A Two Year Crash Course in Design Thinking

September 2, 2018 | Matt Palazzolo | Case Studies

Starring the undisputed heavyweight champions in space design, and us, the students.

The creative brief didn’t even sound simple.

Design a completely unique customer story for large companies looking to design and outfit an entire campus or building with the latest and greatest in workspace design solutions – but rather than pushing products, give them resources and experiences that help them figure out what they’re searching for themselves (with a light guiding hand,) over the course of several hours.

How do you design a multiple hour customer experience, hinging on various lightbulb moments of self-discovery?

If you’ve ever visited the Steelcase Learning & Innovation Center (LINC) in Grand Rapids, or any one of their offices globally, you know that their work environments have a way of speaking for themselves. Take any working professional who spends the bulk of their time in an office, put them in a Steelcase office, and there’s a sort of Alice in Wonderland moment that happens. The only difference is that nothing needs explaining. 

The purpose of everything in a Steelcase space has a way of revealing itself – each setting, application, and product, the totality of an environment. It all makes perfect sense to even the most novice of visitors, say someone who has spent their entire career in a cubicle. But it still manages to surprise you. Our first, second, and third experiences were no different.

As we began our journey with Steelcase, we were given the rare opportunity to peak behind the curtain and find out how all of the “a-ha” moments come to be. 

It starts with research.

The company dedicates a significant amount of funding to their research department, which is an integral part of its ability to stay firmly placed at the top of the industry. Every design element is born from from countless studies around human behavior.

Our task was to embed with the Steelcase research team to help bring their high-level learnings down to earth. We started with some rough ideas around how humans learn, work and behave. Over the following year, we took those ideas and shaped them into exercises, interactions and technical implementations.

What fell out of those creations was a new type of customer experience. One that not only seeks to create beautiful environments, but to foster organizational transformations – to infiltrate C-suites and leadership teams, and give them a new lens through which they might examine their business.

The backbone of this entire project is a matrix of 8 factors, against which every Steelcase environment is measured. Using this as a foundation, the experience enables customers to identify where their organization currently succeeds in supporting its people, where it can improve, and how physical space can help facilitate that growth.

One of the main objectives of the project was also a looming obstacle. How do you marry the analog with the digital in a way that’s meaningful and elegant? Steelcase is a leading edge company, but one that recognizes that technology for the sake of technology is seldom a recipe for success. We needed to craft exercises that would result in valuable learning for customers. Would we be able to leverage technology to achieve this without it watering down the experience itself?

The experience that we finally landed on was comprised of a series of three customer touchpoints that felt fluid and pushed as much of the tech as possible into the background:

1. Analog Pegboard Exercise

As a customer, the first of these three begins shortly after you enter the building. Once you’ve been greeted by your Customer Engagement Curator (CEC,) your team is led up to one of the Customer Studios on the top floor. This space becomes a sort of home base for the day.

Here, each team member is given a wooden pegboard, in which the proprietary Steelcase 8 vectors are etched. They are instructed to use a set of pins to rate their organization on how its space supports each vector, using a scale from 1-5 (1 meaning needs a lot of work, 5 meaning ‘I think we’re perfect.’) When they are completed, they are given a rubber band to place around the pins, effectively creating a shape that is unique to their perspective – a “Thumbprint.”


Once everyone has finished, the boards are placed in rows on a set of shelves in the room. As they’re placed together, the patterns and differences that reveal themselves become fodder for discussion around which areas need the most attention. To hedge against any hierarchical dynamics, the results of this exercise are anonymous.

2. LINC Tagging Exercise

The conversation that stems from the pegboard exercise sets the stage for the meat of a customer journey. Now, the customer team members are each given a small, plastic “clicker” with one button. The CEC introduces this tour by telling them if, at any point, they are interested in a setting or environment, to click the button where you’re standing – and to know that each person’s clicks are being saved, anonymously, to be revisited later in the day.

Rather than keeping the tour rigid, as the team is guided throughout the working floors of the LINC, they are encouraged to explore the space and to engage with Steelcase employees. As they traverse several floors of dynamic work environments, they have the opportunity to create a collection using their clicker.

