Podcast: Why Human-Centered Design Makes Better Experiences

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September 9, 2019

Thoughtful design in the built environment and the tech landscape ahead with Harry Spetnagel, Senior Associate and Design Director at Gensler

On this episode I’m speaking with Harry Spetnagel, Senior Associate and Design Director at Gensler. He’s directed the design, documentation, and implementation of award-winning branded environment and wayfinding projects for several regional and national clients in the retail, hospitality, entertainment and professional services industries over the last 13 years.

An advocate of multidisciplinary design and strategic, human-centered process, Harry is primarily interested in the development and the thoughtful execution of innovative ideas that make peoples’ day to day experiences and interactions with the built environment better.

Podcast Transcript

Chris Arnold: Welcome back to the Transforming Cities podcast. Each episode highlights ideas around rethinking the way cities are evolving. We discuss planning, design, technology, development, and other fields that contribute to the urban experience.

Harry Spetnagel: My dad always felt like, if you were going to go somewhere, you should learn something in the process, and I think he was also... It was important to him that we understood, as kids, that there was a greater, bigger urban context out there and that we should be aware of it.

Chris Arnold: On this episode, I'm speaking with Harry Spetnagel, a senior associate and design director at Gensler. He has directed the design, documentation, and implementation of award-winning branded environments and wayfinding projects for several regional and national clients in the retail, hospitality, entertainment, and professional services industries over the last 13 years. An advocate of multidisciplinary design and strategic human-centered process, Harry is primarily interested in the development and thoughtful execution of innovative ideas that make people's day-to-day experiences and interactions with built environments better. I'm your host Chris Arnold. Let's jump on it.

Chris Arnold: A few quick notes before today's episode: If you enjoy the podcast, please share this track and others on your social accounts to people you think would be interested. Also, please rate it on iTunes or other platforms where you listen. This is how we grow, and it's much appreciated. This podcast is driven by Authentic Form & Function. We're a design and technology studio working on tools and platforms to improve the urban space. You can find out more online at authenticff.com. And finally, we want to hear from you. Email your feedback and ideas of who else we should speak with to podcast at authenticff.com.

Chris Arnold: Harry, thanks so much for joining me today.

Harry Spetnagel: Happy to be here.

Chris Arnold: So you have lived in a few places across the country. But you're a self-proclaimed Denver homer. You grew up in the Highlands neighborhood long before it was considered to be as polished as it is today, is that right?

Harry Spetnagel: Yep. I grew up on 44th and King Street, and back when I grew up here, it was a little less... Well, you used the word polished. It was still known as North Denver back then and was maybe a little more ethnically diverse and blue collar. It was a pretty normal existence up here growing up. My dad was a college professor. My mother was a medical photographer. It wasn't edgy, like Compton edgy, up here, but it was... It was still a pretty edgy neighborhood. I grew up riding my bike all around North Denver as a way to just see the city.

Chris Arnold: Yeah. I'm a cyclist as well, so when we have spoken a few times before, we kind of connected on that topic. But I never really rode too much as a kid. I mean a little bit around the neighborhood, but where did you find yourself riding around? And did you go with friends? Or was it always you sort of solo?

Harry Spetnagel: I think bicycles are one of those things. They're the great liberator, right? When you're little and you want to get the hell away away from your parents, it's a great vehicle to do that. I don't know. My dad taught at the University of Denver, so in the summer, when I was off, me and my friends would take roads, roads that are not bike lanes, mind you, down to the South Platte Trail, which was in existence back then, and we'd ride down to DU, which was familiar to me because I was always on that campus as a kid. And riding my bike sort of became my passion, and for several years in high school, I raced my bike, and in high school, I met a Jesuit priest. We'll talk about that a little bit, but met a Jesuit priest that used to like to ride, so on Sundays we would... I'll say we skipped Mass. We probably never did, but we'd ride up to Boulder to do that.

Chris Arnold: And you did that on Highway 93?

Harry Spetnagel: Yeah.

Chris Arnold: Wow.

Harry Spetnagel: People die on Highway 93 now, but-

Chris Arnold: Yeah. You can't do that now. I mean, you can, but it feels very... the hair on your arms would be standing up, that's for sure.

Harry Spetnagel: Exactly.

Chris Arnold: So you alluded to this, but you had an interesting high school experience, is that right?

