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Ken Baker

Episode 59: Design Thinking: Everything You Need To Know, with Ken Baker

With experience in both office interiors and product design, Ken Baker understands the inside and out of the architecture and design field. Ken has been a Gensler Principal for 20-years and is currently serving as a member of the Gensler Management Committee.

As a Co-Managing Principal of Gensler’s Southeast Region and past Co-Managing Principal of Gensler’s U.K., Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) and Gulf Regions, Ken is considered a global expert on workplace design and planning, particularly for law firms. He has designed over 10 million square feet of corporate headquarters and offices for law firms and financial institutions, and is one of Gensler’s major Global Account holders, managing relationships with clients such as Sidley Austin, LLP; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP; JP Morgan Chase, and Barclays Capital worldwide.

Ken is also a leader in Gensler’s furniture and product development practice and frequently speaks about the power of design at industry events around the world. A fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and a member of the Board of Trustees for the National Building Museum, Ken is passionate about producing design solutions that optimize trends that align with clients core objectives.

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • How design thinking makes the world better and thinking creatively about our environment makes a better environment for people to live, work, and play in
  • How changing technologies have impacted design and the way buildings are laid out
  • Using design thinking to create efficiency by diminishing wasted space and unnecessary employees which saves a lot of money
  • The Gensler process for designing the best space that gets customized for every client
  • Putting people at the center of the design so they have a positive experience when using the space
  • Focus, socialization, collaboration, and education: the four modes of work every design has to incorporate
  • Morphable design: designing a space that can adapt over time as needs change without significant cost
  • Things to look out for when designing (or redesigning) a space

Ways to contact Ken:

Podcast eBooks:

The Power of Two

Episodes 1, 2 and 3 collide to bring you summary of lessons learned and systems created around Vision and Key Initiatives that help drive success to companies and businesses.

The Transition to Automation

In Episode 25, Vera talks with Heidi Rasmussen, CEO and Co-Founder of one of Inc 5000’s fastest growing companies in America – freshbenies. This eBook highlights part of the conversation to bring out the best lesson in automation and on-boarding for startups.

Using IT Strategically

In Episode 29, Vera talks with Tom Grooms, Vice President, Information Technology, and Chief Information Officer for CF Industries. This eBook is your guide for seeing IT as more than just a faster way to do your accounting.

The ZFactor Methodology

In Episode 35, Vera talks with Cindy Goldsberry, founder and partner of ZFactor Group. This eBook shows you how to take your business from vendor to value creator.


Welcome to System Execution, the strategy and system behind today’s successful companies. Systems can make or break your company, but here we’ll solve your physical, technological, and psychological systems issues by connecting you with experts that have succeeded in overcoming those challenges in their own business, and providing you the guidelines and tools you need to implement those same strategies for immediate results. Now, here’s your host, Vera Fischer.

Vera Fischer: Today’s episode is sponsored by 97 Degrees West, the brand marketing agency located in Austin, Texas. 97 Degrees West serves regional and national companies in the healthcare, finance, energy, and manufacturing industries. 97 Degrees West believes that an integrated approach to marketing that involves traditional and digital strategies that fit your customers’ buying journey yields the greatest impact on your bottom line. Go to www.97DWest.com to learn more.

Welcome to System Execution, a podcast devoted to using processes and systems to drive to a better outcome for your business. I’m Vera Fischer, your host. All businesses no matter the size relies on systems, some of these are physical systems such as a distribution center or a factory, some are technological, this can could be your CRM, your marketing or project management software. Others are psychological systems such as checklist and organizational charts. Many of these systems are going to change and overlap in your business.

Today’s guest is Ken Baker from Gensler. Ken is the regional Managing Principal of Gensler’s Southeast Region of Gensler’s, and I’m super excited to have him with use today because he’s going to be talking about something that I’m hearing a lot about, and that is design system thinking. A little bit about Ken, he’s been with Gensler Principal for about 24 years, he serves on the Gensler management committee as as the Co-Managing Principal of Gensler’s Southeast Region and past Co-Managing Principal of Gensler’s U.K., Europe, the Middle East, and Africa and Gulf Regions. Ken is considered a global expert on workplace design and planning particularly for law firms.

