Designing for Gen Z: Understanding What Influences the Future Generation Starts With Learning Who They Are

Senior Interior Designer Krista Easterly explores how we can best design for this up-and-coming generation that is hitting college campuses and the workplace.
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Generations are shaped by many circumstances and understanding their distinctive traits can be a powerful business tool. If you’ve ever had the thought, “what’s up with the kids these days?” let’s take a few minutes to review – and possibly embrace – an ardent and thoughtful generation that starts at the birth of the Internet: GENERATION Z.

Really though, it’s more like Generation D(igital). Born between roughly 1995 – 2010, Gen Z’ers comprise 32% of the global population, and lucky for us, they are known for having a strong work ethic and compassionate values. These “kids” that have grown up alongside the Internet are currently enrolling in post-secondary schools and entering the workforce. They have different needs than the preceding generation; those multi-tasking, work/life balance-obsessed Millennials. (J/k, Millennials, I'm one of you and with you on this.) But seriously, I needed to know what the generation behind me wanted for the experiences my team and I were creating; that meant that I needed to know what Gen Z is like and what has influenced them. Part of the approach for each project at Bergmeyer is to get a thorough understanding of our client’s needs, backed up by in-depth research to guide our design decisions. As an interior designer, I have worked on projects in several markets, including higher education and the workplace. Understanding who this generation is has given us an informed perspective on how our clients can connect with Gen Z successfully.

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Hyperconnected –> See you, IRL?
The Wi-Fi better be strong with plenty of places to plug in because Gen Z resides online, and the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is real, folks. This group has come to expect a near-constant connection, which helps give them a strong understanding of the issues that face their friends and peers. You will find them on social platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Twitch, and texting is preferred to calls or emails. However, the form of communication that Gen-Z’ers prefer is IRL (a.k.a. In Real Life) face to face interactions, which is even more challenging to achieve at this unprecedented time. A downside to this always tech-connected culture may be weaker in-person social skills, but this group craves select interpersonal experiences.

Fiscal Turmoil –> Financial Responsibility
Gen-Z saw their parents go through the “Great Recession” in 2008/2009. They lost their jobs, homes, and retirement funds. Witnessing this difficult period and the impact it had on their families has made them more fiscally conservative as a result. They make educated financial decisions and prefer to save money over spending. Brands and companies can reach this contemplative population through clear and authentic messaging about their products, services, and cultures to get their attention and build loyalties. They need a proven ROI on their investment before they jump to spend their hard earned savings.

The Economy –> Future Prospects?
They are deeply concerned about the cost of college education and job prospects after graduating. They value independence, and appreciate how companies like Uber, Etsy, eBay, and Airbnb have opened the doors for individuals to make money on one’s own. However, the COVID crisis has disrupted the economy and further accelerated their fears of being able to make a good salary, buy a home, and support a future family. Expect Gen-Z’ers to be more calculated in decision making, especially when it comes to higher education. Trade schools and skilled careers will be on the rise!

Global Tragedies –> More Pragmatic
Gen Z has witnessed a more fearful world than the generation that preceded them. Hyperconnectivity has given them smart screen seats to tragedies such as 9/11, natural disasters, wars, and domestic terrorism – they have never attended school without the fear of a school shooting. All of this has made them less likely to want to take risks. They are highly informed about the environment, health, and wellness, and they care deeply about these concepts. The aftermath of the COVID crisis will only exacerbate this tendency to be low-risk takers. What’s now in question is the impact this will have on how they will make choices going forward on employment, education, and life in general.

Equity and Equality –> In This Together
It’s not a matter of ”Me”, it’s ”We, Gen Z.” Race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, wellness, personal freedoms – They are open-minded, passionate, and motivated to fight for causes they care about and strive to change the world. A lot of this can be attributed to their access to constant information, informing them and influencing them into being more empathetic and sympathetic. This is the last generation to be of a white majority. They are diverse and strive to make diversity, equity, and equality the norm.

Motivation –> Experiences
They are driven to succeed but are not primarily motivated by public validation. They are invested in the overall happiness and success of the global population – not their personal triumphs. They see success as a success of all, not just themselves. This is reflected in their socialization style. They crave the in-person connections with their peers to be a part of the greater whole however, their constant connection to technology does not always give them the interactions they want.

Transparency –> Inclusivity
In the classroom or the workplace, Gen Z’ers prefer an inclusive environment. They want you to ask them for feedback, be open-minded, engage in direct dialogues, and support their journeys. They want to know where the food they are eating came from and want to be sure that the person selling the food is being paid fairly. They want to know that the building they are sitting in isn’t harming the environment. They want everyone to be treated fairly, with no barriers to access, regardless of religion, sex, or racial issues.

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The Community Center at Mount Holyoke College

Now that we know a little bit more about what has shaped Gen-Z, what are some strong design considerations for this net-savvy population? We think the approach should include flexibility, space to accommodate their independent nature and space to come together and connect with their peers. On campus and in the workplace, the ideal experience for Gen Z’ers includes:

  • Universal Design (design for all people)
  • Wellness and sustainability are sought after core values
  • Transparency – signage for food ingredients, sustainability information, etc.
  • Integrated technology
  • Gender neutral/non-gendered restrooms
  • An array of seating types – give them choice!
  • Break out spaces and small meeting rooms
  • Places to meet face to face with instructors and coworkers to build personal connections
  • Spaces for meaningful face to face interactions
  • Hoteling (A non-traditional desking option to accommodate temporary workstations, space utilization needs, and collaborative team setups)
  • Touchdown spaces that offer off-site or virtual employees a place to work when in the office
  • Flexible workplace (self-managed hours, remote working options, and environments where employees can design their own schedule)
  • Wi-Fi and power everywhere!

The suggestions above only scratch the surface, of course, but it’s a starting point to keep pace with this energetic cohort. Here at Bergmeyer, we are excited and optimistic about this generation. In many ways, their qualities feel like a breath of fresh air by way of their passion for equality, their strong work ethic, and their compassion for those around them. As we all navigate new waters in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are closely monitoring how it affects everyone, including this generation. We expect to see changes in how Gen Z (and all people) interact on campus and in the workplace. Will social distancing and the 6’ rule stick? Will students push for permanent remote learning opportunities? Will workplaces instill more robust work from home policies? Is take out and grab and go the new dining hall? It will take thoughtful decision-making to move forward, and our team is always available as a collaborative resource to design spaces where people can achieve their full potential in the workplace, on campus, and beyond.

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Endicott College Academic Center

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