Harry Spetnagel: Yeah. So I went to Regis Jesuit High School when it was on the same campus as the college, where it is today. My father had gone there. It's an all guys school for those of you back then. It's co-ed now, but it was an all guys school. And I like to say I got the full Jesuit experience in terms of education. The super rigorous examples would be, you know, we'd get these reading assignments, and then we would be... It was free game to ask the definition, pronunciation, and use any word in that text in a sentence.

Chris Arnold: Yeah. Any other extreme examples that can add color to this?

Harry Spetnagel: Yeah. So the Jesuits at Regis, and I don't know if they still do this or not, but they had... A disciplinary action that a teacher had at his disposal was to give you what they called a JUG, which stood for Justice Under God. And basically they could assign you time after school, but they could assign you anything from running around the track, the high school track, on your knees pulling weeds for an hour or two, writing an essay about what you did and why it was terrible kind of thing.

Chris Arnold: Oh, no. It was a true justice-is-served moment for the kids.

Harry Spetnagel: Yeah. Always. Usually by a guy in a stiff white collar.

Chris Arnold: So, Harry, beyond school itself, around this time, you were telling me that seeds were being planted through family road trips, and I think this was a really good part of your story. How did those trips really begin to influence your younger self?

Harry Spetnagel: So, my dad being a college professor and, for a large portion of his career, being the chairman of the Mass Comm Department at the University of Denver, he was a big believer in what I'd like to call educational vacations. My mom grew up in New York, so we often took trips back to the East Coast to see the Met, the Smithsonian, things like that, art, and then we spent a lot of time also in the West, visiting national parks, and so I think my dad always felt like, if you were going to go somewhere, you should learn something in the process. And I think he was also... It was important to him that we understood, as kids, that there was a greater, bigger urban context out there and that we should be aware of it.

Chris Arnold: Yeah. I imagine. In those days, Denver was truly a cow town. I mean, it was a pretty small city. I mean it's not huge-

Harry Spetnagel: Those are fighting words!

Chris Arnold: Yeah. Is it?

Harry Spetnagel: Yeah.

Chris Arnold: But I mean you'd go to New York City, which was the Big Apple. That was the Mecca.

Harry Spetnagel: Sure.

Chris Arnold: How did that, or did it, begin to influence you in terms of the larger city, larger urban environments back then?

Harry Spetnagel: Well, I think the one thing, when you get away from Denver, is you realize Denver is not, on the whole, an incredibly diverse city. We have some ethnic diversity. We have a pretty good spectrum of economic diversity. But I think Colorado and Denver in particular are really sort of a contrast between a rural existence and an urban existence, and I think what we used to come back from those trips with was a broader perspective on, particularly in urban environments, how diversity plays a much more significant role. And how, just exposure I guess, to a broader population and different thoughts and ideas about how things should be organized. I mean, there was still nose-in parking back then in Denver, where you could drive right up to the front of a building downtown and just park on the street nose in, and obviously, places like New York had moved way beyond that, and public transportation was a bigger thing. And it's better now here.

Chris Arnold: And the audience probably knows what that means, but nose-in parking, meaning downtown busy city streets. You can't waste time backing up into traffic and expecting anyone to get anywhere.

Harry Spetnagel: Correct. If you did it today, there'd be accidents everywhere.

Chris Arnold: Yeah. So where did you go from there? Where did you end up for college?

Harry Spetnagel: I ended up on a sweet deal. As I mentioned, my dad was a professor at the University of Denver, so I went. I wanted to go to San Jose State. Because I was excited about California. But I ended up going to DU because I got a 90% tuition waiver to go there, and get that and a work-study job, and you can get a four-year college education for seven grand back then. So I think I ended up there largely because there wasn't a huge motivation to leave Colorado, and the deal was so sweet, and to be honest, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up or, when I was going to college, what I wanted to study.

Chris Arnold: Right. Did you feel like the college experience was better or worse because of the connection with your dad? Or did that play any role in your experience?

Harry Spetnagel: I actually intentionally did not visit my father my whole time I was in college. And actually I'm the third. He's the second. So we have the same name. So because he had been there for so long, it's one of those rare occasions, where you have to go around, and everybody says, "Oh, I know your dad," right? So I tried out every possible way to duck that the whole time.

Chris Arnold: Got it. So what did you get into on the study side? Were you already a designer by that point? Already sort of thinking about urban environments and design? Or what did that trail look like for you?

