Q&A: ECCO Design’s Eric Chan on the Future, "Transformable" Workplace

The principal of ECCO Design on the fusing of furniture design with technology

ECCO’s concept for a “universal” office, with flexible, portable modules that nevertheless follow an additive logic

When speaking to designer Eric Chan, the same considerations come up repeatedly: the idea that design should be technologically driven, yet still “human-centered”; that it should be user-friendly, but not altogether without rules or structure; that classical qualities of beauty and harmony are just as important product flexibility or social media integration.”We must design compelling experiences that people can live with everyday, and that means understanding how to design for the mass audience without forgetting very personal and individual needs,” says Chan, principal of ECCO Design. While design must open itself up to interdisciplinary influences, he adds, designers should not “[allow] technology to take over the human dimension.”

Even when it comes to the workplace, Chan refuses to pick a side, opting instead for a hybrid solution: both open-plan, collaborative spaces and personalized work-niches are the ideal, he says. I recently spoke with Chan, a judge for the Workplace of the Future 2.0 Design Competition, about the future of office design, “transformable” workplaces, and how design must take notice of the “human dimension.”

Susan S. Szenasy: You have collaborated with office furniture manufacturers like Herman Miller and technology giants like Lenovo. How does your approach to design allow you to work in these various capacities?

Eric Chan: I work on a wide range or product areas, from furniture to technology, office and mobile to wearable devices and the internet of things. I feel comfortable mediating between all these. What’s interesting is the evolution of these different industries and how they are starting to converge. Until recently furniture companies had a longer-term view of between 5 and 10 years, while technology companies require upgrades every 12 months to 18 months. But this is changing: the furniture industry is becoming more like fast-paced product developers, who must know and understand user needs and respond quickly to changing situations. This cross-pollination between furniture and technology is leading to a faster business model and cycle, and designers must respond accordingly while not allowing technology to take over the human dimension—the beauty, quality, emotion, and timelessness—of design.

The Foray Chair

SSS: ECCO describes its design role as a client’s CUO (Chief User Officer). Can you explain what you mean by that?

EC: Design is for people, so we must always be aware of how people work and live from different points of view: ergonomically, emotionally, psychologically, cognitively, socially, and culturally. We must design compelling experiences that people can live with everyday, and that means understanding how to design for the mass audience without forgetting very personal and individual needs—how someone personally engages with the object or a piece of furniture. It is the designer’s job to anticipate the user’s needs and desires, and to devise a design solution that truly connects with the user.

SSS: What about the office typology makes it such fertile ground for research and invention?

EC: Technology is becoming faster, more flexible, wearable, and portable—from smart sensors to location tracking—which means that in the future, work-environment technology and office tools will be fully integrated into a seamless system. The office furniture industry is catching up with these developments, figuring out how they can support the human body in all its versatility, how information is shared, and how people work together in an office space. There is a huge opportunity to create solo spaces in an office that enables people to adapt to privacy and collaborative situations on demand. It’s all about the efficiency of the office space, which makes it a rich field for research and innovation.

A collage illustrating Chan’s priniciple of fusing furniture design with technology

SSS: What should designers consider in their response to the most recent backlash of the open-plan office?

EC: While open-plan offices encourage collaboration, many people feel that they are distracting, that they couldn’t be productive. People are always talking in an open-plan space, so if you want to do work, you have to put on headphones, which creates a kind of barrier among colleagues. In response, the industry began developing lounge areas or breakout spaces where you can do your own work and socialize. But then your personal space becomes idle. I believe that “super-creative” people need both kinds of spaces, although not at the same time. This is a chance for designers to come up with spaces that are versatile and transformable.

SSS: We’ve recently seen furniture manufacturers shift from office systems to residential interiors and home offices. What design challenges or opportunities do you see in this development?

EC: When we talk about the home or the residential environment, what we mean is openness, non-conformity, and less rigidity. This includes spaces and furniture that provide a simple understated form and shape, a range of scales, natural materials, tactility, texture, and warmer colors that stimulate the senses. People need to be productive, but they also need to feel good, enjoy, and relax—and it’s the home environment that provides that. This opens up a wider range of opportunities that the traditional office furniture system was lacking, and opportunities to enjoy a more human-centered space. That’s the new thinking.

The Bamboo Chair, designed in collaboration with Herman Miller

SSS: What’s changed in the last year in terms of office design trends, do you think?

EC: I see a number of trends: businesses in general are more optimistic; technology is driving major changes in all aspects of our lives; business leaders are more open to trying new ideas that attract and retain talented people. Leaders see that their workers are more mobile and don’t want to be limited by furniture or work tools. The office furniture industry is responding to these demands and debuting more agile products, focusing on smart technology, and versatile design that can be quickly upgraded when needed to create a more engaging and harmonious workspace. 

Click here for more on the Workplace of the Future 2.0 Design Competition.

Categories: Sponsored, Workplace Architecture