He has designed more than 10 million square feet of corporate headquarters and offices for law firms and financial institutions. He’s also one of Gensler’s major Global Account holders, managing relationships with clients such as Sidley Austin, LLP, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, LLP, JP Morgan Chase and Barclay’s Capital worldwide. Ken is also a leader in Gensler’s furniture and product development practice he frequently speaks about the power of design at industry events around the world. Welcome to System Execution Ken.

Ken Baker: Vera, thank you for having me, this is great.


More on Ken’s Background in Design Thinking

Vera Fischer: Ken, before we get started, I know that there’s a lot of accolades that you have in your file and I apologize, I may have stumbled over a couple of them. I’d love to hear more, let our listeners know more about you, your experience and what you got you into this world of design system thinking.

Ken Baker: Sure, that’s a great question. Personally, I’ve felt since at very young age that design made a better world, thinking creatively about our environment makes a better environment for people to live, work and play in. I had set [inaudible 00:03:49] very early on at being an architect even though I was interested in a lot of the fine and applied arts in the world, but I gravitated towards the physical architectural profession. I started doing shell and core design of high rise commercial office buildings in the midwest in Chicago for a very large design firm there.

I found in doing that work on the outside of buildings initially, that physical structure and dealing with the side issues that I was really more suited and would be more successful at dealing with people in the way they use those structures. One of the things that when I came to Gensler in ’96 that I really liked about the mantra of the firm is that we had an approach that was an outside in and an inside out approach to the design of workplace.

It’s not just the fact that the building needs to fit a certain way on the site, but we want to look at as designers the way that users of those buildings, of those structures need that structure to function for it to be successful and support the businesses and the processes that are going on in the interior. So, I made that decision to move to the interior portion of design. My exterior design focus set me up very well for understanding how a building goes together, but I quickly developed an expertise over the last 35 years to focus on interior workplace.


Design Thinking vs. Systems Thinking

Vera Fischer: Ken, before we get started I’d really like to help our listeners understand the difference between design thinking and other kinds of systems thinking. Let’s talk about those nuances first a second.

Ken Baker: Sure. I’m not sure that there’s a huge difference between design thinking and other systems thinking. I think it’s all about design, I think all of it is in a way, Vera. I think that what we really need to do in any kind of thought process that develop space or environments for people is listen to what their goals and objectives are, and apply our ingenuity and our innovative thinking to how we are solving those goals and achieving those goals for the users.

Vera Fischer: Ken, whenever you’re working with a particular client, let’s say since law firms are in your expertise. Law firms have changed a lot, it used to be there were huge libraries, everything was printed books, et cetera, now through the internet and digital optimization, everything’s online, et cetera. As the years go by, how do you work with clients to start this whole process of incorporating that innovation, that humanistic centered design into your creations?

Ken Baker: Well, every project that we do and we’ll stick with the law firm theme for a minute. Every project, every law firm that we design we are capturing the data from the design of that law firm and we’re establishing it at a point in time. I’ve certainly been doing it long enough, our firms has been doing it long enough that we’ve seen that progression, and you start to see in the development in talking to clients or even working with the same client as I have on a couple of those that you’ve named.

One currently, this is Sidley Austin organization, I’ve been working with them for 25 years and we’ve seen how their firm has been changing culturally based on the successive generations of folks that they’ve hired, and we’ve seen their workplace progress. People come in with different skillsets than they used to 30 years ago, and that has changed the way the space needed to respond to them for them to be in a successful business.

You said libraries have gone away, yes, things came online. Technology has improved and people were trained at technology so when they came out of law school and joined the law firm, they were bringing a higher and greater degree of technological knowledge, and that eliminated the need for a lot of admin sort of support for these legal professionals. Now we’re seeing that that had a very big impact on the space in the way of there were less secretaries to support a group of lawyers, and those admin functions diminish the space requirement per attorney.

We saw the real estate, lawyers as with other types of organizations have the same … Their biggest expenses are in their salaries and in their real estate, and anything that we could do to bring efficiency and design innovative design thinking to mitigate the amount of space it’s necessary, saves the bottom line and creates a bigger profitability for that firm.


