When creative consultancy firm IDEO went to Perkins+Will for help moving their offices from Evanston to Chicago’s West Loop, it was design at work on many levels. And like the creative process itself, finding an appropriate space for the design and innovation experts was a dynamic, revealing journey.
IDEO had a strong connection to Northwestern University, so Evanston made sense as an initial base of operations. But one of their goals in moving was to immerse themselves in Chicago’s design community, and not just its architects. With Perkins +Will’s Joe Connell, the principal in charge of the project, they started scouting out locations in and around the Loop.
“What we kept coming back to was, what makes an IDEO space? Does it look like, feel like IDEO?” Connell said. When they got back to the firm’s basic tenets of the practical over the pristine, he said, “We realized this is probably not high-concept. It will be like a found object that we make right.”
Their initial canvas included real estate on Michigan Avenue, but their ultimate choice was guided by a cozier appeal: they wanted to cook. By including the need to remove cooking exhaust, the team precluded any middle-of-the-stack high-rise offices. And they were priced out of many penthouse or ground-level options. “It seems like a simple thing,” said Connell of the fire code concerns homecooking created. “But it really changes the dynamic.”
IDEO’s guiding principles included, “the space itself should not be seen as a precious artifact, too gimmicky, too stylish or hyper-congruent to the programming plan.” Their reputation may be sterling, but IDEO’s tastes gravitate toward incidental messiness—honest exploration over sparkling precision. “They’re more junkies about the design process than they are about a clean outcome,” Connell said.
That meant collaboration would be at the heart of the new building’s programming. Instead of heads-down workspaces, project rooms would become the basic building block.
They found a loft building in West Loop that, with some work, could be engineered for roof space without interrupting office flow: It was important to IDEO that they not separate their workforce onto two floors as they had in Evanston. Rooftop access provides striking views of the city, as well as a place to grow fresh vegetables, without fracturing the main workspace.
That decision served multiple purposes. Most importantly, it encouraged the team to commit to a project-based orientation, since the only way they could pay for the roof was to give up individual workspaces. Connell said. “It was like committing to being a monk. You can’t go back.” He added.,“But they decided, ‘if we live and die by projects, let’s commit to project life.’”
IDEO worked collaboratively with Perkins+Will throughout the process. Connell said they surmised his role to be “getting the space to an eight, and then you guys get it to a ten. They said, ‘Exactly.’” IDEO members instituted democratic measures like voting on furnishings with anonymous Post-it notes to customize their space.
It was a process of discovery for Connell, too. “We learned how to get out of the way,” he said.