Giving the game away

If companies realised how much their reception area says about their corporate culture, would they put more thought into the space?

I like to get to meetings early. It gives me time to study reception areas. Or, rather, to study companies via their vestibules.

There are other synonyms – anteroom, lobby, foyer. The term a company chooses may reveal how it regards its physical interface with the public. ‘Lobby’ suggests a place in which I hang about. ‘Foyer’ is more welcoming – a hint of hotel comfort. ‘Anteroom’ puts me in my place, a lesser mortal in a lesser area beseeching admission to the inner sanctum. ‘Reception’ on the other hand recognises purpose and activity. The word itself is neutral.

The nature of the place will be determined by the treatment the visitor receives and by its design – and what that communicates. What first impression? And if the company is already known to the visitor, how coherent is the interface? Is the reception’s ‘tone of voice’ recognisably that of, say, the company’s website? In contemporary parlance, is the reception a true component of the total ‘brand experience’?

A design consultancy may choose not to display its work or a client list or awards and instead opt for a minimalist welcome. What does it hope that communicates? Restraint? Modesty? A businesslike concentration on the work in hand? Is the visitor meant to feel that he or she is the focus of attention? Could be. Alternatively, it could suggest that the consultancy has nothing to show or say about itself.

But communication – like stuff – happens. All the time and nowhere more intensively than in reception, whether the visitor is alone, with time to absorb surroundings, or accompanied by others whose dialogue can be overheard. The chairs are communicating. Comfy is nice, but does it presage a long stay?

And what about reading matter? Is it strictly trade-oriented – in which case the choice defines what trade the company is in – or is it eclectic or projecting a lifestyle?

I was in the reception of an export company. On the table were eight magazines, all current, neatly arranged with front covers uppermost. However, two of them were Arabic and therefore their real covers were face down. What, I wondered, did that say to the visitor from Dubai?

The reception area of an accountancy partnership for whom we were producing a brochure was austere, ultra cautious about security and staffed with receptionists in a hierarchy of two. Once you got past the second you were free to sit down and read the one copy of the Financial Times or any of the tomes produced by the firm.

During our project it merged with another partnership. This, I assumed, would mean either the conclusion of the assignment or radical revision. ‘Not at all’, said the client. ‘We share the same culture. Pop in and look at them and make a few amendments.’ So we went. The reception – in both senses – was very different. First names, coffee, every newspaper. This friendly impression was confirmed when we met the key players. Five minutes in their respective foyers would tell any visitor that different attitudes animated the two firms. Their mission statements may have been similar but their company cultures? No way.

I remember my first meeting with Terence Conran. Our agency had hired him to design our offices in a projected move to a new building. I was creative director. It was my turn to be interviewed. His first question surprised me: ‘What’s your philosophy?’

I ask the same question during those useful waiting minutes in receptions. What are they telling me about what they believe and how they behave? And in what manner do they expect me to behave – docile or interactive? Is the area in which I sit a temporary staging post or does it have some other agenda? Does it speak of today or yesterday or tomorrow? Is the corporate mentality open plan as the layout suggests, with a reception that merges imperceptibly into the workplace and has desks so arranged as not to form barriers? Do the staff enter this way or is the reception in fact an annexe, a separate room?

And, speaking of rooms, what best describes the one I am in? Is it one or more of the following – waiting room, meeting room, display room, information room, control room, guard room, quiet room (or retreat)? The questions increase the longer I sit there. I wonder who in the company asks them and how they are answered.

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