People Ignore Design

The Un-sittable Chair

The Un-sittable Chair

Frank Chimero once said, “People ignore design that ignores people.” Well, Frank, I couldn’t agree more. To me there is nothing more frustrating than a chair that you can’t sit in, an uncomfortable couch and a table that isn’t level. Design takes on far more requirements than art. I believe that is what really separates the two, functionality. Ultimately, a chair that you can’t sit in is sculpture and should be called a piece of art not a piece of furniture.

As a furniture designer, I might fixate on the reality that I wouldn’t have a job if I chose form solely over function. My clients like to see the furniture function for its purpose in the office and secondly they want it to look good. Does that mean I ignore form all together? Not at all; I let function direct the form, not completely dictate the form. There are times when the form is so beautiful; I work backwards forcing the form to function, never neglecting the function, of course. This process can take longer and can give the engineers a headache. But for the most part design is really appreciated when it’s practical. Some of the most praised industrial designs are more functional than beautiful like the paper clip or the Band-Aid.

But furniture is different. It can’t just be functional – it has to represent something – whether that be a culture or the material it was made from. Tangram Studio clients want their furniture to represent them as a company. Dating back thousands of years, the Chinese would spend hundreds of years carving furniture because of how precious the wood was to them. Furniture to them represented their culture and status. They wanted you to feel the power of the wood, as you passed through a threshold or sat on a bench. Our clients want that same effect from their custom office furniture; they want you to feel the company’s culture as you walk through the space. So maybe the wood isn’t speaking to you but you can definitely get a sense of how they do business. I don’t think that materials speak that loudly to me, but they definitely influence my design. Sometimes our design process will start with a unique material and often the design direction is determined by that one material.

Furniture will always be necessary from what I can tell. And it will continue to evolve as our cultures evolve. Something that will never change about furniture is that it will always need to serve a purpose, but that doesn’t mean that you have to ignore the beauty furniture can have. It’s going to be in the room, you might as well enjoy it otherwise it will be ignored.

Office furniture has been pretty ugly for about a decade. It wasn’t until recently that people finally re-married form and function in the office furniture industry. The cubical is what the average person pictures when you ask them to picture office furniture, but that won’t always be the case. I don’t know why office furniture started out so ugly. The 50’s had some beautiful success with the classic tank desk and the Eames family bringing bright beautiful chairs to the office furniture industry. Then the 80’s and 90’s hit and we had failed attempts to make the office feel like home. With pastel floral fabric tack panels and it seemed like every corner was child proofed with really bulky cushions and rounded edges.  I guess the focus was really driven by the function and they forgot for a moment that grey is not a color. I can’t say I don’t appreciate the cubicle, because we have evolved from its imprisonment. But I can say that the cubicle was something people ignored for a long time, but not anymore, as far as Tangram Studio is concerned the cubicle is opportunity stuck in a box and we have the key. 

Hey Frank, come check out some Tangram Studio designs and tell me if you can’t take your eyes off some of our furniture. We can’t be ignored.


Design Language

My 1987 Volvo

My 1987 Volvo

Sometimes we can’t explain it. Our favorite pen, that go-to sweater that looks good on any day of the week, our beloved chair in the corner where we can curl up and read a book…they just make us feel good. Often times we can’t put into words why we like something. When asked, many of us stare quizzically at the object and then declare, “I just…do.”

Those of us who have thought about it a little more however, can respond differently.

My first car was an old 1987 Volvo. It wasn’t a “cool” car, it didn’t have a radio, and I had to get in the far right lane and put my hazard lights on when I was sputtering up a hill, but I loved that car. It was reliable, it was comfortable, and it was as safe as a tank. The best part was that it smelled like the beach and smoky pine trees from the many bonfires I had at the beach with my friends, after which we would all pile back in to my car, sandy and salty, and head home. I’m sure that they didn’t feel the same emotions towards that car that I did, but that’s what made it even more uniquely mine.