Ken’s Client Design Thinking Process

Vera Fischer: Ken, whenever we have someone that is deciding that they are going to be changing out their space, is there an initial download or does your team go in and start asking lots of questions, interviews? How do you connect that person to that space, in a space that maybe you’ve never been in before?

Ken Baker: We listen. We go in and we do have a process, but we customize that process for the client. There’s a number of steps and I can mention them very quickly. We do have something, an exercise called a programming exercise which quantifies any type of client needs. We add up the various parts and pieces, the spaces, their personnel counts, their adjacencies of personnel, that’s called a program.

Then we will do what we call visioning, and that’s when we’ll show them what our other clients have been doing, what their competitors in the marketplace are doing. We will talk about Gensler research into their type of projects and what we’re seeing, the trends we’re seeing and the way those trends are playing out in the work environment. We have that database to bring to bear to help people make decisions.

Then we go in to the standard processes of design, schematic design where we were actually showing the plans, we start to move the design into three dimensions and design it and show them exactly what the concepts are playing out for the building that they’ll be moving into or the spaces that they’ll be occupying. From design, conceptual design we move into schematic design and design development where we start finalizing the way the space looks.

All the while we’re doing the construction documents that a contractor will use to build up a space, and then we monitor the construction. If we’ve done everything spot on and communication is the big thing throughout all of the phases, we will get them moved in at the close of what we call contract administration when the construction is done. I’ve kind of taken a huge amount of information there for your listeners, Vera, and compacted it into a three-minute discussion.

Vera Fischer: Exactly, and I loved it, that’s the one, two, three, four. So I’m going to go in and I’m going to start asking some more thoughtful questions.

Ken Baker: Sure.


How to Connect Emotions to a Design: The Four Modes of Work

Vera Fischer: The first thing that really is of interest to me and to my listeners as well is how you take that design and connect it to the emotional experience of a human? What emotions are you trying to connect with? Because I think about people who are in my office or in other offices, and some of those emotions you don’t want to connect to.

Ken Baker: Yes, but we listen to all of those emotions and we know that the human experience, what it is and the design of the space has to support it. I guess the point I’m driving towards in that in answering your question is we’re putting people back in the center of design. To create an experience that’s positive we need to think about the way people are going to use the space. We do a lot of studying upfront in those initial phases doing some surveys, some things that we’ve developed, that Gensler has developed through research.

We talk about the four modes of work: focus, socialization, collaboration and education or learning. We [inaudible 00:13:13] that all of workplace and even other types of public spaces kind of rely on those four work modes. There are aspects of all of those bits going into the design of the space that we are. It’s incumbent upon us in our initial phases to gather all that information correctly and find out what people need to do their job successfully.

At the end of all of that, if we have taken all that information, and kept it on our dashboard, and put it onto the drawings and got it built up for a client, we’re going to have a very successful space that there’s no surprises. Our research has shown without us beating our breast and being strident about it that if a company spends money on good design and good planning, it’s going to contribute to their bottom line, and they are going to be a more successful company.

They’re going to have higher retention, their people are going to be satisfied, and they’re going to attract new talent.


How to Create an Experience

Vera Fischer: Ken, one of the things that I see is the thinking that Gensler does of really bringing those public places and really bringing them into more of those private areas. I guess that’s from the outside in. Could you expand a little bit on that and how that works?

Ken Baker: Yes. I guess what we’re looking at is creating an experience. The overall experience of a space starts when you approach that space. You are in the public realm and you’re going into a more private realm. There’s a continuity and a progression of viewing positions if you will, one form the outside of a building going through the public spaces, getting to your office or your work station, there’s a whole progression of space that we go through, and they all have to interrelate.

When somebody moves into a high rise office building they’re not occupying that whole office building, but there’s going to be something that we’re relating to the amenities in that office building to the space they’re actually doing their work in. We find that connecting all of that is something that makes the design of and the worker experience, the workplace experience very successful if we’ve done it the right way. I think I answered your question.

Vera Fischer: Yes, you absolutely have. Ken, I’d love to hear those four areas again, one was collaboration.

