When Facebook selected to move their HQ to a pre-existing set of buildings in Menlo Park, their brief to interior designers Gensler was that the fit-out should be “open, mobile, socially connected, dimensionally aware, culturally relevant and personally sustaining“. How did this philosophy-led approach to interior design be realised and ware there any lessons that can be learnt from their approach?
The Menlo Park site consisted of 11 buildings that had previously been home to Sun Microsystems until their takeover by Oracle Corporation in 2010 since when the 1 million square feet site had been effectively abandoned until acquired by Facebook in 2011 with final purchase for $202 million completing in 2016.
As would be expected with a facility from the 1990s, the interiors were largely a maze of small offices and booths and for interior designers Gensler, the key to the project was balancing the juxtaposition of the 1990s office space of the Menlo Park site with the ultra-modern and ethos-led desire for the workspace as an organic part of the organisation. The brief from Facebook was conceptual: “We need you to help us ensure that, as we move into this corporate environment, it doesn’t make us corporate“. So what were the elements Gensler undertook to deliver a completed project based upon what is, in effect, an anti-brief?
To Brand or not to brand?
The ‘accepted’ approach to office interior decor is that it should reflect the branding and colour palette of the occupying organisation: these days you would expect to see the logo of the occupying organisation on walls and/or glass partitioning etc with the colour palette taken from the branding running throughout floor and wall coverings. However, with Menlo park Gensler senior associate Randy Howder highlighted Facebook’s alternative approach by stating that “[t]here’s no corporate branding department that gives us Pantone colors we have to match with the furniture and carpet“.
In brief, as part of the attempt to create a ‘non-corporate space’, strict adherence to branding principles was thrown-out and a myriad of styles and approaches were taken to the decor of each area of a building and between the different buildings making-up the facility. In fact, the extent to which this approach was taken is exemplified by the fact that Oracle branding and logos were left-in situ in some of the workspaces!
Round pegs in square holes
To ensure that a freshness of approach was applied to the design of the Menlo Park Campus, Gensler specifically utilised young designers and targeted designers who hadn’t worked on similar projects previously but had rather been deployed and/or specialists in designing alternative working environments. This was seen as being essential to gaining new concepts and insight into office interior design and not merely to retread what had been done previously and was accepted practice.
No design by design
As is mentioned above, the overall concept was for less fixed-design and more design in offering flexible spaces that could adapt , and be reflexive of, the needs and preferences of its users. For example, in many areas blank walls were provided as blank canvases for staff to create their own decor/wall coverings and materials made available to the staff to shape their decor at will allowing it to evolve over time and be continually fluid in appearance.
One size doesn’t fit all
So, the interiors of all of the buildings have been opened-out, the walls and general floor coverings have been designed in-part with many areas left wide open for further interaction with the occupiers along with remnants left from previous occupants to further erode the corporate aesthetic of Facebook: but what about office furniture, is this too a sign of corporate homogeneity and restrictive of creative, free thinking? Apparently, if you’re Facebook, then the answer is definitely ‘Yes’!
Randy Howder points out that, when it comes to pieces of conventional office furniture, “Facebook looks at them as being already figured out in a way that doesn’t allow for staff’s own interpretations [..] Facebook employees are more interested in making those things themselves, because they can innovate“.
This ties-in with the approach of working practices centred around interaction and communal effort: the row after row of individual workstations doesn’t lend itself to such an approach. The thinking here is that, if a certain group of workers benefit from collaboration and interaction, then their furniture should aid in the facilitation of such: if 30 people work as a team, then design one big workstations that accommodates them all together, for example, or if a worker’s tasks doesn’t require a rigid workstation with a desktop surface, then provide a couch to sit on – preferably a large one to encourage others to work in the same area!
Zones v Offices
Whilst there is some demarcation of function at Menlo Park at a building level – there is an Engineering building, a Sales & Marketing building etc – within each of the buildings, the demarcation becomes much blurred with a zonal approach taken.
In traditional office layouts, different teams/staff functions occupied their own offices/rooms which were rather formal in layout and the mixing of staff from different departments was, at best, kept largely within each department. However, cutting-edge thinking on workplace layout and staff efficiency is very much concerned with what is termed ‘collision spaces’ (read more on them HERE) which are, basically, designed-in areas of the workplace that promote staff interaction and connection.
Facebook has attempted to take this concept a step further in that many of the main working areas are ‘collision spaces’, or rather communal zones, designed to facilitate staff interaction and more resemble the breakout/recreational spaces of previous office designs so as a worker you have complete flexibility about where you desire to do your work.
In conclusion, whilst the cutting-edge IT giants such as Facebook and Google are seen to provide ‘wacky and way-out’ workspaces by many – internal water slides anyone? – in truth, they are just taking contemporary office design thinking to a level just ahead of the curve. Collision spaces, communal spaces, integrated recreation spaces, bespoke furniture, graffiti walls etc etc area all elements deployed in modern design but in more restrained, subtle ways. What Facebook et al are doing is taking these concepts and rather than adding elements of them into a conventional workspace, are shaping their workspaces around them.
Thus, the lessons to be learned from Facebook’s Menlo Park HQ are the same lessons to be learned from conventional office design – they’re just shouted louder – and as to whether there is anything in such developments that can be adapted to other workplaces … well, the answer is definitely ‘yes’! All of their workplace elements are based upon sound principles that are used globally in contemporary design and can be scaled down or up as required to accommodate the needs of any organisation’s work premises.