Dr Donna Wheatley has joined architecture practice Warren and Mahoney. Living and studying in Australia, and previously in Finland and Germany, she has provided input into large-scale commercial, workplace, cultural, education and master planning projects.

Wheatley completed her PhD thesis, ‘Branded Spaces: Mental mapping architectural design and experience’, in 2010 at the University of Sydney.

Architecture and Design spoke to her about why working remotely won’t be the future, how office spaces will change over the next five years and putting aside personal perceptions when it comes to designing.

You don't believe working remotely is the future. Why?

Working remotely will happen, but our research (undertaken using staff surveys) shows that employees see this being only about half a day a week in five years time. This fact alone will have little impact on commercial space demands.

There are many reasons for the limited uptake in working from home – people want to be with others, changing environments help achieve a ‘work’ mental state, control and manage work hours and access to critical networks. Organisations also prefer staff to be in the office. Most knowledge is generated and shared face to face, not to mention it is far better for morale and culture to have a busy vibrant workplace.

How do you think working spaces will change over the next five years?

The variety and amount of places to work in the office will undergo significant change. This corresponds to a strategic approach to design where different workplace activities are mapped out and spaces for their optimal performance are provided. Diversifying settings and spaces means the aesthetic potential of the workplace has broadened and I think we have barely scratched the surface of how workplaces can look and operate.

Undertaking both development of strategy and design hopefully means we are better at putting our own preconceptions about workplace design aside because we understand more about the organisation, its brand and, of course, its people. 

You've said “A big focus is how to value a person's experience and their perspective of the designed interior”. Each person is likely to have a different experience in a space, so how hard is it to integrate how they might experience a space into a design to make the environment better?

Everyone has a different experience, but there are surprisingly many parallels in how these are structured. Therefore we are able to focus on the general direction of a group’s experience. An understanding of how users respond to different environments, along with data collected during briefing, means we can assess and critique our own designs throughout the creative design process.

Rather than making it harder, this background understanding provides a more focused and tailored direction where the client and the design team are on the same page so to speak. Perhaps counter-intuitively, we also find a logical transparent process leads to a more innovative outcome.

What type of spaces make you feel comfortable and at ease?

I want to be delighted and for me this means that there is a conceptual unity to the environment where the details reflect the spirit of the whole, but also that there is, through details or planning, an element of the unexpected. These environments communicate consideration of the users as well as creative flair and effort.

Does that differ to how you think other people typically might feel?

One of the reasons I undertook doctoral research was to find out if users feel the same about a space as designers and clients (and anecdotally, myself). It turns out their perceptions can be quite different.

However, the environments perceived most similarly by all three groups are those that resulted from an extensive briefing process to understand the aspirations and thoughts of the users. One of the reasons I am passionate about a strategic briefing process is because it actually does lead to a better alignment of design intents and user experience, and that’s good for business.

You've also said people have to put aside their own perceptions when it comes to designing. How easy or hard can that be to do?

There is a requirement in design to use intuition and domain knowledge to come up with solutions. It’s quick, it’s valid, and it also is based on our background experience. So while we cannot and should not design from first principles for every solution, we need to be mindful of patterned responses that do not account for users’ needs. A key way to avoid this is to have useful and relevant information about the requirements of the users, the business and the brand.

What has been the most interesting project you've worked on?

The most recent project that comes to mind is a law firm, but we’re only at the planning stages. In a co-design workshop with the client group we presented data gathered from online surveys, observation studies, one-on-one interviews and other activities. Having seen and understood the data, the client pushed for us to develop quite innovative planning options because they best responded to the evidence base.

This planning model is quite exciting as it turns the ABW (activity based working) concept on its head. We are not trying to have new ideas for their own sake, but through carefully listening to and understanding clients. A transparent process also enables the client to take ownership of ideas and work with the designers as a team.