I was at peace at Land’s End. Having awoken at 5 am, I, along with two fellow classmates, was basking in the early morning beauty of San Francisco’s nature. What lay before us was a long stretch of ocean, rock, and the prominent red of the Golden Gate Bridge, dazzling against blue skies in the distance.
How can one not sigh in deep contentment when greeted by this view?
Sitting on a tree, with a sandwich in one hand, friends beside me, nature around me, and a beautiful view before me, bliss enveloped me like the blanket I left behind on my bed. A fuzzy, cozy blanket that, as the ocean breeze had me huddling ever deeper into the warmth of my jacket, I was starting to yearn for.
We hesitated leaving this wonderful getaway, but had to rush to an event held by Minerva, our school, in conjunction with Gensler, a global design and architecture firm. The event, “Invisible by Design,” was meant to give us insight into how designers and architects think, specifically when it comes to spatial design.
At first, I didn’t really understand the event title. How could one design something invisible? I was of the opinion that spatial design, as the term suggests, required the use of physical space and built environments.
I went in not knowing what to expect, but came out of the session feeling as enlightened as Buddha after first discovering true liberation from worldly suffering. Gensler led me into an exploration of the invisible nature of design and I was awed and inspired by the discoveries that I made.
For our first activity, we went to the Ferry Building at the Embarcadero to do some “emphatic research” on design and space. What’s “empathic research”? Well, according to the handy little guidebook that Gensler provided, empathy is the foundation of a human-centered design process. Thus, “emphatic research” entails deeply understanding humans in order to better design for them.
A seemingly simple concept: in order to design for people, we need to understand people — what they want, when they feel comfortable, when they feel safe, when they feel at peace.
The first things to catch my eye, beside the beautiful blue sea, were the Ferry Building’s store layout and open spaces. But I knew I had to dig deeper and infuse more empathy into my research, so I climbed up to the floor above, and observed from a bird’s-eye view the meandering routes of the patrons below.
I noticed how relaxed people were in this space. Despite the crowds, there were no signs of tension or discomfort; people browsed at their leisure, occasionally getting distracted by different goods. The Ferry Building can’t be mistaken for anything but a tourist destination, but it is a very pleasant one. It offers the sense of being on holiday and who doesn’t love holidays?
We then headed to the Gensler offices, where we were given a very illuminating presentation on the process of bringing a design concept to reality — observation of both space and people, empathic research, prototyping, and ultimately building the finished product.
For the longest time, I’ve had the preconception that spaces were designed with cost, convenience, and efficiency in mind. Aesthetic beauty and design were important, but, I thought, only for the purpose of being eye-pleasing. I never imagined that design could influence emotions.
I was wrong.
The designers at Gensler showed us that space can change human behavior; it has the power to dictate our emotions, creativity, and even happiness.
They showed us a university design brought to life and the construction of furniture and tools for a K–12 class. Both projects had something in common: collaboration and socialization were the main activities carried out on these campuses, so their spaces needed to be designed with that in mind.
Perhaps I was biased because of my innate introvert tendencies, but my ears perked up when the designers stressed the importance of having one’s own personal space to focus and have some privacy. A personal hideaway to gain a moment’s relief from the hubbub of the world? Sounds excellent to me!
These concepts — the importance of social and personal space — really resonated with me. Living in a residence hall shared by 160 students, the expectation and reality is that everything is largely communal. It was a shock to my system when I first arrived, but after seven months, I like to think that I’ve adapted to this shared living environment.
Even so, part of me definitely misses the feeling of retreating to a private space at the end of the day, just to kick back and relax in the glory of peaceful solitude.
I had the impression that my desire for personal space was due to a failure to adapt to such a communal one — and maybe there’s truth to that. But after the Gensler event, I felt comfort in the recognition that having personal space is important and that the right space can really do wonders for one’s emotional, mental, and even physical well-being.
Happiness, productivity, serenity, comfort.
Melancholy, listlessness, tension, unrest.
Our emotions may be internal, but whether we’re aware of it or not, they are influenced by our external surroundings.
I think about the wide-open vistas of Land’s End juxtaposed against the confinement of my current living space, and can’t help but wonder: given the constraint of space, is it possible to design effective areas for both socialization and privacy? Is it possible to design areas which foster happiness and serenity?
I think these types of questions are increasingly relevant in our ever-crowded world, especially in high-density metropolitan areas. Society needs to recognize that our environment really does shape our moods, behaviors, and ultimately who we are and how we live our lives.
Gensler, for example, has a lovely office, which is a far cry from the average cubicle farm:
Office Space #1.
I really like the open space board for tacking pictures and projects.
Office Space #2.
The natural light and exposed brick adds a rustic sense of nature to the modern design.
Office Space #3.
A welcoming area for dining. Let’s take a moment to appreciate those hanging pendant lights.
Huge kudos to the people at Gensler for giving us Minerva students the chance to explore the meaning and value of spatial design, and to tour their lovely offices.
This experience left me feeling inspired and gave me a whole new perspective on the invisible nature of design.