Spectorgroup spotlight: Sara Agrest, Design Director.

Spectorgroup is a tight-knit group of designers, architects, strategists and planners connected by a shared dedication to creating thoughtful designs that impact our daily lives. As part of an ongoing series we are putting the spotlight on the talented individuals that enable our clients’ success.

You have a diverse background of work experiences – how has this influenced your career?

My background is definitely diverse, though very interconnected. When I look back on my work experience, it was formed organically but very intentionally, most recently taking me to Spectorgroup where I am able to synthesize and expand upon my experiences thus far. I have been exposed to many different disciplines – from architecture and interior design to brand strategy working within multiple industry sectors on both agency and client sides. From an early age I was drawn to how architecture blends research, solution-based thinking and design and earned my Bachelor of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University. After starting my career at Perkins Eastman, I became very interested in how design can influence positive change in human behavior. I wanted to be more intimately involved in how the companies worked, brands functioned and how altering space can evoke change. This led me to NBBJ where I was immersed in corporate interiors for the first time. My first project was a headquarters for a fashion designer with very successful retail spaces, but it never had a corporate headquarters as they were working out of temporary space for years. I was fascinated by the process of turning a fashion brand’s ethos into a workplace that evoked their brand and inspired employees. Six years later, I was invited by a furniture company to participate in a roundtable with the branding agency that they retained for a rebrand. The agency was made up of interior designers, strategists, graphic and industrial designers. Fascinated by a multidisciplinary approach to design, I approached the Creative Director about a role at the agency. For the next several years I worked with top manufacturers in the A+D industry on brand strategy, ad campaigns and product development. It was during this time where I gained a deeper understanding of the process of interviewing and developing exercises to draw out brand and design insights.

You have also worked across a diverse set of industry sectors – how have these experiences shaped how you approach projects at Spectorgroup?

In addition to corporate clients, I have had the opportunity to work with community-oriented sectors such as healthcare, education and housing. These projects focused on adapting and reusing spaces to be more modern and address social needs. My experience with reimaging affordable housing was particularly rewarding. We applied thoughtful design that addressed diversity and broke away from the traditional, institutional design that NYC affordable housing resembled at the time. I saw first-hand how great design and healthy interiors can create positive change for people in vulnerable times of their lives, either transitioning from homelessness or supporting families in trying situations. When you think about how the workplace is impacted by our shared COVID-19 experience, there are a lot of parallels. Workplaces are becoming more decentralized, and there is a great intertwinement of different places used for different purposes. At the same time, the office is an important hub for brand and culture. We need to think about how design can create positive behavioral change in the workplace just as we do with housing and other community-oriented projects.

Design can be a nebulous concept, what does it mean to you?

To me it is about using design to inspire behavioral change that permeates all levels of an organization. Sometimes that can be creating a space that fosters collaboration and influences positive cultural change.A great example of this was an interior design project I worked on for a sustainable grant organization. This firm had a lot of cultural conflicts – they resembled a law firm with a very hierarchical organization and little collaborative space. The resounding feedback from the employee interviews was they felt a disconnect between the work and culture. Not surprisingly, we found the design of the office had a negative impact on the process of reviewing and processing the grants. The grants moved from office to office, creating bottlenecks and reinforcing the disconnect between people and process.We solved this by flipping the problem on its head and bringing people to the grants – not the other way around. We designed a collaboration zone for them to review grants and it was an immediate fix. Coworkers started mingling more, productivity increased, and the mood of the place was just night and day. It’s simple fixes like that which go a long way in influencing culture and behavior.

What is your design process to achieve this?

It starts with developing a deep understanding of how companies function and how employees respond to their space. I really enjoy going on deep dives into how people have used spaces historically. Offices are obviously not a new concept and learning how humans have interacted with their spaces informs our contemporary approach. We then assess the clients’ needs to truly understand what they need out of an office. Whether it is more collaboration zones, an open floor plan, how many square feet per employee etc. – it’s all relevant. You also need to take people out of their comfort zones and start from zero. Oftentimes, clients come in with a preconceived notion of what they want, and they start to show up to immersion sessions with solutions instead of problems. So I try to create a process that unearths hidden truths to get to the heart of the problems facing the organization so we can apply design to drive positive change.

I try to create a process that unearths hidden truths to get to the heart of the problems facing the organization so we can apply design to drive positive change.

How has growing up in Manhattan influenced your career?

Growing up in Manhattan was tremendously influential to my evolution as a designer. I gravitated to art and design from a young age and was interested in people, behavior and spaces – all abundant in New York City. My father was a lawyer and mother a journalist, and I grew an appreciation for the analytical side of research and writing, design, and problem solving. Some of my earliest and best memories were getting to go to work with my mom. Her office building was on Madison Avenue, just a few blocks from where Spectorgroup is today. The newsroom floor was always exploding with the sounds of teletype machines, typewriters and phones ringing. My mom’s office walls were collaged with clippings of news stories. Staff members always seemed to be running somewhere urgently while others sat quietly in their cigarette smoke filled offices, laser focused and pounding away on their typewriters. I wanted to know what they were working on and wanted to be a part of that energy. There is an engrained “hustle and bustle” culture in the city and people want to be a part of it and want to keep it going. There is still that “Mad Men” element that New Yorkers draw their energy from and it spurs creativity. I think you are seeing this as New York City is reopening from the ground up, so to speak. Restaurants have reinvented outside spaces, we are focused on building projects that alter the lobbies to be safer and inviting and rethinking the function of the office to cater to different needs. While there are always improvements to be made on the margins with new technology and such, I think growing up here taught me what New Yorkers value in their office spaces and I think that will remain the same – it’s just a challenge of how design and architecture concepts can adapt to preserve what is fundamentally New York, while incorporating new and innovative thinking about a more decentralized workplace.

What is your dream project?

That is an interesting one. I would love to be involved in a project for a major news media organization. The evolution of news media had been incredible and has branched off into so many different directions. Journalists have continued to develop ways of using technology to gather and communicate information. Through technology — Twitter, podcasts and blogs have revolutionized news media. It would be an incredible opportunity to use my experience growing up in a major newsroom in Manhattan and synthesize my passion for designing inspiring spaces that effect positive behavior change and transform how people do business.

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Sara Agrest

Sara joined Spectorgroup as a Design Director in 2019 with an acute understanding of how environments impact human experience and behavior, and a proven design process to positively impact organizational behavior. With more than two decades of rich experiences across architecture, branded interiors, design strategy and marketing, we sat down with Sara to discuss her background, design process and the impact growing up in Manhattan has had on her career.