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An Analog Solution in a Digital World

Nov. 16, 2017

Visual Magnetics launched in 1992 with its revolutionary magnetic paint. While the entity has released several products and brands over the years, Foster, its most recent innovation for architects and specifiers in the workspace and education sectors, enhances the concept of traditional whiteboards. With the idea of fostering work, play, identity, and décor all within one working environment (hence the name), this “intelligent wall covering” offers smart technology within a dry-erase solution.  

In 2011, the company moved operations to New York from Massachusetts to further immerse itself in the interiors market and the design world. The impetus for Foster came when Visual Magnetics was working on a space within the WeWork headquarters. “We were really inspired by the new concept of a workspace,” explained Tori Deetz, vice president and creative director at Visual Magnetics. “I was still thinking of a workspace as [sets of] cubicles. Around 2012 is right when the revolution of rethinking the workspace started to take off. People had less walls to work with, so the ones they did have had to become more useful. Plus, people no longer had their own offices, so every area now has to lend to collaboration. People were still learning how to best use space in a shared workspace.”

When considering the usefulness of the WeWork space, the Visual Magnetics team noticed the whiteboards weren’t being used at all. In conference rooms, sticky notes were posted everywhere; when a new group would come in after a meeting, they would have to clear the previously used notes. “We wanted our innovations to be applied to product—to tools and accessories in the workspace,” Deetz added. 

Foster builds upon the concept of a traditional whiteboard with a dry-erase surface covering an entire wall. In addition, the solution comes standard with InvisiLock magnetic technology and customizable surface design options to help companies maintain their branding throughout a space. “The [basis] of Foster is a dry-erase wall covering,” Deetz said. “Some clients choose to print very fine dot grids on the surface to keep thoughts and ideas organized. With the magnetic [function], which comes as a standard embedded feature, our accessories lock level into place.” The Polarity Collection, designed in collaboration with Visibility, comprises accessories that can be mounted to Foster surfaces using interlocking magnetic polarities. The pieces work in conjunction with this technology to eliminate the need for hardware. 

a bonus solution
Because sticky notes are so popular in the workplace but aren’t the most viable—or sustainable—tool for brainstorming, Foster comes with its own version of the traditional office supply with its Workflow Collection. The modular add-on packs integrate Visual Magnetics’ materials technology with multi layer dry erase capabilities for use with Foster wallcoverings. “We reinvented the concept of the sticky note,” Deetz noted. “[Workflow] is offered in all shapes and sizes, with layers that look like note paper. It’s the same concept of ideation that sticky notes have but helps the process with layers—dry-erase magnetic layers that go on top of wallcovering. It is
a dream for people who love color-coding and sticky note brainstorming. And they are reusable, which cuts down waste.” 

To test the beginning phases of Foster—particularly its Workflow options—in the education sector, the company donated materials to the Design for Social Innovation (DSI) MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York, which applies design-centric thinking to social change. The product offered a more viable solution when planning a project than the countless sticky notes plastered to walls, Deetz recalled. “[DSI] is such an ambitious program and we really believe in it,” she said. “We wanted the opportunity for students to just dive into our product. We thought this was the perfect program, back when we started in 2012, to donate something to. They instantly took to the walls. The class assignment was finding sustainable alternatives, yet they were working with sticking notes they would throw away. There were hundreds of them all over the walls; they were creating waste and weren’t able to keep track of progress. We used the same materials technology with our new layers. At first we were replicating the sticky note with a square shape, but then we realized we can do all kinds of things.”

fostering the future
While the initial version of Foster was released at Wanted Design 2015, Visual Magnetics has been fine tuning the product to make sure it is best suited to meet the needs of today’s workplace. The “fully defined” version was recently unveiled. As the minds behind the innovation garnered feedback from people using shared workspaces, they noticed interactions with the surface and its features varied, so they honed in on specific details. “Being within and inspiring a new type of workspace was a great way to explore and update the old model [of offices],” Deetz noted. “We were working from the start with a new, open, forward-thinking space.”

As the product gains traction in the industry, it continues to help foster ideas for other companies. For many end users, Foster is a solution that spans across an entire operation. “We’re now moving from one-off jobs to more full solutions,” Deetz explained. “Really large, reputable consulting firms are rethinking the way they’re doing their workshops now that they have our material, which expands the possibilities of their curriculums. We are customizing things on a weekly basis for companies to keep their walls up to date. We really like to think of how far we’ve come: We started with materials, then became a product, and now we are trying to facilitate people’s work. That’s the whole idea of Foster.”

While seemingly every workplace is complete with digital tools, Foster provides an “analog” solution that is now a tried-and-true tool, even with the general population’s reliance on technology. “We see ourselves as an analog version of online collaboration,” Deetz said. “Whiteboards allow real-time collaboration, but they haven’t been updated. [We often] go into workspaces that have giant digital whiteboards, which is the traditional dry-erase concept but actually a big computer. We ask our clients how they like it and usually they say they barely use it. They have these giant systems but use the whiteboard in the corner.” With Foster, she noted, the whole wall can be used as a whiteboard. “It is the perfect balance of being functional and taking things to next level.” 

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