Allsteel Design Process: Staying Ahead of the Curve in the Ever-Evolving Workplace

Architizer Editors Architizer Editors

Allsteel, a manufacturer of cutting-edge workplace environments, crafts products that were unheard of just a decade ago. A few examples: Hedge, an angled partition wall with built-in shelf specifically designed for leaning on; Rise, a modular lounge made of tiered, rectangular seats; and Mind-Share, seating with a super-high backrest that doubles as a screen. All are offered in an array of colors to achieve an extra pop. For the Iowa-based brand, innovation doesn’t mean introducing complicated gadgets or high-tech forms, but rather simply addressing user needs.

“We are not designing space-age futuristic things that may or may not ever come to fruition,” Allsteel Regional Architectural and Design Manager A.J. Paron-Wildes said recently. Rather, new designs come about by “looking for the gaps in today’s environment — what’s missing that we can provide as an added benefit or feature to the space.”

Above and at top: Clarity design team from BMW DesignworksUSA (Left to Right) Bianca Fleischer, Johannes Lampela, and Patrick McEneany.

For Allsteel, innovation is actually about paying attention. Hedge and Rise are part of a new furniture typology designed to accommodate impromptu meetings, while Mind-Share creates spaces of temporary privacy in an open environment. Because of continual advances in technology and shifts in the dynamics between employer and employee, the workplace has evolved at an exponential rate, and as a result, the modern office needs to be more spontaneous and dynamic than ever before.

Allsteel is aware of this need, having examined these changes with the help of its Workplace Advisory Team. Unlike other companies that either turn a deaf ear to its clients’ needs or those that charge a fee for advisory services, Allsteel offers a holistic consultation program from start to finish — that is, from long before the company’s industrial designers begin sketching new products to long after those products are put to use.

“Everyone’s opinions are important,” Minnesota-based Paron-Wildes told Architizer, and so these opinions are a priority from step one. “It begins with our designers going into the field. They’ll say, ‘Okay, AJ, I’m coming to Minneapolis. I want to talk to people about tables’ or any product category they want. I won’t know in advance what they’re looking for, but by the time we’re done, we do know.”

Gather design team from HOK and IDa Design (Left to Right) Louis Schump, Annie Bergeron, Mitch Bakker, Jennifer Wammack, Steve Hargis and Tom Polucci

After pairing Allsteel’s designers with an audience of end users, dealers, and designers who discuss their personal experiences and needs, the Allsteel team incorporates this feedback into prototypes and drawings. “A year later, when clients see the finished product,” says Paron-Wildes, “they think, ‘Wow, they listened to me. My input matters.’”

This communication is a two-way channel for educating both clients and Allsteel’s staff that is ongoing.

“Our job doesn’t end when our products are installed,” said Jan Johnson, who heads Allsteel’s Workplace Advisory Team. By continuing to consult with customers beyond the installation process, Allsteel is not only able to educate clients through the new environments, but it also assesses the design’s effectiveness and modifies it, reorienting the approach when necessary.

Allsteel manufacturing plant in Muscatine, IA.

“When companies transition from one environment to another, there are sometimes big obstacles to overcome,” said Paron-Wildes, which is why Allsteel stays on board to ease tensions and dispel misconceptions over new designs. She recalled an instance when a progressive client faced difficulty transitioning his staff members from a conventional setup — with individual offices — to an open-plan arrangement.

“We helped support and give them the educational tools to design a space that could meet their needs and adjust their perceptions. Their concerns about losing the walls went away,” Paron-Wildes said.

Allsteel’s Workplace Advisory Team provides a forum for discussion and education, so the company’s designers and its clients can assess how workplace changes affect their design requirements. The team examines what spurs creativity and productivity in specific settings rather than prescribing a “one size fits all” solution.

Gather design team from HOK and IDa Design (Left to Right) Jennifer Wammack, Steve Hargis and Tom Polucci

“It’s this idea of building an ecosystem of infrastructure that can continue to grow with the company,” said Johnson. “We have no preconceived notions about what’s universally applicable or what a client’s solutions should look like. They should be unique to that organization, which has its own nuances based on leadership and style.”

Through this process, the company has gained an understanding of the modern office, allowing it to craft cutting-edge offerings that are specifically tailored to business needs. “Our goal is to always be adapting, evolving, morphing; responsible, nimble, agile,” said Johnson. “Even how you work with us is constantly evolving.”

Read more articles by Architizer

How MMB’s Bob Borson Handles Graphite Poetry and All That Convey s

Architizer continues to explore how architects experience the emotional realm during the process of creation, presenting the points of view of some of the profession’s most actualized practitioners. Today, Saxon Henry, author of Four Florida Moderns, interviews Bob Borson, AIA, LEED, AP — principal of Malone Maxwell Borson Architects — who experiences architecture with an…

© Scott & Scott Architects

A+Award Winner Q+A: David Scott on Intuition, Experience, and Instinct

Scott & Scott Architects won the 2014 Jury Award for the Architecture +Self Initiated Projects categ ory with Alpine Cabin.