Perspectives November 11, 2020

Q&A: Future Thinking with Jane Greenthal

By Greg Johnson, Managing Director of the San Francisco Studio
Jane Greenthal, LEED AP ID+C, Fitwel Ambassador
Associate Principal, Planning & Strategies, San Francisco

Out of crises comes opportunities to explore new methods. When the pandemic is over, will we find ourselves returning to business as usual or might this be the catalyst we need to shift how we approach design and work with others? I’d been thinking about this when I met Jane Greenthal.

Jane is a strategist. With an MBA and degrees in both economics and interior architecture, Jane’s career has meandered through aspects of business and industries like no one else I know. She’s worked on the finance and operations side of management consulting, founded a dotcom for veterinarians and consulted in business development and marketing. I was struck by her unique thinking.

Jane has since joined our San Francisco team. I sat down with her recently to visit the notion of applying her craft to each of our disciplines.

“As someone with deep experience on both sides of the table, so to speak, I help teams ensure that we’re asking the right questions and measuring our success in the client’s terms.”
Greg Johnson: Jane, I’m excited about expanding our team to include you, so thank you for joining Perkins&Will! I know we share the belief that diversity of thinking is really important to creative problem solving. How do you think your previous experience informs your role on a design team?

Jane Greenthal: I had no idea that my peripatetic professional path would lead me to the perfect career as a design strategist—by that I mean that I can bring a wide range of very practical skills and experience, from market analysis and strategic planning to building businesses from the ground up as well as across global, diversified organizations—and mash it up with design, a discipline that requires very creative and divergent, yet holistic, systems thinking. I love being in the intersection of business and design—or some might say, between the dreamers and the doers. It’s where the right and left brains meet, and to me, where the magic happens. I had no idea what I was missing out on as someone trained in business—once I went to design school, I learned there was this whole new way of thinking that could help solve thorny business problems. Design thinking is human-centered. And business, at the end of the day, is about humans—employees, customers, partners, society at large—and we can design human experiences through the built environment, services, products, etc. to influence behaviors and drive strategic outcomes. At the same time, designers are not typically trained in business, so there are often gaps in bridging business objectives with design solutions, and even more so in measuring outcomes such as return on investment (ROI).

As someone with deep experience on both sides of the table, so to speak, I help teams ensure that we’re asking the right questions and measuring our success in the client’s terms. This includes setting the project vision through a business as well as a design lens, creating a framework to integrate hard data as well as intuitive experience, and defining a process that holds us accountable to the original vision and strategic objectives.

Jane leading a stakeholder engagement session.
GJ: Design strategy is becoming common for corporate interiors and retail projects, but how do you see its role beyond these project types?

JG: Strategy is an integral part of the design process and should be part of every project. It’s been applied more widely in corporate interiors and retail projects due to the explicit business needs that drive those projects—whether that’s asset optimization, improving workplace productivity and/or innovation, driving differentiated employee or customer experiences, etc. However, you take something like public spaces and there’s also a need for strategy to understand user needs, societal goals, and perhaps more community-based metrics.

Some of my most enjoyable and rewarding work has been partnering with airports and cultural institutions in understanding and defining the ‘guest’ experience. When you have a broad-based constituency like an airport, you have to be incredibly mindful of who you’re designing for—you need to think about the first-time fliers, non-English speakers, non-able bodied, small children, the elderly, those accompanying the aforementioned, and so on. Moreover, there are so many moving pieces to an airport experience—it’s not just the built environment, but the technology, wayfinding, digital and analog communications, service points and human interfaces… strategy is critical because you need to have that holistic view that goes beyond just the architecture, design & construction functions, or even what’s under the airport’s direct control. There’s also a huge opportunity to cross-pollinate learnings from different industries, environments and contexts.

I’m especially excited to join Perkins&Will because of its work in health care and the opportunity to leverage the collective expertise in health & wellness, inclusive design, surge demand management, sustainability, and infection control—all of which has been pushed to the forefront in these COVID times.

“Architects and designers have an amazing superpower: they can see things that don’t exist.”
GJ: Very true, the pandemic has brought wellness to the front of everyone’s mind and it has completely changed peoples’ behaviors and routines. This has dramatically affected the places and spaces where people once frequented. How can design strategy help reimagine future uses of our real estate and open spaces?

