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Office of my dreams

Before my design consultant could help me create the perfect home office, she had to venture deep into my subconscious

DEEP THOUGHTS. The process starts with a collage representing one's 'hidden' thoughts...and results in an architect's design.
DEEP THOUGHTS. The process starts with a collage representing one's "hidden" thoughts...and results in an architect's design.

SOME PEOPLE spend years in therapy for a glimpse of their subconscious; I have mine taped to my office wall. It's a collage representing my innermost thoughts and feelings about working from home as a freelance writer. There I am, juggling yo-yos while unicycling along the rim of a volcano. Behind me, a ruddy fisherman sits on his nets while the assassin from ''The French Connection" is gunned down on the steps of the elevated train. Nearby, a child plays violin with a ghostly sextet below a bronze cat sculpture in a psychedelic aura.

The collage was created for Fathom, an architecture and design consulting firm based in Pittsburgh. Fathom employs something called the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET), invented in the 1990s by Gerald Zaltman, codirector of Harvard Business School's Mind of the Market Laboratory, and initially used to help corporations create advertising campaigns that would resonate with the subconscious thoughts and desires of their target markets. Based on the premise that most of what we feel and do is influenced by what Zaltman calls ''hidden knowledge" locked deep inside our heads, ZMET uses images to access our ''deep metaphors"-transformation, for example, or connection, or balance. A few months ago I asked Fathom if they'd help redesign my home office for the purpose of this story; they agreed.

The first step was to collect eight pictures expressing how I felt about my office-metaphorical images only, no photos or drawings of work spaces, I was instructed. I'd take these to the Boston offices of Olson Zaltman Associates (OZA), a consulting firm cofounded by Zaltman that uses ZMET to unearth people's thoughts and emotions regarding everything from pantyhose to hospital visits. After being interviewed there, I'd travel to Fathom's Pittsburgh offices for additional brainstorming and psychological exercises. At the end of this process, Fathom would produce ''design objectives" to inspire an architect who would design my ideal office.

It was an exciting prospect but one I viewed, at least partly, with skepticism. For one thing, I had plenty of deep but unhidden thoughts and feelings about my home office and the freelancing life that necessitated it, all of which I was ready and willing to share without the aid of images or metaphors. Nor was I convinced that a process designed for marketing consumer products would mesh well with the psychological, creative, and functional complexities of architecture. Still, though there were a few awkward moments along the way, the end result of my journey was pleasantly surprising-and thought-provoking.

. . .

For years, ZMET was primarily a tool for advertisers. Since Zaltman founded OZA with Penn State marketing professor emeritus Jerry Olson, the technique has guided marketing messages for many companies-finding subconscious associations between Nestle Crunch and childhood, for instance, and influencing Chevy's ''Like a Rock" ad campaign.

But in recent years, ZMET has migrated beyond market research for consumer products. It has been used, for example, to study corporate structure, by asking mid-level employees about their ability to be innovative at work. In the wake of the war in Kosovo, the World Bank used ZMET to ask an international group of child artists for their views on the future; the resulting images, created by the children, became an exhibit featured at diplomatic conferences. Even a few Hollywood screenwriters have turned to the technique to seek deeper reactions to their characters and plot lines.

Then, in 2002, a Pittsburgh architecture firm working on a new children's hospital contracted OZA to use ZMET on patients, families, and medical staff as a prelude to design. The architecture firm was so impressed with the results of this experiment that, last year, it launched Fathom as a spinoff company. Now, when an architect or designer is working on a building, they can hire Fathom to look into the subconscious desires, hopes, and affinities of those who will use the building. Fathom, in turn, contracts with OZA to do ZMET studies, which it combines with its own research and design methods into a ''Deep Design Filter," as Fathom terms its process for shaping psychological profiles into design suggestions.

Before meeting my ZMET interviewer, Katja Werner, at OZA's Beacon Street office, I had perused periodicals, books, and photographs for images that might elicit an appropriate complexity of feeling about my home office. Near the close of the 90-minute session, Werner asked me to create a short story with characters representing me, my current office, and my ideal office.

''I finally settled on my character," I told her after some thought. ''I'm a monkey."

If an architect had been listening in, he would have drawn bars across my new office windows.

The final step was the collage, a kind of summary statement, which I put together with an OZA illustrator. When it was all over, I felt drained: I didn't know how many subconscious tidbits I'd divulged, but I'd certainly done a lot of talking.

After I left OZA, they analyzed my interview for its deep metaphors and sent the results to Fathom. I followed a few weeks later.

