By Peter Carey for OfficeInsight
It’s hard to believe that the last great economic reset in the country, as well as the design industry, began ten years ago. By all accounts, both the manufacturing and design sides are finally back to business as usual, but some changes, both subtle and significant, have happened along the way. On the design side, the brain-drain of designers and project managers with more than ten years of experience in the field continues to have an impact on the quality and schedule of construction projects both large and small. Technological changes in our personal devices as well as products for commercial interiors have gotten smarter and more efficient. Advances in lighting, lighting controls and A/V equipment are on an upgrade schedule that moves significantly faster than most construction schedules; it is not inconceivable that any piece of electronics that is specified for a commercial project could be one, two or three generations out of date by the time it finally gets installed.
The A&D community depends on their manufacturer representatives to keep them up to date with changes like this. For architects and designers, it is no longer just about learning what’s new in the industry, it’s increasingly becoming about what products and materials have changed and why. The “why” is becoming the critical component in the message now. Years ago, vendors would tell designers the story of the creation of their new product introductions with the hope that designers would pick up on that story and eventually communicate it to their clients. Sort of like the game of telephone. That vendor’s message could be adopted and tweaked by the designer in their client presentation to suit the project and specific application.
Now, with client expectations at an all-time high, thanks in part to interior design projects being featured so prominently in television and social media, design firms have had to adjust their staffing to align with project budgets that may not accurately reflect the amount of time and coordination required for a typical commercial interiors project today. Time saving technology devices and computer programs perform better than ever, but they do not work miracles. With a significant increase in European manufacturers entering the American market and new local manufacturers developing niche markets, the number of messages delivered to each specifier is overwhelming.
As a resource librarian and owner of Streamline Material Resourcing, a NYC-based company that controls the flow of product information for design firms and large facility departments, both my staff and I see this type of disconnect unfold every day. No longer is it just about connecting a designer with a relevant product; it is increasingly about solving a specific need within a project, which can be a much more complicated task. Each specific design need may be judged differently by the array of stakeholders involved in each project; that is a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Many vendors hold fast to the idea that all they must do is promote their new product introductions and eventually all client needs will be solved once enough products are presented to them, but the one thing that has not changed in this industry for many decades is that this is still a relationship-based business. Clients and designers buy from people, not from companies.
Vendor product presentations within design firms have evolved over the years as well. Designers have less free time during the day and can rarely commit to seeing just one vendor presentation at a time. In addition, each designer’s attention to a particular product or application has become fragmented to a point that they rarely store information for future projects. Their work is about solving specific problems within their current project only, meeting their deadline, and moving on to the next project. Most of today’s interior designers have not been mentored to the degree that previous generations were mentored; many have not been trained to anticipate recurring issues, be they around value engineering, sustainability and energy use, or even changes in local building codes.
Access to products via the internet have eliminated binders for the most part, unless they contain actual samples of textiles, wallcovering or flooring. Google has given interior designers confidence, but does not always deliver the most accurate or the most relevant information to them. Many times, I have seen internet searches backfire on designers looking to specify something “new” or innovative. Just because something can be found online, it doesn’t mean it can be delivered to their project on time and on budget.
How best to solve these issues? I think the first is for both designers and vendors to have empathy for the other’s position. Vendors are being pressured by their managers to keep their numbers up however they can, and designers are being pressured by their project managers and design directors to keep the project profitable and deliver it to the client on time. I think in both instances, vendors and designers can get distracted along the way and lose sight of the goals of each project. I have heard many interior designers say, “I used that product on my last project; I want to use something new for this one.” In many instances, that is a valid remark, however it also raises a time-saving question from a management perspective – what is best for the project? If a designer knows a product performs successfully, why take the risk and specify something new? On the other hand, vendors need to understand that especially in commercial interiors, small, medium and large orders happen every day. Cultivating relationships, in the long run, will serve them better than just looking for the big fish.
One of the best way my company enables manufacturers to spread their message in the most effective manner is with vendor tradeshows. These are regularly scheduled events that happens in each office, which is curated by the resource librarian and features a number of non-competing manufacturers that make products that will resonate with each design firm’s way of working. The tailor-made aspect of vendor tradeshows are critical; just as many people think they could manage a materials library full of thousands of separate items, the fact of the matter is that finding the right balance of materials and services that each firm is currently seeking out is harder than it looks. In this industry, persistent vendors often get rewarded with a design firm’s attention, even though the vendor’s products may not be relevant to the firm’s current workload.
The other thing that vendor tradeshows do is bring the materials library within each firm to life. Since most design libraries now contain more product samples than binders, they are more a source of design inspiration than product information. Having a vendor in front of a designer facilitates the relationship aspect of our industry, and also allows them to communicate the “why” of their product in much more realistic and practical terms of what that designer is working on right now.
For certain design institutions, I have also found a more passive approach of getting a manufacturer’s message across is needed. By setting up a display of one particular manufacturer’s product in a prominent place of their office, and notifying the staff with an email that includes a photo of the display along with an editorial description, it offers a level of engagement for the more introverted among us that may not be comfortable in more social settings, or may have been out of the office during the tradeshow.
If there is anything the economic downturn of 2009-10 taught us, it is that both the manufacturing side and the design side of the business can operate leaner and more effectively. The reality is that none of us can do it alone. We depend on one another, often in ways that cannot be measured or made fully conscious. Everyone has their own proprietary ways of doing what they do, which is what makes this such an exciting industry to be a part of, but individuals “winning” projects is not the goal; a successful project is the goal for everyone involved.