Harry Spetnagel: Well, like I mentioned, I really didn't know what I wanted to do. And my dad was one of those people who... Product of the '60s, I guess. He was like, "College is about finding out who you are! Try whatever you want. You don't have to pick a profession. You need to follow your heart and follow the things that you love." So I met a professor, this guy Joe Beaton, who I just thought was a really interesting dude, and he taught geography classes, and I took one as a survey class and just sort of took everything this guy taught. And then I found myself halfway through my junior year, going, "Well, I can get a major in geography." I didn't know what I was going to do with it, but I could do that.

Harry Spetnagel: I was really interested in the cultural aspects of geography, sort of different perspectives from different parts of the world and how the mores and values of people differs, depending on where you came from. DU has a big international population, so we had lots of kids from the Middle East, and there's nothing like talking about the Middle East from a western perspective with people who actually lived there. So those were really interesting conversations. I didn't really end up doing that, so I ended up sort of stumbling into the art department later as I went on following an attractive woman into the art school.

Chris Arnold: I think there might be a story there.

Harry Spetnagel: Yeah. It's almost cliché, right? I saw a girl on campus, found out she was in the art school, signed up for an art class, loved studio in art class. I thought that was great. Hanging out and making stuff was really cool. So I ended up with a double major in fine art or studio art.

Chris Arnold: Yeah. And for non-art-majors out there, I'm actually an art major myself at the core, and studio classes being the classes where you go and you sort of buckle down and you work for four to six hours on your craft, basically, and you can lose yourself in the work. And you can hang out with friends and sort of, at least in my experience, even kind of listen to music and be artistic, as they say.

Harry Spetnagel: Yeah. I think there was a lot of that. And for me it was also a vehicle to express myself in ways that aren't term papers. So it was good.

Chris Arnold: Well, I know how the story ends because you did not leave school and end up a professional artist. So at this point, school's over, you're kind of moving on. Art classes are in the books. Studio's in the rear-view mirror. What now? What happened professionally?

Harry Spetnagel: Well, so the first job I took out of college was working for the Commerce Department. I was sort of intrigued by, you know, "How can I put this geography degree to work?" So I ended up working as a geographer for the 1990 census. We were digitizing plat maps, sort of old school digitization, too. Just a little sidebar, they had a file called the tiger file at the time, which was the first sort of big GIS, graphic information systems, file that the government put together. So we were literally manually inputting all these data points into this file.

Chris Arnold: No way!

Harry Spetnagel: Yeah.

Chris Arnold: Wow.

Harry Spetnagel: It was crazy. I worked there for about four or five months and realized really quickly that-

Chris Arnold: Tiger wasn't for you.

Harry Spetnagel: The tiger file was too much. And that there's... The things that get said about government bureaucracy, I think, are grounded in some level of truth. So I realized that wasn't for me and left there, went back to work as a bike mechanic, actually. Just because it was familiar to me, and I knew I could do it. Had a little time off. I took a bike ride from Breckenridge, Colorado, to St. Louis, Missouri, by myself just to visit an old roommate of mine from college who was going to grad school at Wash U.

Chris Arnold: Yeah. That's fun. So it was sort of like a time of finding yourself on some level. Trying to figure out what came after the tiger months, really.

Harry Spetnagel: Yeah. I mean there's one sort of salient moment where I was riding through Kansas, and there's a little roadside sign that says, you know, the sod hut that George Washington Carver grew up in was at the side of the road. And I was like... It was the most random, bizarre thing, right? But it was one of those things that triggered history lessons from eighth grade or whatever. The other sort of thing is it gives you perspective.

Harry Spetnagel: As I was leaving eastern Colorado, I was down at the site of the Sand Creek massacre. What was really crazy is to realize that that happened in a place that, even today, is remote and desolate, and so regardless of how history portrays that event, Fort Sumner was literally miles away, and those soldiers would have had to intentionally have packed up and come that direction. So it just gave me sort of a more visceral perspective of those kinds of events.

Harry Spetnagel: And then, after those trips, I ended up moving to Los Angeles briefly. I had reconnected with a girl I dated in high school, and she then became my wife, and we moved to Los Angeles, and I worked at an art materials store there, met a lot of students from ArtCenter. I ended up building props for television and sitcoms for about three years, which was kind of weird, random, and fun. There was a show called Sisters that... We'd have to recreate these sketchbooks. One of the lead characters was a budding artist, and she worked in her garage. And so I spent a few weeks sketching, filling these books with sketches for what amounted to a five-second cameo in one of the episodes.

Chris Arnold: That's wild!

Harry Spetnagel: Yeah.

Chris Arnold: Yeah, that's wild. So you did basically odd jobs for a few years.

