An interview with Rachel Kline of Authority Magazine
Open Work Environment. I have no office. I work directly in my studio. By geography, this makes me very accessible, but more importantly, the bond I develop with the team makes me more approachable. This certainly helps foster and ensure an inclusive environment where all voices are heard.
Creating inclusive workplaces is crucial for any organization that wants to get the most out of its talent. This means creating an environment where everyone feels like they belong, has equal opportunities, is empowered to do their best work, and feels comfortable making requests and contributing ideas. In this series, we asked prominent HR and business leaders about the steps they take to create more inclusive workplaces. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Blaser.
Robert Blaser, AIA, Principal and Design Practice Leader at Michael Graves Architecture is a place-maker passionate about designing user experiences, whether for hospitality, entertainment, or wellness venues or a workplace or municipal center. An imaginative, thoughtful, and engaging collaborator, he helps owners, developers, operators, and other designers articulate their stories and artfully co-author the architectural character of their projects. He believes that the user experience encompasses all scales, and therefore, his projects span from large-scale planning and architecture to the smallest details of the interiors. Prior to becoming an architect, Robert was an aerospace engineer, so he has always had the capacity to dream big.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Before we drive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I became an architect and experiential designer in a roundabout manner. As a young student, I had an adoration and proficiency for visual arts and STEM-related subjects. I was at a crossroads between going to either design or engineering school. What I then deemed the more pragmatic path, I headed for engineering. Why I didn’t consider architecture at the time still eludes me, though I am not sure I had the maturity to embrace it fully. I worked in the aerospace industry for five-plus years. It was fascinating but I could not contain a deeper and growing design itch. I wanted to create things that were artful, emotive, tangible, and human. I received my Master of Architecture degree and went to work for the most humanist of the architects I had studied, Michael Graves. It has since been an incredible journey, 26 years in the making.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have learned from many mistakes, but the funniest that comes to mind took place several years ago during an operational meeting with medical professionals for a rehabilitation facility. One of the nursing leaders was trying to make sense of a floor plan and laughingly admitted she struggled with reading architectural drawings. I chuckled and said, “No worries at all… you should see me handle a needle.” It got some smiles yet also the dirtiest look from the senior partner in attendance. At the time I learned to restrain my sense of humor, but later in my career looking back, I reversed this lesson completely. There are few better lessons than learning to be authentic. Be yourself. Bond with clients. Fabricated personas are very transparent. It is critical to create a connection if you are going to innovate together.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have been helped by many, but most certainly Michael Graves to whom I am ever grateful. Some of the best stories are simple ones, and merely sitting around a table with Michael watching his imagination at work is story enough. His sketching went far beyond conveying information. He uniquely captured emotion, spirit, and experiences when he drew… unlike anyone I’ve ever seen. Many refer to Michael’s legacy as stylistic, be it post-modernism or a defined color palette. I see Michael’s legacy as one of imagination. I often refer to the fountain of topiary elephants Michael designed near St. Jude’s Hospital or the figural spouts he designed for his tea kettles. What other architects have captured this whimsy, this spirit? I desire to spread this legacy utilizing other formats, synthesizing art, nature, and technology to capture the imagination in new and unique ways.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Imagination is more important than knowledge,” Albert Einstein. This is ever true in the design profession. Imagination inspires, and it is the differentiator that makes us human. I begin every project with an intense and graphic pre-design effort that is highly imaginative. I believe in creating a dialogue, poetic and visual, ahead of putting pencil to paper. The exploration of place, vibe, character, purpose, storyline, and more are fantastic seeds for creativity. Knowledge and craft follow, but they shouldn’t constrain the ideation process. To the above quote, Einstein adds, “Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
Thinking back on your own career, what would you tell your younger self?
Share your “voice.” This is what I tell my staff, notably my younger staff. I believe in cross-generational design guided by experience. I may have landed here sooner had I had the confidence to recognize the innovative value in idea exchange that comes from multiple perspectives. Architecture has followed a “master and apprentice” model for millennia. There are certain values to this, but it also can lead to archaic “absolutes” that inhibit innovation. Design is a conversation made so much stronger when it leverages everyone’s voice.
Let’s now move to the central part of our interview. What systems do you have to ensure your workplace is as inclusive as possible?
Inclusivity begins with the hiring process, but by no means does it end there. It has to be nurtured. On one hand, it is a measurement for an equitable practice, but I prefer to focus on it as a tool for innovation. The value of inclusive “voices” as I mentioned relative to age inclusivity is also true across culture, gender, and unique abilities (“disabilities”). The value of a multi-perspective approach is tremendous, I believe for any profession, but quite notably for the design profession.