Once in Pittsburgh, I sat down with Christine Astorino, Fathom's founder and CEO, and two of her colleagues in front of a wall of corkboard displaying my ZMET-identified deep metaphors (transformation and connection) and more images (a lone chair, a bowl full of wires, marsh grasses) intended to prompt discussions of supporting themes like serenity, fulfillment, organization, and shape.

I was asked abstract questions about whether I preferred the expected or the unexpected and what inspired me, and more direct questions like whether I'd fancy an attached bathroom or kitchenette.

My next tasks were parts of Fathom's process that aren't based on ZMET. I was asked to sort a bunch of preselected images into piles representing my thoughts and feelings about an ideal office space. Finally, I completed an online ''Colour Game," a series of questions that were part color preferences and part personality assessment, meant to reveal what color schemes I was most compatible with.

By this point, I had to concede that Fathom knew a great deal about me: Not only what I liked and didn't like about working from home, but more subtle things, like the fact that I worried about over-indulging myself with this new office and that I was a casual dresser who slumped a bit in his chair and talked to his noisy cats before tossing them into the hallway. Still, I wouldn't be convinced of the applicability of marketing techniques to architecture until I saw the final result.

. . .

The idea of applying psychology to architecture goes back at least half a century to the observations of Roger Barker, founder of ''environmental psychology," which posits that the architectural details that define any space-church, store, school-bear heavily on individual mood and behavior.

It seems noteworthy that while Fathom has helped design a public library and a private residence, and is delving into industrial design, it has done more hospitals than anything else. Along with large retailers, builders of healthcare facilities have been among the most receptive to environmental psychology, looking into the effects of things like natural light and ''healing gardens" to lower stress, reduce medical errors, and speed healing. In 2003, the American Institute of Architects funded an Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, based in San Diego and Washington, D.C., to promote research into the effects of different acoustics, light, dimension, and symmetry on areas of the brain involved in memory, mood, and cognition.

As for Fathom, its psychology-derived ''design objectives" have included, for instance, the notion that a hospital's architecture ''be enfolding and have open arms," to be achieved by ''vary[ing] depths of buildings from walking paths and creat[ing] interesting ways of getting to the same place."

In another example, the ZMET studies for a renovation and expansion of Indianapolis's Riley Hospital for Children showed strong desires for more individual control in hospital rooms and a ''home-like" environment. Here, the ''design objectives" included shadowboxes in rooms where patients could display personal items and furnishing the place with more domestic and mobile furniture.

Things can get slippery, though, when a tool originally designed for marketing is brought into a new arena. Mary Pittinger, Riley Hospital's coordinator for family-centered care, told me in an interview that she thought the ZMET process was worthwhile, but she had one quibble. She wasn't comfortable, she said, with the focus on ''transformation"-one of the central deep metaphors found for Riley, in this case one suggesting that sick people come out of hospitals well.

''Sometimes those kids don't survive. Sometimes they're not transformed into a healed child, and they leave here with very complex care needs," Pittinger said. ''I can see using [a transformation metaphor] where you're going to get somebody to eat your candy bar or drink your beer. But it's a little different in a hospital setting."

Astorino agrees that design and architecture might call for different kinds of metaphors, possibly more focused than ZMET's attempts to capture deep human universality. ''Yes, there are some universal metaphors that ZMET specifically uses that keep coming up [and] that help create a guide," she told me during our brainstorming session. Though Fathom hasn't done so yet, she said, ''we'd like to come up with our own metaphors that are a little bit more specific to the design projects that we're working on."

. . .

After I returned to Boston, Fathom turned the design of my office over to an architect from the firm headed by Christine Astorino's father, the same firm that launched Fathom.

Three weeks later, the design was displayed on my computer, and it was gorgeous. Psychological resonance abounded in red and orange and khaki. Marking my transition from ''home" to ''work" was a long area rug with graduated colors and a new bay window, which provided the occasional break from work and a sly distraction for my cats. To increase my connection with the outside world, a skylight replaced part of the eave that droops over my desk, and a large, flat-screen monitor allowed me to watch CNN or video-conference with editors (well, one day).

Bookshelves lined one wall, while another was left for art and travel photos. Mobile file drawers and workspaces made multi-tasking easier, and a corkboard wall in front of my expanded and gracefully curved desk accommodated months of my calendar.

In the end, I can't say how much of the inspiration for my new office bubbled up from subconscious ''hidden knowledge." Certainly, any close friend of mine would attest that it never took a collage for me discuss the many ways that working from home was a mixed blessing. Nevertheless, the new office design speaks to me.

Frank Lloyd Wright once said, ''A great architect is not made by way of a brain nearly so much as he is made by way of a cultivated, enriched heart." But perhaps building from the brain and the heart need not be so different after all.

Chris Berdik is a frequent contributor to the Globe.

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