Harry Spetnagel: Yep.

Chris Arnold: You were in LA. It seems like that's sort of a story line that a lot of people have, where they go to a big city for a while, and they kind of hit some odd jobs. They experience different touchpoints of a cultural makeup of a particular area, and then, in your case, you came back to Denver after living in LA for a while. What did that look like? Because in a way you're kind of coming back home, but now you're sort of a professional. So what did that look like?

Harry Spetnagel: Honestly, the transition back to Denver was a little odd. I mean, the big motivator for coming back is my wife and I... Well, she's my wife now. At the time, we were still dating, and we decided to get married, and there's family on both sides of the family here. So coming back made that easier at the time. And then she was working as a dietitian in Swedish Medical Center locally and was consulting with a woman who's husband was a sign painter, and so, through some vicarious introduction there, I met this guy, George Beard, who had been a sign painter and a sign maker for, I don't know, a good portion of his career. And for whatever reason we just hit it off. He ended up selling me his business on payments, which never happens, right?

Chris Arnold: Wow.

Harry Spetnagel: We had some connection. So he allowed me to work his client base to pay him off to buy the business. So I did that and did that for about 10 years.

Chris Arnold: Wow. And so, from LA prop maker to Denver to owning a sign painting business, if I got that right.

Harry Spetnagel: Yep.

Chris Arnold: And you did that for about 10 more years, which isn't a short amount of time.

Harry Spetnagel: No. I loved it, too.

Chris Arnold: You did?

Harry Spetnagel: Yeah. I think it was sort of the perfect balance... In the beginning, it was sort of the perfect balance between the hands on aspects of art school and creativity and that, and then I learned a lot of lessons about business during that time, too. So I did that for about 10 years, and basically what undid it for me was sort of the HR and just sort of running a business inevitably is a small enterprise. The founder finds himself doing something that isn't really why I got in the business in the first place. So I took an opportunity, where I had a couple of my folks who were moving on and moving out, to consider some other options, and a local sign company in town... It's a pretty small community, so we all sort of know each other. They had just won a contract for Invesco Field and wanted a project manager for that project, so I went ahead and sort of jumped on there, thinking I would be there for a year or two, and I ended up staying there for six years.

Chris Arnold: Wow. And there's something that happened there. There's a transition there which links it to Gensler. And what is that connection?

Harry Spetnagel: So while I was at Arapahoe, we built several projects for Gensler, and I became fascinated with the firm a little bit, just from the standpoint of... I knew I didn't want to stay at Arapahoe any longer. It had sort of run its course in six years. And I was looking to get back on the design side of things but also intrigued by this aspect of maybe potentially doing global work in my own hometown, right? Being able to work on global profile clients and that kind of thing. So I interviewed with somebody that I had built a project for at Gensler and came back the next day and was told, "Yeah, you should come in here and talk to some other people." So that's sort of how it started.

Chris Arnold: And for anyone tracking timelines, this is roughly 2006, I believe?

Harry Spetnagel: Yeah.

Chris Arnold: So, in 2006, you were interviewed basically through the connection of a job you had at Arapahoe. And suddenly you find yourself inside Gensler looking at a career path that puts you back on the design side of things?

Harry Spetnagel: Yep.

Chris Arnold: So what happens next?

Harry Spetnagel: Well, I mean, my first day... My whole life story's kind of like Lemony Snicket's, right? A series of crazy and unfortunate events. But my first day the person who had interviewed me, I found out, had quit, so it was just me and this designer, Amy Siegel, that had done work for. We ended up... As it was described to me, we were co-leading a group of two at the time. So that's always an interesting-

Chris Arnold: That's a good ratio.

Harry Spetnagel: Yeah. It's a good ratio. Everybody's a leader. Everybody gets a medal. But it makes decision making kind of difficult sometimes. And so, over the time at Gensler, I've really been responsible for growing the group through mutual decision making. I sort of took on some leadership aspects, and she went in a different way, and we found interesting ways to keep our realms or spheres of influence integrated but not necessarily overlapping on everything. So I think that sort of organically worked. And then I, just out of necessity... I think people say they choose things. I think some people are just... they fall into things and they find out they're good at them, so they end up there.

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Harry Spetnagel: So I ended up at sort of the sharp end of the stick. Now we have... With business development, we have 10 people under our leadership. And my job is largely managing, hiring talent, and making sure we have enough work.

Chris Arnold: And you and Amy still work together today, is that right?

Harry Spetnagel: We still do.

