Design Manifestos: Chris Rood of Vocon

Chris Rood (Photograph by Lindsey Ray courtesy of Vocon)

Chris Rood of Vocon uses his collaborative approach and multi-faceted skill set to provide optimal solutions for each client. He firmly believes that design makes a difference regardless of the scope of the project — from a light fixture to a master plan, a thoughtful, responsive design has the power to transform. His contributions fit well into Vocon’s culture, which he describes as “hardwired for innovation.” He fosters interaction, creativity, and a sense of camaraderie that encourages the freedom to explore new and different methods of design, breaking the boundaries of convention. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Chris’s unique approach and design philosophy.

On becoming an architect
My path into a career in architecture and design was quite circuitous. I had explored several vocations and pursuits prior to deciding on a career in architecture, so I came into the profession at a later age than most. The running joke amongst my colleagues is “back when Chris was <insert job here>”. Bartender (true), EMT (true), astronaut (NOT true), musician (true), secret agent (NOT true), taxi driver (true), lab assistant (true). Long story short, I’ve had the good fortune to be exposed to a variety of experiences and personalities that have helped shape my design process and outlook.

Though it took me a while to decide on architecture as a profession, my interest and curiosity in spatial form had always been there from a very early age. As a kid, I loved playing with LEGOs, creating buildings out of construction paper and cardboard…the usual ways kids express their imagination. When I decided to explore a new career path, this curiosity definitely played a role. I ended up at a point in my life where I needed an outlet for that expression, and had to decide what route that would ultimately entail. I explored which options would combine left-side and right-side brain challenges and truly engage my interests. One of the benefits of having a diverse vocational background is that it gives me a much more holistic approach to design challenges. It provides a more comprehensive examination of the project and the client’s needs, as well as a more empathetic outlook (depending on the project, of course), on the design solution. I’d encourage designers to pursue hobbies or even vocations outside of the traditional design disciplines at one point or another, in order to get a fresh perspective.

Omnova (Photograph by Christian Phillips courtesy of Vocon)

On discovering his voice as an architectural designer
I cannot say there was any single “eureka” moment or project when I discovered my “voice;” it has been, and continues to be, an evolutionary process. Early in my education and career I was probably most inspired by Minimalism, as I focused on pursuing the simplest and most effective design solution that recognized both form and void as equally important. From there, I began to develop my own personal “kit-of-parts”, or “bag-of-tricks,” as most designers do. My palette has evolved over time to include a wider range of styles and influences. I think it’s very important for these to continue to evolve over time, as well as to discover new ones and throw out the ones that are no longer relevant. It is very easy for designers to stagnate into one style, or “comfort zone,” but doing so can limit the effectiveness of design. I strive to continue to learn and find new influences to keep my work fresh.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge, at least on a subconscious level, the influence my interest in science fiction has had on my design proclivities, too. Spatial relationships, materiality and color are all impacted by my love of science fiction, as well as my focus on striking a balance between clean, sleek lines and planes and creating a “lived-in” sense of warmth and texture.

Omnova (Photograph by Christian Phillips courtesy of Vocon)

On joining Vocon
I was referred to Vocon by a close friend and classmate, during a time period when the firm began to experience rapid growth and a broadened focus. While Vocon has expanded its size and project scope over the past decade, the same underlying core principles that drove the firm in its earliest days have remained strong: constant collaboration, an intense focus on developing positive client relationships and providing outstanding service, design excellence and pushing boundaries. These may seem like “buzzwords” that any firm can throw out there, but at Vocon it really is the real deal. This atmosphere has changed my approach to architecture and design considerably since joining the firm. My design process has become more about striking the balance between listening to the client while guiding them on a journey of self-discovery. Design is not just about aesthetics; it’s about improving the experience of the people in the space. This extends past straightforward design, into the firm’s other specialties, such as workplace strategy, for example. Getting to the root of what a client desires on the surface, and balancing those needs with how they fundamentally use and interact with a space on a daily basis is critical, and can completely transform the client’s experience in that space for the better.

On specific principles he strives to adhere to
At Vocon, there are four principles that guide our process and approach to every project.
-Every project can make life better.
-Strong relationships inspire great work.
-We must push boundaries and explore new ideas.
-Only together can we give it our all.

It is important for us as designers to take a step back occasionally in the design process, and assess if these principles are being achieved. Vocon has always been a people-based firm, so again, it becomes more important to strike the proper balance with each design approach and process.

Omnova Interior (Photograph by Christian Phillips courtesy of Vocon)

On his role at Vocon
My current role at the firm as a senior project designer involves schematic and conceptual design for new ground-up projects, conceptual site and master planning and zoning analysis, and spearheading visualization/rendering/presentation work. What it really means for my typical day-to-day workflow is touching a lot of projects very early in their design-cycle, and essentially creating/facilitating the nascent project vision. The nature of this work often involves rapid design and visioning projects that continuously evolve, forcing a combination of creativity, efficiency, and client responsiveness/understanding. I enjoy having to be nimble and flexible in my approach, especially in a collaborative environment. And collaboration is critical here; we have a team of highly-talented, very capable designers and architects that bring unique talents and perspectives to each project, and we have all learned to both adapt and be proactive in a rapidly-shifting industry.

