For years, design schools primarily took a numerical approach to space planning: How many people need to be accommodated? How many square feet will be allocated for each employee and their desks? How many people will a conference room hold?
“From our point of view, that really gets it all wrong,” says Joyce Bromberg, chief design officer at Convene, a firm that designs and services premium places to work, meet and host inspiring events.
Having spent years at Steelcase developing what came to be known as community-based planning, Bromberg has a unique perspective on where workplace design has come from and where it’s headed.
Although numbers have always been (and always will be) part of the equation, they’re no longer the primary variable they once were. Rather, the industry has awoken to the fact that human-centered design is the more effective approach to creating spaces that enable people to live, work and play at their best.
“It’s really about using the techniques that come out of cultural anthropology, which are about asking people questions about what they do in the context of where they do it, about preserving what is best about what they do and looking at how they interact with the objects around them and their tools—whether those are analog tools or digital tools—and then asking them to engage in a participatory design activity that allows us to tap into what we think of as their explicit, passive and latent needs,” Bromberg explains.
It’s about bringing all of the stakeholders to the table to understand their needs and delivering a design plan that satisfies all of them without detracting from each other. In other words, the process involves collecting qualitative and quantitative data, synthesizing it into a set of actionable design principles and then prototyping early, she says.
Bromberg points out that Convene’s CEO Ryan Simonetti is so committed to continuous improvement that he’s willing to prototype with bricks and mortar to ensure any flaws are worked out before deploying a concept. She learned early in her career to “fail early and fail often,” a principle Bromberg and the firm use to continuously improve their process and product—all to the benefit of the end user.
“A lot of companies say that they practice human-centered design,” she observes. “I can honestly say Convene practices and lives and dies by a human-centered design methodology.”
A New Model for the Workplace
Coworking isn’t a novel concept, but it’s growing rapidly. In fact, coworking spaces grew almost 62% in the top 20 office markets in the U.S. between 2017 and 2018, according to a Yardi Matrix report. While shared, flexible office spaces are popular and, in many cases, attractive, not all of them are created equal.
When Bromberg joined the company a little over nine years ago, Convene considered itself a meetings company that understood the importance of ongoing collaboration in the workplace.
In retrospect, Bromberg says the company’s focus on meetings allowed it to hone its skills in terms of hospitality and technology to create an infrastructure that supports its mission today as “the business class of coworking.”
“We see our canvas as the built environment and understand that we can create premium experiences in not only the workplace, but also in how people live and play as well,” Bromberg explains. “We can bring what we brought to other domains using our platform of amenities and services to create best-in-class experiences.”
She notes Convene’s clients are typically not start-ups, but rather viable businesses with 10 to 100 people that are looking to take their workplace to the next level. To ensure the space is aligned with the client’s culture, Convene gives them a cultural assessment tool and provides fit-outs that correspond to one of five cultural types.
“We are very much about recognizing their brands, and we understand deeply that it’s about the way they work and not the way we work or the way we might think of things,” Bromberg says.
A Labor of Love
Bromberg’s journey into the design world began at the age of 12 while she accompanied her mother to a furniture showroom. As they were choosing furniture for their living room, Bromberg says, “I had a feeling that this was what I was meant to do.” It took another 20 years for her to fully recognize it as her “aha moment,” but the experience was formative, nevertheless.
She went on to study art history in college in the late ’60s, got married and had two children, and moved to California with her husband, Carl, in 1975. It was during that time she realized “it was time for me to figure out a career.”
Bromberg went back to school and took every course Pasadena City College offered in design. After two years, she declared herself an interior designer. “Someone once said about me many years later, ‘Joyce thinks she can do anything, and this is both a blessing and a curse.’”
Her self-confidence—and a little bit of luck—landed her a design job one of her professors was vacating, which marked her official start in the business and furthered her design education through experience.
Later, her husband accepted a position at Michigan State, which brought Bromberg to nearby Grand Rapids where she began working at Steelcase. It was there she began to design interiors and was given the opportunity to work on the company’s NeoCon showroom for a number of years. (In 1992 her “Breaking Patterns” exhibit won Steelcase a best showroom award).
It was a pivotal time in that Bromberg and her team began to define knowledge work and created videos identifying the effect that the miniaturization and portability of technology would have on work.
[Related: Smart Design for Shared Spaces]
“We introduced Bob Luchetti’s idea about activity-based planning, which took much longer than we anticipated to be accepted practice,” Bromberg says. Her pioneering work was largely inspired by concepts that came out of Xerox Park, where anthropologist Lucy Suchman used video ethnography to study how people at the San Francisco airport were doing their jobs.
“[Suchman was] the first person that I know of that used ethnography to understand work process, which set me on a path to understand that as a designer I had a much greater responsibility than making things look good. They also had to perform and be in service of the process that people were doing because it could make a difference in that performance,” she recalls.
Fast forward to 2010. Convene co-founders Simonetti and Chris Kelly were expanding their business to a second location when they went shopping for furniture in Grand Rapids. As they walked into a Steelcase building Bromberg and her colleague, Rick Vangelderen, had designed, the two partners asked, “Who did this?” Shortly after, Bromberg produced a design strategy for Convene that has become the blueprint for what the company is today and led to her joining the firm.
She describes her time at Convene as “the best part of my career and truly a privilege for me to not only help design great spaces and create strategies here, but also to be part of forming a corporate culture that is everything I always wanted for a culture to be and to allow work to be about love.”
Love may be an unusual word in a business context, but as Bromberg points out, “if you don’t love how you work and if you don’t love the people that you work with, then I would tend to think it’s not worth it.”
Bromberg, for one, is thankful for this labor of love and the journey she’s been on.
Back to the Future
Looking back, what Bromberg is most surprised about is how long change can take. Her time at Steelcase helped her see into the future in terms of where workplace design was headed, but “we kept waiting and waiting for what I now understand to be the disruption that technology has caused in the world, and the effects of that disruption are so far reaching that I think we’ve only just begun to understand how deep the significance of the change is going to be.”
Rather than fear or resist the changes happening in the industry and the world at large, Bromberg is hopeful about what technology will do to impact design—a topic she discussed during her keynote address at Design Connections in Palm Springs, CA, this October.
“I think what technology will ultimately result in is our ability to customize in a way that reflects or that satisfies humans’ desire for things that are beautiful, things that are novel and that are fit to them and what they are doing,” she says.
“In short, I’m really optimistic about where things are going at least design-wise, and I see a bright future for designers in general, because designers are the kinds of people who can envision what will be and then take whatever it is they’re working on to the next level. And for me, that’s just what’s needed now and is a great formula for success.”
How Convene Works
Joyce Bromberg is chief design officer at Convene, a firm that designs and services premium places to work, meet and host inspiring events. The firm currently has locations in major metropolitan cities, including Boston, Chicago, London, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
Through strategic partnerships with prominent commercial landlords, Convene helps design, build and manage workplaces and amenity spaces. It uses a human-centered design approach to deliver engaging tenant experiences built upon top-tier hospitality and technology platforms.
From inspired interiors, farm-to-desk food service (including executive chefs), dedicated, in-house IT/AV support and on-site concierge services that rival the best hotels, Convene leaves no detail to chance.
“It’s very much about giving our customers what they want, but also surprising them by anticipating what they might desire,” Bromberg says.
For more information, visit convene.com.