Get off the elevators at McCann Erickson’s headquarters in Midtown Manhattan, and you might have to do a double take. At first glance, the advertising agency’s 27th-floor space looks more club than office, which is actually both a compliment to its gorgeous interiors and a testament to the space’s ability to draw you in. When you walk through the double doors, you’re greeted by a shiny, geometric reception desk that doubles as a spaceship-like seating area. This twisted piece of milled aluminum, named the Control Tower for its control center functionality, is striking, but it’s only the first conversation piece you’ll find on the executive floor of the 130,000-square-foot office.
The unexpected design moments are courtesy of Tom Dixon’sDesign Research Studio, the interior and architecture branch of the London design studio. Together with architecture firm Gensler, Dixon and his team of designers transformed McCann’s formerly stodgy, cubical land into a stylish, open-plan office. The goal: To design a workplace without barriers that still felt personalized and private. In other words, the two firms wanted to create a totally modern office.
Of course, the modern workplace means something different for every company, says Jacu Strauss, a senior designer at Tom Dixon, who led the project. “Every office needs to be considered from grassroots,” he explains. “I think it is very important to understand the function and the needs first and then develop the design from there.” Curious to know more, we asked Strauss what it takes to actually be at the forefront of modern office design. Here he gives us a few guiding principles.
The tiny glass phone room is meant for private calls. Image: Tom Dixon
Open-plan offices have gotten a bad rap. Look at a slew of recent studies and you’ll read that open-plan layouts lack privacy and invite an inundation of noise that is detrimental to not just our mental health, but our productivity as well. But the truth is, open-plan layouts aren’t the real problem—poorly designed open-plan offices are. Strauss says the design team avoided the pitfalls of the office du jour by creating a series of multi-functional breakout spaces that encourage employees to have alone time.
Strauss points out that we work a lot differently today than we did even five years ago. As tablets, smartphones and laptops replace the traditional desktop computer setup, our workspaces need to reflect that increased desire for flexibility. “We’re much more mobile now and the conventional way of working in a cubicle is very much out of date,” he explains. “It’s all about a flexible work environment where you can move around, you can choose where you want to work.” On the executive floor of the McCann offices, there’s the lounge, a communal space outfitted with blue leather diner-style banquettes that acts simultaneously as a space for eating, working and meeting. There are also a total of nine breakout spaces, including a tiny, geometric phone room outfitted in mirrors, where people can make private calls.
Break Up Spaces and Avoid Monotony
Though Strauss and his team was only responsible for designing the 27th floor, the entire office spans four floors and holds around 600 people total. The executive floor is massive itself, but Strauss broke it up into distinct regions that each cater to the divisions that are working there. “It was a really big floor and we wanted to create richness through materials, colors and forms,” Strauss says. “That way you could experience something different without having to go very far.”
There’s The Apartment, which houses human resources and has a domestic feeling with rosewood veneer and soft upholstery. The Science Lab, home to the finance and legal department, makes use of monochromatic colors and shiny, metal surfaces. Central Park, home to analysts and strategists, has living walls and embraces clean, natural materials, which is meant to fascinate clear thinking. Then there’s the Library, where all of the high-level executives sit, which requires décor that is much more traditional. These aesthetic divisions give employees a sense of ownership over their space, but Strauss says the also encourages people to branch out and find areas that suit their needs at that exact moment.
The surface of the table is meant to reflect the city skyline. Image: Tom Dixon
Embrace Technology, But in the Right Way
When you walk into the McCann offices, you’ll find yourself in the Broadcast Center, which houses the twisted aluminum reception desk. The walls are outfitted with screens displaying some of McCann’s most famous advertising work, and a series of televisions flicker on silent to make sure breaking news is caught as soon as possible. If you judged the office by this scene alone, you’d figure the entire work space would be a fairly obvious display of technology. But Strauss says inundating the reception area with splashy technology was intentional; other areas of the office integrated technology much more subtly.
For example, in the boardroom, all of the technology is embedded into the ceilings and credenza, with screens that rise and descend from both. “Sometimes you want technology on display, and sometimes you don’t, so we wanted to make sure there was that flexibility,” he says. Flexibility is key, particularly when you have different divisions sharing meeting spaces. Each room needs to be multi-functional, which is a lot harder to accomplish when you have a massive screen presiding over you. Plus, Strauss says, “There’s something quite beautiful about having technology integrated discreetly.”
Design a Space That People Actually Want to Be In
It may sound obvious, but a good way to keep people working is to create a work environment that they actually want to hang out in. Big tech companies have been doing it for ages: Make a workspace so amazing that your employees don’t want to leave. But while Google and its peers are busy installing slides and gimmicky interior tricks, Dixon’s approach focuses on high-quality materials, rich colors and subtle, unexpected moments. “As designers we would say this, but it’s important to be proud of where you work,” Strauss says.
Little details like the angular, mirrored phone room are meant to introduce an element of surprise—”We wanted to inject a little humor into the space,” Strauss continues. Which is why they built their breakout spaces to be conversation pieces, as well. The massive blue foam structure sits underneath 102 bronze lights and was originally meant to be a gathering place for the strategy team. It’s since become a casual gathering place where people from different departments will visit when they need a break from their desks. Likewise, the use of saturated colors and luxe materials, a very Tom Dixon-touch, makes people feel proud of the space they’re working in. “We spend more and more time at the office,” says Strauss. “So our approach was that, you know, it should be a place where you’re very happy to spend a few extra hours a day if you have to.”