Hannah Hackathorn is a Design Principal at Unispace in New York, New York. She lends 15 years of large-scale corporate workplace expertise to the design of progressive environments for a myriad of client types. Human-centered in her approach, Hannah believes that workplaces should function for the people who inhabit them. She encourages her team to challenge the industry’s pre-conceived notions, leading to greater learning opportunities for our people, clients and collaborators. Modelo spent some time learning about Hannah's unique approach and design philosophy at Unispace.
On becoming an interior designer
I have always been drawn to creative disciplines and I originally wanted to be a potter. I love the act of creating something that combines a tactile experience, function, and beauty. Once I got to college – and after some soul searching – I found that interior design functions very much in the same way that pottery does. The most successful interiors also combine function and aesthetics to positively impact those who inhabit them. After that, the segue into interior design was a no-brainer – and my parents were very relieved!
On discovering her voice as an interior designer
Most of my peers wanted to go into residential or hospitality design after graduation – which to me always felt like emotionally driven practice areas.
Instead, I found myself at Gensler working on 1M square feet corporate projects. I was privileged to work with E.J. Lee who creates functional and visually arresting interiors that drive interaction. E.J. remains a mentor to this day and from her, I learned how critical decisions are made based not just on money as so many assume but on culture, brand, and the human needs of an organization – and all of these decisions are grounded in facts and metrics. I’ve been in love with workplace interiors ever since.
On joining Unispace
I feel that many designers lack an understanding of the end-to-end project cycle. They don’t involve themselves in budgeting or stop their work when construction takes over. I came to Unispace because I’ve always wanted to bridge the gap between disciplines. Unispace is driving for excellence across strategy, design, and construction by investing in top talent and really thinking about new and better ways to deliver projects. The firm’s global footprint was also a selling point – I can connect with colleagues around the world to share intelligence, best practices, and lessons learned that directly benefit local projects.
On specific principles she strives to adhere to
Everyone talks about creating a bespoke client space but I find that most firms invariably apply their own brand. I strive to understand as much about my clients’ culture, needs (current and future), as well as their aspirations. To me, the most successful projects are those where the client walks in and is overwhelmed by the beauty of the space but two months later realizes the full functionality it offers and how it can drive their business and culture. We recently completed the NY headquarters of Slate, which is a great example of form and function – every detail we planned for – from the phone booths to the collaboration areas – is used as we envisioned.
On her role at Unispace
Unispace is relatively new to the market so I’m working on sharing our process with the industry and familiarizing clients with our approach so they can come to see us as a trusted resource for problem solving through space. Internally, I’m working with our teams to rethink how we present design to our clients. I am constantly asking designers: are we getting our message across as clearly and effectively as we can? Are we showing our clients the full value of a design? Can they experience the space before it’s delivered? I want to push the envelope and try things that haven’t been done before – which is where recent advances in technology become truly critical.
Slate Magazine (Photographs courtesy of Unispace)
On recent projects that represent the firm's unique approach
Our approach allows designers to break down traditional silos and seamlessly transition back and forth between design and construction. We explore cost and issues of buildability from the start of a project rather than through a post CD value engineering phase so we’re able to maximize time and budget with solutions that provide high design value. Two projects that stand out are Slate and DoubleVerify – both in New York.
On her design toolkit
This may sound old fashioned but I start with trace paper. I need to sketch first before I can move on to Revit and 3D technology.
We sometimes forget that our clients are not taught to read plans & elevations. Even 3D renderings can sometimes fail to convey the volume, scale and proportions, and adjacencies, which can make it hard for clients to fully experience and appreciate the thinking and story behind our designs. This makes me and my team work harder to find better ways to communicate with our clients.
On the DoubleVerify project, we brought in 3D modeling as early as the test fit phase and virtual reality in schematic design. This allowed us to effectively communicate all the right volumes and help our client understand the flow of their new space and the relationships within. The client felt that they experienced the space before it was built and felt confident in making decisions quicker than they would have through a traditional process.
DoubleVerify (Renderings courtesy of Unispace)
On the state of design software today
There are so many incredible tools available to us now which help us design more effectively and accurately but this can also feel a bit overwhelming to designers who may have gone to school a few years ago. I think it’s important not to get lost in the technical possibilities of today’s software at the expense of a design’s intent. I tell my teams not to focus exclusively on creating beautiful renderings – we still need solid concepts to build upon and create meaning from. I sometimes ask myself if we’re losing some of the art and romance of design as we forget how to draw by hand.
On the future of architecture in the next 5-10 years
I’ve been asking myself that question from the start of my career. The traditional model is segmented and pits disciplines against each other which ultimately doesn’t work to the advantage of the client. Disciplines need to come together, integrate their processes from the onset, and collaborate to create and deliver projects.
Silos will break down thanks to technology allowing us to collaborate across disciplines, use building materials we couldn’t before, and conceptualize space in a more complex way. Our processes will also continue to become faster and more efficient translating to shorter delivery times.
On the future of Unispace in the next 5-10 years
Unispace is disrupting the industry. We’re bringing together top talent from the fields of design, technology, strategy, and construction and pushing ourselves to rethink the way the workplace is conceived and delivered. We have started to incorporate BIM technology into our workplace strategy offering to provide clients with more accurate test fits and cost models far earlier than the traditional design process allows. I believe we’ll continue to work in this vein, push boundaries, and use technology in ways traditional, siloed firms cannot.
On advice she would give her younger self
I would tell my younger self to intern at not just design firms, but with potential clients, lighting manufacturers, and construction companies. These disciplines are interwoven like a spider web - understanding this has changed my perspective on the industry and how best to approach a project. I’d also tell myself to pay more attention in 3D tech classes!