That being said, people react differently to certain smells, shapes, colors, and textures, so designers have the responsibility to understand the emotional reaction that certain designs might evoke. For example, if I design a toy that is heavy, black, and sharp, it won’t be as well received as a toy that is light, painted in fun, bright colors, and has a whimsical look about it. We as designers are responsible for knowing who our target market is and what their demands are. It is imperative that we know this and establish a design language before we start ideating so we are not shooting in the dark.

Following a certain design language comes naturally to some designers, while others have to work hard to understand this concept. Those who are intuitive can research or interview a company, demographic, or a person, and know inherently what their style is and then apply it to the design. It is a bit like downloading a font and then typing an entire blog in it. When designing, it helps to associate terminology with the style you are using. Examples of some terms that my colleagues and I throw around are movement, friendly, balance, playful, light, sophisticated, and intuitive. Once a designer understands the design language, ideating becomes more purposeful. It is both a challenge and a thrill. 

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Outside Lies Magic

I read a great book while in my twenties that has stuck with me through my life, it’s called Outside Lies Magic.  It was written by a landscape professor at Harvard University   The book speaks about the physical built world we live in and how, if you take a walk through your world and look at the details, buildings, paint, sidewalks, bridges, alleyways you will find magic.  There is something integrating about what lies in the alleys and under bellies of our built world.  On a recent trip through downtown Los Angeles on my way to a project and with the lingering thought of the book I came across some magic.

It was an evil and fantastic piece of graffiti art scrawled on the underside of an arched bridge. I initially whizzed past this gem, but the elongated angle caused me to lock up my breaks and throw my wagon in reverse to catch a better glimpse of the image. He now lives on my cell phone and in my image bank.  The glasses, elongated gun are so fantastic.  I wonder who did it, why? It’s like a gift left for all to see. 

This past weekend I set out on my bike through the streets of Long Beach in search of more magic. I came across a front yard fence fabricated from red skateboard decks, mounted vertical as though they were a picket fence. The owner must own a skateboard factory or maybe they came across a dumpster of skateboard decks that were made wrong. Continuing along I came across a neon green home and a few blocks over a purple house with pink trim.  I could only imagine who lives there. My favorite sighting was a child’s toy truck parallel parked next to the curb in front of a house – just as if little Johnny returned home from a hard day at preschool and parked his jeep out front and headed in for some Cheerios and a nap.

Outside lies magic.  It just takes opening your eyes.

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The Greek Problem

Courtesy of redhandrecords' photostream on Flickr

I attended the Chapman Economic & Business Review recently.  Good to hear that in general things are looking up, however anemically, for our region.  The headline read “The Recovery Creeps Along…Not much to quicken or retard the pace of growth”.

Except for the Greek Problem.

“There is also the risk of the ‘Greek Problem’ spreading to Italy…the global economy, therefore, cannot be expected to be an engine of economic growth in 2012.”

So the issues of instability on the other side of the planet might be insignificant enough to dampen US growth or significant enough to push the US into recession.

As the group headed off to cocktails after the conference, there was an overall cautiously optimistic buzz.  Shadowed by the ominous possibility of European crisis.

I find it amazing that after all Europe has been through that something like this couldn’t be handled.  Barbarian hordes, invasions, genocide, the Blitz, Europe has seen it all.  The rise and fall of the Roman Empire.  It is a part of the world that has learned to find a way regardless of what is going on.

In his memoir, Reverberations, the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau chides the American penchant for happiness, and not unlike other Europeans, wonders why we are so obsessed with being happy.  Why can’t we just be content with getting along?  Must we always have to be happy when circumstances are contrary?  Isn’t it more sane and more normal to be content while getting through tough times?   Do we have to be perky too?

I worked with someone years ago who told of living in Germany during the latter years of World War II as a young woman and spoke of living in rubble, hanging her nylons in front of the campfire to dry and being grateful to be alive with some form of shelter, while wondering if tonight that all could change when the air raid sirens resumed.

