Buildings and Places, Design, Sustainability, Technology

One of my colleagues recently asked me this question, and it certainly threw up some interesting answers. Design is defined by a changing society, but I think the reverse is also true: throughout the years, design has challenged society and proposed new solutions and concepts. Since I graduated in 2014, these key trends have continued to influence design.

“The rise of technology has sounded the death knell for the traditional office”

Technology has become a big part of today’s global society and it’s not hard to see why; smartphones and other portable devices have become so integrated into our lifestyles that they have changed the way we communicate with one another. Now that we can stay connected anywhere and at any time, it has enabled us to work flexibly, effectively changing the physical workplace environment and working culture. Open-plan layouts have become popular to accommodate a hot-desking policy, supported by co-working spaces such as project areas and informal meeting areas.


As society has gradually become more aware of its impact on the environment, there has been a continuing shift towards achieving sustainable design. Maximising natural light, incorporating nature themes, repurposing existing buildings and using furniture made from sustainable and recycled materials are some common examples of this trend found in workplaces. Most recently, technology has helped to take this further employees at The Edge in Amsterdam can control their own light levels using an app on their smartphone. And at Alphabeta, workers can cycle straight into the building, encouraging green commuting while bringing cycling into the work experience.

“Most people ditch their light-hearted, spirited nature for a more professional representation of themselves at work”

Vibrant wall graphics, astro-turf flooring, gaming areas and an 87-ft spiral slide were just some of the playful elements in an office that I once visited whilst at university. Five years later, this trend of playful design remains popular; companies realise that it brings greater comfort and happiness, fosters creative thinking and breaks down social barriers among employees. In today’s competitive business world, playful design also helps to express company culture and an employee’s sense of identity. At National Grid’s office in Warwick, internal partitions built by colourful pipes playfully reflect what the company does while an interactive exhibition upstairs invites both staff and visitors to learn more about the company’s history.

To get more insight into how design trends and the process of design has changed from a designer’s point of view, I asked Terry Gunnery, director at Strategy Plus London, for his views on the subject.

Sarah: How has the process of design changed?

Terry: Technology was very primitive in the 80s; much of the design was drawn out using drawing boards and only then were PCs just starting to come in. AutoCAD enabled the delivery of projects to speed up and become more efficient, saving time and money for both designers and clients. It was being used as a production tool rather than a design tool.

Although we still continue to use the RIBA design stages today, projects have a higher demand for delivery now that we’re so connected via emails and portable technology  everything is instant and we need time to design. There’s also more competition; initially there were more architectural practices than specialist companies such as DEGW (now Strategy Plus at AECOM) because interior design wasn’t deemed fashionable. Now there are many more specialist practices, contractors and furniture designers that we are competing with.

Frank Duffy, one of the DEGW founders, was influential in how buildings are now designed; he brought modern concepts and flexible ideas to the profession.

Sarah: Is sustainability going to get more or less important in the future?

Terry: Sustainability should be more important. Thirty years ago, the thinking was there but sustainability wasn’t always incorporated into projects as there was no ‘driver’ for it. This wasn’t always the case however  we completed a project for BP’s office in London, where we incorporated reclaimed timber floors, tables made with recycled coffee cups and recycled furnishing fabrics.

Sarah: Do you think technological progress is going to slow down or speed up, and what does that mean for how it’s incorporated into design?

Terry: Technology will speed up, although it’s a double-edged sword for designers. It has allowed us to create more sophisticated concepts, such as what you might see in a typical Zaha Hadid Architects project; however, it should be used to realise design and not to design – finding that balance should enhance creativity. 

“The world of work has changed profoundly in the last 30 years and it will continue to change over the next 30”

Having read a lot about this subject, and particularly after my conversation with Terry, it seems certain that flexibility is going be a key theme in the workplace design of the future. It’s been suggested that while technology continues to provide more and better flexible working possibilities, the workplace will gradually become a network of places and people, rather than one set location. Will meetings become holographic? If so, does this mean our work will all become virtual?

If sustainability is going to become ever more important, with further expectation from governments, businesses and consumers alike, buildings will need to be designed to be durable, ergonomic and flexible, so that they can be readily used for other purposes. Writing for Green Building and Design, Brian Barth says, “The most successful workplaces of the future are those that do not pretend to know what the future will bring, but are designed to adapt to changing conditions”.

Although some may shudder at the thought of playful design in the workplace, designers now use this trend in a more refined and personal approach to convey the client’s heritage and values to employees and visitors – for example, vintage artefacts and graphics were used to decorate Coca-Cola’s London headquarters, bringing to mind their brand’s long history.

Playful design, as mentioned earlier, helps to express a company in a competitive business world. Now that networking tools provide prospective employees a wider range of opportunities, the relationship between the employee and employer has been reversed culture and engagement are critical tools in attracting and retaining talent,” says Tom Brialey in Workplace Insight.

While more Gen Y and Millennials the generations who can relate and adapt best to today’s office trends begin to dominate the workplace,  I believe that we’ll see these themes continue to develop and influence the future of workplaces.


Sarah BowenSarah Bowen is a graduate designer at AECOM’s Strategy Plus practice in London. 


Originally published Mar 2, 2016

Author: Sarah Bowen