3. Collecting / Sorting Exercise

As a group brings its tour to a close, they are brought back to their Customer Studio, likely with a sense of curiosity as to what has become of their “clicks.”

The CEC will gather the group around a large interactive table. On its touch-screen surface is a Steelcase logo. At the command of the CEC, a graphic effect brings the familiar 8 vector graph onto the table, on top of which each member’s Thumbprints begin to overlay in different colors, one after another. This creates a composite “Group Thumbprint” that highlights differences and similarities between results from the morning’s exercise.

Now that they’ve completed a tour, however, their opinions and perspectives may have shifted. From here, a transition plays on the table, revealing a cutaway of the LINC building. One person taps on a floor, which then pans out and becomes a lightly detailed floor plan with a heat map of areas of interest.

From here, the group can identify which areas were of highest interest to the team, and zoom into it, revealing pins of each individual click from their tour. As they continue to zoom deeper, the pins go away and stacks of photos are revealed in each area of the floor plan. Tap into a stack, and multiple photos and angles of that environment display on the table. At the same time, a border appears around the edges of the table.

Here is where the CEC assigns them with a new task. As a group, discuss which photos were of interest, and if you feel strongly about a space, drag the photo toward the edge of the table. The images snap into the border or “Collection Bin,” creating a team collection that will be used going forward.

After the group collects images from each floor, the CEC brings the table to its next phase. A blank version of the 8 vector chart reappears, and the collection bin on the edge of the table remains. They are instructed to drag and drop images into whichever vector they feel the space best represents or supports. Once they have sorted all the images, they become opaque as a series of dots appear on the chart.

With the photos lingering in the background, and armed with learnings from their day, the team must now rate each vector from 1-5 based on importance to their organizational goals, as well as which they feel warrant the most attention.

What is created at the end of this is a Group Thumbprint that will serve to guide the leadership team as they move forward in creating spaces for their employees. They now have a reference for how to think about designing a space that will engage and motivate their talent at a high level. The group’s collected items, Thumbprint and remaining data is automatically pushed up into a custom WordPress site. In the days following their visit, they will receive a custom, private link to a wealth of personalized Steelcase resources that will guide them in their journey toward transforming their work space.

Was it successful?

Throughout the course of a customer journey at the Munich LINC, customer team members will have moments of learning individually and collectively, in analog exercises and interactive digital media. At the end of the day, the hope is that a company’s leaders walk away better served to empower their people.

That was our hope. But we still wondered… would it work?

After our work on the Munich customer journey concluded, we were smarter for it. We were energized, fulfilled. But we were also dismayed that the project had concluded – we experienced a bit of separation anxiety. We had put this thing that we were immensely proud of out into the world, and all we could do was hope that it worked, that everything we poured into it would actually spur organizational growth.

Eventually, we reconnected with Marc Nicolaisen – a lead sales person in Munich. He was one of the few people who would be a primary leader of the experience. It had been a few months since the experience was live. Our CEO and agency director, Glen, inquired “How has it all been working?”

As opposed to a simple yes or no answer, Marc told him a story from one of his first customer visits. A prominent German company had brought in most of its C-Suite, looking to outfit a new campus with furniture. Near the conclusion of the journey, Marc asked them what they had learned that day… silence.

He reiterated – “What do you all think about what you’ve seen today? Do you have an idea of where you might want to improve?” Another long pause preceded one individual’s response.

“Well, lunch was very good.”

That was it. The group exited, and Marc was left pondering if it had all gone horribly awry at some point – if they just didn’t get it. After a day or two, he followed up with the team via email. Still nothing.

More than a week later, he received a phone call from one of the higher-ups.

“I’m sorry we haven’t been responsive. We needed some time to collect our thoughts.”

“I apologize for the way we left last week… We were speechless. Our visit sparked some of the most insightful and productive conversations we’ve ever had as a team.”

“We’re doing this. We’re committed to putting all of our budget with Steelcase.”


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