Case Study: Herman Miller NeoCon 2013 Experience

Herman Miller
Project Title
Herman Miller NeoCon 2013 Experience
September 2012–June 2013

Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2014 “Justified” competition, for which an esteemed jury identified 19 submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. To learn more about the jury’s perspective on this selection, see the juror comments below.

NeoCon is an annual trade show for architects and interior designers held in Chicago with more than 60,000 attendees. In 2013, Herman Miller used the event to launch a concept called Living Office, a unique way of thinking about the new landscape of work. Living Office helps people customize their methods, tools, and places of work to express and enable shared character and purpose.

The concept is multilayered and multidimensional. The challenge was to make it accessible and understandable to thousands of people making their way through our showroom.

Because Living Office is all about people, people had to figure prominently in communications. We settled on an illustration style that allowed obvious continuity and maximum flexibility. Working with illustrator Daniel Carlsten, we created playful, symbolic people, each with a visual personality. The people appear in many different environments, defined by a few, thoughtfully chosen artifacts.

These people were the unifying “face” across a total communication package, from 3D spaces to printed pieces, from web experience to learning tools, from infographics to invitations. The results were gratifying. Judges chose Herman Miller as the overall “Best of Competition.” In a survey of our salespeople, 97 percent thought it a smash hit.

Project brief

In 1968, Herman Miller introduced the Action Office® system, causing a shift in design that continues to influence how the office furniture industry thinks about workplaces today.

In 2013, Herman Miller embarked on the introduction of Living Office, another leap forward in understanding and advancing workplaces for people and organizations. The company’s Global Brand Design team was tasked with creating a comprehensive communication strategy and tactics to express the Living Office concept in a spirited and informative way.

The launch of Living Office took place in 2013 at NeoCon—the premiere industry event held annually in Chicago at the Merchandise Mart. An audience of more than 60,000 people—comprised of interior designers, architects, facility managers, corporate real estate executives, bloggers, and industry watchers— attended the event. These “influencers” were the primary audience for Living Office communications, but the design solution also had to appeal to a broader audience including dealers, independent sales representatives, and consumers.

Influencers in recent years have focused on understanding and applying new ways of working because their clients (corporate customers in the case of interior designers and architects, internal customers in the case of facility managers and corporate real estate executives) are asking for new ways of supporting work in today’s offices.

The task for the Global Brand Design team was to develop a design that would engage visitors in the chaotic nature of the event, convey the essence of Living Office to NeoCon attendees and entice them to learn more—all within a communications solution that resonated with global audiences and could be used in various media for the event and afterward. The team’s goals were to:

  • Express Herman Miller’s leadership on the future of work
  • Create a memorable, immersive customer experience
  • Tell an aspirational story of the Herman Miller brand


Herman Miller is a forward-thinking company in an industry in which design is key, from the look and function of furnishings to the design of the interior spaces and buildings that house these furnishings. In this highly competitive and well-established market, Herman Miller is a leader in design and innovation.

Design at Herman Miller is many things: a way of thinking guided by a set of tenets; a means of asking questions and seeking answers; and a process that touches all aspects of our business. It is, perhaps most importantly, Herman Miller’s point of connection to the world and the customers we serve. These global customers are experiencing a changing workforce. The expectations of workers, their tools, and even the work itself are changing.

To address these changes, Living Office codifies Herman Miller’s work with the world’s leading thinkers and industrial designers to apply a greater understanding of people—how we think, how we are motivated, and how we create and collaborate—to this new landscape of work.

In the new landscape of work, the greatest value for people and organizations is derived from exceptional creativity and new ideas. Today’s offices need to be places where people want to make meaningful contributions, where they feel valued, and where they have an opportunity to succeed. By facilitating this atmosphere, Living Office becomes an engine of prosperity—empowering people to contribute their most meaningful work.

As the premiere event in the office furniture industry, NeoCon provided the opportunity to showcase a unique concept in a spirited and informative way and the challenge to do so more effectively than competitors—all of whom would be present at the event, competing for the time and attention of attendees.


