As natural as breathing
For Joyce Bromberg, Principal of The Bromberg Group, an innovation and design consultancy, and former Chief Design officer of Convene, design feels more like an instinct than a skill. After nearly 40 years in the design field, creative thinking, visual expression, and physical details have become as natural as breathing.
As an expert in human-centered workplace design, Joyce has been blazing a unique trail through the workplace world for her entire career, inventing new approaches to the field and taking on job titles that were non-existent before her.
The influences that shaped Joyce’s method of design began to appear when she was only 4 years old, living in the Bronx.
“I remember not being happy with my surroundings, so I would cover the entire room with blankets and create this sort of perfect environment in my mind, blocking out the not-so-perfect environment that was my reality,” Joyce said.
Joyce’s eye for architecture and awareness of design took root early on. She recalls a trip to the doctor’s office as a kid, which was located in an art deco building on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. She describes the entrance, which had a revolving door framed by murals, and the curved walls of the building that led her to an office with a sunken living room. While she may not have known what Bauhaus furniture was, she knew at the time that the furnishings, and design of the space, were “good things.”
Joyce noted, “If I had any sense of prescience as a kid, what I would become in the future would have been crystal clear to me."
From a young age, Joyce knew what she wanted in her education, and made it obvious to her parents that she did not want to attend the Bronx High School of Science, where her brother studied. Instead, she wished to attend a music and arts program.
“My parents sent me to the Albert Pels School of Art in the Ansonia building on 72nd Street. I was 10 or 11 years old and I took the subway by myself because New York City was much safer back then. That experience and education laid the foundation, ultimately, for who I became as a person,” Joyce said.
Following her high school graduation, Joyce continued her studies at Stony Brook University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in art history and met her now-husband of 50 years, Carl Bromberg. They married in 1969, and in 1970, Joyce gave birth to twins. It was a tough time for their young family, who were living on Carl’s graduate stipend of just $3,000 a year.
“I remember reading a book called “The Women’s Room” by Marilyn French and realized that taking care of my house had become my job, and I didn’t want anyone messing up my work. But I had a husband and two young children who wanted to be happy and play and mess up my work. I realized then that I needed to find something else to do,” Joyce said.
After Carl completed graduate school, Joyce and her family moved from New York to California. It was there that she decided to go back to school for design. She attended Pasadena City College, where many of her instructors were graduates of ArtCenter College of Design.“After two years, I declared myself a designer—which is typical of me as a person,” Joyce grinned.
Understanding the changing workplace
When Carl received a job offer from Michigan State University, Joyce and her family packed up and moved across the country again. Relocating to Michigan presented Joyce with a new job opportunity at Steelcase—an opportunity that would grow into a 28-year career. It’s there Joyce says that she came into her own as a designer.
“Later in my career, Steelcase offered me the opportunity to work with IDEO, a global design company. That was really important because it changed my life,” Joyce said.
In 1992, Joyce created an award-winning exhibit for Steelcase called “Breaking Patterns,” which evaluated the future of the workplace. The ideas presented proved to be prophetic, especially a film about how the miniaturization and mobilization of technology would change where and how people worked in years to come. In Joyce’s opinion, though, the most important part of the show was a study by Lucy Such, a cultural anthropologist at Xerox PARC.
Such’s study assessed the work of many unseen San Francisco airport employees—the individuals responsible for loading, fueling, and checking the weight distribution of planes. Such found the physical working environment did not support the roles of employees, and was actually harmful to their productivity. In essence, the workplace was not meeting their needs. For Joyce, this was an invaluable lesson: The spaces she created as a designer had a far greater impact on people’s lives than she’d ever imagined.
“Design had to become more than the way things look. Yes, things have to look good, but how they perform in the service of what people are doing is the most important thing. This laid the groundwork for me to understand human-centered design,” Joyce said.
With this new strategy, Joyce helped develop the educational and healthcare initiatives at Steelcase. Instead of focusing solely on products and objects, she applied community-based planning and human-centered design to interior spaces and the creation of those environments.
“It was time, perhaps, to start thinking about work in terms of what people were really doing, not just accommodating numbers. The question became, ‘How can we use the physical environment to create spaces that helped these processes?’” Joyce said.
Joyce understood that human-centered design allowed for the creation of spaces that activated and changed people for the better. She concluded that if space was designed well, it wouldn’t mean the same thing to every person, but every person could take something valuable away from it.
Casting a human-centered vision for work
In 2010, Joyce retired from Steelcase, though her retirement was short-lived. After three months of what she called “boredom,” she teamed up with an old colleague to start a small architecture and design company. Soon after, she was hired as a consultant for two gentlemen who were building luxury co-working spaces for working professionals. Eventually, the company assumed the name Convene and in less than 10 years, Joyce had helped them expand to 30 locations in the U.S. and England.
