Albert Hadley once said, “The essence of interior design will always be about people and how they live.”
Regardless of the category, interior design intends to create aesthetic, functional, and safe environments for all its users. With all variables considered, the line of differentiation between commercial and residential interior design revolves around four elements: the clientele, cost, design process, and site.
Defining Commercial Interior Design
Commercial interior designers use their creative prowess to build “appealing, safe, and functional commercial” interior environments (Indeed Editorial Team, 2022). Commercial spaces include retail stores, offices, industrial warehouses, theatres, cafes, bars, and restaurants. Though the style, motivation, or type of user may differ, one thread remains unchanged: commercial spaces are designed for return on investment.
ROI could be product engagement, number of sales, user productivity, or many other descriptors, but the bottom line is the dollar sign. Ultimately, commercial clients turn to interior design to fine-tune their space for profit increase.
Apart from the actual classification of the site, ROI is one of the biggest differentiators between commercial and residential interior design. Where residential designers create for their clientele’s intimacy, privacy, lifestyle, and personal comfort, commercial designers must be conscientious of how their choices contribute to profit. Simply put, if the interior design in the residential realm is meant to enhance livability, commercial interiors hone in on usability. “Space needs to be usable for employees and customers to maximise profits (Blakeley and Muscato, 2022).”
Cost, Contact & Considerations
In addition to the investment interest of commercial clientele, commercial projects tend to have more significant financial stakes. Except for tight-knit coffee shops, shoebox bars, and cozy office spaces, commercial projects tend to cover greater square footage, affect more users, and balance more variables than residential projects.
Consider the size of the average home versus the nearly 3 million sq ft 50 Hudson Yards building in Manhattan or the number of people that frequent the average family’s living room versus the world-famous Paradiso Bar in Barcelona. The disparities in scale and contact are immense and directly correlated to the generally inflated cost of commercial interior projects.
With more square footage and humans to account for, commercial interior designers face a wider variety of considerations than their residential counterparts. Space planning becomes a web of intensified egress requirements, ensuring proper adjacencies, wayfinding, and commercial ADA requirements. Not only this, but the scale of commercial projects demands the attention of a team of designers, architects, engineers, and consultants. This means more hands in the pot, more expense, and typically more stakeholders.
In commercial design, cost, user contact, and various considerations form the endless feedback loop that snowballs the commercial design process. All the while, the clock is ticking, and time is money. Financial stakeholders are looking to get back to business as usual in the quickest turnaround possible, and it’s the designer’s job to get them there.
The Design Process
All of the complexities previously mentioned finding their home in the design process. The commercial interior designer is responsible for unpacking and organising the client’s requirements into usable space in a reasonable time frame.
As with all mediums of design, the process is kick-started with research. The designer must discover the client’s expectations, goals for the space, user needs, branding, and sentiment. This checklist of knowledge filters down into the programming requirements.
For interior designers in larger firms with multiple designers working on a project, first-hand contact with clients is often handled by a selected representative and then disseminated through a project or brand brief. This summary includes information like brand history, color, brand personality, project analysis, the scope of work, etc. The brief acts as a cornerstone that centers the multitude of creatives involved with the project on a common goal.
Next comes schematic planning. This is the phase where the conglomerate of information provided in brief becomes linear. Designers begin to sketch or digitally create preliminary plans. The plans cycle through phases of design development until the client’s final approval. Because commercial interior design serves a business entity, the point of contact likely has limited time to devote to the nuances of the design process. Unlike the intimate involvement of residential clients who have a personal stake in every detail of the project, commercial clientele tends to take a hands-off approach. To limit the amount of time the commercial client must dedicate to the design project, the interior designer must delve into the discovery phase and gather feedback in bulk during schematic planning.
After the schematic planning is complete interior designers must finalise their CAD drawings, provide details for complex design elements and specify all furniture, fixtures, and equipment. The accuracy of contract drawings is pertinent as they are binding documents that contractors, engineers, and municipalities rely on during the construction phase.
During construction, depending on the scale of the project, designers can play “a significant role in coordinating tasks and schedules with the contractor” and providing quality control (VLK Architects, n.d.). Site visits from the designer in the construction phase can remedy confusion in the construction documentation and keep the project track and within budget.
Finally, once construction is complete, the designer or firm representative performs the last check and final walk-through with the client. The space can transition to operation at the owner’s will if all completed work is standard. It is a valuable professional standard for the designer to evaluate the space after it is operational. This practice ensures that all elements function as intended design and provides an educational opportunity for the designer’s future improvement.
The Human Thread
It is important to note that interior design is extremely variable. Like all design realms, the scope of interiors is highly dependent on the client’s needs, site, environmental parameters etc. There are also elements of overlap in the residential versus commercial classification. Multi-family, multi-use, and other large-scale accommodation projects are examples of this. Though much of which would fall within the hospitality subgenre of commercial design, these spaces embody a level of intimacy and connection with their users that is reminiscent of residential design. They provide a home away from home-like feel while satiating their investor’s needs.
At the core, commercial interiors respond to a business entity’s useability and aesthetic needs, and the common thread is profit. Money moves the world, and this certainly is the case for all commercial interior design sectors. Commercial designers must juggle cost, the scale of contact, size, health, safety, codes, and a plethora of additional variables while serving the most essential element; the user.
Humans create interiors for humans. Despite cost pressures, the user should be the Northstar of all interior projects. As we move to a more circular future, wellness and human-centric design will be pillars of commercial design. With knowledge of the definition, scope, and complexities of commercial interior design, future designers are encouraged to consider they could improve the commercial practice to support both the health of the user and the bottom line.
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