Development budget: More than $50,000
This project is: Either a retainer relationship nor an in-house on-going monitoring relationship
Production/execution budget: More than $100,000
Source of funding: Funded internally


The communications solutions launched at NeoCon were part of a broader strategy to build on Herman Miller’s leadership position in understanding how people work and creating inspiring, problem-solving designs to help them do their best. As part of this strategic effort, the company undertook large-scale, global research projects focused on the creative, collaborative work that has begun to take on new importance. Research found that individual work continued to be prevalent and necessary, but that group work could more reliably and swiftly solve the complex problems presented by the new work landscape.

The research focused on three aspects of work:

  • The purpose: Why people collaborate?
  • The activities: What are people doing?
  • The behaviors: How are they doing it?

Herman Miller researchers conducted primary research with exemplar organizations on six continents over two years. They found there are 10 common modes of work. The first seven modes are collaborative activities engaged in by two or more people. The last three modes are focused, individual activities.

Alone or together, people need an office that connects them to their work and to each other, emphasizing more than what can be accomplished on a screen or device, and creating the feel of a community.

These insights meshed with Herman Miller’s strong legacy of designing for the person. A review of publications from the previous 70 years supported this notion. Chief among them was the 1968 book by Robert Propst, inventor of the Action Office system, entitled The Office: A Facility Based on Change .

With people so central to the concept that came to be called Living Office, the means to communicate the concept had to be person-centered. The challenge became how to do this in a fresh, engaging way. In considering this challenge, the Global Brand Design team was encouraged by company leaders to think in terms of the “serious fun” of Charles and Ray Eames, especially in their work for Herman Miller.


At the beginning of the project, the Global Brand Design team researched illustrators who could express the concept of Living Office in a simple yet spirited manner. This investigation considered about 50 illustrators before landing on Swedish illustrator Daniel Carlsten. His work was particularly appealing because it demonstrated a talent for translating cerebral concepts into smart and amusing imagery.

The Global Brand Design team worked very closely with Herman Miller’s Insights and Exploration team to identify the type and extent of designs and illustrations required to express the ideas of Living Office. The design solutions needed to be easy for salespeople and dealers to understand and incorporate into their sales activities during the NeoCon event and beyond. Since many of the ideas were complex, the challenge became to convey key messages in ways the audience could understand through a picture or a headline.

The material and medium choices for each design and illustration presented another area of research and exploration. The team tested paper quality and thickness for the framed art. A similar effort went into testing vinyl print quality to ensure that the Living Office color palette could be carried through in wall graphics.

Design solution

The design solution took the form of some 200 unique illustrations of people, Herman Miller furniture, and accessories that could be configured in almost infinite ways to form pictures and patterns, as well as to illustrate the behaviors, furniture settings, and office cultures represented by Living Office.

This effort playfully began as a build-your-own-person concept. A profile-perspective collection of heads, torsos, legs, and shoes was created. Once the marketing and leadership teams at Herman Miller approved the concept of the Living Office people, a variety of accessories were created to communicate the work context for the people. A color palette—neutrals with pops of color— was also developed for graphic designers.

The strength of this design solution lay in its appropriateness across media. At NeoCon, the Living Office people were integral to several displays, conveyed the idea of Living Office, and provided context for graphic displays that communicated how work has changed over several eras. Per Herman Miller’s focus on sustainability, the team looked to digital and display solutions wherever possible. Printed materials were kept to a minimum and used recycled paper.

Interactive displays in our NeoCon showroom provided a “game board” experience that included the ability to play with furniture and change settings to create landscapes in support of how people work.

Framed art at key locations around the showroom communicated additional aspects of Living Office, some detailing the modes of work and others acting as provocative statements meant to prompt attendees to ask questions and engage in conversation.

Digital expressions mirrored the same Living Office people and color scheme and ranged from straightforward electronic invitations asking influencers and customers to attend NeoCon to screensaver animations on computers throughout the showroom. The digital expression also featured an experience on the corporate website and an app designed for salespeople to use as a preshow learning tool.


Like any project, this one offered its fair share of challenges. For one, the schedule was tight. While the brief had been submitted earlier, work could not begin in earnest until early March with the need to complete the entire design solution by NeoCon, which began on June 9, 2013.

Another challenge came in the form of geography. Illustrator Daniel Carlsten lives in Sweden, which made it a challenge to collaborate across time zones.