So life can go on, civilization can be built and progress can be made, even though there might be a spectre of gloom on the horizon.  What it takes is persevering in doing the work of today, paving the way for a better tomorrow.

Today, anyone in our company you ask would probably tell you they are swamped, that we are handling more volume than ever before and that it beats the alternative.  Backlog is high, but we also have a lot of tired, stressed people.  So, does that mean we can’t still strive for a better system?  I say no. 

But how to go about that is the challenge.  How do you get shelf space in the mind of a colleague or an employee who thinks they are already overloaded, that they are trying their best and really can’t see a way of things being better?

That is the work of the Inspired Manager.  Who by the way feels overloaded and can’t see a way of things being better (a little jest).  We can set the example of continuing to persevere while continuing to look for new ways to innovate, to make things better.  We need to acknowledge the fatigue of today but not at the expense of acknowledging the possibility of a better tomorrow.  We might not have the answer today, but that does not mean we might not have it tomorrow, or the day after.  We must stay open to the possibility.  And right there is the real issue with the Greek Problem.  Greece is a tiny part of the European Union that might have to bankrupt or withdraw.  That is a problem, but it’s not THE problem.  The idea of the same pattern of failure spreading to a larger, more significant economy, that is THE problem.

Don’t get tainted by failure to the point where you are closed to hope.  Ruthlessly self-inspect and find ways to remain open to possibility.  Take action today where you can and be vigilant for tomorrow.  Don’t allow the frustration, traditions and limits of today shut you down, or worse, taint others to the possibility of things being better tomorrow.  Make that possibility a reality and inspire others to do the same.

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A Bet Worth Losing

After several years participating in and raising funds for the Komen Race for the Cure in Orange County Team Tangam’s Captain, Joe Lozowski, made a bet with the organizing team that they could not double the previous year’s contributions for the 2011 race.


The challenge?

The team would have to raise over $10,000 in just a few months.


The bet?

If they were successful, Joe would buy the team dinner – but more importantly wear an entirely pink outfit to dinner and throughout the following business day. In Joe’s own words, “It was a bet worth losing.”


The result?

Joe lost the bet - but couldn't be happier!

Over 200 participants speckled the streets of Newport Beach with Tangram Orange shirts proudly walking with the knowledge that they had helped raise over $12,000 to help find a cure for breast cancer. Thanks to all that joined us this year and stay tuned as we see what Joe will wager against next year’s race!


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I Am Family

The other day I had the privilege of listening to our esteemed leaders speak at our 9th anniversary company party. There at the party Joe, Jack and Nick (all dressed alike in playful garb – as usual) each took their time at the podium to discuss what Tangram’s Culture is and how it makes us so successful as a company and a team.

The Culture they were referring to was not our brand identity, but how we are known as a company verses how people can perceive us through a tagline, or logo. He is specifically referring to our values, environment and that overall impression people have when they interact with us, as a company. So our culture is made up of: who we are, what we do and how we do it, all so well. Joe handed off the microphone to Nick, and with the sound of applause slowly fading in my mind, I landed in deep thought how I personally relate, and fit into this Culture and it took me back to my first impression of Tangram, and how it’s culture made me feel as a young design student eager to embark on my future.

I was kindly greeted by Carol our receptionist as I walked into the Tangram Santa Fe Springs showroom for the first time. Knowing I was nervous, she offered me a drink and directed me to the nearest restroom to freshen up. When I returned to the lobby, I was approached by Paul, the Director of Human Resources. With a kind smile and warm persona, Paul held out his hand to introduce himself to me. We chatted for a few minutes and I remember him being very understanding and encouraging to me; he even gave me a few tips that would help me have an even more successful interview. I remember thinking to myself, “he didn’t have to do that.”  Because of that kind gesture, I entered my interview with an even higher confidence.

