by Tom Isler | September 01, 2007

The Launching Pad

Preparing concepts
for liftoff:
The Launching Pad
in Delray Beach, Fla.

Gather a bunch of creative minds together in one room for any length of time and they’re bound to generate some good ideas. But just how innovative those ideas are might have more to do with the room itself than people generally admit.

The belief that the design and aesthetics of meeting rooms actually can enhance the efficiency or creativity of people working inside them is the driving principle behind a number of dedicated meeting venues that now are sprouting up across the country. Places like Blue Ocean Facilities in Cincinnati; Catalyst Ranch (see page 4) and Thinkubator, both in Chicago; The Launching Pad in Delray Beach, Fla.; Sparkspace in Columbus, Ohio; and The Workshop in Louisville, Ky., all market themselves to planners as specially designed environments conducive to extraordinarily productive or creative meetings.

While the details differ, these venues share basic design elements. They have high levels of visual and tactile stimulation; bold, contrasting colors; whimsical decor; open, flexible meeting areas; a variety of soft, comfortable seating options; prevalent windows and natural light; and symbolic objects such as toys, trinkets or artwork that reinforce concepts of acceptance, risk-taking and innovation. Some venues are even stocked with vintage furniture, intended to remind attendees of their childhood, a period of their lives when imagination knew no limits.

“I believe environment matters,” says Mike Docherty, developer of The Launching Pad and CEO of Venture2 Inc., a Delray Beach, Fla.-based consulting firm that helps clients innovate. “For companies to be more innovative, they need to be in environments that foster creativity.” A corporate culture that rewards originality is critical, Docherty allows, but physical space is key, too.

In recent years, especially when it comes to office design, corporations have started to buy into the idea that the physical working environment can be manipulated to give employees a boost. “There are things the built environment can do to make the white-collar work process more effective,” asserts Frederick Schmidt, managing principal of the Chicago-based design firm The Environments Group, which has helped design offices for clients such as Crate & Barrel, ESPN and Google.

Popular trends in workplace design involve clear-cutting jungles of isolating offices and cubicles, eliminating the physical reinforcement of bureaucratic hierarchies and encouraging more interaction between employees. The goal is to make the workplace more social, in hopes that even casual contact between the right people, regardless of whether they work together on a day-to-day basis, can spark great ideas.

But just how much can design strategies improve off-site meeting rooms, which by definition already are hubs for social interaction, and in which employees might spend only a few days, or hours, each year? Can the color of the walls, the presence of an Etch-A-Sketch or the feel of a human hand-shaped chair actually make attendees think more creatively? And if so, can planners, who are looking to give their attendees every possible advantage, afford to ignore the power of design?

Breaking it down

Even skeptics must admit that the physical environment can have a profound effect on meetings. The basic argument goes something like this: Would you rather meet in an overcrowded, windowless room with uncomfortable furniture and flickering, fluorescent lights, or in an airy room on the top floor of an office building, with expansive views, ergonomic chairs and access to a terrace?

“If you dislike your boss or if you dislike your job, no matter how beautiful the meeting room is, you’re going to dislike being there,” says Schmidt. Still, he says, the space can go a long way to positively influence the outcome.

Which design elements are most responsible for optimizing meeting rooms? Both Schmidt and Andrew Laing, managing director of DEGW North America, a New York City-based corporate design firm, agree that the most important features are functional, not aesthetic. Even the blandest of meeting rooms could win their endorsement.

The space has to be the right size for the group, Laing says, the configuration has to be appropriate, and technology has to work properly and be integrated cleanly into the design of the room. Good light and air quality are vital, Schmidt adds, and even details like having proper space to store luggage can make a big difference. The best meeting rooms, says Schmidt, will feel spacious and serene. Service-related details also are critical: clean bathrooms, good food, continually refreshed pots of coffee and an abundance of office supplies.