students working with industry leaders during innovation challenge
Nov 11, 2022
Galib Braschler
In College of Human Ecology, Human Centered Design

On November 5, Cornell students met with industry leaders from the renowned MillerKnoll for an in-person, on-campus innovation challenge which centered around fostering culture and community when building a workplace by design.  

The weekend-long, experiential learning event was the culmination of a semester’s worth of work by students in DEA 3530, "Planning and Managing the Workplace: Evidence-Based Design and the Organization Ecology,” a hands-on, hybrid research and design course taught by Rana Zadeh, associate professor in CHE’s Department of Human Centered Design (HCD).

students teams working on innovation challenge
Simon Wheeler /Cornell University

Student startup teams working at the Nov. 5 innovation challenge event

The course explores how the social and cultural elements of the workplace are in flux during the post-pandemic era and presents a vision for the future workplace as an opportunity for innovation and transformation. Students joined industry leaders to collectively solve this challenge, Zadeh said.

Over the course of the semester, four industry leaders from MillerKnoll, including two CHE alumna — Ryan Anderson, Joseph White, Gretta Peterson ’11 and Jen Mackall ’13 — with expertise ranging from global workplace strategy and development to research and insights, spoke to the class in keynote presentations. This was followed by questions from students on the company’s design strategies and responses, all prior to visiting campus for the innovation challenge event, said students Norissa Noelani Goodman and Brooke Noel Giardina.

students working with MillerKnoll mentor
Simon Wheeler /Cornell University

Rana Zadeh (second from left) and MillerKnoll's Ryan Anderson (third from left) working with students  

Cornell HCD and MillerKnoll have formed a “pedagogical partnership” to create new paradigms and foster innovation while building a workplace, Zadeh says of the course. The College of Human Ecology has deep ties to MillerKnoll, one of the largest and most influential modern design companies in the world: two faculty members, Rhonda Gilmore and Paul Eschelman, as well as six Human Ecology alumni, either work or have worked at MillerKnoll or Herman Miller. The two companies merged earlier this summer.

During the weekend event, students formed startup teams to address topics such as how to maintain employee satisfaction, how to build a strong community and culture when combining remote and in-person work and how to frame a workplace that addresses the needs of workers in the 21st century. With mentorship from the MillerKnoll industry leaders visiting campus, students created a vision for various workplace types.

“This exciting, innovative and interactive event celebrates and highlights interactions among students, industry members and our Human-Centered Design alumni,” Zadeh said. 

student presenting during design innovation challenge
Simon Wheeler /Cornell University

Student presenting during design innovation challenge 

In addition to the team competition component, class participants also presented their individual stakeholder poster projects, showcasing the results of interviews that students conducted across a broad range of industries. Each student used an ethnographic approach to get a deeper understanding of a company’s design goals, operational values and job tasks of their interviewee.

Despite the interviewees representing a wide variety of jobs, three clear themes —flexibility, collaboration and support — emerged from the process that students found could redefine the future of work. From ergonomic furniture solutions to easy-to-use technology, employees are asking for increasing support in their workplaces.

“Our collaboration with MillerKnoll enabled us to analyze these trends and come up with design responses for our interviewees,” said students Sarah Golder and Brooke Noel Giardina.

The event was supported by MillerKnoll and Cornell’s Health Design Innovations Lab (HDIL), a multidisciplinary community of faculty, students, practitioners and community members committed to cutting-edge research on healthcare environments. HDIL is part of CHE’s Department of Human Centered Design and affiliated with the Cornell Institute for Healthy Futures (CIHF).