JG: I think the traditional space typologies of ‘workplace’, ‘store’, ‘residence’, etc. will be obsolete. Those lines have been blurring for a while, and with this pandemic, they’re going to be completely redefined and reimagined. , As social creatures, we’re always going to need physical places to live, work, and play. However, the much heralded ‘death of the office’ or ‘death of the store’ headline is more about the end of the social construct than the end of space—the office or store, as we knew it, is gone.

A few years ago, I did a study for a developer in Silicon Valley, and a key finding at the time was the transition from work-life balance to work-life integration. The insight was that people didn’t want to go to different destinations to do different things—ideally, they would do everything within walking distance (especially outdoors—even more desirable now). This begged for an open air, mixed use-type of solution. However, I would say that we’re entering an era of ‘fluid-use’—adaptive reuse of existing real estate assets for new emergent needs, and the development of highly flexible spaces that could host many different uses at different times, or even simultaneously. We’re going to have to design for much more seamless integration of different aspects of our lives both inside and outside our homes.

Design strategy is critical because it’s not just about creating an innovative, flexible design, but designing the entire eco-system, including how spaces might be leased, used, and adapted over time. The physical asset is only part of the equation. One needs to consider the enabling technologies and interfaces, operating and service models, user communications, etc. to deliver the intended experience. Architects and designers have an amazing superpower: they can see things that don’t exist. They can intuit emotional responses and think in 3D. Design strategy is the process that creates powerful, data-driven, actionable insights that aligns intent, and assesses impacts, with the imagination.

Multiple disciplines and lenses are necessary–architects, designers (of all kinds), strategists, planners, data analysts, technologists, environmental psychologists, etc.–to not just imagine, but deliver, a brighter, better future.

“... if you’re not working with data, you’re basically in the dark ages.”
GJ: What is the value of data to architects? … to the building owners?

JG: There was an article in The Economist a few years ago that said data is the new oil. I certainly think that’s true in terms of market value, as the title suggested, but unlike oil, it’s not a finite resource.

It’s estimated that 1.7 MB of data is created every second by every human being on this planet, and it’s growing. There’s even “data exhaust” which is tertiary data, implied from primary sources of data. That’s all to say, if you’re not working with data, you’re basically in the dark ages.

Data drives informed decision making. This is especially true in these times of volatility and constant change. Whether you’re the architect, designer, building owner, operator, or city planner, you need data to mitigate risk and ensure your project is aligned with the market, business needs, user requirements, and the needs of other potential stakeholders. Then on the back end, you need data to measure design performance and quantify outcomes. Data is critical throughout the process—sometimes course corrections might be warranted and need to be quantified.

What’s interesting to me is that it’s not just the sheer volume of data that’s available, but the variety of sources and real time nature of data help us create highly customized and adaptable solutions at a pretty granular level. For example, you can create very responsive and personalized environments based on individual user data. You can also make major programmatic changes based on actual usage. High-performing design is driven by data. I’m grateful to be part of a research-driven firm like Perkins&Will because of the tremendous resources, tools, and thinking that goes into collecting and analyzing data that enables radical innovation.

Shifting our mindset to put users at the center.
GJ: Where do you see the AEC industry going?

JG: I think sometimes we need to remind ourselves that we’re not delivering a product (the development or space), as much as a service (the development or space is a conduit for work, living, education, etc.) And we need to add more value to that service, which means we need to build more capabilities to ensure we are meeting the needs of our clients and their various stakeholders. It means we can’t just design and build places, but also figure out how they should work and how to know when they’re not, and/or how to continuously improve. It means we need to know how to manage change and effectively communicate with users and stakeholders. It means our job doesn’t begin when a site is selected, nor does it end when a project is built. The opportunity for our industry is to expand our field view outside of real estate, facilities, design and construction, to other critical functions such as IT, HR, strategic planning, finance, marketing and brand, community relations, etc. to help build the entire ecosystem where their business or mission can thrive.

I also believe that we have to step up as an industry to address some our biggest and most urgent issues, including climate change and social justice. We have an opportunity to create not just more inclusive designs, but a more inclusive process. A term that I’m becoming more familiar with is ‘design justice’—an approach that intentionally involves those normally marginalized in the process. I love that Perkins&Will has social equity, sustainability, and community engagement in its DNA, but I think that there’s much more we can do as an industry to create change at scale and move the needle more quickly.