Strategic Design

A new open-concept office space fosters creativity.

photography by Cooper & O’Hara

Human-centred design – that’s the phrase by which the team at Lift Interactive lives and dies when creating a client’s website. It means being intuitive, looking for patterns, understanding people’s motivations and anticipating how they are going to use the site before they even log on.

It’s a concept perfectly suited for the digital realm, but now Lift is finding ways to incorporate that user-friendliness into its physical space as well.

From 2007 to 2014, Lift Interactive was headquartered in the Dominion Hotel building along Whyte Avenue, eventually spreading out over the entire fourth floor. But the business was growing and needed more space, so it moved into a two-storey building on 81st Avenue near 101st Street in October 2014.

The move was exciting for the Lift team, not only because it was an indicator of success, but because the new building – with its polished concrete floors and grey cinder block walls – represented a blank slate.

“When you get a big blank space, you think, ‘We’ll be able to fit everything in here.’ We had ideas for little yurts or beehives where people could meet,” says Lift principal Micah Slavens. “There were a ton of ideas and some of that stayed, but then lots of practicality has to set in.”

Indeed, just as in building a website, some of the initial decorating ideas had to be edited down or scrapped altogether.

“Nothing works quite as you think it will work. People never do exactly what you think,” Slavens says. “You can make some pretty good guesses, and most of our guesses were pretty bang-on, I think, but there were a few things where we got thrown curveballs by landlords or just reality.” 

“You can predict as best as you can, but once you get in, you’re like, ‘Oh, people like to congregate in this corner because it feels nice there. We didn’t think of that; let’s put a couch there,'” adds director of design Seth Hardie. “There’s lots of those little things that, as we see how people use the building, that dictates where furniture goes.”

One of the big ideas that stayed, however, was the open concept on the main floor, where natural light pours in through large windows, highlighting pops of colour – from bright pillows on the waiting-area sofa to a yellow chandelier that once hung in the Mercer Warehouse – against the neutral grey base.

The open concept in this area allows furniture to be moved around so that Lift can host brainstorming workshops for creatives.

“A group can meet here [in the lobby], another group can meet in the boardroom. You can paste stuff on the walls and write on the glass. There’s a lot of room for creativity. And it’s only probably 50 per cent realized so far,” Slavens says.

The ground floor houses two boardrooms, each with its own icons etched into the glass door. The main one – which also features hundreds of triangular wooden tiles along one wall – is marked with three chess pieces, while a smaller one called “The Study” features a book and a computer.

“On the [main] boardroom, strategy is a big thing we indulge in, and there are chess pieces on there. So it’s like talking about having a plan of attack,” says senior designer Chris Provins. “On ‘The Study,’ there’s an old Mac computer and a book, and it’s almost ironic that they’re historical things in a modern digital shop.”

Even more adaptable space can be found downstairs in what the Lift team affectionately calls “The Bunker.” It’s filled with modular furniture and whiteboards. The Bunker can be used to host workshops, brainstorming sessions and other events where the creative juices can flow.

“Essentially it’s a room that is designed to suit any need we might have,” Provins says. “We could use those pieces as props or we can use them as desks. We can get people playing with crafts, using their hands.”

“It’s where you can just write on the walls, pin things,” Slavens adds. “We do a lot of this kind of thing where people are working in groups of three or four and they’re working through ideas, using glue and markers, making them visual.”

The basement also houses a photo studio, a rehearsal and recording space for musicians, and a foosball table for employees to let off steam.

On the second floor is the “Engine Room,” where the majority of the staff work, from designers to developers. Again, lots of natural light flows into the space, along with a kitchen area and a patio that faces south, soaking in the summer sunshine.

Throughout the building are pieces of furniture designed and built by members of the Lift team. Slavens, for example, handcrafted the long table in the main-floor waiting area, which was as much about the bottom line as it was creative expression.

“Having your fingerprints on everything you make is a definitely a trademark of Lift … It’s kind of like hacking the environment. We hack the digital space too, so it all comes from a similar approach,” Provins says. “We want to build things that just make sense from our perspective.”

They’ve also had a little help from their friends in Edmonton, most notably from Matt Heide at Concrete Cat, who built the table in the main boardroom. Soon, though, they found that table was getting too small for their needs, which led to a little bit of improvisation from a woodworking friend at Oliver Apt., who extended the table on either side using wood and braces made from construction squares. The end result is a boardroom table of concrete and wood that’s unique to the Lift space.

“I think that even kind of speaks to it – not only are we solving problems in interesting and quick ways, but it’s also the idea that everything is being planned and designed, and letting people see under the hood a little bit,” Slavens says.

In looking for a new space, Slavens says he never wanted to stray too far from Whyte Avenue, both because of the creative energy in the area and the firm’s “special relationship” with DaCapo Caffe, just a block away. It’s that creative energy that he hopes to harness in the future – he foresees Lift’s space evolving into an extension of Startup Edmonton, offering people space for rent and hosting workshops.

“It’s a space where you want someone to walk in, look around and go, ‘That’s interesting,’ or, ‘That’s really creative’ – just catch your eye here and there,” he says.

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