Diary of a Design Newbie: Expectations Meet Reality

FOX Architects’ D.C. office. Photo courtesy of FOX

When I started work as an intern at FOX Architects in May 2010, I knew nothing about working at a commercial architecture firm. Yes, Auburn University’s famed interior design program taught me how to utilize programs such as AutoCad and Revit, and select appropriate and aesthetically pleasing materials and finishes. Yes, hard work was the norm (pulling all-nighters in the studio was second nature to everyone in our class of 25 aspiring designers).

But true as that was, I knew the ivory tower design studio couldn’t prepare me for the fast-paced, client-driven, project-centric nature of a real firm.

The quantum leap from student to professional was daunting, transformational, and would have been impossible without the skills and confidence I gained through my internship. Compounding that transition were my expectations — I’m among the new generation of workers who (I’m told) are spearheading a dramatically changed working environment. Like other Gen Y newbies, I’m comfortable with tools and technologies that let me work from anywhere at anytime; I’m not, however, naturally oriented to the idea of a 9-5 workday complete with wearing gray suits, high heels, and hose each day.

So here I am, fairly confident in my design skills and worrying instead about the social norms of a professional, corporate work environment.

What was I supposed to wear? Did I need a dressy suit for each day of the week? (Thankfully, I found out I didn’t!) How many hours did everyone work? (A lot, it turned out!) And the notorious DC traffic? (Terrible, for a girl from Auburn who could get anywhere in town in less than five minutes!)

Fortunately, I quickly learned these cultural-level expectations and fell into a sustainable routine quickly. And, lucky for me, FOX wasn’t sending me out for coffee like other companies might typically ask of interns; instead, I was put to work immediately on real projects.

I learned quickly that FOX, like many other architecture and design firms these days, was committed to the new idea. By involving fresh eyes in its work, they were better positioned to capitalize on the “anytime, anywhere” qualities that I habitually, comfortably became familiar with while in design school.

So, I brought that transitional perspective to everything — whether I collaborated with people throughout the office learning to draw the intricacies of a wall partition detail, or I assisted design professionals with a variety of project phases. The workplace itself provided to be instructive in practicing design for corporate interiors, and I have new views on the workplace itself while contributing my two cents along the way.

One of the benefits I discovered at FOX that aligned with how I think about the workspace is that ours is both open and egalitarian. As a lowly intern, I was shocked to find myself sitting so close to one of the principals of the firm. At the same time, I was close to the technical director with whom I would be working intimately while developing detail standards for wall partitions.

After only a short period of time, I discovered everyone was more than willing to answer my questions and offer suggestions for improvement. Ideas were moving laterally through the open office. No one has private offices, and there are very few barriers for communication among all levels of design expertise. Knowledge is exchanged and collaboration happens everywhere.

Even as an intern, I felt respected and integrated within the team. And this was just from an open-office concept and a culture that promoted collaboration. I now understand how important it is to make sure a company’s culture is reflected in its workspace design.

The philosophy behind the workspace should always reinforce that of the company. In a place like FOX that means an emphasis on communication, collaboration and hard work. Our workplace design fosters these goals openly, organically, and naturally.

I’m happy to report that after my internship ended in August, FOX decided to make me a permanent member of its team. I look forward to taking the principles I’ve learned and applying them to new challenges. I know I’ll be helping other companies create their own optimal corporate cultures (whatever they may be) through innovative, insightful workspace design, for decades to come.

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