When thinking about reimagining your office space, using a human-centred design approach can help you reshape your workspace to meet the needs of the people using it: your employees.  A workspace designed for the people that use it can increase productivity, facilitate collaboration, and boost company morale.

This post covers the basics of human-centred design, how Overlap Associates used these methods for an office redesign, and starting points for implementing human-centred design in your workspace.

Human-Centred Design 101

Human-centred design is an approach to problem solving that begins with people.

This process always starts with the people involved and ultimately results in solutions that meet the specific needs of those individuals.

If you want to learn more, here’s a video that outlines the basics of human-centred design.

Human-centred office design brings these people-focused concepts into your workspace. When your team’s needs are at the core of the office design, the space will do what it’s meant to—support the people working within it.

Many researchers have proven that there’s a direct link between office design and productivity, so it’s in the best interest of any organization to prioritize design.

How Office Design Can Put Humans First

Overlap’s new office needed to be designed for the team and not the other way around.

Dutch designer and entrepreneur Eelco Voogd has a lot to say about work environments. He and his team at VPA, a Netherlands-based company, look for ways to better understand how work and workplaces can be improved. He says,

“To create an optimal human-centred work environment we need to study the employees to understand them from goal to character. How do they use work tools, how do they cooperate, how engaged are they in the organization, what social profiles do they have, in what phase of life are they?”

Those are design ideas worth considering. How do we know what employees need from their workspace unless we ask?

Overlap started with an office dream board that allowed employees to contribute their own ideas. The board ended up housing everything from practical prototyping stations and tech solutions to a request for a Lego wall. As a tool, the dream board was visually stimulating, it engaged the team, and it projected a hopeful future for the workspace.

human-centred office design dream board

Questions Overlap asked as a team

What doesn’t work in our current space?  How much wall space do we need? How do our various teams currently work? How do they want to work?

Which spaces are loud? Which spaces are public facing? Which spaces can we let our hair down in? Or more specifically, which spaces can we let our sticky notes run wild and free?

What would better look like?

These questions aren’t just meant for upper management – everyone needs to be involved in creating office environments that work. This involvement establishes company-wide engagement, which helps all employees feel ownership over the successes and failures of the organization.

Your team needs to play a role, or the space will never work for them.

By listening to employees, you can make informed design decisions.

In Overlap’s old office, there was one mid-size boardroom space. It was a versatile room that was used for staff lunches, team brainstorming sessions, customer facilitations, and more. Unfortunately, when it came down to it, the ‘versatile’ space wasn’t working for the team.

You don’t often hear Overlappers grumbling, but when it came to resetting the boardroom, the frustrations were clear.

The space itself had too many needs. The room had to be cleared of all work each and every night, which meant ideas didn’t have time to sit, and worse, it was wasting valuable business productivity. 

After a long day, it was the last thing anyone wanted to do before heading home for the night. There was also something disheartening about it. Designers were erasing and taking down a lot of great ideas and a day’s worth of hard work. What a design thinking buzz kill.

Reintroducing Choice

Brock Hart, Overlap’s CEO, shared that he visualized an adaptable space that matched up to the many needs of Overlap’s diverse team of designers.

He said, “It’s all about having choice within the office. We need to have a space that works for people and that means open areas and collaborative space as well as heads down options.”

human-centred office design at Overlap.jpg

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The new office dropped the assumption that one solution would be right for everyone, at all times. Every day is different, every piece of work is different, and every employee works in a different way. There’s space for standing, sitting, privacy, collaboration, views of outside, views of whiteboards, and everything in between.

There’s no longer an individual desk for every person, but the trade-off is a variety of environments that give employees the control. 

Human-Centred Design is Possible in Any Workspace

Adopting human-centred design practices will help you kickstart positive change in your own workplace. It’s possible for any organization size, including personal offices, and you don’t have to wait for an office move to begin implementing these changes.

Human-Centred Office Design for a Large Company

Great news: with that many brains working, you’re bound to find a few great ideas.

Linda Carson, Overlap’s Chief, Creativity and Interdisciplinary Collaboration, has coined a strategy for capturing great ideas.

How do you catch your next big fish? Or a great idea?

Catch a lot and throw back the little ones.

How to catch a big fish.png

Find ways to reach everyone working at your organization. What difficulties do they have with the current design and processes within? What ideas do they have for improving the workspace? Add structure to your feedback by using a Feedback Grid.



Human-Centred Office Design for a Small Business

Increased happiness and productivity in an organization is something you should always strive for. How can you make the space work not only for the business but also for your team?  

Think about how you can engage your employees in the design of your office. Could you create a method that allows staff to submit feedback? You could set up your own office dream board or try using a Feedback Grid.



Human-Centred Office Design for a Personal Office

You have much more control over your own workspace, but are you making the right choices? When was the last time you re-evaluated your personal work environment?

Consider how you organize yourself and make note of any small annoyances that hinder your day. Maybe the files you need regularly are stored too far away, maybe you need to rearrange the furniture around the natural light, or maybe the inspirational wall art you have isn’t so inspirational anymore.

You could begin by using an empathy map. Empathy maps are used to understand the experiences and needs of others, but they can also help you break down your own experiences to identify your specific needs. Here are instructions on How to Use an Empathy Map, as well as a free Downloadable Template. 






Takeaways and Continued Learning

A workspace should work for peopleNext time you consider your workspace, think about the space a little less and the people that use it a little more.

The Design of Everyday Things Design Thinking Tools.jpgIf you’re new to human-centred design, we recommend jumping into Don Norman’s book, The Design of Everyday Things. It’s become somewhat of a cult classic for human-centred designers, which will get you started thinking about people’s needs first.



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