Based on your experience and success, what are your top five tips for creating more inclusive workplaces? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Seek Unique. In addition to gender, ethnicity, age, etc., don’t just look “next door” but seek people with different backgrounds, perhaps from a disadvantaged community, a third-world nation, a unique rural or inner-city location, etc. Consider how differentiation of background can provide a new perspective.
2. Voice. In my profession, I often say, “Design is a conversation.” Allow people to freely share ideas… encourage it, particularly with young professionals, as this is a seed for innovation.
3. Ideation Sprints. I frequently receive paid opportunities for month-long design explorations. This is a great way to innovate with a design team and bond. Ideas flow quickly and freely, an all-inclusive opportunity for the team. The sprint concept may not be a model for every profession, but nonetheless, look for opportunities to tap ideas from those of other backgrounds and age groups. It’s a great way to get “unstuck” from the normal repetitive workflow.
4. Open Work Environment. I have no office. I work directly in my studio. By geography, this makes me very accessible, but more importantly, the bond I develop with the team makes me more approachable. This certainly helps foster and ensure an inclusive environment where all voices are heard.
5. Events / Bonding. Social and educational events are a great way to bond as professionals. A close office culture is inherently more inclusive.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen businesses make while trying to become more inclusive? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
One mistake is when a business only considers inclusivity as a measurement and not also an opportunity. Inclusivity begins with the hiring process. Left untouched, it will organically generate better results but embraced and nurtured, it will promote remarkable innovation.
Another mistake is ignoring generational inclusivity. In my field, I speak of cross-generational design. It is ever important for the younger generations to have a “voice” and not simply be relegated to production tasks. This helps breed innovation.
Thirdly, it is human nature to reward like-mindedness. Businesses are often adept at hiring with DEI in mind, but it takes a continued effort when assembling project teams. Signature and coveted projects benefit greatly from teams that are diverse in thought and background.
How do you measure the effectiveness of your DEI efforts?
There are certainly percentage measurements that reflect diversity. While these speak well to fairness in the workplace, the beauty of DEI shines brightly when you discover the innovation, inspiration, and imagination that comes with it. I look at the nature of the project opportunities we are receiving, and they are trending toward diversity, uniqueness, and concepts centered on human experiences. This is a measurement of an environment that extracts the “voice” of designers with many different backgrounds.
Are there other organizations you admire for their approach to DEI? Can you please explain why?
We’ve done work for many large organizations, and I admire their ability/capacity to create programs, resources, and networks to address topics in the workplace. One such pharmaceutical company we worked with has created Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), many centered around DEI. We helped them brand “All-Ability,” a resource group focused on employees with disabilities, or who have family members with disabilities and need to be supported. We created the name and logo to recognize that “disabled” truly means “uniquely abled.” Such persons not only have immense capability but can also offer diverse perspectives that fuel innovation similar to cultural, gender, ethnic, and age diversity. A major focus of this group was hidden disabilities (cognitive, PTSD, etc.) that may often be overlooked in the DEI dialogue. This organization’s recognition and support is a tremendous step in supporting this group and elevating the conversation.
What do you do to address Proximity Bias? How do you ensure remote workers are treated the same as onsite workers and have equal access to opportunities?
Like everyone, remote working was dramatically thrust upon us with the pandemic. After the initial shock, I was impressed by our ability to collaborate on even the most complex of designs. That said, in the design industry there is nothing more valuable than sitting around a table ideating and sketching. It is very difficult for remote working to “equal” that. But “equal” doesn’t have to mean “same.” Remote working poses other benefits such as more convenient access to various project sites, consultants, and manufacturers. Sometimes distance can generate innovation, particularly when we are creating options that are intended to be unique. It’s harder to “cheat” when you are not able to look over each other’s shoulders. As with any working environment, it is very important to communicate. Diligently ensuring that communication lines remain open, both in terms of relationship development and work production is critical to equity.
We are very blessed to have some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this.
I’ll go for broke… Elon Musk. I admire several of his quotes, notably, “Many things are improbable, only a few are impossible.” I would love to tap his mind on all things design-related, particularly on how one can make technology magical and experiential. Of all people, he could truly help me discover relationships between my past life in aerospace engineering and my current life in design. I think it would be quite an enlightening lunch.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!