I sat down with Joanne, the Director of Design, and we talked about why I wanted to work at Tangram. Although my impression of the company was fresh, and not very influenced, I was honest. I told her how inspired I was by the tagline Your Office Inspired – how that statement alone told me that Tangram cares to inspire their clients, and create an environment that is similar to the working environment I was toured through at Tangram. Paul put it best, “this is the Tangram Family; we work together, struggle together, and grow together. We are family.”

As a young design student, I didn’t know where I wanted to end up or if this internship was even a good fit for me, but I assured Joanne that I would work hard, make her job easier, and be a sponge. I wanted to soak up as much as I could every day. After viewing my portfolio, asking me a little more about what I expect from her as my mentor, she quickly decided that she would take a chance on me. Just like that I was added to the family. I was given an opportunity to inspire those around me and potentially clients, someday. I have been with the Tangram family for 4 years now and after being in the design department for a little over a year, I was transferred to the Studio department, where I found my home.

Back to reality, and Nick’s speech, he went on to talk about the character of Tangram and our thriving ability to not only get the job done, but maintain relationships with our clients. He then handed the microphone off to Jack, our Vice President of Operations.  Tangram does a great job as establishing relationships, but it is important to maintain them. Jack talked about understanding that every client has a voice and it’s important for us not only to listen to it, but listen and respond.

I am truly thankful for the job that I have currently, and I am even more thankful for the leaders I work under, and represent. My current Director, Charlotte, is an inspiration to me. There is not a day that goes by, where she isn’t challenging me and/or demanding excellence. In order for our team to remain successful, we maintain our teamwork. We maintain the relationships we have in-house, so that the relationships we establish out in the field are that much stronger. We respect, listen and work together to design the solutions and the same goes for our relationship with our clients. At Tangram Studio, we don’t just design and sell furniture; we get inspired and in-turn we inspire our clients, through what we deliver. We make promises to our clients, because we know we can keep them. So how do I contribute to Tangram’s Culture? By maintaining great relationships with my team and my clients and never forgetting I am a part of something bigger than me – I am family. 

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The Boomerang Effects of Inspiration


Courtesy of geoftheref's photostream on Flickr

I experienced the boomerang effects of inspiration.  And how great that felt.  Although he is a customer, he is truly as much a friend if not more so than a customer.  But during dinner with my customer/friend a few weeks ago, I was sharing how it is important to “keep in touch.”  That the job market is so crazy that even smarter and more talented folks find themselves “looking for work.”  So the conversation was me talking about how on a monthly basis, with the door closed and no distractions, that a list of 10-20 folks should be called “just to say hello.”  That my customer/friend should be the one to reach out just to check in.  No solicitation.  No talk of how a delivery might have been late.  But just to say hello.

And then my customer/friend asked “Mitchel, how would you feel if I called just to say hello?”  And I said how awesome that would be because I like you and what greater way to stay in contact.  And perhaps by staying in contact, should the day arrive that you need help and I can provide it, it will be easy for me to do.  So we then started putting the list of folks for my customer/friend to call and just say hello.

Just as he was getting excited about the idea, I too was getting excited by his reaction.  Although I am 20 years his junior, his feedback so too inspired me.  We struck upon an idea that we ultimately both benefited from.

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Courtesy of Martin Cathrae's photostream on Flickr

My recollection of Raku is that it is a Japanese process of firing clay in heated earth that results in a really beautiful, unique and iridescent sheen.  It’s also a fierce, dirty and dangerous process.

So I attended the Opening Night of the San Francisco Ballet last evening at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and there was a work on the program recently commissioned by the ballet that premiered earlier this year, entitled Raku.  With choreography by Yuri Possokhov and score by Shinji Eshima, it was an evocative work based on the burning of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion by a love-crazed monk in the 1950’s.  Beautiful, gripping, unforgettable, kind of obscure.  The day after I had to research several articles just to understand what I’d witnessed onstage.

So what does that have to do with management?  You know we get better with practice, even when the setting could be better.  Or sucks.  We can learn so much then, and so much beauty can come from it, but it feels absolutely horrific while it is going on.  If we could choose, we would choose another way.

