Business Goals Drive Successful Design

Q+A with Lead Designer Kamran Riazi on AARP’s HQ Renovation


Kamran Riazi is a Design Consultant and Principal at OPX, a Washington, DC based design consultancy where he has worked for over 20 years. He recently completed the renovation of AARP’s headquarters in Washington DC.

SPARK had an opportunity to sit down with Kamran to learn more about the project and gain insight to his design thinking.

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SPARK: Tell us about yourself.

KR: In my career I have dabbled in various aspects of design: graphic design, art installation, painting, interior design, architecture, fashion, product design, digital space and gaming design. I see all that I do as an art project in some way. The exposure to such diverse aspects of the professional world has given me an insight into the most critical point in approaching any project: A successful engagement must begin with a full understanding of the client’s business and organizational goals. This knowledge will guide the design effort and involvement with the client’s organization. Without this knowledge, design decisions can only be evaluated against the default position of, “Do I like it or not?” or, “Does it meet the budget and schedule?” Neither of which is a strategic decision criterion.

It is my responsibility to understand and document the organization’s strategic imperatives, which establish criteria for all project decisions.

SPARK: Tell us about your role with the AARP renovation project and how it started.

KR: Our relationship with AARP started back in 1995, and over the years, I have been involved in all their projects. The most significant one, which began the rethinking of how the AARP organization of the future can work, was the AARP Foundation project. Then, we worked on the Innovation Center, better known as the Hatchery, a name I proposed based on the idea of a place to “hatch” new and innovative ideas, and give a nod of recognition to the inception of AARP and the coop.

Both projects were crucial in developing the full picture of how AARP can best work as we launched the three-year HQ renovation project. My role as the Lead Designer and Principal in Charge brought me into the center of this very large and complex project, which required a full understanding of the client’s enterprise goals, as well as specific project requirements, which also meant coordinating the work of a large group of skilled designers and consultants, in-house and otherwise.

SPARK: What were the goals or objectives you were trying to achieve with the design of the space?

KR: The top five objectives were:

1. Encourage collaboration, interaction, and communication
2. Create flexibility to adapt to change
3. Encourage and accommodate innovation
4. Create a more effective workplace
5. Maintain focus and commitment to the AARP mission

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SPARK: What were the primary needs of the people you were designing the space for?

KR: The primary needs of an organization and the needs of its employees must to work in concert. AARP was a great case-in-point of a successful solution. Staff’s work and life had to be addressed by providing a variety of spaces where one could work, in addition to one’s own space. We achieved a nearly 1:1.5 ratio of owned vs. shared spaces. We also provided spaces and amenities that address health, fitness, education, and technical support in a friendly, open, inviting, and inspiring environment to address the staff’s non-task-oriented requirements.

SPARK: Was this project different than other projects you’ve worked on and why?

KR: We approach all our projects with the same process, and since the needs of organizations differ, the solutions are always unique in that sense. What made the AARP project stand out was two-fold:
Firstly, the project was complex and very large. There had been no renovations for two decades, which meant that the leap from the old to the new was far greater. Secondly, AARP is fully committed to its mission above all, and no compromises were made in that regard.

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SPARK: Describe the plan of the space and your design thinking.

KR: Our design thinking process started with the previous two projects, which were prototypes for this project. We were able to learn from what had worked and what had not, to explore new ways of implementing this knowledge into how AARP’s new HQ environment could work.

Allowing natural light to penetrate the spaces unimpeded, and opening the floorplate to views that span across the entire building, encourages movement and therefore collaboration. Enclosed spaces were pulled away from the perimeter or fronted with full glass to allow light to pass through. The enclosed spaces, be it offices, huddle rooms, or storage rooms, were all constructed the same way and were 10 by 10, or multiples of 10 by 10. This meant they could be converted interchangeably to maximize future flexibility.

We created a space organization element called the avenue, which acts as a connecting element that stretches across the entire floorplate on each floor. This element hosts gathering places, casual seating, multi-purpose rooms, and elevator lobbies, and is flanked on each end by monumental stairs. The alternating locations of the main spaces along this avenue, aided by the vertical circulation elements, encourages movement and gathering, further enabling staff interaction. We collaborated with AARP’s in-house graphic design experts to develop and strategically locate environmental signage, as well as brand messaging.

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SPARK: Do you have a favorite space or element of the project?

KR: I have two: The workspace floor avenues and the ground level extended lobby. These have reportedly become the client staff’s favorite spaces, as well. I especially like them because the two represent a work and life balance in a professionally relevant setting.
 

“The exposure to such diverse aspects of the professional world has given me an insight into the most critical point in approaching any project: a successful engagement must begin with a full understanding of the client’s business and organizational goals. This knowledge will guide the design effort and involvement with the client’s organization.”

— Kamran Riazi