Imagine you are an interior designer. Now, imagine you have the ability to defy structural logic, explore extraordinary volumes of architecture, and have access to thoughtful materials and tactile surfaces free of budget constraints. Sounds pretty amazing, right?
Almost anything is possible in the world of virtual design. In the first half of this year, I was given the opportunity to design the Haworth international virtual showroom, which includes 116 work settings and space solutions based on various organizational cultures in Asian and European contexts. It was an ambitious but exciting attempt at virtually presenting our international furniture portfolio from our point of view.
Of course, virtual design has always been available—as a tool—to help clients visualize and select concepts before jumping into full proposals and production. But for years, virtual design struggled to achieve widespread consumer adoption, until now.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the world to elevate the importance of digital experience—with everyone who can work remotely doing so from the safety of their own homes.
“What began as reaction to the limited access to physical environments has actually pushed the design world to explore uncharted boundaries and expressions.”
Head of Design for Asia Pacific, Haworth
This article highlights the differences we experience when designing spaces virtually versus real life—and the process I find myself in along the way.
COVID-19: The Transformative Impact on the Design World
One key takeaway from the pandemic is the global realization that the environment around us matters. What you see when you are in a space and where you spend your time profoundly affect not only your behavior, but also how you feel. Virtual space enables the ability to create synthetic and hypothetical environments that make us feel or sense an overall experience, even when we are not physically located within the space we see.
Designing for the Senses
Even in a virtual experience, designing for our senses draws parallels to designing for the real world. Our senses send information to the brain to help us understand and perceive the world around us—from safety and fear to delight and discontent. These observations of how people or teams behave and respond to their senses influence how we develop workspaces—creating environments using thoughtful materials, colors, and textures.
How we feel and behave is instinctive when we enter a space. When designers develop concepts for a virtual environment, it is natural to apply our memories and knowledge of reality. Using what we know of real life as inspiration, we look to inject a sense of magic into the virtual space so that it is both visually striking and stimulating.
Materials provide feedback for our senses—giving a space a sense of purpose and character—ultimately influencing our mood and behavior.
In the Haworth international virtual showroom, we only rely on our visual senses to experience space. Across the 5,000 square-meter floorplate, materials were selected to bring out the associated visual and acoustic characteristics that simulate an inviting, warm, and comfortable environment, while also addressing the physical distancing measures of our workplace.
Even in early concepts, there was a strong focus to research and develop hues, sub-structure surfaces, and the visual tactile properties of antimicrobial materials associated with the health and safety needs necessary to do work today. To get a sense of these needs visually, we incorporated aesthetic concepts to tell a story that ultimately works to invoke an emotive reaction to the virtual environment.
For example, we implemented biophilic design and upcycled materials for connection to nature and sustainability values. We also included back-lit reeded glass to create a space for imagination and mystery. Virtual design allows for expanded exploration of interior architecture elements and settings.
One of the first positive aspects I noticed while spending more time working remotely was the increased number of kingfishers—medium-sized, brightly colored birds I see on my morning runs near my home in Singapore. When connecting this delight to my work, I asked myself: Can virtual design contribute, if not drive, to a more sustainable future?
As much as I feel the exhilaration of designing the next in-person showroom, I cannot help but wonder about the waste we accumulated every time we ripped out building materials left behind by the previous tenants of a space.
Whether designing for virtual spaces or reality, I hope to drive my design intentions and activities into making things that last—adhering to a kinder overall impact on our environment and communities.
Virtual design allows designers and businesses the opportunity to explore limitless possibilities for the workplace. In the Haworth international virtual showroom, the complexity and scale of the virtual floorplate is only made feasible by imaginary architecture consisting of a growing sequence of open-plan and enclosed spaces. It is here we continue to explore new emerging work norms, as our reality evolves to work from anywhere.
The virtual experience platform allows us to further demonstrate the flexibility and agility of our Organic Workspace approach—our perspective of space design built on our global knowledge and design point of view. With this work, we can further use virtual experience as a testing ground to explore space design, behaviors, and new work norms through simulated scenarios that allow us to crisscross the boundaries of a work-from-anywhere ecosystem that includes work, home, and third places.
Imagination, Playfulness, and Humor
Is the real world more valuable than the virtual world? Can virtual experience replace the real world? In most cases, there is a certain resistance and a nostalgic longing to hang onto our physical reality and experiences. Perhaps like with life, as we mellow and learn, we do not need to make extreme choices that are all or nothing.
I like to think that we can make the most of what is in front of us now, even with the limitations to our real experiences during these times. With a little imagination, creative collaboration, and experimentation, we can create new spaces where every detail has been carefully reviewed and addressed.
After all, space is like music—it appeals differently to different people. By combining research and practice, we can better understand how people use space for different needs. We must work to translate this science into a canvas of space planning that combines relevant materials and hues to support current and future needs.
I often seek to include humor in the spaces we design by incorporating some form of fauna placed in context—nothing makes you smile like a furry or feathered friend. This sense of play reminds us to laugh at ourselves—providing a humanness to our lived experience, even virtually.
Take a moment to learn more and experience the Haworth international virtual showroom.