I am always so interested in beautiful and inspired commercial/ corporate/ workplace design. Maybe because I’ve done so much of it over the years, and perhaps because it is in this discipline where I notice a real gap and a lack within our industry. Good commercial designs are few and far between, unlike residential, retail and hospitality interiors. So why is it so?

Is it because commercial design is too restricted by the budget and function in comparison to other sectors? I’ve seen many brilliant designs come out of tight budgets – this is precisely when a designer needs to be ultra creative, as he or she is not able to rely on those things that a generous budget can afford such as interesting finishes, amazing furniture, tricky lighting, creative consultants, artworks etc. This is true for good design in any genre. As for the function, I honestly don’t see how commercial design has a function that is more restrictive that that of a fine dining restaurant, a hotel or even some retail spaces. Am I right?

So what else could it be? Is it those quick turnaround times? I’ve personally worked on a project where I was engaged by a client 4 weeks before they had to move into their new tenancy. {And just for the record, I am NOT doing that shit again!} I was lucky to have had a great relationship with my client and also the head contractor {and still do!} but the process was extremely stressful to say the least. However, the end result was really successful, despite the super tiny budget {talk about a winning combo – no time or money. Oh boy! Again, refer previous comment in brackets}. I’m sure that fit outs in other sectors would have to be done just as quickly at times. I’m thinking of retail here specifically.

So what else…? Do most ‘good designers’ end up specializing in non-commercial sector? Maybe so, I don’t really know. They might be thinking – screw commercial interiors, it’s too hard/ boring, those type of clients don’t get it, the budgets are crap, etc. Am I right? I don’t want to necessarily be right by the way, I’m just trying to work this out by “talking” out loud and hopefully hear some of your thoughts. Which bring me to my next point – what is a good designer anyway? I wrote  back when I first started this blog which was about the similarities between , and this idea that good designers’ role is to extend their client, much like a personal trainer does for their clients. Designers simply cannot rely on a “perfect client/ brief/ budget/ type of project”. We have to create our own opportunities by taking responsibility for every project. And I am not talking here about over the top try-hard commercial design, cause there’s plenty of that going on already. Seriously – why are some commercial interiors {particularly for advertising agencies or more creative businesses} so OTT and completely irrelevant? If you wouldn’t want to live there, why would you want to spend upwards of 8 hours working there? I just don’t get it.

Oh boy, what has started as a little post about a beautiful workplace project I wanted to share with you has turned into a massive rant. So I’ve decided to just go with the rant this time and I’ll show you that project on another occasion. In the meantime, I would absolutely love to hear what you guys think, regardless of whether you are a professional designer or not.

x dana

{collage of images from yellowtrace image library}

About The Author

Dana Tomić Hughes
Founder & Editor

Dana is an award-winning interior designer living in Sydney, Australia. With an unhealthy passion for design, Dana commits to an abnormal amount of daily design research. Regular travel and attendance at premier design events, enables Dana to stay at the forefront of the design world globally. While she is super serious about design, Dana never takes herself - nor design - too seriously. Together with her life and business partner, Dana is Boss Lady at Studio Yellowtrace, specialising in Design Strategy, Creative Direction and Special Projects. The studio takes a highly conceptual and holistic approach to translating brands & ideas into places & experiences.

9 Responses

  1. Avatar

    Wow Dana you have really hit the nail on the head! I have been having precisely the same thoughts for quite some time now. Lately I have found that good commercial design is sooo hard to come by… I have given up trawling through the local mags… there are such extremes of mediocre to completely out of control fitouts with absolutely no reference to the company in which they are trying to reflect… I close the mag feeling quite disheartened… perhaps it is a good thing as it has forced me to look for inspiration elsewhere… or maybe have I lost it… am I the one with my blinkers on??? I constantly hear in our office that if our client was better or if we had a bigger budget our life / design would be sooo much easier. As with Dana, I am a massive believer in creating our own opportunities by taking responsibility for every project.

  2. Avatar

    This is great. I literally think about this at least twice a day.

    As a commercial designer myself, the client/designer relationship is such a hard thing to get a handle on. It’s an elusive topic that usually ends up being a discussion on what ‘service’ we provide as designers.

    Are we the facilitators of the decorative arts or merely ‘the brush’? Perhaps, we can be the creator, given the client parameters and goals are merely the tools?

    At any rate, I dont think it has anything to do with budget at all, as most hospitality designers would disagree.