Ken Baker: We call it focus.

Vera Fischer: Focus.

Ken Baker: Collaboration, socialization, those are like where you eat your lunch, where you get your coffee, where you meet and greet people. Collaboration is more like conference rooms, and meeting rooms, and work room. The final one is training or education I call it. It’s like what parts of the work environment are you learning new skills in, or we’re doing client training, or employee training. Those are the four basic units, the four work modes as we call those, Vera.

Vera Fischer: Ken, it’s really interesting, even 20 years ago the idea that you were learning or being educated during the workday was just unheard of, you had to do that on your own time.

Ken Baker: Exactly. That’s a good point you make. I will also say that the notion of collaboration, all kinds of firms need meeting rooms and places to bring clients into or to meet with their staff internally, but the focus was always on focus. Before it was always like, “Get to your work station and get your work done. Heads down.” Yes, that’s important to the bottom line but you’re bringing staff together in those collaborative areas has also become very, very important.

There’s also a fair amount of work that gets done in the social areas. Designing a lunch room where you can actually have meetings, designing food service areas where people can actually bring their technology and plug and play. Have support so they could leave their work station and office, collaborate with other people or just have a change of venue to get their work done in a different way makes the experience of the workplace much more enjoyable and it improves productivity.


Design System Process: Morphable Design

Vera Fischer: I just think that is phenomenal. I love that mindset and that evolution if you will. The other thing we’re starting to see is this whole idea within that design system thinking is coming up with adaptable design, knowing that the company today may not look the same or the needs may not be the same 10 or 20 years from now, but larger corporations, larger companies are making big commitments to that particular space. How does the process work within that adaptation.

Ken Baker: We’re doing less bricks and mortar construction on the interior space if you will where we’re allowing the space where the environment that we’re creating were using materials and systems to create that space that are morphable over time, that can be flexible, that can change without great cost or disruption can be taken down and reassembled in different ways. It’s like the Lego kind of aspect to design these days where even offices, individual offices, the walls could be demountable. There’s glass partitions that come apart in sections. That allows us to change the space over a period of time without, again, without allowing or causing the client to have to spend a lot more money.

The other thing is we know … Like for law firms, the fact that the secretarial positions became less important over time. I’ve started working with one firm that when we came in the door they had, a very large firm, they had 85 to 90 empty secretarial stations that were built in with hard furniture that was heavy, built to the ground, attached and immovable. We had to figure out a way to reclaim all that space because we’re not moving out of the space, they were going to renovate the space and reoccupy it.

We had to figure out what was the best way to get rid of that space and repurpose it into something else. That created a trend. That kind of trend was playing out through all firms. We’re not going to recreate the diminished number of those secretarial work stations in the same way we did before, we created furniture systems that looked permanent maybe, but we’re literally sitting on top of the floor not connected, come apart in parts and pieces, could be reconfigured in different ways and allow the user to repurpose and evolutionize that spaces they got further down in their lease.

Vera Fischer: Ken, are you seeing the same type of innovation in the retail space as well?

Ken Baker: Definitely. Right now we’re seeing retail spaces in just about displaying product that somebody wants to come in and buy. It’s creating an ambiance that is very experiential, a fun place to go. It’s about providing amenities in the shopping experience that make that destination a place to go. It’s providing those public spaces, like you’ll see a lot of things with water features, or great restaurants, or food that’s being serve. Even in the retail environment itself, are there break out areas where people can sit down and text or email somebody something that they’re buying that they want their friends to look at. There are those collaborative and those socialization spaces even within retail establishments.

Vera Fischer: I think it’s a really exciting time to be in this business especially working for a firm such as Gensler which is worldwide, so reputable. Whenever you are working with a new client that’s never really worked with the caliber of Gensler, what are some of the gotchas that you have to make sure that they don’t fall into? I know nothing is ever perfect, there are always bumps in the roads. What advice do you have?

Ken Baker: I think we have a responsibility to educate our clients on the current trends and we bring our research to help them make decision. In the law firm world, again, going back to that law firms, we always say want to be the first [inaudible 00:22:42]. They base things on precedent. Once you get a few of the firms to go in at a more trailblazing kind of direction, that provides me with the great example to show other law firms that we can start morphing that experience into more of the future.