The content itself also presented challenges. The material that Daniel was asked to illustrate was based on extensive research, which required that it be both accurate and compelling. This required extensive briefing for the illustrator and the designers to ensure that the imagery and design solutions communicated the correct messages.

Lastly, the volume of work presented a challenge. Wall graphics, printed materials, framed art, invitations, digital expressions, and more had to be finalized within a limited time and budget.


Judges recognized the Herman Miller showroom and its execution of a Living Office with Best of Competition for Overall Showroom and Booth Design and Best Large Showroom Design. These awards are sponsored and organized by Contract magazine, Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc., the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), the International Facility Management Association, and the McMorrow Report.

Herman Miller salespeople provided an internal confirmation of the awards. Asked in a survey if the event was a good use of their time and effort, 97 percent agreed or strongly agreed.

Traffic to the Chicago Showroom also increased substantially. While we have no empirical measure of the amount of time visitors spent in our showroom, the anecdotal evidence is that visitors stayed longer and engaged in more conversation than they did in the previous year.

At the outset, the Global Brand Design team embraced three goals for the project:

  • Express Herman Miller’s leadership on the future of work
  • Create a memorable, immersive costumer experience
  • Tell an aspirational story of the Herman Miller brand

The Best of Competition for Overall Showroom and Booth Design, and Best Large Showroom Design awards provide independent validation that the experience expressed the company’s leadership position on the future of work.

The amount of visitors, the length of time they stayed in the showroom, and the level they engaged with tour guides and subject matter experts among the Herman Miller sales force demonstrated that the experience was memorable and immersive for customers and influencers.

Awards and traffic aside, there was a buzz in the showroom that substantiated the succinct comment from one influencer: “Herman Miller is back!”

Several different measures indicated the effectiveness of the campaign:

Showroom traffic: An increase in the number of influencers who visited the space, along with the number of scheduled tour groups of customers and influencers, increased by about 35 percent from the previous year.

Living Office newspaper: For the June event, 20,000 copies of the newspaper, which reinforced messaging in the showroom and outlined the key ideas of Living Office, were printed; that quantity was soon depleted, requiring a reprint of another 20,000 copies in August.

OneStop downloads: A portal for consolidating Living Office information and sales tools for salespeople and dealers was established. Prior to NeoCon, they downloaded 1,878 copies of the 2013 Neocon Learning Tool, either as an interactive PDF or an app. Immediately after NeoCon, salespeople and dealers downloaded 3,740 Living Office presentations to use in their sales engagements.

Living Office Design Solutions website analytics: Since the launch of Living Office, more than 165,000 pages have been viewed and 20,000 files downloaded; trend line analysis shows that site viewership and activity continues to increase.

Additional information

The Herman Miller showroom and its execution of a Living Office were recognized by judges with both Best of Competition for Overall Showroom and Booth Design, and Best Large Showroom Design at NeoCon 2013. These awards are sponsored and organized by Contract magazine, Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc., the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), the International Facility Management Association, and the McMorrow Report.

Comments from the Jury

“This program is the perfect example of drawing from the past without overtly compromising the important need to communicate a new message. I love how the design team utilized beautiful and simple graphic iconography to weave the story of design and the living work environment. There’s also great continuity that rings true throughout all the various applications.” —Dana Arnett

“One expects great design from Herman Miller and this project doesn’t fall short. From the environmental graphics to the brochures, the graphic design is strong and communicative. I also commend the team for their restraint and simplicity; it’s too easy these days to bombard a space with too much information or use design to scream at people. This project applies traditional principles of design and not much more, but that’s enough to make it extremely compelling.” —Kate Aronowitz

“This extraordinary new visual engagement suits the HMI brand and makes workplace product marketing fun and engaging. The illustrations are a lovely way to help gain an understanding of the complexities in supporting new ways of working while bringing a smile to our faces. Herman Miller is back.” —Cameron Campbell

“This beautiful project brings insightful research to life.” —Joe Gebbia

“Brand equity is a powerful thing. We were excited to see Herman Miller leverage their history of iconic illustration without rehashing it to create a well-tuned conference package that looks forward.” —Jennifer Kinon

“This project offers a playful visual approach with high-value information on how to create a human-centered workspace. It goes beyond focusing on sales to describe what people need to feel comfortable and supported within a physical work environment.” —Jeremy Mende