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AV And The Art Of Furniture Design

Some AV-related furniture becomes a part of the end-users' experience in using the AV system ? and can sometimes make or break their overall experience.

IN PRO AV, the design we focus on has to do with three basic components:

1. The system — the audio, video, and control systems designs.

2. The electronics-driven infrastructure — conduit, power, data, equipment rooms, and the like.

3. The perception-driven infrastructure — acoustics, lighting, sightlines, seating layouts, and space planning.

All of these components work together to make an installation work. One piece of the infrastructure that overlaps these three categories more than any other is furniture.

It used to be the last thing AV designers would worry about, and sometimes it still is. But furniture design is now a much more important part of what AV designers should be concerned about. In fact, some AV-related furniture becomes a part of the end-users' experience in using the AV system — and can sometimes make or break their overall experience. A lectern, a podium, a dais, or a console are all prime real estate for AV equipment for end-user interaction. The user sits or stands behind it. It often is where the control system touchpanel lives along with other user-accessible AV equipment.

In essence, the furniture in front of the end-user in an AV space is part of the user interface of the system. And just like the user interface of the control system, it becomes one of the determining factors of the end-user's judgment about how good or bad the AV system is. If it's hard to use, either because the touchpanel interface isn't good or because the furniture isn't ergonomic or accommodating enough (or both), the whole system may be judged as worthless, regardless of how clear the audio is or how beautiful the video display is.

Who's in charge?

There's a variety of furniture that's intimately related to an AV system. Lecterns and podiums are at the top of the list, but there are also consoles, equipment racks, kiosks, other equipment enclosures, and integration of AV equipment into portable furniture that may need to be more customized than any of the off-the-shelf offerings from AV-oriented furniture manufacturers. In a design project, who's responsible for all of this design?

The fact is that design responsibility could be with anyone on the project team. It could be the architect or maybe a separate interior designer. There might be a furniture consultant involved, especially where there's lots of open-plan office furniture to be provided. Or the owners may already have a “standard” piece of presentation furniture that they want to use, which is often the case at universities. It could also be designed and provided by the owner's favorite millwork company.

In all of these cases, the furniture in which AV will reside may or may not be suitable for the job. It's part of the AV designer's role to make that determination. But it has to be a coordinated effort in which some or all of the stakeholders may have to make some compromises.

It's all design

First, the space — both above and below the work surface — can be an issue. Is this a stand and talk presentation application with no more than a notebook computer and no need for the presenter to control the system? Or is it a distance learning application where presenters run the show from the presentation furniture, and need to have a notebook computer, a desktop computer monitor, a document camera, maybe a separate control system touchscreen, and an open three-ring binder — all available at their fingertips. Can the lectern be a postage stamp on a toothpick or must it be an aircraft carrier in the front of the room?

Within this wide range of potential requirements, conflicting design issues may need to be resolved. The user may require a large work surface, but a piece of furniture to support it — particularly at standing height — may be aesthetically and functionally too large for the room. The architect may want a slim, minimalist lectern, but the AV consultant may need a large base to accommodate equipment, and the user-group could already have a “standard” design. And none of these, by the way, may address ADA requirements.

Then there's what happens beneath the work surface. In the past, it was a given that most of the AV equipment would be inside a rack off in a closet or a centralized equipment room somewhere. But with the incredible AV systems of today that use three boxes to do what used to take 15, it's very easy for a mid-range presentation system to easily fit into a moderately-sized lectern. Once we put AV equipment in this confined space, we need access for service, pathways for getting wiring up to the work surface and down to a floor or wall box, and ventilation. And does the lectern need to move around? Are you starting to get the picture?

Who does what?

So how should furniture design be accomplished? It comes down to three basic questions: Who's responsible for design? Who needs to approve the design? And who is responsible for building it? If the furniture is an AV-laden lectern that will be a standalone piece (not built-in), the design works should fall to the AV designer. If it's a built-in podium, dais, or a high-end conference table with lots of AV equipment, wiring pathways, and permanently attached desktop microphones and motorized connector boxes, it should be the primary responsibility of the architect or interior designer in close collaboration with the AV designer. Standalone consoles in the AV control room should go to the AV designer. If it's a fancy custom, built-in millwork console to support the in-room AV tech, then the architect or interior designer should be responsible, with AV designer input.

One critical step in the furniture design process that's sometimes overlooked is the approval process. If the AV designer designs a lectern, he or she needs to coordinate the finish and look with the architect, the interior designer, and the owner. Otherwise, the end-user's buy-in and acceptance may be at stake at the end of the project (not to mention profit margins for all concerned due to redesign and rebuilding). By the same token, the architectural team and owner should get input and approval from the AV designer on any millwork that supports AV system components or wiring. Often the IT people should also be in the loop.

The third question to resolve (as early in the process as possible) is the budget in which the furniture should be allocated. This also usually determines the contract in which the furniture falls. Logistically, it's often best for an AV-driven lectern or standalone AV console to be designed by the AV designer, coordinated with the architectural team and owner, and put under the AV integrator's contract. This way, coordinating the sequencing, construction, and integration of the AV equipment into the lectern is fully under the control and responsibility of the integrator. Other furniture may just need close coordination with the AV team while being separately contracted.

Ultimately, furniture is no small issue in the process of an AV project, and it behooves all of the parties involved to look at this piece of the design early on, and get a clear idea about who's doing what, who's contracted for it, and who's paying for it. Furniture and its design may be an art, but when it comes to AV, it has to be functional, too.

Tim Cape is a contributing editor for Pro AV, the principal consultant for Atlanta-based technology consulting firm Technitect LLC, and co-author of “AV Best Practices,” published by InfoComm International. He's the current chairman of InfoComm's ICAT consultant's council, and an instructor and presenter in AV technology design and management. Contact him at tim@technitect.com.



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