    I think at the end of the day it comes down to process and the action of engagement. There will always be the ‘bad’ and the ‘good’ companies, some of them will care, and some wont. It just depends on what you’re willing to tolerate. (and how your contract is written) I think most of that is about to change though. The importance of design is becoming more relevant than ever in the business world.

    Steve Jobs figured this out a long time ago.
    1. Dont treat your users and clients the same.
    2. Dont expect the users to tell you what they actually ‘want’ and ‘need’.
    3. Create meaningful experiences, even if you sacrifice some initial function.

    We are adaptable, we are shaped by our environments, not vice versa.

    thanks for the post!!!

  3. yellowtrace

    Elisa & John,
    Thank you both for your comments. I really appreciate you taking the time to give me some feedback, and especially for letting me know that I am not the only person out there with these thoughts!
    The questions remains though – what can be done to change the current state of affairs? I think that a healthy dose of discussion and acknowledging that there is a problem is a good start. It’s been said that a “problem well stated is a problem half solved”. Perhaps we are already on our way…?
    x dana

  4. Avatar

    Good point. However, to try and counter my claim a bit, sometimes problem solving is less about finding the ‘bad’ and acknowledging the ‘good’. I say this only to point out that the lack of transparency for the ‘good design’ on behalf of the clients is mostly what’s missing in our industry.

    We need non-designers speaking out about how design has changed their lives.

    Maybe it’s not a ‘design’ issue after all, maybe it’s an advocacy issue!?!

  5. Avatar

    Dana – rant time…..
    Heard alot about you, so time to put electronic pen to paper. A hot topic indeed. Clearly there isnt one simple answer here but dont beat yourself up over it because Australia is no worse, and in many cases, far superior to many other countries in this area. The problem is that the only work getting published is the shiny trendy stuff. Moreover there is bugger all discussion about what constitutes good design anyway. Perhaps the key is in the fact that it is called commercial design and very few clients care one poofteenth compared to the creator of the design. Lets face it. While you and me and a few others find joy in making a workplace productive and a pleasure to be in, most clients actually want bums on seats, no maintenance costs, it done quickly etc etc.

    Why? Because, despite the barrage of BS from the intellectuals, no-one has actually come up with any tangible evidence to support the argument that a well designed office contributes to the bottom line. Retail and Hospitality have clear indicators (people in the shop), as does architecture (why do you go to most cities if not to look at the buildings) and a lot of product design (ipad, ipod etc)but people fundamentally still come to work regardless of their workplace. I had a very illuminating conversation with the CEO of a major Bank recently talking about another Bank’s very public fitout. The press would have you think that it was attracting staff to work there which may be true. However his response was that if anyone chose to leave his bank to go to that one simply because of the fitout then good luck to them. This speaks volumes about the care factor in the ultimate decision makers – or perhaps their ability to judge.

    I dont think that the quality of commercial design has anything to do with time or budget. Indeed there is probably an inverse relationship like the one between taste and money. I think it, instead, boils down to three things which are related.

    1. Designers have failed to show the value in good design so other factors have filled the void.
    2. As a consequence, Designers have lost control of the project to other players like PMs and builders
    3. As a consequence the only point of difference becomes fees which get lower and lower. Imagine a residentail designer working on commercial margins! Hah!

    Why is beautiful & inspiring commercial design so scarce? Because it isnt respected or valued by people who have influence.

  6. Avatar

    Dana, as someone who works in a “corporate” environment, I definitely find myself asking that same question.

    The number of times I have had to wait in a whatever reception, only to be taken into a boring meeting room with a melamine table and some rip-off-Eims-like-chairs astounds me. I mean, we’re talking big offices in big buildings with kick-ass views in the city which must cost millions in rent! I think there is definitely an attitude of the view doing the work, rather than any semblence of good taste or design in these circumstances.

    Away from reception, I currently work in a tiny little cube which was designed with some lofty ideal of the paperless office in mind without actually taking into account the fact that lawyers who work in litigation need shelves to put lots of paper and folders on because there are always thousands of documents and they all have to be in (usually multiple) hard copy. The result is piles of files and boxes, mismatched shelves and general clutter all over the office. I don’t know how this phenomenon can be explained without thinking that perhaps the workplace has been designed the way the designer would like it to be, rather than in a way which would favour the user…. And I believe the designers of this workspace won a stack of awards for the design – go figure.

    I know I’m not a designer and therefore don’t have the same insight into what constitutes “good” design as you do, but as users, surely the fact that our experience of design is not functional, beautiful or inspiring should count for something…?


Leave a Reply