Inspirational Women Arts Leaders with Yvonne von Hartel AM and Rebecca Daff

Non-profit community-based organisation 3MBS created a four-part live-to-air broadcast series titled ‘Inspirational Women Arts Leaders’. The objective of the series was to place the spotlight on the efforts of women CEOs, arts managers, and directors who navigated the Covid 19 pandemic during this tumultuous time in our city’s history.

As the community transitions away from restrictions, the station wanted to reflect on the pandemic’s impact on Melbourne’s arts and design sectors – the ways the sectors coped, the opportunities they saw and the new ways we now connect with audiences/clients in this post-lockdown landscape. The intent is to record the content, and subsequent reflection, as an important record of the city’s oral history archive from this unique period.

Yvonne von Hartel AM, peckvonhartel’s founder and Rebecca Daff, Practice Director, were interviewed as part of this series which you can listen to  here. Yvonne’s writing on “Using Design to Lead us to a Better Place” discussed how the pandemic has meant changes to the way we approach design in several ways, particularly because of working remotely, which has meant face-to-face collaboration has been limited.

“Design is about collaboration; and that is much more difficult with people working remotely. The development of a design is about interaction; interaction between client and designer, between designers themselves and between consultants who bring expertise. Successful interaction must be facilitated in other ways when it cannot be face to face interaction.

With modern technology has come the tools to facilitate ‘remote working’ such as the meeting programs such as Zoom or Teams, and the ability to share drawings in real time, which is a tool we have used before the pandemic to assist our offices in Canberra and Sydney. However, developing a design is best managed by face-to-face interaction.”

Rebecca adds that the challenges of running a national design business through the rolling lockdowns in Melbourne required pivoting and adapting through very uncertain times.  In her role as Practice Director, she reflected on how they ran the business and maintained connection:

“Because our practice is national, we were somewhat used to working across different platforms to stay connected. But with Covid, we quickly became dependant on technology.

I often think ‘what if we didn’t have technology? How would we have managed running an architectural practice?’

We were somewhat lucky in the timing as we had just completed the stakeholder briefing and concept design for a very large project and, when we all went into lockdown, we were in the design development phase which requires less intensive collaboration and face-to-face time across the whole project team.

Our team connected via zoom a lot! We would be on zoom calls all day discussing details and trying to work out how to work together to communicate ideas. One positive outcome was the ability to draw on screen together with everyone which was something we hadn’t really done before.

The real challenges were with the younger team members who were learning programs like REVIT and learning how to manage clients and the project process. They felt isolated at times when they really had to be self-sufficient. Some really flourished, others didn’t.”

As leading designers in the profession, has the impact of the pandemic transformed the future of how you approach the task of designing the built environment for your clients and projects in general?

Yvonne suggests it changed rather than transformed; commercial clients appreciate that workplaces now need to be even more flexible than in the past to accommodate different ways and styles of working. “Think how far we have come – from enclosed singular offices to formal regular open plan layouts to far more freeform planning and a variety of work settings; seated, standing, reclining! However, the basic tenets remain – we need to design an environment that is adaptable, environmentally safe, appropriate for the work to be undertaken, environmentally sustainable and economically viable.”

Rebecca adds “One thing that we did as a design practice was shift in the way we would communicate our thinking to our clients. Before covid we would go through very specific phases in the design, starting with a return brief, then concept design, then design development and so on, giving our clients pieces of information and then moving on through a very strategic process.

With the inability to be in the room with our clients we adjusted our delivery methodology to jump straight into the 3-dimensional world and started designing straight away.

We started utilising our 3D modelling technology as a tool to communicate very clearly and very literally to our clients. This meant that they had a much more transparent view of our design process and were able to take a much greater role in the design process. We were presenting 3D fly-throughs from the concept and adjusting the design to suit in real time, in front of them. I think that this made the experience less risky. They knew exactly what we were building. And more engaging and fun. Even if it was over a zoom call!”

As we approached the conclusion of 2022, and with the benefit of hindsight and a vaccinated population, could you reflect on your time back in 2020, at the height of uncertainty about the pandemic. How did you approach the task of guidance and leadership you provide to the numerous Boards and institutions you are involved with?

“There is no doubt that it was very difficult time” Yvonne remembers “though at the beginning I believe we all were just in a state of shock and in a true Australian spirit we soldiered on with what had to be done. In the beginning I don’t think we thought about all the consequences. We were focussed on avoiding getting Covid. As time went on we realised so much had to change about the way we conduct ourselves in business. Boards and committees got used to Zoom and Teams meetings, although even today some of us (me included) forget we are on mute!

A significant change I made was that I made a point of speaking to members and managers of the boards and committees I am on by Zoom or Teams settings so I could communicate unambiguously; I also made a point of longer and more frequent catch-ups so that no one felt ‘alone’ or ‘left out’. It certainly increased the time involved in managing my roles.

