Kay Sargent Believes Design is Not Just an Art or Science—It’s a Necessity

May 20, 2020

HOK’s Kay Sargent has spent decades designing for government agencies and seen the impact design can have to change people’s lives, and believes it still can if we take a holistic approach to problem-solving.

Kay Sargent is no stranger to national emergencies. The Senior Principal and Director of Workplace for HOK in Washington, D.C., was there—literally, in a room full of Federal Protective Service (FPS) agents—when the news of the Oklahoma City bombing broke on April 19, 1995. She and her team were part of a task force to determine where to locate and how to design secure, regional emergency management control centers around the country. On that day, everything changed.

Subsequently, Sargent and company strongly advised the FPS that these emergency management centers should not be built in dense, highly populated areas that might be considered targets and require evacuation, such as New York City.

Although their suggestion was initially met with resistance, she says the day after the 9/11 attacks, HOK received a call thanking the team for their foresight that prevented the FPS from opening a location in the Twin Towers.

(Photo: Kay Sargent, Senior Principal and Director of Workplace for HOK, believes in the power of design to impact lives through a holistic view that embraces both the art and science involved; Courtesy of HOK)

She also spent the better part of two years in New Orleans following the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005 helping various government agencies assess the damage and figure out how best to rebuild.

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“You want to talk about one of those things where you feel like design absolutely has an impact and that there’s a higher calling? I think there are several things like that in my career that have been these ‘a-ha’ moments that have really made me appreciate what it is that we do,” she recalls.

These catastrophic events had a profound impact on Sargent’s illustrious career and signaled “a call to action that led me down a different path and not only showed the art of design and the science and design, but also the necessity of it, and how it really can be a very critical element in everybody’s life.”

COVID-19: Impacts on Work

The role of design moving forward is more important than ever, as the global COVID-19 pandemic has shut down entire industries and threatens to cripple economies. Questions about the future of work and healthy buildings are being asked more frequently in light of people working from home amid office closures, self-quarantines and social distancing.

Photo: HOK’s design of OpenText’s new Bay Area offices promotes employee well-being and facilitates interaction through an open plan that features stunning views, smart lighting and temperature controls, careful acoustic planning, treadmill desks, hydration stations, recharge pods, and premium food facilities. Angular design elements pay homage to the company’s hexagonal logo; Credit: Emily Hagopian

Sargent suggests there are five immediate impacts to the workplace that are unfolding during this crisis:

1. Rethinking of distributed work strategies.

Every company requiring its staff to work from home part- or full-time during this pandemic is learning whether their work strategies are prepared for it or not. Some will realize they were ill-prepared while others might discover they need to make adjustments once the dust settles.

“It’s kind of a trial-by-fire situation,” Sargent observes. “You can’t look at this as the ideal scenario under which to test this, but it’s absolutely testing the system.”

2. Reassessing the amount and type of space needed.

Sargent says some of the benefits from so many people working from home is that they’ll realize they’re able to do it, but also, they’ll miss going into the office (and many are already). “What we have always advocated for is a strong [work-life] balance,” she says.

“There’s something really great about being together in the workplace and being with your coworkers.” As a result, many companies will reassess both the amount of space and the types of spaces they need, and add more space dedicated to gatherings, collective socializing and ideation, she says.

3. Increasing AV/IT readiness.

Did we really have the necessary tools to support our staff during this crisis? Did we have sufficient capacity? Did people know how to use them? Were we able to meet remotely? These are questions companies are asking and will need to address going forward.

“There’s going to be a massive test and a boost to that system, and you’re going to see where the weaknesses and the strengths are,” she explains. One client indicated they are redirecting their entire travel budget for the next six months and investing it into their IT budget, Sargent notes.

4. Reassessing operational cleaning protocols and mechanical systems.

“I don’t think anybody’s looking at wellbeing as a ‘nice-to-have’ anymore,” Sargent says. “This is an essential thing. If your workforce is not healthy, they cannot work.

This [pandemic] is proving how important it really is.” As such, she says mechanical and ventilation systems will need to be tested and effective cleaning programs will need to be put into place to keep employees healthy and safe.

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5. Sifting through misinformation.

Amid the upheaval to the way people work, Sargent predicts there will be many who make decisions about the types of environments they put people in based on misinformation. Case in point: fear of spreading germs will likely tempt companies to return to private offices and move away from the open office plan.

