Interview with Jan Lorenc
Meet this designer—who is first and foremost a storyteller.
I.D. Magazine, December 2002

Forget the conventional wisdom about finding your niche. Jan Lorenc‘s reputation isn’t built around a signature style, but versatility. Lorenc and partner Chung Youl Yoo describe their firm, Roswell, GA-based Lorenc + Yoo Design, as an “environmental communication design” firm. This sufficiently broad description includes signage, sculpture, retail space, furniture and exhibit design for an international client base that includes Sony-Ericcson, Haworth Furniture Company, Lifetime Television, and Georgia-Pacific.

“A colleague once remarked that there’s no thread of design continuity in our portfolio,” says Lorenc. “He seemed to be bothered by this, yet it made me feel great, since a job’s aesthetic is determined by the process and the client. That’s the thread.” Deeply thoughtful and introspective when describing his work, Lorenc considers himself primarily a storyteller, someone his clients hire to reflect their culture, not impose his own. “The story is the client’s mission,” says Lorenc. “And their message is the key from which we create the environment.”

Although his personal nature is calm and focused, Lorenc’s history is a study in extremes. A Polish immigrant, Lorenc literally left his family farm for the Warsaw airport by horse and buggy and, upon arrival, was driven to his new Chicago home in a pink Cadillac. A lifelong interest in art lead him to the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he studied industrial and graphic design. He founded Jan Lorenc Design in 1978 with his wife Barbara, and changed the name to Lorenc Design in 1981 when he moved the firm to Atlanta in pursuit of broader creative opportunities.

As the opportunities grew, so did the workload. In 1995, Lorenc took on longtime staff member Chung Youl Yoo, a Korean native, as a partner and changed the firm name to Lorenc + Yoo Design. In 2000, they moved the firm just north of Atlanta to Roswell, GA, where they remain today, 24 years after the firm was founded. Jan cultivates the diversity so essential to his character by employing a staff with diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise. Below, Lorenc shares why diversity is crucial to his firm and how his success is all about knowing his clients inside and out.

What made you decide to take on Chung as a partner?
Doing a diverse range of work is what I have dreamed of since day one. I needed a committed partner to make this vision achievable. I couldn’t have done the work we’ve done lately without Chung and vice versa. My role is to serve primarily as the design director, setting each project’s tone and handling the upfront research and the spirit of the project. Chung primarily handles the evolution of bringing the design idea into reality, negotiating with the manufacturers, detailing the individual pieces of the project, and selecting the final finishes and materials.

Was hiring diverse staff intentional, or a natural consequence of the nature of your partnership with Chung?
Diversity has been a goal since the firm was founded. I like to bring on staff who are better than I am—people I can learn from and grow with. It would be one thing if our firm had a rigorous design philosophy where we didn’t do anything but, say, modernist work. Then a homogenous staff would make sense. But it benefits us to have a diverse staff due to the variety of projects we take on.

What does the diversity of the staff bring to the firm?
Combined, our staff of 12 has experience in industrial design, visual design, marketing, architecture, graphic design, furniture design, painting, color theory, and journalism. This allows us to be very malleable, take on the wide variety of projects that we do, and switch gears easily.

Also, our travels to Europe and Asia allow us to approach projects with new materials, design attitudes, and colors. For instance, I was struck by the visual impact of a bright yellow boat docked in Venice’s murky waters caught my eye. I brought that back and used it in our work. The Georgia-Pacific exhibit is probably the best example of how we incorporated bold colors to highlight the product.

Who or what inspires you?
The common folk of the world—people who create the true culture of a place and make it what it is. This is why our recently completed visitors’ center for Wycliffe Bible Translators—an international missionary organization—was so exciting. We learned about their work and told their story through graphic content supplemented with ordinary construction materials, including materials commonly used in the third world where many of their missions take place. We introduced textures, colors, and ethnic textiles to anchor the organization’s humble message.

You’ve said that your design process primarily involves storytelling. How so?
Our approach looks at the company or environment and strives to incorporate the richness of its culture and context. The site plan, the landscape, the lighting, the building, the interiors, everything down to the micro level is thought through as a unified message. We mold the environment around the client, starting with the experience. We do this by knowing each individual client’s business and personality intimately.

For example?
With the Georgia-Pacific exhibit, our primary mission was to understand the company history, legacy, and future. We immersed ourselves in their product line and probably understood it better than any single person in the company. We were then able to take their overall repositioning story, add some bit of lightness to it and tell this in a synoptic fashion through the exhibit space.
The purpose of the Georgia-Pacific exhibit was to introduce everyone from internal sales staff to company trainees to Wall Street analysts to the company. We designed the exhibit—which is spread out as separate pieces throughout the divisional headquarters in Atlanta and Denver—as a three-dimensional brief. Each different piece educated visitors on everything from product offerings to company history. It provided a sort of “cheat sheet” for people who want to learn about the company.

