Samar’s experience of design, travel, storytelling and play leads her to refashion intangible needs into tangible strategies, making people-friendly futures a reality so that more diverse stories can be shared.
David is a sociolinguist, diplomat, businessman – and perpetual challenger of the established from the outside.
Samar Héchaimé – from architecture and wayfinding to strategic user-centric system’s transformation
Samar began her studies in architecture and graduated as a graphic designer at the American University of Beirut. With her education already taking her across disciplines, she moved into wayfinding with a diploma project for the Beirut bus system, an internship in New York and then her first post-graduation role at Bureau Mijksenaar in Amsterdam including large scale projects from Schiphol Airport and Port Authorities in New York and New Jersey, to the Rotterdam Eye Hospital and the Van Gogh Museum. With the Eye Hospital, she brought human experience and culture into wayfinding, using visual tricks to enable the space to support patients with sight defects and encourage others to have empathy with them. After 9/11, when security became the key influence in airport design, she drew on behavioural and cultural insights into the new challenges facing passengers and authorities, for example by designing a friendly mascot, Disney theme-park like, to deliver security instructions without scaring passengers.
Though she moved from wayfinding back to user centric architecture with Chicago-based Perkins and Will, she continued to push the boundaries into integrated experience design responsive to user behaviour and culture, focusing on the user from the earliest stages, in projects from the Intrepid Museum in New York to hospital wards and hotels for pilgrims in Mecca. Perhaps the best example is her work on the Princess Noura University for women in Saudi Arabia. The case for a user-centric approach was particularly strong in a project expressly designed for an under-represented group: young Saudi women as they considered a university education, went through college and pursued their ambitions. As she was involved from the early stages of the project, she was able to make the user experience central to the project. She used a range of methodologies, from theatre-like character exploration, to mapping of “days in a life…” with constant re-evaluation as the project progressed, to enabling project experts to experience their own work through the eyes of users. Sensing a need to go further, to overcome the silos experienced when multiple specialisations are involved in a project, she brought the experts together to ensure joined-up collaboration. As this approach resonated, she explored it further on projects from airports to the Great Mosque expansion in Mecca. After Chicago she moved to RTKL, an international architecture firm based in Los Angeles and Shanghai, applying her experience to a range of redevelopment projects.
She left Shanghai with the desire to move where clients would be more interested in innovative approaches to integrated, holistic strategic growth. This brought her to London, and led her to set up her first company, Factors. Through Factors she led projects on her own account and as a consultant for service and innovation design companies including Seren and Fahrenheit 212.
By this time, she was convinced that when architecture projects are usually won on form rather than function, the user-centric approach still enters too late. In fact, the user must be brought in before the focus turns to the built environment. Her focus then was on service oriented transformations, from reimagining the healthcare model of the Henry Fords Hospitals for the Saudi Market, creating an engagement strategy for the Ministry of Planning and Economics in Saudi Arabia, redesigning the mobility offering for the People Advisory Services unit at EY and helping the Human Resource Development Fund in the Saudi Ministry of Labour to redefine service delivery for the changing labour force, for example the new women graduates of the Princess Noura University who found that the labour market was not meeting their needs.
Today, Samar’s projects draw on her experience to help clients develop integrated organisation and place strategies, focusing from the outset on people’s needs and keeping the user at the centre throughout.
David Landsman – from diplomat and corporate executive to connector and contrarian
David studied classics followed by a Masters and PhD in linguistics, exploring the politics of language. His first “real” career was in the British diplomatic service, where he served in Greece, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bosnia and Albania, worked on economics and European affairs, defence and proliferation and spent time at the UN in New York and Geneva and in Libya. He walked into one crisis in Former Yugoslavia; another kind of crisis in Greece crept up on him and his host country after he’d arrived. He took a crash course in economics to understand the crash, though he recognised that the crash wasn’t really about economics, but people and conflicting visions. He speaks Greek, Serbian and Albanian, and has tried his hand at French, German and Turkish.
Diplomacy isn’t all crises and champagne. He upsized Embassies and downsized Embassies, thinking about the culture as well as the numbers. He learned through negotiating with far cleverer people than himself and got himself and others out of difficult scrapes. Every time, he saw the need to focus not just on the details of the crisis or the negotiation or the business plan, but also on the big picture without which the details make no sense. He recognised that becoming an “expert” on the country he was in was actually about trying to understand it holistically and to make the connections between people phenomena and ideas that reveal what’s really going on and what you can do about it.
Having experienced the countries he was posted in from the perspective of an outsider, he changed career and became an outsider in the corporate world, twice. He found the language that’s different – business jargon instead of diplomatic jargon and PowerPoint instead of prose – as were professional cultures and incentives: few people could imagine themselves in the other world. But he saw that it was possible to thrive by treating people as people, understanding where they had come from and where they wanted to go.
In one corporate job, he experienced a revealing role reversal: having been a diplomat managing local staff in Embassies, he moved to the Indian-headquartered Tata Group and became a local hire himself, responsible for making the whole greater than the sum of its diverse parts. The challenge was not just about navigating international differences, but also working across sectors as different as tea and IT, not to mention salt, steel and premium cars. Again, he focused on learning the detail, understanding the big picture and making the connections, both internally among the 700,000 strong Tata workforce and externally across the UK and Europe. And he recognised that to understand what others bring to the table, you need to understand how others see you.
And before he could become an “insider” in the corporate world, he shifted careers again and took up a portfolio including roles in startups and a Visiting Fellowship at the Judge Business School of the University of Cambridge. Now his interests remain both wide and focused, enabling connections across his eclectic network which otherwise wouldn’t happen, reflecting on the relationship between business and government, organisations and their stakeholders, and expertise and holistic solutions. He believes that if you want to change things, you have to be honest about how they really are. At Agora, he asks the questions that others won’t.