Chris Arnold: That's great. That's kind of a cool story within the story, I would say.

Harry Spetnagel: Yeah. I mean we're-

Chris Arnold: It's been 13 years? Going on 14.

Harry Spetnagel: Yeah. 13 years.

Chris Arnold: That's pretty wild.

Harry Spetnagel: That's a long time.

Chris Arnold: That's a great run.

Harry Spetnagel: Nobody stays in the same place that long anymore, right?

Chris Arnold: So we started at the year 2006. Obviously, we're now 13, 14 years in the future, but, kind of looking back, in retrospect, what do you feel like has been the biggest source of excitement over the last decade, having taking over a leadership role and kind of building that team up, along with Amy. What do you reflect on as being exciting, invigorating, and kind of something that you're proud of?

Harry Spetnagel: I think right now the most exciting aspect of the work that we do is sort of centered around the convergence that's happening in the design profession. I think when I started in design, everybody had a lane, right? You had people who did identity work. You had TV, radio, advertising, burgeoning environmental graphics work, but now I think we have this interesting sort of convergence and melding together of things like... under the context or auspices of user experience, we have sort of digital interfaces and meeting in the physical realm and how they converge and how they inform each other. Gensler is primarily architects and interior designers, but we are also design consultants to several big industries that are dealing directly with this in their business models. So how are they grappling with accommodating that? And how... Their needs have sort of driven our needs, right? So we need more strategists and motion designers and video people, and storytelling has become a bigger and bigger component of what we do. And we just can no longer play lip service to these needs.

Chris Arnold: For me, this is the meat of the conversation and why I'm really excited that we're talking. Because you make a great point with regards to the lanes. I mean, identity, TV, radio, traditional advertisement. And you meet with a client today, and they expect you to be a catch-all shop. A team that wears many hats, that can do all of those those things, or maybe even a single person on the team that can do three of those things. And then the next person can do the three other things. And it's kind of like this Swiss Army knife of expectations that's really shifted. It's been a big shift, I would say, in the design industry, even in the last, what? 10 years or so.

Harry Spetnagel: Yeah.

Chris Arnold: And we don't even need to go back to the Don Draper era to see that. It's been evolving, I would say, ever more rapidly since the late '90s, when the internet became so prevalent.

Harry Spetnagel: Yeah. I think some of that's driven by the technology, and then I think some of it, too, is it's a hyper competitive marketplace no matter what you do. And so I think there's a lot of people looking for that next thing, that next tool for engagement, that next wow moment. We now describe pieces of projects as the Instagram moment, you know?

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Harry Spetnagel: So I feel like it's an ever evolving thing, but the sort of speed to market requires people to be practitioners and be competent in all of those things.

Chris Arnold: So how do you find yourself approaching projects at Gensler knowing that these are the expectations of the modern client? Feel free to share an example or two, but I'm curious. At the level of a global firm like Gensler, what's the mindset going into these projects?

Harry Spetnagel: Well, I'll give you an example. We did some work with the Philadelphia Eagles. A lot of work around developing... Everybody starts out thinking, "What we need is an app," right?

Chris Arnold: Everyone needs an app. But for no particular reason.

Harry Spetnagel: Right. And the Eagles were looking to do was really improve the stadium experience. And so communicate in real time with their fans and with the team potentially, but what we came to understand is that part of what makes a difference and moves the needle for people is sort of aspects of those tools that make your life better. And by that, I mean if you are getting up to get away from the game to go to the bathroom, and this app can tell you where the shortest line is or who's got the deal on food in the stadium in real time, it turns out that those things are more highly valued than whether or not you can have on-demand stats for whoever's carrying the ball at the time.

Chris Arnold: So it really becomes about... Well, earlier you said user experience, but it's sort of enhancing those experience, as you said, in real time. So maybe you're not shoving another screen in their face or overwhelming them with five different apps to download. You're trying to make that experience at the stadium as cohesive as possible using digital tools but maybe not over engineering it into something it doesn't necessarily need to be. Is that right?

Harry Spetnagel: Right. And I think the big million dollar question is, "What does it need to be?" Right? And I think we're all sort of grappling with that. And the default is eye candy and things that draw eyeballs to it, but at the end of the day, I think, as a firm, what we're really looking at is how can we make technology facilitate interactions within physical spaces, rather than just pushing content at you? How can we make technology feel seamless and integrated? And how do we really take an experience from good to great? And what does that really mean?

