Jenn Isom has a new team of experts who cover everything from furniture, interiors, surfaces and more for residential and commercial projects. How does she do it?
Designing the right look and feel of a new or refurbished commercial space is a complex process that involves far more than picking out paint colors and furniture. That’s where interior designer Jenn Isom comes in. She works with clients to consult, define and realize the visual identity and functional attribute of a workspace.
Isom studied design at the University of Kansas, followed by an internship at the architecture firm BNIM. Her education focused on interiors, such as fiber, lighting design and painting, as well as architecture, helping her to “see the whole picture.”
Her internship led to a position at BNIM, where she stayed for six years. She worked on high-end office design for law offices, a public library, a hospital and other projects. Isom often was able to select artwork for clients. She says, “I have selected hundreds of pieces of artwork for facilities. I try to integrate the art with the space, whether it is photography, sculpture or even a graphic pattern to add texture.”
During the next stage of her career, Isom worked at a large, New York-based interior design firm that specialized in set design. Her projects there ranged from restaurants to hotels to boutiques.
When she returned to Kansas City for a visit, Isom met a friend during First Friday that connected her with a local architect. The meeting turned into an opportunity for Isom to apply her interior design skills at Clockwork Architecture and Design, where she worked for more than six years.
“I led projects and handled architectural details down to putting a construction set together,” she recalls. Her ongoing exposure to architecture bolstered her skills on the design side. “In order to design to your potential, you need to know how things are built.”
Start the Conversation
The key to starting and completing a successful project begins with a conversation. Isom first converses with the “visionary” of the company, be it the owner, CEO or person driving the change. She says, “They must be connected to the culture of the company and know where the company is going.”
The conversation leads to learning about the culture – how people work – and the company’s direction to determine what image to project. She adds, “When you have a candid, open conversation with people that exhibit those attributes, it helps to lead the design effort.”
Throughout the process, Isom starts with the big picture. “Then, I hone in on the details and later pull back to fit in all the details for each project,” she says.
Questions and Answers
Next, Isom assesses the company by department—or smaller audiences—to determine the qualitative and quantitative direction. She provides a questionnaire for department heads to complete after consultation with their staff. The form gathers data about filing, equipment, staffing and other needs. The questions are tailored for each client.
“The questionnaire gives you a better sense of whether each group’s needs are in relation to the decision-maker, such as the CEO,” Isom says. “The quantitative part helps to determine the spatial needs and tools necessary to get the job done.”
Qualitative refers to the look, mood and sensory feel of the environment. “We want to integrate the human element to arrive at a pleasing outcome,” she says. “What things make it a place that employees want to be at and work at?”
In college, developing a project analysis—or “program”—for a client was Isom’s least favorite task, but the process is key to creating a functional space that fits the client’s needs. Over the course of her career, she improved her skill in this area and began adding more visual elements to supplement her analysis and assessments.
One exercise involves selecting images of various spaces, materials, lighting and other design elements and displaying them on a “visioning wall.” Isom chooses new images for each client after the initial high-level discussion. The decision-maker offers preliminary thoughts about a proposed look and feel, but doesn’t participate in the visioning process.
She asks people at different levels of the company to indicate what images reflect the type of environment that appeals to their taste. She studies how people react to the images and how long they pause to reflect.
“People respond to images of texture, color and lighting,” Isom says, adding that they may not be able to articulate their taste clearly without a prompt. “The visioning wall is one of the most important parts of the process. You encounter a range of people with different needs. Some people are more prone to talk more while others will complete a detailed questionnaire.”
Isom also pays attention to how people dress. She says, “Colors often reflect the environment they prefer.”
Observing people and processes in the existing space, especially if the project is a renovation, is another technique to gather information in the field. She has even taken a camera and notepad to document an existing space in different departments at different times of the day before making an assessment.
Isom is the first to confirm that you can’t please everyone. She works through the questionnaires and exercises to form a consensus. “Goals vary and don’t always match,” she says. “Goals identified by the owner and department head differ from the people doing hands-on work,” she says. “I piece together information and try to find common ground.”
Part of Isom’s role is to “advise toward goals.” She identifies several key considerations regarding how plans can vary depending on the space:
Is there an existing plan? If so, more questions can be answered initially.
Is the space identified ahead of time? If so, addressing and resolving issues should ideally happen in the scheduling phase.
If it’s a renovation, start with known factors and adapt to the unknown. When construction starts, surprises and changes inevitably occur.
Is the client shopping for a new space or building? Decision-making is more open-ended in these cases.
What are the budget constraints? How does the client substantiate the money to be spent and how it ties into the project’s goal?
Are goals identified in a 5–10 year plan? A project can take 1–3 years to complete. It’s key to know where the company is going so the space can accommodate needs.
What are the staff goals? How will the staff and departments change over time?
What is the overall dream or vision? Isom goes back to the visionary’s big picture aspirations for a project.
“It’s important that employees feel empowered to have an opinion,” Isom says. “They are a key part of operations. Everyone should have a voice or be represented in the hierarchy. It’s hard to do, depending on how a company is structured. Leaders and owners have to be receptive to ideas at different levels. These are key to a successful outcome.”