Everybody wants to know, they want all the bells and whistles but they don’t know what it’s going to cost. There are lots of different ways to get to the end goal without throwing a bunch of money into construction. Another thing that we do is show them projects of all different price points. We also educate our clients on the schedule, how long does it take to do this. Lastly I would say but not the least, we have to educate them on how much space it’s going to take them to achieve what they want.

I met with a firm the other day that said, “Hey, I occupied this much space right now, we did in this space for 30 years.” They’ve, they put a lot of stuff into that space, they’ve packed it full. The new space that they’re going into may not be more efficient based on a square footage standpoint, but the trade off of is it’s providing them some of these comforts, and goals, and objectives that they’re looking for in the future that the current space didn’t. You have to invest in that space, in the square footage maybe to pick up some of those positive attributes.


Ken’s Next Challenge Within the World of Design and Architecture

Vera Fischer: Ken, the insight that you’ve provided us around this design system thinking within your world of design and architecture has been very informative. To wrap up our discussion, let’s talk about your next challenge.

Ken Baker: Well, I work with a big law firm, you named that law firm at the beginning and I’ve been working with them for quite a number of years. Their world is changing and our response to their world is changing, the way we’re guiding some of the things I just talked about during the last half hour. What we’re always looking at is helping them move into the future and making them more successful. Using our innovative thinking, our innovative systems thinking, bringing that to bear for them to increase their bottom line and to make them more successful.

The best testament is their recruitment and retention, and hearing that they’ve been able to be more successful as a business based on the type of environments that we’re creating. I’ve got over a million square feet for a particular client globally that I’m embarking on in the west coast, the midwest, east coast, the south and also in Europe for that same client. I’m taking all of the lessons learned from everything that we do for our other clients as well as their offices in those locations to bring to bear in each of the new facilities that we’re helping them create.


Ken’s Final Thoughts and How to Get in Touch

Vera Fischer: Can you touch on a very important ROI topic there? That when you focus on that environment of which you have your team members, your employees, whatever you refer to the team as, getting them and creating them is one of the biggest challenges larger corporations are going through, even smaller ones right now because the level of skill-set is definitely getting shorter as the baby boomers are aging out. I think that’s something I’d like to just pull out listeners that there is a very important ROI that.

Ken, you’ve shown us the processes that are needed to get the work done and have provided a few of the nuances that our listeners need to hear regarding the execution of a successful system. Before we go let’s close our today’s discussion with any final advice you want to share, and then please tell us the best way we can connect with you.

Ken Baker: I would like to share something that I tell our teams working with clients. Ask your design consultants, I would ask your listeners to ask their design consultants to make sure that they are listening, that they’re not looking at them during this discovery phases, and information gathering, and thinking about what they want to say next, but that they are truly listening. Every time that they come back to you with design innovation and design ideas, it’s got to relate back to those informative discussions about the goals and objectives. Listening is really important.

The second thing to ask your consultant is … You’ve got to make sure that the people creating your space are listening the sense of urgency. I tell my folks we’ve got to have a sense of urgency to getting this stuff done. Getting them into the new space, getting them to market allows them to be more successful sooner. Those are my parting message. Those are the fundamentals I think of developing great client relationships, and relationships that I have with my clients and the clients having a relationship with their consultants, with us.

I can be reached, I’m at gensler.com. And I’m kenneth_baker@gensler.com and I would love to hear from anybody that needs more tips on getting a project done or any way that we can help.

Vera Fischer: Well, System Execution fans, no matter how many notes you took or how often you re-listen to this episode, the key is every successful business uses systems to drive to a better outcome. Ken, thank you so much for sharing your expertise and insight with our listeners today.

Ken Baker: Vera, thank you for having me as a guest, I enjoyed.

We hope you found this episode of System Execution enlightening. For free examples, case studies, e-books, and more, be sure to visit systemexecution.com/resources. Contribute to the conversation by reaching out to Vera directly on email at vera@systemexecution.com. Until our next episode, thank you for the privilege of your time.




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