noted that “When the design of the environment is highly intentional, it creates spaces that encourage learning and development” in educational facilities and community centers, for example.

Interestingly, a survey by Stantec revealed that a majority of employees are looking forward to returning to the workplace because they miss face-to-face collaboration and social interaction, but the design of most offices hasn’t given them sufficient flexibility of choice. Key findings from the survey include:

  • Employees do not envision the dramatic change to the workplace that the industry anticipates
  • Employees are generally satisfied with their current workplace, but …
  • They want to see the workplace change to allow for more choice
  • Expectations and needs vary by industry

Discovering Solutions and Sharing Challenges

Attendees were also invited to meet with manufacturers for a series of 1:1 “speed dating” meetings that introduced them to the most recent product solutions and services they offer as well as to develop new relationships and deepen existing ones. These brief, but impactful meetings allowed designers to get up to date on what’s new as well as provide suppliers with insights into the projects their customers are working on in real time.

Attendees spent the afternoon in groups as part of a series of roundtable discussions hosted in showrooms and meeting spaces throughout THE MART. These in-depth conversations gave designers the opportunity to share their perspectives on the day-to-day challenges they face and provide valuable feedback to suppliers on their products.

Networking and a Night of Giving

Every Design Connections closes with an awards dinner and a special Night of Giving, a fun, creative and hands-on activity that benefits a local charity. During dinner, local artist Bojana Ilic, founder of Bojitt, created a striking, one-of-a-kind work of art (while providing a subtle nod to the evening’s post-dinner activities) that will be auctioned off to support Chicago-based Designs for Dignity. Ed Hanlon, project manager at Designs for Dignity, addressed the dinner crowd prior and explained how the organization helps transform nonprofit environments through pro bono design and in-kind donations to empower lives through the power of design.
For the awards ceremony, attendees were given the opportunity to vote for their favorite product solution they saw during the day, and this event’s winning Product Award went to Turf. The i+s staff also kept its eyes on attendees looking for someone who wasn’t afraid to ask the difficult questions and who was actively engaged in conversations throughout the event to hand out a prize affectionately referred to as the Attendee Disruptor Award. The winners of this event’s Attendee Disruptor went to Design Connections alumnus Douglas DeBoer, founder and CEO of (aptly named) Rebel Design, and newcomer Denise Alexis, CEO of DESIGN-1-1.
Immediately following the awards, international expressionist performance painter Elliott of Artbeat Live addressed guests via video feed with a visually captivating live performance painting set to music. Attendees were then invited to participate in a creative team-building exercise in which they replicated one of Elliott’s paintings—but with a twist. One designer in each team was selected as the designated painter and had to recreate the painting without seeing it and relying entirely on the directions of their team members.

It was an evening and event not soon to be forgotten, and all of it would not have been possible were it not for the support of our incredible event sponsors:

About the Author

Robert Nieminen | Chief Content Director

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of Architectural Products, BUILDINGS and i+s, sister publications of Smart Buildings Technology. He is an award-winning writer with more than 20 years of experience reporting on the architecture and design industry.

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