On projects that represent Vocon’s unique approach
Vocon’s approach is unique in both how people-centric and comprehensive the services we provide for the client are. The Goodyear, Omnova and Oatey projects are all great examples of this unique approach. Each of these are new headquarters projects that became expressions of their respective companies’ desired visions and directions, so it was important to distill those visions into tangible, achievable outcomes. Each project was client-focused, from day-one, and involved a considerable amount of workplace study and analysis to understand client needs and goals before design was even initiated. The design then became a natural outgrowth of this data and client visioning, aligning the client’s goals for the future with their everyday needs and desires.

It’s important to note that sometimes a client may think the best approach moving forward is a design solution, when that is not always the case. And it is important that we are able to honestly and openly convey that to the client, so that they don’t end up shoe-horning a perceived spatial solution into their vision when it doesn’t really solve the underlying issues. We have encountered several instances where a client is convinced an expansion or relocation will magically reinvent their culture or perception, without having a solid grasp on how they actually operate on a day-to-day basis. “Culture” is an over-used term that isn’t just about feel-good terms or flashy logos.

Oatey (Rendering courtesy of Vocon)

On his design toolkit
My process tends to be very non-linear in approach, involving several different media and design tools. Our firm has been in perpetual transition to BIM modeling as the primary software tool and project deliverable, but I tend towards the use of multiple programs throughout the design process. In the overall project arc, this means that the BIM file tends to be the “trunk” of the tree. It forms the model foundation upon which iterations and ideas may branch off from utilizing other programs and media, but which the design progression eventually returns to, all with the thought of supporting workflow and minimizing redundancies for the project. Everybody brings unique talents and skillsets to the project team, which can sometimes create hiccups or bottlenecks to this workflow. It becomes especially important in this context to collaborate ideas and visual solutions, and to democratize a lot of the fundamental processes (“share the love,” so to speak, when it comes to new ideas, techniques, and processes).

It seems that 3D modeling software has had an overall effect, across the industry, of raising the client’s visual expectation bar considerably, especially with regards to what they see very early on in the conceptual phases of a project. Because of this, we have to act as “design stewards” in a way, by constantly balancing conceptual flexibility and iterations with the “pretty pictures.” I have seen far too many instances where an early conceptual idea gets locked into a client’s head as the finished product prematurely, without proper design investigation. We need to constantly be proactive stewards of both the process and deliverables.

Oatey (Rendering courtesy of Vocon)

On the state of design software today
Design software in general has made great leaps and bounds, especially in the last 10–15 years. The amount of information that can now be both visually conveyed and statistically embedded within a file, along with revolutions in client and consultant collaboration and sharing of information, parametric design capabilities, and deliverable documents has been extraordinary. One of the downsides that we must be vigilant with in examining all of these advances, though, is that they not become the design drivers or crutches, but rather tools. These tools, when used properly, can take a project to new heights. Conversely, the inherent room for data error, unexpected consequences, and general assumptions and laziness is increased dramatically. It is important to constantly stay on the front edge of training and best practices, as well as actively pursue and promote all aspects of the design process.

On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
One of the driving forces recently, and one that will continue over the next couple of decades, is the immediacy and ease of cross-pollination of information and knowledge globally. Knowledge bases in general, and the tools of creative expression in particular, have enabled an unprecedented amount of content to be created and disseminated. When combined with the technological frontier rapidly accelerating, it becomes a double-edged sword. On one hand, so much more knowledge and information is available to so many more people. But without proper context or education, is this always a good thing? Probably not, and it is important that we strive to maintain the human element within the profession, as well as the notion of craft. The roles between designers, clients, contractors, property and construction managers have shifted greatly in recent years as well, and the notion of perceived value of the design professional is one we will have to proactively address as well.

Goodyear (Photograph by Maguire Photo courtesy of Vocon)

On the future of Vocon on in the next 5–10 years
Vocon has been proactive in broadening the range of services provided to our clients. With the shifting dynamics and relationships currently present within the industry, it is critical to define and develop a more comprehensive set of services for the client. That includes deeper assessment, strategy, and interaction well before planning occurs. We are essentially aligning the services we offer to the help the client needs, and pushing the client to develop strategy that ultimately meshes with the design process. We also are pushing on the technology front, from software to cutting-edge deliverable methods. VR, augmented reality, interactive presentation formats, and new modeling technologies are all being explored and integrated into the project workflow. Again, like any tool, the key is to find the appropriate fit that enables and pushes the design process, rather than distracting from it.

On advice he would give his younger self
I would probably tell myself to travel more, start my career at an earlier age and learn to prioritize and delegate tasks more effectively. I tend to be a tinkerer; I go down the rabbit-hole on a particular aspect or detail of a project or design, sometimes at the expense of the big picture. It took quite some time, and a considerable amount of stress, learning what to sweat and what to not worry about. I would also probably tell myself to loosen up a bit more and be more experimental with the design process, and just have more fun!

This post was previously published on on 4/27/16.