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Culture is everything
people in a design business do that supports the process of making work happen.
Culture can create joy for designers, while improvements in process can
misperception is that culture emerges organically based on the decisions of a
business owner or CEO. But a design studio’s culture is not created solely by
those at the top. For a design-led business, culture is generated from ongoing
contributions and discoveries from both studio owners and employees.
In researching my
recent book on how design businesses can be more successful, I began to see
important building blocks that were present in the most successful studios.
These building blocks are divided into two groups: hard building blocks and
soft building blocks. Hard building blocks are realized through a budget,
meaning that you can allocate money and time for them as part of business
overhead. The soft building blocks can be created through the decisions
employees make over the course of their daily work, life and play (with less
material investment by the owners).
A healthy studio
culture draws equally from both types of building blocks. They provide
emotional and material stability to employees in the face of ongoing work
challenges, and often clients, family and the general public perceive them as
ingredients of the company’s brand.
Let’s take a deep
dive into these building blocks, with important questions to ask yourself (and
your team) in order to create a better studio culture.
Type of work is one
of the largest cultural building blocks of any studio, as the majority of the
time in any studio is spent immersed in the work.
The kinds of
customers selected by the business owner, the design disciplines practiced by
the staff and the way projects are delivered by the team
all contribute to the excitement that motivates employees and owners when they
start work every morning.
What follows are the
questions you should be asking yourself before the phone rings and prospective
clients ask you if you’d like to take on a project. Your answers, and how they
may overlap (or not) with your staff’s answers, will help you better understand
where you can take your studio portfolio.
Once you know what
kind of work you’d like to create, you’ll need a space where you can make the
magic happen. Studio owners must carefully consider the placement of their work
space, the studio layout, the use of the studio environment and whether a
formal space is even necessary to get the design work done.
You may be tempted to
lease or purchase space in a far away, yet “up and coming” neighborhood that is
great for your budget. However, getting to work shouldn’t be hard work for your
employees or your clients. Otherwise you are implicitly charging your employees
time that they could be using to take care of their wants and needs.
Well-placed studios can help support those needs, by being near local coffee
shops and restaurants, gyms and yoga studios, public transit or the freeway.
The layout of a
studio helps facilitate the flow of conversation and the style of work taking
place. Studio layouts can be open, closed or some combination of open and
are manifested through cube farms, closed-door offices and conference
rooms—areas where people can seal themselves off from others and focus on their
work. My first years as a designer took place in studio environments where each
designer had his own cubicle, and any ongoing conversations required us to peek
our heads over walls. At one point, we joked about sawing holes in the cubicle
walls so we could see each other’s faces without having to stand up. (This was
before video chat, mind you.) The layout of the space was a direct reflection
of the kind of work that was taking place: production-heavy print deliverables.
On the other end of
the spectrum, I have been working the past six years in entirely open studios,
with little to no privacy possible unless I exit the studio floor. The
complexity of the work product—much of it rooted in designing and developing
interactive products and services—requires constant collaboration. An open
studio plan encourages ad hoc conversation and a cross-pollination of ideas
that otherwise would never see the light of day. However, an open plan also
requires pockets of privacy, whether via conference rooms or closed-door “war
rooms” where the staff can work without distraction. Noise-canceling headphones
also are handy—I consider them the new “do not disturb” sign.
Decisions about the
use of studio space can have a major impact on culture for both employees and
visitors to your studio.
leases an affordable studio space within the Tashiro Kaplan Artist Lofts. As a
requirement in the lease, part of the design studio must be run as an art
gallery. Every first Thursday of the month, the employees have to put on a show
as part of a community art walk. Year after year, they have exhibited work from
a range of international artists as well as created their own interactive art
installations. This activity is also reflected online through a gallery
Other examples come
from design studios that intentionally preserve a portion of their space for
bringing in visiting artists and fellows, running a small retail store or
subletting office space to like-minded businesses.
choose to forgo a leased office space and work virtually, using by-the-meeting
office spaces for face-to-face meetings with clients. In these situations,
design teams work from home or from a local coffee shop, connecting regularly
through email, IM, phone calls, video chat and online collaboration tools such
as Basecamp, Campfire and WebEx.
With the recent
increase in drop-in and shared spaces, you can have the benefits of a studio
environment on demand—providing the needed infrastructure at a fraction of the
cost of leasing a full-time space. Plus, you also get the benefit of having
some office mates to chat with.
Amenities help create
an atmosphere that supports staff as they go about their business. These
amenities can help satisfy creature comforts—such as the daily caffeine fix—or
encourage the staff to stick around the office, whether to socialize or to stay
at work a little longer. (Sometimes both.)
factored into the studio overhead as part of the benefits provided to all
employees. They may be as simple as free soda and juice in the fridge, or a
studio iTunes account stocked with thousands of tunes. Whether it’s locally
sourced fruits and vegetables as a daily late afternoon snack or ice cream
sundaes with chocolate chip cookie dough on the side after a hard week, what
does your studio provide to keep your staff well-fed and happy?
Amenities may also
include side benefits, such as subsidized gym memberships, a weekly on-site
masseuse or free dining for those who choose to work past 7 p.m. Be aware that
these perks can say a lot about your firm to potential employees. If you offer
free cab rides home after 9 p.m., you might be broadcasting that working there
requires staying late.
