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The color of work Featured

9:33am EDT July 22, 2002

During the renovation of Elliance's office in the Brewery Innovation Center on the North Side, a contractor called to ask if the colors that were indicated for some of the company's new furniture were correct.

Customers in the Midwest, it turns out, aren't likely to order the orange fiesta, scholastic blue and aqua fantasy that Elliance had chosen.

Yes, it got the order right and yes, the color choices were a bit unusual in Pittsburgh, considered a Midwestern town by the trend-setting urbane in New York or on the West Coast. Things like the jigsaw puzzle shapes of the workstations and the trapezoid conference room table aren't what you're likely to see in the typical law or accounting office.

As much as we Pittsburghers like to deem ourselves progressive and dynamic in our approach to business, it turns out we often are more staid and conservative than we will admit, at least where our offices are concerned.

The company wanted to do anything but play it safe. Its owner, Abu Noaman, wanted to provide an inspirational and creative workspace for the nearly two dozen employees and give its clients and prospects a sense of the Web site designer's willingness to push the past the conventional.

Elliance's business -- working mostly with ad agencies to provide e-business solutions for their clients -- is anything but pure-play corporate. Its customers, such as Jobsite.com, lean toward the daring, the edgy and even the extreme, so there was no advantage in projecting the ordinary.

"We wanted to make a statement to our customers that we want to be different," says Noaman, also Elliance's president and CEO.

In an industry in which success hinges to a great degree on the human talent companies can muster and retain, Noaman knew the design would play a critical role with Elliance's employees.

The company began by choosing Liminal Projects Inc., a New York design firm, because it liked its renovation work, its willingness to work within Elliance's budget and its willingness to handle the details and manage the project. The choice also came out of the chemistry that developed between the two organizations, something that is echoed in Elliance's relationships with its own clients, says Noaman.

"If the chemistry is not there," says Noaman, "we don't even want to do business with them."

Liminal Projects began by interviewing employees about their preferences, but didn't simply show them carpet samples or paint chips. It took a less direct approach by asking about employees' favorite artists and architects, for instance. It questioned them about their work styles and tasks, how they spend their time at work and how they interact with fellow workers and clients.

Liminal Projects offered two proposals, both presented in computer simulations that allowed Elliance workers to take a virtual "walk-through" to give them an idea of what it would be like to live and work in the space. Both designs were good, says Noaman, but the one that triumphed was the presentation that displayed color-coded "thinking spaces," as he describes it, or informal areas where employees can group and exchange ideas without having to crowd cubicles or cluster in conference rooms.

The walls are filled with white boards on which workers can scratch out ideas, formulate strategies or list objectives. Bold geometric shapes of color stake out functional areas, while daylight washes through skylights three stories up and a large window to illuminate the open space and accentuate the bold color scheme.

"Through the vivid colors, the office environment encourages innovation and creativity, while making Elliance's vibrancy and high energy apparent to the public," says Laura Garafalo-Khan, one of Liminal Projects' principals.

A lesson to business owners who want to achieve a daring design that fits their needs may be that it's critical to choose the right designer, then give that person the responsibility for carrying it out.

"We didn't want to micromanage them," says Noaman. "It's not my core business. I'm trusting them to do the right thing." How to reach: Elliance, www.elliance.com, Liminal Projects, www.liminalprojects.com

Ray Marano (rmarano@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN magazine.