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Podcast 9 July 2019

LINcast: The Battle for Office Design - Functionality vs Aesthetics

LINcast host Gabe Duverge is joined by Ramsey Madsen of MTRL live from NeoCon 2019. The pair discussed the present challenge of balancing aesthetics with functionality in office design and how Madsen strives to do so in his work for some of the world's biggest brands.

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Full Transcript

Gabe Duverge: Hello, and welcome to the latest episode of the LINcast, I'm your host Gabe Duverge. This is a program about linear actuation solutions and topics that are related, and today, I'm recording live from NeoCon 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. It's Wednesday and I'm joined by Ramsey Madsen, the president of MTRL out of Park City, UTAH. Ramsey, thanks so much for joining me today. I really appreciate having you.

Ramsey Madsen: You bet. Pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Gabe Duverge: So we're talking today, it's the third day of NeoCon, and today we really wanted to talk about the battle, from a design standpoint, your background, Ramsey, between designing for aesthetics and for functionality. And you have, I was going through your website before you came in, and I think you do a great job of balancing those two in your work, and I know you've worked for Google. You've worked for several companies that a lot of people listening would recognize. Companies that value those aesthetic, but also experience. So when you're working with, you know, whether it's a big customer or a small customer, when do you see that battle playing out, and how do you work out between functionality and looks, and which wins in those situations?

Ramsey Madsen: So I was thinking about this over this week with NeoCon. I think a designer is always approached with that balance between those things. In a way, Rem Koolhaas and would possibly disagree with the premise of the question, meaning a true confluence of function and design is the proper aesthetic, right? There is, when you strip away all of the ancillary ornamentation and so forth, you get to a pure version of the solution and that is, by definition, beautiful, right?

Gabe Duverge: Of course.

Ramsey Madsen: So, I think Rem Koolhaas is famous for starting presentations with, "I know you may believe that this building is ugly but at the end of the presentation, I'd like to revisit that question with you." And I think that's a hint or nod towards, "If it's a battle, maybe there's more refinement that needs to be done, to get to a solution that is both functionally beautiful and aesthetically beautiful." That can come together if time and other things permit. So, I don't feel one should battle over the other, although I get that. There are often projects we have to deal with that. For me, placing myself in an empathetic position for my customer, for the end user, is critical, and that serving that individual, that group, is preeminent. So, I have to lean on function as being a must-have for a success. And that if time and refinement permits, I hope to get to that confluence of those two factors.

Gabe Duverge: And I'm glad you mentioned that, because I think that's ... I'm sure everyone who comes into any project ... It is about the stakeholders. It's about what they want out of, first and foremost. So, when you're going through a project, how do you piece together what's important for a customer, for someone you're designing a project? Is there a process that you like to conceptualize, kind of a regular deal that you go through?

Ramsey Madsen: I'll answer that this way. I was at a design conference earlier in the year, and one of the speakers gave us a postcard and said, "Write the three things on here that you want to work on this year that help you do exactly what your question is. How are you going to better serve the individuals you design for? And I'll send that to you in a couple of months, and help you remember," right? And so the card showed up and I had three things on there. One was create every day, which I know for designers, sounds ridiculous and self-evident, but there are days that go by where you are lost in the work of doing something that's not creative. So, I've been reminding myself to create every day.

Ramsey Madsen: The other is focus. So, a thirty-thousand foot focus and a detailed focus. That can create whiplash for a designer. You're zeroing in, you're pulling back, trying to see down the road where you're going, zeroing back in. It's difficult, but it's super necessary.

Ramsey Madsen: And then, the one to your point is: empathy for the customer. So, always trying to place myself in an empathetic position to who's going to be using it. So, I spend a lot of time in my mind, in a narrative way, trying to be my customer, right? Take on the different attributes of the customer and get to that.

Ramsey Madsen: So, I know that's a roundabout way of answering that question, but ultimately, I take a human perspective on it. So, to your earlier question, "How do you balance those things?" Well, if the individual arrives at their workstation and it's beautiful, and it functions, check, check, right? Bingo. If it's beautiful, and really, really difficult to work at, I can't call that a success.

