Naomi Sakamoto, Principal, Studio Director, Gensler

Naomi Sakamoto is a Principal in Gensler’s London office, leading both the Technology practice area for the firm’s Europe region and a studio serving innovative clients in sciences, tech, and creative industries. With a background in urban design, civil engineering, and architecture, Naomi is a regular keynote speaker at leading events across Europe, delivering thought leadership on topics related to the future of work and the importance of physical space to nurture talent and enhance human connection.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with Digital First Magazine, Naomi shared her professional trajectory, personal sources of inspiration, significant career milestones, future plans, words of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

Hi Naomi. What is your favorite part about your current role?

I have a few roles at the moment: as the leader of a 28-person studio, I’m passionate about helping my team unlock their superpowers. As a leader of a global client account, I enjoy working with our offices from Mexico to Singapore, Canada to Abu Dhabi to deliver the caliber of design that our client expects, while respecting uniquely local materials and processes. And as the leader of our European technology practice, I absolutely love collaborating with the great pioneers of our time to solve big problems!

With your background in architecture, civil engineering, and urbanism, how do you leverage this diverse skill set to lead and inspire your team, fostering a culture of creativity and excellence?

Having bounced around from place to place, discipline to discipline, role to role, I’m never more than a year or two away from being a novice at something. That crystalline memory of struggle and failure and self-doubt reminds me that everyone is at a different point in their journey—our capabilities are not fixed, but inchoate, waiting to bloom. The curiosity that pulled me from linguistics to engineering, from Beijing to Paris, is, for me, a fundamental ingredient in creativity, motivation, and mastery; I do everything I can to fuel that curiosity within our studio and our teams.

In what ways do you find inspiration from your experiences outside of the design world and how do these influences shape your approach to design?

I love learning about people, human psychology, and human behaviour. To deliver great design for human beings—places where people will feel certain things or behave in certain ways—we need to understand what makes each of us tick.

What are some of your favourite product designs?

Thanks to my two young boys, I’ve rediscovered the pop-up book! Every time we open one together, I’m amazed at the simple ingenuity of the designs and how they can bring so much dynamism and delight to a familiar story.

Who or what has most inspired you as a designer?

Honestly—what I love about workplace interiors is walking a mile in our client’s shoes. When I was working with a semiconductor company, I became fascinated by the future of gaming, and the science that would make it possible; when I was working at an airport, I woke up every morning excited to make someone’s journey delightful. Our clients have big ideas for the future. What could be more inspiring than making that future a reality?

How important is sustainability to your work (both in terms of design and choice of materials)?

The single most important thing we do as architects is to make the world better—for this and future generations. There’s so much room for our industry to improve—from designing for disassembly, to specifying better materials—but in addition to incremental progress, designers also have a unique capability to conjure an inspiring vision for a regenerative future. I think the core mission of architectural practice in our century should be to envision a climate positive world and bring that world into being.

What has been the most fulfilling part of your career?

Without a doubt, it’s been the relationships. I’ve been at Gensler for more than ten years, and in that time, I’ve seen my peers become partners, my colleagues become clients, and former clients become old friends. With the trust and familiarity that we’ve built up over time, projects and events can become lots of fun!

If you could have a one-hour meeting with someone famous who is alive, who would it be and why?

Adam Grant. He is a walking encyclopedia of organizational psychology research, and I admire his boundless curiosity and eagerness to be wrong!

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

Working for one of my brilliant team members, who I hope will take my job!

What advice would you give to young designers just starting their careers?

Embrace curiosity and uncertainty—you can’t know exactly where paths will lead you, but if you trust your values, you will always end up somewhere great!

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