“There is this punitive, angry way of thinking about work that has permeated the world since the 1900s. For the longest time, design was affected by the Industrial Revolution and the thinking of Frederick W. Taylor, who understood work as being an assembly line and you were to do only what you were told. This approach is not how you get the best out of people,” Joyce said.
As the world continues to globalize, creating work environments that support the mental and physical well-being of employees will be essential. Joyce believes creating non-hierarchical settings that empower people will allow us to focus on the critical problems society faces today.
“Sometimes, the designer’s role is to ask the hard questions. If you desire innovation, creative problem solving, and collaborative thinking in an organization, it can only be achieved if the culture of the place allows for it,” Joyce said.
Joyce understands that creating an experience, where the physical environment is the body language of an organization’s culture, doesn’t start with numbers. It starts with basic human needs.
Over the last decade, her commitment to Convene has helped reshape and reinvent workplace environments. Yet Joyce feels her work has only just begun. With technology evolving faster than the world can keep up, she predicts major disruptions in the workforce in years to come.
“The problem is that the changes we are seeing today are not happening as slowly as they did during the Industrial Revolution. I worry, and we all should, about what is going to happen to the people whose jobs will be replaced by artificial intelligence (AI),” Joyce said.
Tomorrow’s designers may be creating spaces for a radically different working world: Will the rise of AI lead to machines replacing human workers? If so, what jobs will those be? Will humans still drive trucks, or operate telephones? When AI truly comes into its own, what will happen to the generations of people who have dedicated their lives to careers that no longer exist?
“How we provide for the ‘have nots’ and accommodate and retrain these people will be the most important jobs designers face in the next 30 years. And guys, this is not the only dilemma we face, because of the disruptions that are coming. We ain’t seen nothing yet,” Joyce said.
A designer’s responsibility is to ask hard questions about the forces that are changing the world. Joyce feels it is incredibly important to understand the people and places these disruptions stem from, in order to help solve them with design.
Creating teams with curiosity and collaboration
While Joyce is a force in the design world, she doesn’t do it alone. She has created her own approach to building creative teams. First, test for curiosity and hire people who are continuous learners. Second, hire people who are smarter than you.
“Sometimes, young mentoring leaders are nervous about hiring people who are smarter because they’re afraid they will make them look bad. My advice: Always hire above you and recognize that those people will reflect back on you. The best designers are not divas. They are humble and aware of how much they don’t know, as opposed to how much they do know. They want to become better, stronger, more thoughtful individuals,” Joyce said.
Building a strong team of individuals also means helping people recognize and harness their own strengths.
Joyce explained, “The biggest role you can play as a leader is to help people understand what they do best and then help them do that however they want. Your job is to do everything you can to make them look good, and allow them to thrive. Sometimes this means being happy for someone else getting a promotion, even over me, or being happy for someone who needed to leave my team in order to achieve their goals.”
Today, celebrating the accomplishments of others gives Joyce tremendous satisfaction.
“I read somewhere that, ‘the measure of a man is his ability to be happy for someone else’s success,’ and I think that’s something we all have to aspire to live out,” Joyce said.
Believing your career into being
A friend of Joyce’s once said, “Joyce thinks she can do anything, and this is both a blessing and a curse.”
Adopting an attitude of courage and conviction has allowed Joyce to break into an industry that wasn’t always receptive to female leaders. Beyond Joyce’s knowledge and expertise, her experience in the workplace offers a valuable perspective for young women entering the workforce. Even with her impressive career, she still faces adversity today because of her gender.
“If you’re a woman who wants to be a wife and a mother, and have a career, you can have it all. You can do it,” Joyce said.
The key, Joyce explains, is patience, confidence, and a lot of hard work.
“Don’t ever give anything up. You can have it all. Be organized and compartmentalize things, so when you’re at work, you are your work self, and when you’re at home, you are a wife or a mother. But remember to take care of yourself, because I didn’t always do that, and I regret that a little bit. I don’t regret having tried, though, having accomplished in a small way the ability to do it all,” Joyce said.
She pauses for a moment, then with a grin, chuckles, “It’s been an amazing ride. You never know where that experience as a 4 year-old child hanging blankets is going to take you.”here that experience as a four-year-old child hanging blankets is going to take you.”
“To everyone out there, especially young women who are struggling to have it all, you can, it just takes patience and time. I look around at this beautiful place and still can’t believe that we have it. But we started out with very little, it’s taken a lifetime to get here, and I’m so thankful to have this place to share with my family and friends, I feel so lucky.”