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More Than Just an Internship: How a Design Experience Reinforced a Firm-wide Culture

More Than Just an Internship: How a Design Experience Reinforced a Firm-wide Culture Banner Image

I imagine if most groups of interns had to prepare an interactive presentation in less than a day and a half, then present it to their whole firm - President and CEO included - there might be some anxiety involved. At EUA that was not the case.

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At the beginning of the summer, the incoming interns of EUA were told that at some point in the following months we would be working on a collaborative project, a “charrette.” As a marketing intern, I had never heard the word “charrette” before, but our leader quickly explained that it would entail our group (made up of architecture, marketing, interior design and administrative interns) getting together and pooling our minds to solve a problem. That first day, this was all we were told. In retrospect, it was a smart move to be vague, as the air of secrecy kept us excited about what was to come.

Later that summer, our charrette leader gathered the interns over lunch to offer us the idea behind the charrette, why he thought it would be a constructive use of time and what he hoped we got out of it. Our mission, he said, was to “create a collaborative, problem-solving space within an anti-gravity environment”…then present it to the firm.

EUA gave us plenty of resources in terms of building materials and technology, and we had the rooftop terrace all to ourselves for a full day and a half. Fueled by a satisfying lunch, the reveal of a “surprise twist” (designing a work space that has no gravity) and the prospect of delivering a presentation to the whole firm the next afternoon, we got to work right away.

Once things got going we were all excited. At first, we brainstormed about higher-level aspects of the project – words we associate with collaboration and problem solving, how gravity affects daily life, how we could use a lack of gravity to our advantage, etc. – furiously writing down our ideas on whiteboards and giant sticky notes. We came up with this:

If we could create a work surface around the ergonomics of a human with limited movement while taking advantage of the limitless orientations and positions that anti-gravity provides, we could open up brand new ways to collaborate.

The result was a “work pod,” as well as a framework for how an office without gravity could function using unbounded movement to its advantage.

Our hovering work pods had a flexible semicircular form (the arc of which could change to accommodate different work styles) that worked well for individual use. The flexibility also allowed the pods to connect to each other for encounters ranging from casual chats to formal meetings.

Furthering the innovation was a “structure” for an office space without gravity. We came up with a morphable framework that had hubs for private work, spaces for meetings and open areas for casual work (think coffee-shop vibe).

After we consolidated our thoughts into more of an organized plan, we split up into groups to best use our diverse talents. Some of us began constructing functional prototypes of our “work-pods,” some started pulling together content for our presentation, and some began creating graphics to represent what we couldn’t with our tangible materials. It felt very raw and entrepreneurial, almost startup like.

By the end of the evening (which included a much-needed break for pizza) we had a more-than-partially finished presentation, several variations of the work-pods and numerous digital graphics. Tired but excited, we broke for the night.

A brief download meeting (and a fair bit of coffee) started the next morning and soon we were back to work. The next time I looked up I saw an impressive operation taking place. We had a de facto assembly line churning out cardboard work-pods, people hanging prototypes from the ceiling, and people compiling pictures and videos of our progress in almost-real-time on a Power Point while others gathered swatches for an “interiors board.” We resembled a real, functioning design team!

When members of the firm (including the President and CEO) started streaming through the doorway to watch our presentation there was a refreshing lack of anxiety within our whole group. Our audience looked genuinely excited to see what we had come up with in a day’s time, which both calmed and energized us.

As we passed the microphone around showing everyone our grand vision for an “office of the future” (undefined by gravity), there were heads nodding, mouths grinning and occasionally people leaning over to remark to their coworkers. The support from the firm made us feel like we really accomplished something, and I for one was proud of the work we had done. Despite having little practice and performing for the entire company (including the Madison and Denver offices who video-conferenced in to watch), the whole process went very smoothly.

After our presentation, we spent a while swapping questions and answers with our audience. It was a fun way for us to offer insights or personal comments that didn’t fit into our presentation, and it further showed the other employees that we weren’t just trying to get the charrette over with — we really did have a great time with it.

To celebrate our performance, we headed to a nearby rooftop restaurant for some appetizers with a few senior members of EUA. On the way I couldn’t help but notice how much chattier and looser we all were with each other. There were conversations between everyone, but it wasn’t small talk. People were discussing things ranging from predictions of TV shows to the merits of semesters vs. trimesters at school. I thought it was pretty special that just a day and a half of working and brainstorming together had made us such a comfortable group.

It’s safe to say the charrette was a pinnacle of the whole internship experience. Total support and engagement from the firm was a constant theme throughout the summer, and I’m extremely grateful for everything I experienced on the job.
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Recently, the interns who had not gone back to school yet went to get lunch at a restaurant down the street from the office. Someone asked what everyone’s favorite part of the summer was.

I’ll let you guess what everyone answered.

(Thanks to Adam Buehler, Ali Harwood, Brionna Jeffries, Carson McKee, Caylee Balcerzak, David Brookman, Juwana Kujjo, Kenneth Wilson, Mae Haggerty, Miranda Hassler, Morgan Van Hoof, Nick Kallman, and Noah Ensminger for all of the hard work and a great couple of months!)

Liam Norman