Ramsey Madsen: So, empathetically, I start at a place of function. It must do the job. Individuals and friends have criticized me a little bit for a statement I make that "furniture is a tool, and if that tool does not work, then you really have a lot of explaining to do". And if it's purely revered on aesthetics and does not meet the measure of the function of the tool, you have missed, in my book, right? But there are others that disagree with that.

Gabe Duverge: No, of course. I love how you mentioned that. That's a great way to think of it. So, when you're going through - you know, we're talking about customers and function obviously coming first - when customers are coming to you and talking about function, what are they saying these days? What's important to a big customer or a small customer in what they want out of you and out of a space?

Ramsey Madsen: Especially with current trends, it's a bit of a pendulum, but with current trends, I believe the human element of individuality is super important. And what we're doing, is we're moving to, sadly, some real estate models and furniture models that are somewhat dehumanizing, if we're not aware of how to solve for that. So what I mean by that is, if I take pictures from half a century ago in IBM, those floor plans look very similar to today. Okay, we have gone out and around-

Gabe Duverge: And we're back to where we started.

Ramsey Madsen: And we are in some ways, I fear we're headed towards card tables and folding chairs. We can't do that. And what that is, fundamentally, could be dehumanizing. So free address, is a, what used to be called hoteling is now an interesting way of solving for more real estate. Are we balancing that with the human element of what that feels like to an individual? So, I feel like where we need to go, and what we need to continue to keep, is that empathetic view of the individual, how they feel, and how they function, and why it serves both people. One, happiness and productivity for the individual, productivity for said employer and others, right?

Gabe Duverge: Of course.

Ramsey Madsen: So, I think those priorities can align but I think we need to be careful of looking at where we're going with the element of humanity that we all are there working together and providing the right way to do that. So, if the function of the furniture brings an ability for someone to feel more complete at work, and satisfied, and successful, check, check, check, right? Those are all good things. If we're stripping away the elements that help them feel connected, collaborative, in the workplace, then we've got things to do, right?

Ramsey Madsen: So, some of those band aids that we see ... I see a ton of headphones at work, why? Well, because yeah, they like music, but no, it's deeper than that. They're trying to focus. So, where are solutions to help people focus? That's really, really important. And if we can create environments and furnishings that help support that process then I think we're doing a good job. If we're pulling away those things, then unfortunately, we're losing some of that. So ...

Gabe Duverge: That all makes sense, and goes right into what I want to ask next. And you mentioned that saying you have, that "furniture is a tool," and if the tool is unusable then we've got work to do. So, when you have a piece of furniture or a desk application, that you're like "man, that looks really good," but it doesn't work, what do you do to ensure that doesn't happen? And if it does happen, what are some steps that you go from there?

Ramsey Madsen: So, ways to ensure that it doesn't happen. Well, designers enter a process. The quicker and more often that you can iterate to a solution, the better, usually. There are certainly examples, I think, of furnishings that were overcooked, overdone, over refined. Typically, in the, maybe in the aesthetic realm, I don't know if it's possible to over refine something from a functional perspective. I mean, yeah, ultimately it is, right? You spend too much time, you miss the timeline, but I think iterating is a really big one. Multiple people, weighing in perspectives, so, including more people, collaborating to look at something, listening to introverts as much a extroverts, right?  Dominated by people like me  And an introvert could get run over and not have a voice in that…

Gabe Duverge: And that back to what you mentioned about the headphones.

Ramsey Madsen: Absolutely

Gabe Duverge: If there's a person who's very collaborative and very social in the workplace, they're going to look at a piece of furniture differently from a person who's locked in. They're coding, they're locked in for the next eight hours.

Ramsey Madsen: Exactly. If somebody's having a meeting next to you on a thirty by sixty desk, you're now invited to the meeting.

Gabe Duverge: Whether you want to be there or not

Ramsey Madsen: So, that's something people do. Barriers and other things to just control the space, right? So I think iterating is the way to answer that question and including a lot of stakeholders in a collaborative way. That's usually how it's been done for a long time and that's still tried and true.