So rigor can create beauty, but at what cost?  And do we have rigor because of a lack of clarity in our management or training structure?  We can celebrate the beauty that comes when we are forced to be resourceful, but on the other side of the line, people get burned out and cast off when the context of their performance is unclear or harsh.  I don’t think it justifies poor management skills.

Attracting and retaining new talent, particularly Millennials, forces a rethinking of this paradigm.  We lose money and talent when our training and on-boarding practices are ineffective or backward.  We pay more for less. We pay more when our environment or context are unattractive.  It is a delicate balance to get the beautiful product, evoke the rigor and not burn out the employer or the employee.

Gilbert’s Grid demonstrates the interaction between environment or context and performance and makes the case that environmental factors exert more of an influence than job skill.  When there can be mutually understood objectives and a clear channel of communication, new talent flourishes.

Otherwise, this experience can resemble a fascinating piece of art with an incomprehensible story line and a vague tragic ending.  We can do better.

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Today marks our ninth anniversary at Tangram and the celebration we hold annually in honor of our folk heroes who epitomize the values we prize the most.

So, how do we know who they are?  What criteria define these heroes?  What is the difference between the average schlub and one of these heroes? How subjective are the criteria?

We recently embarked on a mission to define the culture we prize most that results in a brand promise in the market place that sets us apart.  We started by observing what was in play, rather than imagining what we might want.  As we looked at amazing successes and painful failures we began to crystallize a set of attributes that thrive in our environment, that then results in a specific customer experience that then translates into market perception.  We found if our staff show up with those attributes, our customers are wowed.  So we created a chart and started using it.  We used it to weigh people we thought were superstars.  We used it to size up staff who left us under whatever terms.  We measure under-performers and over-performers against it.  We used it in screening new hires and as a way of opening a dialogue in the interview process.  We found it hugely successful, so here is a copy of it.


As our staff got engaged in this process, the first question we were asked was, how did those attributes get there?  Did we consciously hire for them, cultivate or develop them?  Well maybe, or not.  All we know is that when they show up it’s great.  We could be better about encouraging them to do so, for sure.   

The power of clear expectations up front is inestimable.  As is the power of the lack of them!

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Inspiring Lives

For the last 5 years, Tangram has organized a team to participate in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Orange County. We have grown into one of the largest teams and this year is no different with almost 200 people joining us this Sunday in Newport Beach. Although there are the obvious reasons for supporting the cause – like the fact that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime along with 1900 men each year – there are more personal reasons for us here at Tangram. Several of our current employees are cancer-free survivors and have shared their personal and inspiring stories with us this year to encourage others to join in, one of which has graciously decided to share her story with you as well.

Kristin Mehl is one of the newest members of the Tangram Family joining us earlier this summer as an Account Executive on the Tangram Health+Space team. Yet, she is an industry veteran with years of industry experience working together with designers and healthcare businesses to help furnish the healthcare facilities of tomorrow. But Kristin’s intimate involvement with healthcare facilities goes beyond her professional experience. Here is Kristin’s story in her own words:

In September 2009 I had a mammogram that would change my life. I was called back to do another mammogram, but found myself too busy with daily life, work, caring for others and not following up. I finally went back January 2010 for a follow up mammogram.

I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in January 2010.

It seems, one day you can be on top of the world and the next entering a dark tunnel to fight the fight.

I found myself walking in a breast cancer coma, going from one doctor’s appointment to the next, test after test, pre op, surgeries, and more hospital visits. I couldn’t believe this was real.

On March 5, 2010 I had a double mastectomy and immediate breast reconstruction using my own stomach and muscle tissue; a nine hour surgery. I asked the doctor, “So you’re going to do a tummy tuck and boob job?” I asked, “Can I get fries with that shake?”

Thanks to all my amazing family, friends and colleagues, I am a survivor!!

I am cancer free
I am Re-manufactured
I am Cradle to cradle Platinum LEED Certified

I am woman, hear me roar. 



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