Chris Arnold: If you have any, off the top of your head, what would be another example or two of, and I wrote this down, facilitating interactions within physical space? I think that's a really poignant way to put it. How can we seamlessly have this feeling of interaction on the backbone of technology where we are without it becoming an overwhelming, almost line crossing situation?

Harry Spetnagel: I mean think about the experience of airline travel. I would say probably up until 9/11 in this country, it was... It was probably better in the early days, '50s, '60s, and '70s, but it was an experientially driven process, right? I mean, you would pull into the airport. You would go. There was a lounge. There was no TSA. There was no taking your shoes and your belt off. All that stuff. And it was this... It was a thing that not everybody could do, right? So it had that sort of cache to it. I think today, if you really want to change people's lives in an airport, what we really need to be focused on is: How do you make security every bit as effective, but how do you make it disappear? And I think those are the kinds of challenges where we're looking at and trying to... There's a belief that, if you can tick the box and the security aspect of it, that you can bring back some of that allure to travel. Right now, it feels like the worst bus experience you've ever had.

Chris Arnold: And everything's hot, everything's sweaty, everything takes too long. That makes me think of the difference between just regular security lines, TSA PreCheck, and now there's a private organization that's partnered with the government, CLEAR. A program called CLEAR, which is actually something... This isn't a plug, but it's something that I signed up for to try to achieve exactly what you're talking about. How can I get through that part of the process as seamlessly as possible, so I'm not just hating myself by the time I'm trying to get to the gate.

Harry Spetnagel: I mean just using that as an example, as somebody who travels quite a bit as well, PreCheck and CLEAR aren't available everywhere, right? They're not ubiquitous. And so, while those are steps in the right direction, I've also seen the disappointment that is, "How come your airport doesn't have PreCheck?" Or there are so many people queued up at PreCheck that you can actually blow through the other line. I guess my point here is that it could be better. And I think we're actively trying to pursue making it better.

Chris Arnold: Yeah. And I think, in my podcast notes here, you mentioned it being a million dollar idea. And I guess, how does one get to the million dollar idea? I mean how do you crack the code?

Harry Spetnagel: I think part of it is a deep understanding of what motivates technology purchase in airports today. I mean five, six years ago, everybody wanted an app again, and digital signage in airports. And its standalone network was easy enough to create, but something that they could, from an airport security standpoint, manage and/or support on their backbone was a bigger problem, right? You're dealing with all sorts of legacy systems and things like that. So I think security is the next nut to crack, and that, unfortunately, isn't all controlled by the airports themselves. I mean, there's a government component to all of that. And so I think, we all sort of say it, standardization is boring, but the other part of this is these solutions are all being generated in a world where there aren't any sort of hard and fast rules in terms of information standards.

Chris Arnold: You know, we didn't talk about this in our pre podcast chat. So I don't want to put you on the spot too much. But something that I've been reading a lot more about, or it's at least surfacing a lot more, is this idea of kind of taking wearables a step further into something that's actually implanted into us, whether that's on the banking side or something's coded to us that gives us our identity underneath the skin. Do you see it going that way? Or is that just sort of a sci fi thing? Or are you actually hearing and seeing rumblings of that could be something that ultimately makes this technology layer a little bit more seamless and integrated into the process?

Harry Spetnagel: Well, if what I was describing before is the million dollar idea, I think that's sort of the billion dollar idea, right? And so, like you, you've probably seen these... People have taken it upon themselves to put all sorts of equipment under their skin, and there's a sort of subculture of bleeding edge technocrats who are-

Chris Arnold: Quite literally.

Harry Spetnagel: Looking at those kinds of things. But I'm a big fan of William Gibson novels. I don't know if you're familiar with him. A science fiction writer. Sort of a futurist. Actually, he's more of a futurist than a science fiction writer. But a lot of his stories are grounded in, sort of, what happens to data in the future? And how is it transmitted? And one of the ideas from a book he wrote in the '80s, I think, called Johnny Mnemonic, was that the safest way to transport data in the future is going to be to download it into some storage mechanism in somebody's head and manually physically move the data to wherever it needs to be uploaded. And the premise there is that that's the most secure way to transport data, and it lives inside a human being, and so it's not traceable.

Chris Arnold: Interesting.

Harry Spetnagel: It's an idea that... Like I said, I think I read the first book in 1988 or something like that. But those kinds of ideas, I think, are becoming more and more of a reality. We do some work with Microsoft as well. We did some sort of accessibility studies for a campus wayfinding program. And what was amazing is we got to see some of their skunk works and the things that they're talking about. And so, for people who are sight challenged, they're talking about devices that you can put in your ear that sort of create soundscapes with your jawbone and other aspects like that. So I think the wearable idea is only going to progress. Whether or not it ends up physically inside of you somehow, I think, is a whole other ethical conversation for people who are probably more educated than I am on those topics.