Gabe Duverge: Cool, cool. That makes sense. What are some elements that are important for you for functionality in some of the projects you're working on?

Ramsey Madsen: So, right now, we're being asked to do a lot. These are common things. We're being asked to often help convey brand into the furnishings, and not the brand of the manufacturer. The brand of the individual, of the company. The architect is also wanting a stake in the aesthetic control and direction of a space. Rightfully so, they're required to a job. And so, they have an interest in the furnishings.

Ramsey Madsen: When you think about the stuff that's going to populate a space, it has a big visual impact and that's important to be able to control that. So, the studio, with the unique, kind of custom and tweaked needs that we do often with furnishings and products, is essentially doing that. So, step one is meet those functions and aesthetic requirements but two, are we supporting brand?

Ramsey Madsen: When we did Vans Shoes, their headquarters, a couple years ago, the priority was function, and other programming needs must be met, and reinforce a skate culture and other larger elements of Vans Shoes brand. And that was only going to happen if we broke away from a regimented view towards-

Gabe Duverge: Preconceived notions, yeah.

Ramsey Madsen: So, we did that, it was a success. They're reordering, they're growing, it's fantastic. And it's not because of furnishings, it was success in the ability to reinforce brand for that. So I think that's a really big piece of it, along with the other things we talked about.

Gabe Duverge: That makes a ton of sense, yeah. It definitely seems like, especially when you're talking about these big brands, their space almost is an extension of who they are, so, whenever you're looking through the magazines and everything so that it makes a hundred percent sense, completely agree. Wrapping this up, this has been a great conversation. So, looking to the future, how do you see movement being incorporated in the office and are there some areas where you feel like it can help improve the work environment away from a desk and kind of integrate things together?

Ramsey Madsen: So, yeah, this is an interesting one. I think movements and articulation of objects is actually just going to become more and more prevalent. And it's because of the stuff I spoke to about individual. So, it's meaning that a product tailors itself to your current work mode, your size, you the human, and how you want to fit and work that day. So, as we create more and more spaces, for different types of work, not just a work station, not just a meeting room, but third, fourth, and fifth places, depending on if you're focused work, if you're collaborating, if you're web-conferencing, whatever it is, then the expectation of the individual is that those places will adapt to my needs. And that, for me, probably means more emotion.

Ramsey Madsen: More movement, more articulation, and other things. Plus, machines and the devices are getting smarter, and you're able to deploy them in a more human way, or moving with technology on our body, to places, and that can communicate. So you think about the robust environment that's possible, those preferences, those goals, those things can move forward with me from one place to the other, and that's a beautiful thing. I mean I think that makes someone feel more connected to and to their work. So to me, I think that's a nebulous answer to your question. I don't know if there's really a boundary of more places we're taking motion to. I think that's really exciting and fun.

Gabe Duverge: Of course, absolutely. No, no, that was a great, great answer. And thank you so much for sitting down with us.

Ramsey Madsen: You bet.

Gabe Duverge: This has been a fantastic conversation, and I want to thank everyone for listening to this episode of the LINcast. You can listen to more episodes at . Thanks for listening, guys.


About Ramsey Madsen

Ramsey Madsen

Ramsey Madsen is an innovative and pragmatic designer focused on furniture design. He joins with manufacturers’ in-house teams to improve their competitiveness and reinforce their brand. He also independently develops products that he licenses to industry. His clients include Arcadia, Indiana Furniture, Knoll, Allsteel and Paoli. His designs have received several industry awards including the Best of Neocon Gold Award and I.D Magazines Honorable Mention. He is also responsible for several U.S. patents. As a father and an avid outdoorsman, Ramsey enjoys balancing his work with his family and enjoys being in the wilderness of Park City, Utah.

Ramsey brings a unique synthesis to furniture design. He has developed a holistic approach to design that reaches from the earliest stages of needs assessment through final product engineering. With a strong design background and a deep understanding of processes, he assists his clients in creating pragmatic solutions of value. Ramsey continues to develop products for his clients that utilize his expertise in the following areas:

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