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A Day in the Life of an Environments Designer

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Jun 19 2017

When people ask me what I do for a living, I say, “I use space to explore design solutions.” It might sound like I work for NASA, but what we environments designers actually do is consider how physical space influences human behavior. Much of my time is spent sketching, making models, building walls out of foamcore, miming, turning off the lights, rendering, and doing my best to break feng shui. Here's a breakdown of a typical day:

6:20 AM: Snooze

6:30 AM: Sweep

Sweep. Make the coffee, water the succulents, check out a few new product curation apps and services the team has been talking about. While riding the bus across the Bay, I read about immigration patterns and how they affect consumers in North America. Staying inspired is part of our job, so I try to start each day with a healthy dose.

9:00 AM: Birthday shenanigans

Today is my teammate Julian’s birthday, so we surprised him with donuts and orange juice—his morning elixir of choice!

9:30 AM: Sketching and 3D modeling

My team’s current project is to reimagine the shopping experience for a large retailer. To prepare for a review with the team, I do some sketching and 3D modeling of in-store display concepts. We are a diverse and interdisciplinary bunch, so it helps to bring everyone’s ideas together through visualization.

10:30 AM: Design review with the team

We do team check-ins throughout the day, talking through our ideas to make sure we’re meeting user needs and pushing the integration of digital behaviors and physical environments. Today, we’re critiquing a bunch of sketches of critical shopping moments that we’ll prototype later. We’re considering how digital projection can add ambient information and subtle interaction to a physical display layout.

11:30 AM: Creating a physical study model

In preparation for our prototyping session in the IDEO Shop, we use a rough physical model to map out the experience of the future retail environment. A small-scale model lets us discuss all the ways shoppers might interact with a brick and mortar store—from browsing to comparison shopping, saving for later or checking out and having things shipped home. It’s helpful to keep our work quick and dirty, so that we have a model that lets the entire team walk through design points together.

12:00 PM: Julian’s birthday lunch

Continuing the festivities, we pop out of the office to get a bite of Scandinavian-inspired eats.

1:30 PM: Field testing and 1:1 prototyping

Time to refine the rough mock-up made in the office and rebuild it in a live retail environment. We wear jumpsuits to suggest how we want the client’s brand to evolve (and because jumpsuits are cool).

The prototype begins outside the store with a simulated mobile shopping experience that ushers shoppers directly to our redesigned displays. The point of the prototype is to test a store layout that could feel like an extension of a mobile shopping experience. Think curated themes, minimal options, and intuitive product comparison interactions. Turns out, some things they hate, some things they love, and a few things don’t make sense to them at all! All of that is great feedback for moving forward, by the rock-and-roll rules of prototyping. Achieving a realistic level of physical interaction while keeping the design at a prototypical level is key to getting honest feedback. We draw our insights from watching how users interact with the space, as well as their answers to directed prompts.

7:30 PM: Teach

My nightcap is heading to California College of the Arts, where I teach a class about physical space and digital interaction titled “Objects & Space.” We work with sensors, hack projectors, control motors, glue, and foamcore, and build our way through code, all in the spirit of figuring out what the environments designers of tomorrow might do.

  • Nicholas Pajerski

    IDEO alum
    Nicholas is an Environments Designer, architect, and teacher. He is interested in being interested and wishes he could run and read at the same time.
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