Minnesota’s preeminent product maker carves out a stunning new creative hub on its St. Paul campus

By Joel Hoekstra

An argument can be made that 3M has significantly altered the course of contemporary design with its Post-it Notes. Visit nearly any advertising agency or startup venture and you’ll find the sticky swatches plastered on desks, walls, files, and perhaps even the fridge. Every day, all around the globe, innumerable ideas are jotted, sketched, and preserved on Post-its, waiting to blossom into transformative businesses, buildings, books, and more.

Yet St. Paul–based 3M—which also makes sandpaper, adhesives, abrasives, optical films, electronic circuits, and car-care products—has struggled in recent years to win the attention of an increasingly design-focused public. Companies like Apple have blended technology and design in ways that excite consumers and build a brand, while 3M has largely focused on solid functionality. But 3M’s approach is rapidly changing, says Eric Quint, a Dutchman trained in industrial design, who was appointed the company’s chief design officer in 2013. “Designers need to be partners at the table with people from marketing and R&D,” he says. “We need to think about how design impacts all the touchpoints for our products. We want to maximize the customer experience, and design is critical to that.”

3M employs thousands of scientists, engineers, and other technical professionals, but their labs are scattered around the world, and even labs on the same campus are often housed in different buildings. Such silos inhibit creative collaboration, which is essential to good design, says Quint. So, shortly after he arrived in Minnesota, Quint began lobbying 3M’s leadership to establish a center where his staff could freely collaborate and their innovations could be dramatically showcased.

“I said, ‘Give me the oldest lab,’” he recalls. “‘I can make it into something that builds on the history of the company but also shapes the designs of our new products.’” He hired Minneapolis firm MSR, which has a long history with 3M, for the project’s architectural design. Construction began in 2015 and was completed last summer.

The heart of 3M’s St. Paul campus is a quadrangle plaza flanked by four office buildings erected in the 1960s. In recent years, the company has been renovating the facilities—with help from MSR, among others—and the main administrative tower has gotten a significant facelift and interior remodel. As if to signal the elevated role of design in the company’s future, Quint was given 38,000 square feet of highly visible space near the main entry. Hundreds of employees and visitors pass the sign for the new 3M Design Center every day.

The biggest challenge, says MSR principal Josh Stowers, AIA, was to figure out how to shoehorn a creative space into an existing office-style environment. The program ultimately required construction workers to cut through two cement floors to unify the three-story space.

In part, the center is a showplace for 3M products. Visitors entering the central core will find a Jaguar coupe wrapped in colorful 3M films. Glass partitions and doors are sheathed in 3M films that shift from transparent to mirrored as the viewer’s angle changes. A suite of rooms dedicated to 3M’s primary brands—like Post-it and Scotch—is kitted out with historic brand images, walls bearing approved typefaces, and the shards that compose 3M’s new trifecta brand identity, unveiled in 2015.

Sustainability was also a consideration in the design. The space incorporates energy-efficient climate control, LED lighting systems, and lots of recycled wood, including reclaimed scaffolding boards transformed into tables and desks. On a tour, Quint points to the incorporation of adjustable desks that can be raised to standing height as another sustainability strategy—one that promotes employee health.

But the center is less a temple to technology than it is a workplace designed to spur creativity. Comfortable chairs ring a central pit called the Design Hive, an open auditorium where employees can curl up with pillows to hear a guest lecturer. There’s a large communal table with stools for impromptu chats over snacks, as well as niches and small rooms filled with stylish sofas and plush chairs. MSR co-designed three of the meeting rooms—which 3M named Mille Lacs, Vermilion, and Minnetonka, after Minnesota lakes—as freestanding cabin-like enclosures. “They’re glassed-in at the ends, so people can see collaboration happening inside, and they’re also raised up a bit,” says Quint. “It’s as if we’re putting creativity on a pedestal.

“I wanted it to have the feel of a living room,” Quint says of the center. “People like being at home in their living room, and feeling comfortable and safe is key to unlocking creative ideas. The Dutch have a word, gezellig, that, loosely translated, means ‘cozy.’ I wanted the space to have that cozy feel.”

Staff have told Quint they almost prefer being at work to being at home—the place is that comfortable. “The physical environment has begun to yield creative fruit and attract the notice of others at 3M and external,” he says. But when his colleagues ask if he can redesign their offices or labs, Quint demurs: “I have to tell people I’m the chief design officer at 3M, not the chief interior designer.”

Location: St. Paul, Minnesota
Client: 3M Design
Creative director: Eric Quint, IDSA
Architect: MSR Design
Principal-in-charge: Josh Stowers, AIA
Project lead designer: Rachelle Schoessler Lynn
Interior designer: MSR Design
Energy modeling: Arup; Master Mechanical; The Weidt Group
Landscape architect: Damon Farber Associates
General contractor: Ryan Companies
Size: 38,000 square feet
Completion: July 2016
Photography: 3M Design