Dynamic Duos: Herman Miller’s Brian Walker And Don Goeman On Unplanning Ideas

The informal and inclusive partnership behind the pioneering American design company on why sometimes even spontaneity has to be scheduled in.

Dynamic Duos: Herman Miller’s Brian Walker And Don Goeman On Unplanning Ideas
Brian Walker, CEO & Don Goeman, head of research, design and development

Brian Walker, CEO
Don Goeman, head of research, design and development


Walker: Don and creative folks often get sparks, and much of our best work happens when an idea kind of pops through and we all rally around it. But I don’t think that happens without intentionally planning your schedule around finding time to do it.

Goeman: Having a CEO who gives an ear to the creative voice in the organization can remove overnight a number of barriers, even on some of the most massive investments in the business.

Walker has been at Herman Miller for some two decades; Goeman for more than three. But it wasn’t until Walker became CEO in 2004 that the colleagues really got to know one another.

“I didn’t just sort of grow into this position of working for Brian, I had to compete for it,” Goeman says. “I found that to be an integrous thing about his leadership. Just the fact that I’d been in the business for a long time didn’t grant me a place at his table.” He credits this initial audition of sorts for setting a pattern of open, frank communication between the two of them today as they make creative and business decisions for the company.


“I always want Don to be in the future, asking how are we solving a problem through innovation and design that the business unit may not even have seen yet,” says Walker. “Sometimes there’s tension between those two points of view. And so my job at times is to place my bets.”

The two don’t disagree about specific concepts so much as struggle to “gauge the cadence of change and time,” as Goeman puts it. “The one front that comes up for me of late is technology. From an R&D point of view you can be sort of out there where the headlights grow dim from the rest of the business. We see things that are emerging trends or that are sort of lining up, and impulsively, from a creative view, you want to go attack it. But as the venture capitalist, Brian has to gauge where and how he plants some of those investments.”


Walker says that it took them several years to fine tune the concept of the Living Office, a new series of flexible workplace solutions that are the 21st-century answer to the office cubicle that Herman Miller launched in the 1960s.

“Don had an instinct of where the world was going to go and had a conceptual framework in his head,” Walker says. “I couldn’t figure out how we would ever turn it into a sort of viable commercial solution as we solved the problems he could see that were emergent. We just kept beating away at it until we had a series of ideas to solve the problem and began to develop a sort of overarching point of view, not only of what it meant for our customers, but for us.”


In addition to regularly scheduled management meetings and the serendipitous exchanges that occur in their open plan office in Zeeland, Michigan, Goeman and Walker also make a point to get out of the building on a regular basis.

“We’re very deliberate that once a quarter we pick a location on the globe where we have a sort of a nexus of design partners and we travel together,” Walker says. “Not to critique what they’re working on but to get their feelings about why they’re working on the solutions they are and what are some of the things that they think we’re not paying attention to that we should be.”

Goeman says that Walker will often ask questions that start with the words “Help me understand” and has a naturally curious, nonjudgmental manner with the design partners that invites dialogue–and in turn helps the designers understand the business.



Walker says that the quarterly field trips are largely unstructured two-day trips where he, Goeman, and Executive Creative Director Ben Watson travel without the rest of the team to ensure they get some focused time together.

“Much of that trip ends up being time where we’re sitting around or walking across the city at the end of the day kind of musing on the things that we saw and heard,” Walker explains. “I think you have to have an intentional and sort of deliberate way of interacting informally. I don’t want to wait until they make a formal proposal. As a company we try to be very programmatic, but we try to leave lots of white space for those moments of intuition and surprise that we didn’t plan for.”

Read more pairings from Fast Company‘s 10th Annual Innovation By Design issue:


About the author

Kristin Hohenadel is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in publications including the New York Times, Slate, Los Angeles Times, Vogue, and Elle Decor.