Office Design Needn’t Be Rocket Science

odnrsThere’s no law against bad office design, but after a talk with Philadelphia-based graphic designer Allan Wright, you can’t help but think it’s a crime. After a recent visit to a client’s very corporate, very bland headquarters, he had this to say: “We found people stuck in little booths with no natural light. Everything was horrible.”

His colleague Michele Armstrong agreed: “I felt like crying when I left the place.”

Some may accuse Wright and Armstrong of holding non-artist types to lofty standards; after all, why does an accounting firm, for example, have to be pretty? How do high ceilings affect the bottom line? In Wright’s opinion, a beautiful, well-designed home office has two very clear benefits: It makes your business look good, and it makes you and everybody else feel good.

Wright, who is originally from Scotland, rounded the World Design Consultancy four years ago on the coffee table in his apartment near Philadelphia. He and a team of art directors and designers from Great Britain, Yugoslavia, and the United States provide a wide range of design and advertising services, from print campaigns to product rollouts, for American and European clients in industries as diverse as fashion, automotives, and pharmaceuticals.


World Design’s offices, where Wright also happens to live, are a testament to his taste and style. Light pours in through tall windows hidden behind a landmark brick and sandstone facade. Lilies, irises, ferns, ivy, and tropical plants soften the visual blow of gleaming high technology. “Light, windows, open spaces, flowers–that all directly affects us when we’re working– especially on the creative end,” says account manager Armstrong.

The company, which has moved three times in as many years because of rapid growth and Wright’s wanderlust, is currently located in a pier house on the Delaware River formerly used for unloading barges. “We always pick strange places,” says Wright, who does so partly because he believes people coming to his design studio are looking for something different. World Design once set up shop in a 100-year-old cigar factory with mosaic floors and stained glass windows, then moved into a former schoolhouse. He now has his eye on an old Rolls Royce plant and a 150-year-old mill house. “We don’t look at any modem buildings. We like to show what we can do with old spaces instead of just tearing them down and throwing up something ugly, like the standard low-cost office buildings.”

Although Wright has no qualms about tearing down whatever gets in his way, he lets the original structure dictate his renovations. “We keep the physical structures intact. The place we’re in has exposed steel girders, and the one we’re looking at has concrete pillars and industrial sash windows, which are now rare antiques,” says Wright. While working on the schoolhouse, Wright found “a beautiful plaster wall. It was like a piece of art–the paint had faded through in different patterns and shapes.” He was so pleased that he couldn’t paint over it as planned. “We painted and plastered the new walls to match the original wall.”


Wright shares his two-story, 2,000-square-foot home with his wife, his brother, and his brother’s wife–as well as five graphic designers, two or three regular freelancers, and a steady stream of models, photographers, print reps, clients, and other visitors. “We’re a very social company. And we have the best coffee in Philadelphia,” says Wright. “Everybody comes over, relaxes. and gets involved in the projects.”


Since this busy design studio operates 20 hours a day, seven days a week, schedules are tight and space is at a premium. But in addition to being a skilled designer and decorator, Wright is a master engineer. Every room has several uses. Bedrooms double as photography studios, which double as conference rooms. “With the master bedroom, Allen did his usual knocking out the whole wall,” says Armstrong.

He then hung French lace from the 18-foot ceilings, which form elegant columns when they’re tied up and fall into a wall when released, making an instant conference room. “Our clients don’t know they’re in a bedroom,” says Wright. The television, which Wright likes to watch in bed, twists around so Wright can review video presentations with his clients.

Like the rooms and the television set, most of the furniture and equipment is mobile or convertible. The computers and fax machines are all on wheels, since Wright gets the rearranging bug often. “I’m always changing everything around. People will leave work for the weekend and come back on Monday to find that everythiug’s been changed around.” He once laid an entire parquet floor over a weekend, “for relaxation.” Wright attributes this compulsion to moving around constantly as a child but also calls it part of World Design’s philosophy: “We’re never satisfied.”


Although World Design looks like it has a big decorating budget, Wright purchases most of the furniture, like the “early Jetsons” coffee tables, second-hand or at inexpensive furniture emporiums like Ikea. As with profit-making ventures, office design is a collaborative effort. For instance, Wright found the wrought-iron chairs for his conference room at a local garden store. His production director’s wife outfitted them with striped cushions. Armstrong provided the finishing touch–tassels she bought in Florence, Italy.

The real money, according to Wright, goes toward first-rate technology. Besides a Mac Quadra 950, a IIci, two IBM-compatible systems, two color scanners, and a CDROM drive, World Design has one of the only Canon 500 full-color laser printers in Philadelphia. He believes that if a gadget or new software package, even an expensive one, energizes a designer, that enthusiasm will show up in his work. And that can only be good for World Design.


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