Case Study: How to tell your story through design.

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What I love most about designing offices is that all companies have one thing in common: they have a mission. And when you walk into a rapidly expanding business, one thing is clear — you can stop any random employee — the CEO or the intern, and they’ll have no issue telling you exactly what that mission is. Our belief is that the best design is taking that mission, and making it truly palpable the moment one enters your space.

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One of my favorite examples of what I mean is the redesign we recently completed for a really exciting company: When I first walked into their space, I was shocked — the dilapidated and grimy office they were occupying was as incongruous with the cheerful image of the company as you can get. I struggled to see the light at the end of the tunnel: the gap between the space they were in and the image they wanted to project, seemed too far to bridge.

During one of my many chats with the COO, I fished for insights into what of either the history, or the future goals we could cling onto as a jumping off point for our design process. Andrew told me the story of the humble beginnings of this, now, national brand. It was started in 1929 — during the Great Depression — as a nut cart Newark’s Penn Station by the (current) CEO’s grandfather. The family business has been cared for by three generations, and this legacy — of both looking back to their past, and sharing it with the current employees that helped the company grow, and what (in their view) made them unique.

This story was worth building, and so we did. The Depression Era nut cart was the foundation of this legacy, and we wanted to build it into the space. For the office kitchen — the heart of this food company’s space — we created a custom wallcovering which is a printed mural of Penn Station in NYC — built at the same time, and by the same architects as Newark’s Penn (McKim Mead & White), both at around the turn of the previous century. The millwork was abstracted, and became a stand-in for the cart: bright yellow, Formica-clad cabinetry reminiscent of brightly colored vendors in public spaces of eras past, contrasted by the traditional and nostalgic black and white mosaic floor.

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We then carried the theme of exploiting the company’s history, and penchant for color, throughout the space. The company’s packaging, designed by Pentagram, was the inspiration for the color used throughout the remainder of the space. We splashed color all over the bathrooms and used the vibrant hues to tie the spaces together, while defaulting to neutrals — for balance — in the rest of the space.

More firsts: Budget for basic furniture before you can fly.


Use the excel spreadsheet for how much money you have, vs. how much stuff you need. You want to figure out how much will get eaten by the sheer multiplier of your team.

It’s always surprising to meet a CEO/CFO to whom one must explain that a 30 person office needs 30 desks and 30 chairs. And one must pay for them. No matter how cheap those desks and chairs are, they’ll put a real dent in your 50/100/800K budget. Here’s what I mean:

Cheapest stuff that won’t make you want to gauge your eyes out:

Task Chairs $250 * 30 = $7500

Desk $350 * 30 = $10,500

Storage $200 * 30 = $6,000

Total = $24,000 x 15% (taxes + delivery estimate)+ $3600

Real total = $27,600

(If you’re a true start-up, and your budget is in the 50K range, that’s a lot. This is also the time to question if designing a space for 30 employees when you have 15 today is really what you want to do. (You can always add more later.)

Mid range:

Task Chairs $550*30 = $16,500

Desk $500*30 = $15,000

Storage $300*30= $9,000

Total = $40,500 x 15% (taxes + delivery estimate) = $6075

Real total = $46,575

If your budget is $110–150K, you’re in decent shape. That assumes that the “work” is limited to painting, wallcovering, maybe some lights here and there. If it’s lower, consider axing some/most/all of the storage as it’s included on auto-pilot for most offices, but is seldom needed.

Still over? Keep the good chairs. Go lower on the desk number.


Chair $900*30= $27,000

Desk $1500*30 = $45,000

Storage $800*30= $24,000

Total = $96,000 x 15% (taxes + delivery estimate) = $14,400

Real total = $110,400

This is unrealistic for most. If you’re doing well, and want to invest in your staff, getting everyone good chairs will get you the most bang for your buck.

For the rest your budget, go closer to mid-range.

The key to this exercise is backing into per unit (ie. per employee) numbers that are realistic for you, not deciding whether you’re “low, medium, or high end”. Start with your desired end result (total budget), add in the communal areas(see below) and manipulate the cells until the numbers add up.

Again, prioritize. Always veer on the side of the more expensive chair, less expensive desk. When in doubt, toss the desk storage.

People spend their lives in their offices: let the keep their backs and their eyes while doing it. Light requires it’s own post: it’s coming.

2. Budgeting for communal space:

a. Large Conference Room: everyone seems to need one:

i. Low End: 2 dining tables that slide together :$2,000

ii. Mid-Range: Find the cheapest carpenter you can: $6,000

iii. High-End: Go shopping (suggestions in later posts): $12,000

b. Medium Conference Room ( 4–6 people conf. One per 5–10 Employees)

i. Low End:

1. Table — $500

2. Chairs (4) @ $400 = $1600

ii. Mid-Range:

1. Table = $1000

2. Chairs (4) @ 800 = $3200

iii. High-End:

1. Table $3000

2. Chairs (4) @1500 = $6000

c. Small Conference Rooms/Phone Booths. Same number as Medium-Conference Rooms.

i. Low End: $1,000/Room

ii. Mid-Range:

4. TRADEOFFS. Most need to make them, so lets start with the low-hanging fruit:

d. Your accountant needs a lockable storage/desk file-thing. Your intern does not. Most offices start with the assumption that everyone needs storage. They end with the CFO and accountant getting storage.

e. Desk lights. You probably don’t need these. Look into swapping the lights

f. People spend 8–16 hours a day in their chairs. Get the best you can afford. There’s a world of options out there, start with:

Low-End: Sit on it — Novo

Mid-range: Sayl Chair

High-end: Classic Aeron Chair

OFFICE DESIGN. First Things First: developing a working budget.

Coco Chanel once said that you should take one thing off before leaving the house. She was mostly making a point about a well-edited narrative, and like much of Chanel, this mantra (too) proves as immortal as it is universal.

My philosophy regarding all matters of design focuses on editing: start with every idea and plan you’ve got, and then throw most of them away. Be organized. Keep the ones worth keeping. And as a beloved professor in architecture school taught me: no one knows what you left on your desk; it doesn’t matter.

How is this relevant for office design? Design, like the rest of the universe, starts with a plan. A well edited plan. Make it in excel.

Before seeing any place, meeting with your broker, CFO, or designer, figure out what you need. Not what you want to need. Here’s how:

a. Plan for your real team, and your immediate growth. We’re not building for the growth you’re pitching to your board or investors. Here, projection costs money. If your company truly grows ten-fold in the next 18 months, you’ll have plenty of cash to throw at the not enough chairs problem then. But for the time being, the multiplier counts.

b. See this spreadsheet for reference, and make one for yourself. It takes 20 minutes. Just do it.

c. For every employee you’re building for, you’ll need to allocate 100–150sq. ft. of space (the former for more traditional offices, the latter for newer/techier spaces which prioritize breakout spaces, phone booths, lounges. Younger offices tend to lean towards offering about 50% of total square footage towards communal space. If you’re in SF or NYC, every square foot counts, so count them.

d. On the lower end, you’ll spend $1500 per employee for furnishings and decor. A mid-range project, where build-outs are involved typically spend between $7,000-$10,000/person.