However, Sargent explains how cleaning crews are instructed not to touch items on desks in private offices, so they rarely get cleaned. In open plan environments with a clean-desk policy, on the other hand, workstations are regularly cleaned and, therefore, more sanitary. “There are things that people might do that they think are smart but are actually counterintuitive or not necessarily the right thing to do,” she says.

“And our job is to put out the right information so people can make intelligent choices and be informed.”

Rethinking the Way We Design

During the course of her 35-year career, Sargent has seen the dramatic evolution of design from the adoption of CAD software to the implementation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) to her role as the Director of Workplace at HOK, where she works with clients to redefine how, when and where their people work, working in tandem to support a holistic design approach that integrates an organization’s people, processes and technology.

Her work with various agencies from the Pentagon to the Secret Service and everything in between have challenged the commonly held notion that government projects are “sub-par” and shaped her perspective on the impact a well-designed space can have on people. Whether it’s a courtroom, a holding cell, a press briefing room, a lab testing facility or even a gun range, these projects gave Sargent the opportunity to work in an array of scenarios and have instilled in her a great sense of pride.

Photo: HOK designed Equifax’s new five-story office to support its expansion as a global fintech leader while strengthening its deep roots in Atlanta. A research-based approach led to the design of a flexible, high-tech office and strategic tool to help the company attract and retain top talent; Credit: Eric Laignel 

“When you’re helping your government that is creating spaces not only to help the people that are [working] there, but the citizens as a whole, there’s something just very satisfying about doing that,” she says. “And I think there are certain groups that are very progressive and actually leading the way for the industry, such as the Workplace 2020 Initiative, the Design Excellence program—initiatives that are really striving to kind of take it to the next level.”

In the private sector, the idea of wellbeing and diversity are at the forefront of design thinking. But Sargent observes that much of the work being done doesn’t necessarily impact the people that need it the most. “Diversity is this notion that we have different people in a space,” Sargent explains. “Inclusivity is making them feel welcome and setting them up for success so they actually can stay and function and be well.”

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As such, HOK is focusing on answering questions such as, How do we design for underserved populations? How do we create spaces that are truly responsible? To answer them, the firm focuses on research to push the boundaries of what’s possible and to uncover the best possible solutions for clients of all types.

“We’ve always sort of focused on the art of design, but there is absolutely a science to what we do and when we understand the science of that, the right solutions become self-evident,” she says.

In other words, an effective workplace design strategy isn’t just about giving clients what they want. Rather, Sargent likens designers to parents considering dietary choices for their children. “My job as a parent is to know what the right options are, understand their preferences and give them something that they will not only enjoy, but it’s healthy and good for them,” she says.

Photo: OpenText, San Francisco; Credit: Emily Hagopian

Some would be quick to describe this design approach as “human-centric.” However, Sargent suggests that our current predicament may be the result of our being too human-centric in our approach for too long.

“We’ve thought about ‘What’s best for me?’ not necessarily what’s best for the planet, and I think we need to really think much more holistically,” she says.

Of course, designers need to consider the needs of occupants and what’s right for them. “But we also need to think about what’s right for the business, and we need to think about what’s right for the environment and what’s right for the financial health of an organization,” she explains. “Because if an organization isn’t financially healthy, you’re not going to have a job and that’s not going to be good for you.

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As a result, she says that recognizing the interdependence between these seemingly competing needs and creating a balance is an essential approach to success.

Envisioning the Future

HOK is a firm spends a significant amount of time future-casting and investing in forward-looking thought leadership. While Sargent says a great deal can be learned from the past, “benchmarking often is the best way to get to average.”

Instead, HOK makes a concerted effort to apply lessons learned, what’s applicable to each client and then helping them understand who they are, what makes them unique and make them aware of what may be looming on the horizon. Sargent doesn’t believe any organization can be fully “future-proof,” because no one can predict the future with any certainty, “but you can absolutely be future-ready,” she says.

Photo: Equifax, Atlanta; Credit: Eric Laignel 

To prepare for the future, she says it’s important to not only help clients come up with great design solutions or identify potential challenges they may face, but also, it’s about asking what kind of legacy we want to leave for subsequent generations of occupants and designers. Sargent says she loves working with the younger designers and emerging talent at HOK as they participate in cross-mentoring, which leaves her inspired and impressed.

“What is the mark our generation is going to make?” she asks. “I really hope that if we start to address some of these bigger issues that are important and that [we realize] it’s not just about the art of design, but it is truly about embracing the power of design and what it can do for social good and the greater good.”

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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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