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DIAlogues: Hamilton Wilson (Wilson Architects) & Gretel Bakker (Performance Frontiers)

May 4, 2011

The DIAlogues Seminar Series, organised by the Queensland branch of the Design Institute of Australia (DIA), aims to engage, inform and inspire. Each seminar features respected individuals with first hand knowledge of the design industry to discuss their views on current issues facing the design professions, including legislature and policy requirements. The series aims to engage designers from all fields in dialogue associated with being a professional designer.

Nothing like publishing the review of the April 2011 event the day of the May event to wet your appetite for a great seminar, so without further ado, I hand the mic over to the lovely Jen Hudson, from the DIAlogues team…

DIAlogues Seminar 02 began with great momentum as Tania Wright from Premis (talk sponsor) presented us with a special treat to reinforce their corporate outlook – that work should be fun. Tania introduced Lauren Street, a former Australian Idol contestant, to sing the humorous builder’s rendition of “I Will Survive” (original song by Gloria Gaynor). Good luck to Tania to top that presentation next year!

Disclaimer: Yo peeps! Before I get started on the next section/s, just wanted to say it was too hard to try and cover absolutely everything Hamilton and Gretel had to say. I apologize in advance if I missed anything that anyone thought was exceptional – it all was!

Following Lauren’s performance, Hamilton Wilson from Wilson Architects took the stage with an engaging presentation on embedding research into practice. He began by discussing survival, not like Bear Grylls spending three weeks in the Amazon survival (although the design world can feel like that at times), but survival of a design practice through times of economic downfall – equally as challenging. He posed the question: How do you evolve and change with the times? How can a design practice survive? Wilson Architects have been in operation for over 125 years; clearly they know the answer.

As the subject of Hamilton’s talk suggests, the answer is research. Wilson Architects research what is common between space, technology and pedagogy. With a particular interest in learning space architecture and design, they have worked with Bond University, among others, to gather data on space utilisation. Wilson Architects are taking research to a new level by conducting in-depth analysis of student behaviour so that they can develop accurate briefs and meet the current needs of students and staff alike. The data does not lie. Clients may find it hard to swallow at times, initially trusting their own superficial observations, but no one can really dispute Wilson Architects’ findings from hours and hours of research.

Wilson Architects’ in-house database has allowed them the opportunity to make new connections for writing briefs so that student’s needs are truly catered for. What has been revealed is that traditional single use facilities are a thing of the past. Lecture theatres need to do more than just cater for a lecture, they need to be dynamic and enable a multitude of learning styles. Common areas need to do more than allow casual mingling. They can be designed to provide an important learning environment. Collaborative spaces can offer more.

A point I found particularly interesting was when Hamilton stated that the experience of a space is a critical part of learning. I like this because it reinforces the importance of good design and the creation of enjoyable spaces, rather than creating pretty designs just for the sake of it.

Next up was Gretel Bakker from Performance Frontiers who gave her presentation on neuroscience, leadership and collaboration in project teams. She started with a thorough overview of Performance Frontiers along with some interesting nerdy details about the how’s and why’s of their approach.

Note: I don’t have time to go fully into what it is Performance Frontiers do, but should you wish to find out, which I strongly advise, please follow this link, and visit their website.

Moving on…

In keeping with the high standard of Hamilton’s talk, Gretel’s presentation was also very professional and engaging, delivered with relative ease and confidence. With a background in the creative industries, having studied psychology and recently completing masters in neuroscience, it’s no wonder!

Gretel began by talking about the importance of collaboration in the workplace.  A collaborative approach is a blessing to grab with all your might, but what is often observed is cooperation not collaboration, and there is a world of difference between the two. I suppose people don’t want to ‘rock the boat’ so-to-speak, but collaboration is supposed to be messy! Sit comfortably in your discomfort peeps!

Through collaboration we will get good results, and there are ideal conditions to support this: groups of 7-12 people are a good number; the people in the group need to have relevant experience; the participants experience should be diverse so that you get a broad range of views; and, finally, my favourite: naïveté is very important. People who are naïve ask different questions, which often provoke the group to think in different ways.

Gretel continued on to discuss the results of collaboration, namely creativity, and how this is now the most important leadership quality for success in business, outweighing even integrity and global thinking (GO design!). For a happy and productive work environment, leaders need to have an open mind and encourage active involvement along with free exchange of information. Ultimately, you want to create an office with a culture that values alternative views.  To achieve this, it is important to understand the motivations behind a person’s behaviour. These were identified as: autonomy – to have the choice of AT LEAST three different types of carpet; mastery – to become a carpet master! and purpose – to contribute to the ‘bigger carpet’. All of these three things are critical aspects of creating a healthier workplace, among other things.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, Gretel discussed some of the latest neuroscience revelations. She spoke of how we’re social animals and that a workplace is a prime location for social interaction. She also revealed that the aim of our brain is to minimise danger and maximise reward. An event known as a ‘limbic moment’ can occur when a person feels under threat, causing the frontal cortex (again, not enough time) to begin to shut down, essentially restricting the person’s ability to think clearly. Unfortunately, once you’ve transitioned this far, it’s ‘fight or flight’ time! But all’s not lost, if you’re having a ‘limbic moment’, you should stop, breathe and reframe; then you can engage and reflect.

After Gretel had wrapped up her talk, the questions started flying, mostly from Hamilton Wilson. It seemed like Gretel and Hamilton could have chatted for hours.  Katie eventually had to send Hamilton to the quiet corner though otherwise no other audience members would have got a word in. Unfortunately. I’m unable to recall exactly what any of these were, my brain was already too jam-packed from both Hamilton and Gretel’s awesome talks. But, I’ve already gone on for way too long anyway, so I’ll just leave you with this – the night was a huge success!

Thanks Jen! I have to say, I have had a few ‘limbic moments’ in my time…

DIAlogues Seminar 03 is kicking off at the Corporate Culture Showroom in Fortitude Valley tonight, Wednesday 4 May with Sue Savage from QUT talking about the nu–wave of designer graduate and Jason Bird from Objx/Luxxbox discussing the highs and lows of global design.

Also, the following week, DIALogues is road-tripping south to the Gold Coast at Gallery One in Southport on Wednesday 11 May. Brisbane Boys Jason Bird and Kevin Finn from Finn Creative will be joining forces to make the inaugural Gold Coast DIAlogues a hit!

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