Is your approach similar whether you’re working with a sculpture client or a tradeshow client?
In sculpture, the message may be emotional, but it still has to be narrative. In exhibits, the message is the narrative, but it can be a structural vocabulary with emotional space. Each piece is still about telling a story, so in that way, the approach is the same.

What are your favorite types of projects?
Anything that requires me to do something totally new and fresh. I simply love to create spaces as narratives of each company’s or institution’s unique culture.

What would be your dream project?
Our current museum design project for the Children’s Museum of South Carolina comes close. It has allowed us to exercise all of our varied talents in exhibit design, retail-shop design, furniture design, interior design, architecture, landscape architecture, theater, interactive design, graphic design, identity design, and lighting design. Since our audience is children, we are striving to ground the design with imagery and elements from the local area like its historic buildings, shrimp boats, and the coast itself to make this museum communicate the importance of ‘place’ in memory and allow children to appreciate the special character of their home.

Walk me through the research/exploration phase of Sony-Ericcson.
Our process for every project is similar to that of an architectural firm. Phase one constitutes research and planning—this is where we find out about the project and the client and begin to imagine a person engaging in the environment. With Sony-Ericcson, it was about finding out everything from what they wanted to communicate to legal restrictions—specifically, how they wanted to present the product—cell phones and accessories. Phase two is concept design, where we come up with a series of options that we review internally. This is our concept and planning phase. For Sony, we created a diagram of the space, and developed the identity, which were giant letters S + E imposed on the structure. Phase three involves design development, where we focus on the evolution of a singular direction. We built physical study models for Sony-Ericcson, since they were easier to understand than dimensional drawings. This is also when we began to add graphics and content. Phase four identifies the design intent, and this is where the details and dimensions come in. We brought in contractors who built off our drawings. We traveled to their shop to check progress up until the time the exhibit was assembled, then taken down and packaged. The last phase involves meeting with the contractors, and negotiating the actual build. We always need to work with a passionate contractor who is truly interested and committed in the project. With this project, we were working right down to the wire. The exhibit opened at 9a.m., and I think we finished at 8:59a.m.

What made this particular job so successful?
Since Sony-Ericcson was introducing tiny products, instead of keeping everything at ground level, we created a new floor, 18-inches above the show floor. The platform created a stage-like destination, creating an exciting, party-like environment. The product comes to life as communicated by the salesperson, a performance orchestrated by the client team. This treatment captured the attention of attendees much better than traditional booth. This project showcased design as theater, brand launch as performance. With exhibit design, we look for opportunities to produce unique, memorable spaces.
This project has really been the best collaboration between Chung and me. We had such a complex program and tight timeframe. Chung’s commitment to the project allowed it to evolve successfully. His suggestions to simplify some pieces for the sake of production schedules strengthened the overall project, making it cleaner and simpler than it started.

What was your biggest design mistake?
Moving into a corporate office space to appeal to big business clients and narrowing our focus to a single client type (real-estate developers) early in the firm’s history—between 1982 and 1988. During this time, we also specialized exclusively in environmental graphics, which made for predictable design projects. But most of all, the biggest mistake was not following my heart by searching for the most varied and difficult projects. I’ve found that our firm’s current diversity and ever-changing project type has allowed me to become energized and passionate about each challenge and to look forward to the future since it will bring more diversity in the body of work.

If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
Considering my humble beginnings in a village in Southeastern Poland I could be throwing rocks at goats. Or I could be a sheep herder. As a child, I didn’t have much to choose from unless I wanted to be a Communist. Thank God I was able to come to this great country and follow my passion. These humble connections have inspired me to turn away from my modernist education and enrich it through texture and color. I can’t think of doing anything other than what I’m doing now.

What projects lie ahead?
We’ll be designing more showrooms, like the one we did for Haworth. We’re finishing the children’s museum in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and hope to do more tradeshow exhibits, retail spaces, and museums.

If you were to design a storytelling exhibit of Lorenc+Yoo Design, what would it look like?
I like to think our story would tell of creative passion. The exhibit would need to be multisensory in its presentation. We would need to show the scrawls, notes, study models, computer models, spatial videos, and computer interactives. Through video interviews, we would also want to tell stories from the client perspective about how we interacted and pushed one another during the life to the project. We’d show how these relationships led to subsequent challenges and projects, how we evolved, and how we will embrace future challenges. It would be exhibited at my respective alma maters of IIT Institute of Design and Georgia Tech College of Architecture to show students the numerous options a creative field has to offer.