Design comeuppance: The call center gets its turn

February 4, 2019 Christopher Keller

A thoughtfully designed workplace environment, amenities, brand message, and name help shatter the mold of a stereotypical call center


I was a teenager in Des Moines, Iowa, and needed money for gas, CDs, or whatever shiny bauble was critical for my teenage existence at the time. My mother owned her own commercial janitorial business, so she offered to put me to work. I thought, “Why not … I can empty some trash cans and wipe off a few counters.”

One of her clients was a mid-sized call center, probably about 40 people. We headed out after dinner (we cleaned off-hours), and as we pulled into the parking lot, she gave me this look of equal parts consternation and embarrassment, pointed at me and said, “Now, I don’t want to hear any complaining about this. The faster we move, the faster we will be done. I mean it.”

_q_tweetable:Companies want people for the long term, so investing in their spaces means they are attracting the best and brightest while investing in their future leadership._q_Sure. Whatever. Easy money.

We toted the cleaning supplies up to the second level and walked in. The grimy stench punched me square in the face. Hard.

Old cigarettes. Overflowing ashtrays. Stained ceilings. Half-full cans of stale soda. Cold coffee with curdled artificial creamer. Leftovers in and on the microwave. Dingy. Mildew. Beige. Bad lighting. A labyrinth of awful, tiny cubicles. Worn out chairs. Matted and crunchy brown carpet. Sloppily closed or broken vertical blinds. More beige (or was it just dirt?).

It was abysmal. And teenage boys generally have a high tolerance for abysmal. I now understood my mother’s pointed comment in the car. This was going to be rough.

Obviously, I survived the effort. But my vivid recollection of that rank exercise led to a deep appreciation and understanding of the concept of underestimation. I clearly underestimated how awful that workspace was, the severity of my mother’s warning, and how wretched those four or so hours would be. The notion wasn’t lost on me then, and still isn’t.


In the open office of Wintrust Customer Contact Center, all desks are sit-to-stand and have views of the surrounding landscape.


Fast-forward a few decades, and oddly enough, here I am, part of a team designing these types of spaces. The call center environments may have improved (somewhat) over the years relative to design, but there remains a perception that they still hold some of those less-than-stellar characteristics mentioned above. Consequently, as a designer, I continue to think about that prevailing concept of underestimation and more specifically, where to avoid it.

DO NOT underestimate:

  • The power of a name: “Call center” sounds basic, utilitarian, anonymous, and, frankly, not glamorous at all. The new term is “customer contact center.” It assigns an elevated level of importance to the individual customer and the ability to conduct their business directly, almost intimately, with a professional at the other end of the line. Customers are important clients, not cattle in a queue. Now turn that around and look at it from an employee’s perspective. Their job is now more important, with more responsibility and an elevated level of accountability. Holistically, it’s a much better message.
  • Space as recruitment tool: The design of a space can be the deal breaker when it comes to getting the best and brightest to work for your company, especially in a tight job market. You can blame home renovation shows or any of the big box retailers that are ranking thoughtful design higher on the list of priorities, but like it or not, it’s happening. So, today’s potential employee is becoming savvier, and expectations are higher relative to what their experience should be in those 40-plus hours a week they will be giving you. Companies want people for the long term, so investing in their spaces means they are attracting the best and brightest while investing in their future leadership.
  • Space as a retention tool: When asked, it’s a safe bet that most employees probably believe they aren’t being paid enough for what they do; most want more, which isn’t always an option. Layer on the potential headaches associated with a customer contact center (stressful conversations, hang-ups, fast pace, irregular hours, etc.) and from that employee’s perspective, you have a pretty compelling problem to solve—if it isn’t more money, what else is in it for me, and what am I getting in return? The thoughtful design of the space can help mitigate the stress and frustration, which means the employee will stick with the role. Training new employees is expensive, so investing a bit more now on an amiable workplace environment can save money in the long run.
  • The focus on wellness: People are taking better care of themselves today than they were even five to ten years ago. It’s more than hitting the gym after work and cutting carbs. That focus has made its way into all facets of their lives—including work—and touches the physical, mental, and emotional alike. Our responsibility as designers is to think of and respond to these needs with the spaces we shape and form, accommodating natural light, air quality, color theory, balance of energetic and subdued spaces, healthy sustenance options, etc.
  • The brand message: Employees want to align themselves with an organization that not only has a brand message, but one that is relatable and relevant. They live that message each day they are in the office, so their subscription is important. Making them feel like they are a valued member of an authentic company helps ensure investment, inspiration, dedication, and tenure. Design is a way to identify those avenues and opportunities to creatively convey and reinforce that brand message, on a grand scale.

The points above are all great in theory, but the proof of success lies with an actual example of a built project. Enter the Wintrust Customer Contact Center.

Stantec does a good deal of work with Wintrust Financial Services, but this project was different. Both Wintrust and Stantec knew this one would need a little extra attention to overcome the stereotype of the business line as well as the outlying suburban location.


For Wintrust Customer Contact Center, we developed an easily-changeable slip-form steel tube framing module that separates core circulation from the open office and holds glass panels with tongue-in-cheek historical telephone super-graphics.


We took inspiration from some of the more urban tech spaces we’ve been designing. We knew we needed to address all the items listed above, but we also wanted to get people talking about this anything-but-run-of-the-mill financial office space. We wanted to create a destination, and why not? Just because it’s a contact center doesn’t mean it can’t be a destination.

The design of the space takes an industrial direction, which is antithetical to the rest of the spaces in the building, and pretty much in your face as soon as you walk off the elevators. We designed an over-scaled perforated and cold-rolled steel signage piece with a backlit laser-cut logo, exposed ceilings, industrial linear lighting, and stained concrete floors. Immediately adjacent and off the entry, we created an oversized café space with the same industrial lighting that bends and folds its way into the space, a varied-height communal table, plywood nooks with exposed connections and subtle complementary colors to create balance.

We took advantage of the abundant natural light that entered the space by minimizing built environment at the perimeter, and when it does occur, it’s conference and/or communal space. All the ceilings were left exposed, acoustically treated, and a sleek LED lighting scheme was developed to act in harmony with natural lighting.

In the open office, all the desks are sit-to-stand and have views to the surrounding landscape. We employed unexpected materials, such as worn and recycled metal panels, to create storage towers and hide irregular column placement, and primary color-coded for wayfinding. We developed an easily changeable slip-form steel tube framing module that separates core circulation from the open office and holds glass panels with tongue-in-cheek historical telephone super-graphics.


Employees want to align themselves with an organization that not only has a brand message, but one that is relatable and relevant. At Wintrust Customer Contact Center, the café helps create the communal office culture the client was seeking.


This was the edge they were seeking. We created an office that was downtown-reminiscent, uniquely branded, technologically-forward, uber-functional, attractive, and suitable for developing a strong and communal office culture. But most importantly, it proves that both Wintrust and Stantec meant it when we said we were going to do something special. And that kind of mileage is endless.

About the Author

Christopher Keller

With over 20 years in the interior design industry, Chris has a passion for concept-based experiential design. As principal and design leader, Chris focuses on design excellence and ensures design quality and continuity from conceptual inception through to construction administration and post-occupancy evaluation

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