Chris Arnold: Yeah. What's interesting is that we're coming up to a point now where we have... In parallel, we have the technology evolving, and the technology's on the bleeding edge of where it can be almost daily. There's something new that comes out. And yet it's in parallel with, what do we do about the data? And the gray area of what's too far? And where do we draw the line? What is, at least at this point, what's Gensler's stance on what's too far? What's right up... Because I know that, in order to progress and to be a leading business, you have to take risk, but as we were talking before we hopped on, there's a fine line somewhere. And I think it's still... We don't know what that line is yet.

Harry Spetnagel: Sure. And I think all the ethical ramifications. If you look at Cambridge Analytica and elections and Brexit and all the things that have sort of come out recently about that, the truth... In a nutshell, there are tremendous amounts of data out there that are being monetized for a whole myriad of uses. Some of them for the good and some of them maybe for the nefarious. It's hard to sort of quantify that. I think, as Gensler, our core business historically has been architecture and the built environment. And so a lot of what we bring to projects from a technology standpoint is through partnership and consultants. And so, from our standpoint, we have to sort of scratch the surface as to what's behind the technology and how we do it.

Harry Spetnagel: Before we started, I was relaying a story to you where one of the first digital interventions in an office lobby that we had done was tapping security camera footage to create generative art, right? So the people recorded moving through the space became the dataset for this basically processing program that generated artwork in the lobby. Did anybody know that we were taking the feed off of the security camera? The building owners did, but nobody who walked through that facility did.

Chris Arnold: No one noticed that they were art, necessarily.

Harry Spetnagel: Right. So you start to... That's a pretty low-hanging example and probably marginally okay from an ethical standpoint. But it does sort of bring up the question: Where is that line? Where is the data that you're using for any of these things? Personalization of an experience in a hotel, for example. Does the client opt into that? Are you facilitating needs and desires that they've made known to you proactively? Or are we anticipating somebody's experience based on data that is profile scraped off of Facebook, Instagram, who knows? So I think those are all challenges, for sure.

Chris Arnold: So as we start to wrap up here, I want to know where you think all of this is going, which is a huge question, but let's put it in the context of what you think is next for you and your team. And when we think about this new wave of user experience and human-centered design, what are you excited about? What are you anticipating coming down the pipeline?

Harry Spetnagel: Well, I think we do have to stay focused on the human in human-centered design, right? And by that I would drag to the table that we need to be inclusive and empathetic to a diversity of populations and end users. And that takes different meaning in different applications.

Harry Spetnagel: The wayfinding example I gave you, you have whole populations of people who are handicapped in one way or another and so how do you build systems that accommodate those folks, too? I mean, we all talk about the Millennial with the phone in their hand, but that's a percentage of the population, you know? We're also creating environments that are actually terrible for people in their 70s and 80s because they can't see things. Typography's too small. All these things. And so, I mean, we just have to be aware of that.

Harry Spetnagel: And then I think, in terms of how personalization relates to big data, we touched on this a few minutes ago, but I think that's really... That's going to play out as a big, big hurdle. And I think there are ethical things. I think there are legal aspects to it. I think there will be... I don't know. Maybe the pendulum will swing. I mean we've sort of come out of this situation where people are seemingly okay with everything from your heart rate monitor to the GPS in your car to your social channels, and they're fine with that information just flying around out there, but when... I can't remember who it was.

Harry Spetnagel: There was somebody at Microsoft who had volunteered to live in a completely Internet of Things supported house. And her story was that there were aspects of that where the house is talking to you and suggesting things that you were actually thinking but hadn't articulated yet within the auspices of this environment. And ultimately, she bagged out of it because it just got completely creepy. I won't go into the specifics of how it got creepy, but let's just say it was deeply personal and completely out of left field, so-

Chris Arnold: I think I need to Google that one.

Harry Spetnagel: Yeah. It's out there on the internet. You can look it up. I can't remember the woman's name right off the hand, but if you look Internet of Things study.

Chris Arnold: Okay.