There were some frustrating times when technology didn’t work as expected or when meeting times were truly inconvenient, but somehow we managed.

As a Design Advisor and Design reviewer to several organisations, including those located interstate, the pandemic meant everyone had to be well organised; sending drawings and information out in advance of meetings; having and following set agendas and of course agreeing on reporting back protocols. And of course the saving was no time spent on travel.”

Yvonne suggests that client needs have now changed in the post pandemic world. In a commercial or office environment; less space per person (either through downsizing or less people in the actual office at any one time, added flexibility as well as less capital outlay, less recurrent costs have been the focus).

“The world has really changed for our clients” Rebecca states, “particularly our client’s commercial workplace clients. Their people now are much more aware of their needs – they have been at home and more in control of their environment and can recognise more so how they work, and what they need to support their work.

People are much more aware of the quiet space they need, we need to design for people to be on conference calls, with neurodiverse needs, extroverts, introverts. We always had to but I think that working from home has taught people that they can have a choice, and a voice.

People are coming into the office to collaborate with their team more deeply. So, we are finding less needs for the rows and rows of workstations to designing much more interesting spaces that support many different tasks. And these tasks change through the day and week, so we are thinking more about how spaces can be not only adaptable but curated for them.”

Reflecting on this history they both considered the practice of architectural design and application shift as a consequence of the pandemic. For example, society and business has adapted to a hybrid work culture.

Have the fundamental elements of good design changed as a consequence of COVID?

Yvonne muses “What is good design? In my view it is a built environment that is appropriate to its purpose, respectful to the environment that it sits in; and creates a place where people can thrive and develop safely. These principles haven’t changed – the way we perceive these principles has changed.

I would suggest that the aspiration to be in a corner office in a large corporation has been replaced by privileges, such as access to facilities, salary distinctions, independence.

For a support worker – access to a variety of work environments, staff facilities, breakout and recreational opportunities, work flexibility and a variety of workspaces provide the stimulus that is required to attract and maintain staff.”

Rebecca suggests that an interesting shift is happening in workplace design “which is reminding us of the retail sector and when internet shopping first became a thing. Everyone was saying that it was the death of bricks and mortar retail. In fact, what retailers did was instead, shifted their retail thinking into creating a retail environment that was all about the experience.

We started to design spaces by better understanding the customer, the different personas, the journey that might inspire them in store, to return, and how we could turn them into brand advocates through the retail store experience.

Now, with the talk of the future of the workplace, we can’t help but create links to the death of retail to see an opportunity for the design of workplaces. We are seeing clients finally realising the benefit of strategic thinking about the space they offer their people – into a space that could become a Flagship (work) Experience.”

Approaching design for the buildings and institutions of the future, Yvonne says “The design approach probably has not changed; (in other words a good brief, good collaboration, engagement and subsequent testing and review of the developed design) are still the basis of a good approach to design. What has changed however is the ‘appearance of the outcome’

I would suggest that there is less frivolity, more practicality, less rigidity, more flexibility in design outcomes. This probably reflects the economic circumstances we are in and the impact that has on designers, clients and users.”

Rebecca says “Business development was challenging, normally we meet our network face to face. We had some great conference calls, but towards the end of lockdown, particularly in Melbourne, people were sick of meeting on conference…we all got tired. I did have some great outside coffees and walks with people – and sitting on a builder’s Ute tray over coffee was memorable!

Regarding our people, we tried conference get togethers that were just a casual catch ups, or trivia evenings, we did things like vouchers for Deliveroo but at the end of the day, we are a creative industry and all our high performers wanted to be back in the studio as soon as they were allowed. It reiterates collaborative work, learning through hearing, working together to solve problems. These things seem to far outweigh quiet space in a studio for creatives.”

Finally, they considered if the pandemic has been good for design? Has society refocussed on the importance of the value of local and substance rather than commercialism?

“The pandemic has had an influence on design, hard to say whether it has been good or bad. Many practitioners have left the design professions. We have lost collaborative design environments.

We have lost the impact of mentoring by example; for example, our office is open plan and as a result everyone overhears a lot of what is being said, both on the phone and in person. So, for students and young graduates, they can overhear how senior architects handle difficult or challenging situations. They learn a lot from hearing the way we speak to clients, contractors, builders, or suppliers, and its part of their education. Without attendance in an office a lot of that is missed and the lessons not learnt.” Yvonne states.

Rebecca adds “regarding the projects we deliver, we are seeing a greater emphasis on the importance of locally made products. This has come purely through necessity. Another factor that is becoming more important is the connection to Country. With local product also comes recognition of the land that the project is on so it is a very important time where organisations are now recognising their responsibility to our first nation people and how recognition of this can play out in the design.

With a global pandemic (and the impact we could see on the way staying home impacted the environment immediately) we are also seeing our clients having a resurgence of the importance of sustainability, and within this space, in particular the Wellness attributes for the users.”