Training is a line item
struck from studio budgets when cash flow is meager. But both on-site and
off-site training opportunities help foster a culture of continual learning.
Designers are refreshed and revitalized by information and inspiration from
outside their daily purview at work. This can happen in person or virtually,
whether by attending conferences and events or taking classes in new techniques
Strapped for cash but
want to satisfy your staff? Rotate the staffers who attend important events and
require them to summarize and share what they learned with the studio.
All work and no play
can make a design team wear away. For this reason, design business owners
should carve out dedicated time where studio staff can decompress and grow
closer on a personal level.
activities and social outlets may be designed into the workday by studio
management and staff, but ideally they should be realized and enlivened by the
staff. Whether movie nights, Friday afternoon cheese tastings or ad-hoc happy
hours, semiregular social outlets are often the highlight of a busy week. They
become rituals ingrained in the company operations.
When I lived on the
East Coast, Wednesday lunch meant Tex-Mex. It was our ritual for decompression.
The studio principal would take the last few minutes of lunch to encourage
staffers to talk about what was happening in their work and to tap into the
creativity of the other designers to help them solve any problems they might be
having. (It also made the lunch billable!)
The larger the
business, the more these connection opportunities will help define the culture
and inspire your staff. “The details, rituals and the camaraderie are an
important part of frog culture,” says Doreen Lorenzo, president of frog, a
global innovation firm. “For example, coffee time is at
4 p.m. every day at
every office. It is a time to pause, maybe grab a bite to eat, talk to someone
you haven’t spoken to, even play a friendly but competitive game of foosball. I
often thought that if we took coffee time away we would have the highest
attrition frog has ever seen. These small details make it an important reason
why people choose to work at frog.”
While earning money
is obviously important for running a stable business, many studios also donate
staff time or money toward passion projects related to nonprofit, educational
and philanthropic causes. Studios can provide staffers with charity days that
they can use individually or in groups. Some studios donate their space or
evening hours toward supporting local educational or fundraising events. The
costs of these efforts are included in studio overhead and can influence the
type of work that a studio receives.
Design business owners set the tone
regarding how the performance of studio staff and their work should be
recognized. The best recognition for your efforts should come from your client’s
customers. Studio staffers, however, may desire additional praise from their
peers, the press or the blogosphere. Some studios take pains to enter
competitions, though such efforts can be costly and steal time and attention
away from other endeavors.
doesn’t have to be solely about the work. The personal passions of studio staff
can be shared with the world, as long as you continue to support your studio
culture and properly represent your brand.
How the studio owners
lead a team, as well as how staff are properly trained and supported in taking
leadership roles, can have major cultural implications for staff happiness. Not
enough leadership, and your core staff may feel adrift. Too much active
leadership, and your staff can feel like there’s no space in the work (or the
studio) for their vision.
A high level of
challenge in client projects can supercharge a studio environment.
Smaller-scale, more tactical projects may exercise the staff’s skills and craft
sensibilities. Tackling larger-scale projects and design problems can provide
the studio with new perspectives on persistent issues in the world and give
your staff the chance to make a difference.
owners and staff can take on internal projects and initiatives to stay nimble
and challenged when the project work isn’t as stimulating as they would like.
Regular critique of ongoing projects should also challenge designers and studio
owners to realize their best work.
Ownership is the one
of the best indicators of healthy leadership. Ownership is when the staff feels
like they have control over their time and their work product. It emerges when
business leaders provide their designers with the necessary space to ideate and
create appropriate design solutions. It can also arise when a designer is able
to imprint her unique perspectives and expertise on any of the cultural
building blocks, such as the design of her office space, securing the right
type of work, gaining a leadership role, receiving recognition or even
coordinating a guest speaker series for the office.
businesses provide incentives for demonstrating ownership around growing studio
accounts, such as profit sharing. Staff can also gain an ownership stake in the
studio if they stay with the studio for a substantial period of time. However,
such monetary carrots might not appeal to everyone, and they should never
preclude your staff receiving regular opportunities that align with their
Now that you know the
building blocks of design studio culture, what are you going to do to improve
the culture at your studio?
I’ve created a
worksheet along with David Conrad, the studio director of Design Commission, to help you answer the following
questions: What can your staff do to create their ideal studio culture? And how
can that culture align with everyone’s desired working environment?
Here’s how to use the
Ed. note: Excerpted from Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers (HOW Books: 2012).
David Sherwin is an Interaction Design Director at frog, a global innovation firm, where helps to lead teams in the research, strategy, and design of novel products and services for some of today's leading companies and nonprofit organizations. He is the
author of Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers
and Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills. He is a Senior Lecturer in the BFA in Interaction Design program at California College of the Arts, and regularly
speaks, and teaches on subjects such as creativity, design business, and interaction design. He lives in Oakland, CA, with his wife, the poet and writer Mary Paynter Sherwin. When not working as a designer, he plays drums, does yoga, rock climbs, and continues
his quest for finding the best dark chocolate.
Because in-house designers regularly collaborate with different departments, they can develop a well-rounded view of needs and opportunities within their organization. By applying their unique design thinking skills to non-design problems, in-house designers have the ability to effect positive change from within.
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