Harry Spetnagel: Anyway. So I think the other thing we need to focus on, really, is creating better, longer-lasting solutions, rather than these sort of one-off experiences. I mean I think that's the challenge. The generative art thing is really about, "Can a dataset create something unique over and over based on how it's interpreted?" And I think that's low-hanging fruit, but we start to think about personalization and those kinds of experiences. It's like, how do you create something that evolves over time, so that, just because you say you like cotton sheets once doesn't mean that you never try anything else?

Chris Arnold: Yeah. Those are all good points to think about and to consider, and Harry, I appreciate your time today.

Harry Spetnagel: Sure.

Chris Arnold: And I always like to finish with one more question, the cherry on top. And you have had so much interesting stuff to talk about here. I want to know who you're looking towards. So who else should we be paying attention to that's doing groundbreaking or inspiring work that you want to mention?

Harry Spetnagel: When you put this question to me, I was struggling, like, "Will I be evaluated by the people that I list here?" But I did have a few. Some of them are more topical, just because they're current.

Harry Spetnagel: But I did hear Andy Cruz from House Industries speak, and for those of you who aren't familiar with his work, it's a typography foundry that was started several years now ago. But the sort of thrust of it was this guy's passion for sort of historical typography around hot rods and punk rock posters and everything. And what I think is really amazing is that, over the years, they've created typefaces for everything from Neutraface, which a lot of people have used, which was really an ode to Richard Neutra and the sort of modernist housing movement. But was really... why I think they're really relevant is that they created typefaces that have just almost melded into people's everyday experience, right? The title for Ice Age is one of their typefaces. I mean it's just like everybody has seen them, and they don't really know where they came from. They seem oddly familiar. And thing that's that sort of line that they're pushing between something brought from history and sort of made modern again.

Harry Spetnagel: I like Jessica Walsh. I don't know if you're familiar with her. But she and a graphic designer named Stefan Sagmeister started a studio in New York. They became partners, and it was Sagmeister and Walsh. She's just recently spun off from that because she's really passionate about photography and motion graphics work, is also really passionate about supporting female designers and giving them a platform to sort of reach the higher ranks of the design profession. And so I think two weeks ago they spun off. And I love their work. I love her. I think she's doing great things.

Harry Spetnagel: Digital Kitchen. I don't know if you're familiar with those guys, but they... Content creators. I fly through LAX all the time and the Bradley Terminal there is probably... You know, it's getting long in the tooth. It's been there for a few years now, but it's still probably one of the most effective deployments of digital on a grand scale, at least that I'm aware of, where normal, everyday people are walking through, and it's not a gallery setting or something like that. So I think that's... Their work is really great.

Harry Spetnagel: I mentioned Stefan Sagmeister. I mean, he's just probably my favorite graphic designer. Another guy I wanted to bring up is Refik Anadol, who's sort of a guy who operates in the space between fine art and big data, and if you get a chance to look him up, he's really doing some interesting things with big datasets and how they can be used to create generative art.

Harry Spetnagel: And then, as I mentioned before earlier, you guys should all be reading William Gibson.

Chris Arnold: It sounds like it!

Harry Spetnagel: Because you'll read those books. Some of those books are almost 20 years old, and you'll read them, and you go, "Holy shit! This is happening today!"

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Harry Spetnagel: Pick them up.

Chris Arnold: That's super cool.

Harry Spetnagel: Read them. Especially... They're wrapped around this idea that brands in the future will control the world so check them out.

Chris Arnold: That's a not-so-subtle plug for everyone to go out and get some William Gibson books off the shelf.

Harry Spetnagel: There you go.

Chris Arnold: Harry, thanks again so much for joining me today. Before we jump off, tell the world what you're up to and where they can find you online if there's any particular links that you want to give a shout out to.

Harry Spetnagel: You can find me online. I'm not... You may have picked up on this. I'm a little protective of my private data, but I am on Instagram, @skeezit. Don't ask. It's handle that's been with me for a while.

Chris Arnold: Yep. We'll link to that.

Harry Spetnagel: You can connect through the Gensler website, which is www.gensler.com. My email address, harry_spetnagel@gensler.com. Obviously on LinkedIn as well. What I'm doing now? I'm just going to go home and think about this small 10 million square foot destination resort we're repositioning in Macao.

Chris Arnold: All right. With that being said, Harry, thanks again.

Harry Spetnagel: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Chris Arnold: Transforming Cities is brought to you by Authentic Form & Function, the digital design and development team that just might be a perfect fit for your next urban project. If you're a new listener, you can follow along at authenticff.com/transformingcities, or you can simply subscribe through your favorite apps, including iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher. Thanks for joining us.

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