It's important for all designers to have a well-planned studio
that's clean, comfortable and efficient. Space planning becomes an
especially important issue if your company is expanding or
relocating. A great deal of thought (and, quite often, a lot of
money) will go into finding the perfect-sized space, configuring it
to facilitate your work, and adding the right creature comforts to
make it fun and inspiring.
If you have frequent onsite meetings with clients, your physical
space is also an important part of your brand-the location and
condition must reflect the high quality of your services. When
selecting a location, you may be faced with a trade-off between
price and proximity to your clients. It's good to be close to your
most important accounts. However, if their headquarters are
downtown, you might not be able to afford a large enough space in
their area. Rather than squeeze your staff into an expensive space
that's too small, it's usually better to find something larger in a
nearby district with more reasonable rents. You might even find an
appropriate space that's located midway between your clients and
key suppliers such as printers or fabricators.
The amount of space you're looking for will be based on your
company's headcount (both full-time and part-time employees)
multiplied by a certain number of square feet per person. Each
industry has a standard range for this. In the design world, it's
250 to 350 square feet per employee. Design spaces tend to be large
to accommodate the dynamic nature of our work. As a reference, the
majority of other businesses range from 200 to 250 square feet per
employee. At the lowest end of the scale, there are also businesses
like call centers with just 150 to 200.
Don't be confused by this rule of thumb-it does not represent
the amount of personal space given to each individual employee. The
calculation includes everything: individual work areas, walkways,
meeting spaces, a reception area, storage, a packing and shipping
area, space for books and reference materials, restrooms and a
kitchen. Using this rule of thumb, a 2,000 square foot space could
comfortably fit a creative firm of six to eight people. Carved out
of that total area, each personal area would be about 100 square
feet. Just as a comparison, the typical administrative cube in a
corporation is about 64 square feet (8 feet by 8 feet), although
personal space in corporations is currently on a downward
If you're making these calculations because you're moving into a
new space, be sure to leave yourself room to grow. If the new space
seems too empty at the start, consider subletting a portion on a
temporary basis to a friend. To keep this option open, you need to
negotiate a master lease that allows you to bring in
The next big challenge for you is to configure the space to
function well. Each design firm has to find the most appropriate
mix of personal, team and public areas. There are contrasting
philosophies about how to do this. At one end of the spectrum, some
firms choose to do all of their work in a single, large space. An
open area that's shared by everyone is sometimes referred to as a
“bullpen.” The major benefit of this approach is that it encourages
constant collaboration and information sharing. Employees have easy
access to each other for brainstorming and feedback. It's also
inexpensive to set up. The downside is that it can be very noisy
with lots of distractions.
In complete contrast, you could take a more traditional approach
and set up private offices. Separate, small spaces with doors that
close are much quieter. This makes them well suited to tasks that
require uninterrupted concentration, such as writing. The downside
is that private offices can be very isolating. They're more
expensive to build and can be difficult to modify once they're in
place. Offices also take up more space (in the corporate world,
they're often 150 square feet), which leaves less available for
Most design firms opt for a combination of open and enclosed
areas. Here's what's included in the mix:
Individual designers need large desktops to spread out work, an
ergonomic arrangement of computer equipment, a way to store project
files and binders and a place to tack up reference materials. There
should be easy access to scanners and printers, and a way to keep
lighting and temperature at comfortable levels.
Designers also need space to collaborate. This might include a
meeting table placed at the center of a shared work area, a long
wall for critiques, and maybe even a separate room dedicated to one
major project or client account, where reference materials can be
accumulated and work in process can be displayed. Apart from work
areas, many firms also create a shared social space. This might be
a lounge or, if it's large enough, the kitchen. Shared meals can be
an important part of your studio's culture.
The public face of your studio begins with the reception area.
When a client arrives for a meeting, it's important to make a
positive first impression. There should be an adjacent meeting area
or conference room. Even in an open-plan studio, this tends to be
an enclosed space where lighting and sound levels can be controlled
for presentations. It's helpful to have a large white board for
brainstorming and a narrow ledge for showing work (sometimes called
a “crit rail”). In large firms, the main conference room often has
its own kitchenette and bathroom. This cuts down on foot traffic
through the rest of the studio and helps to protect the
confidentiality of other accounts.
OK, we've discussed how to calculate the total amount of space
needed for your design firm and how that space might be divided up
into personal, team and public areas. Now we're ready to look at
the process of getting everything arranged just the way you want
If you plan to lease a space that's completely raw and
unfinished, it will require a build-out. If you move into a space
that has been occupied previously, chances are it will have to be
remodeled. Both situations require careful negotiation with the
owner of the building. Discuss how financial responsibility for the
necessary improvements can be shared. Most landlords are willing to
provide subsidies for improvements that increase the value of the
property and make it more desirable to future tenants. A commercial
real estate attorney can serve as an invaluable resource when
negotiating these aspects of the lease agreement. The negotiation
might focus on the cost of specific improvements or it could lead
to a general build-out allowance that's calculated as an amount per
square foot. Depending on the size and condition of the space, this
rate can vary greatly. You'll also need to clarify who will oversee
the work, and what the required process will be for getting the
final plans approved by the landlord.
In general, leasehold improvements are structural or functional.
They tend to be permanently attached or integrated into the
building, such as plumbing and electrical wiring. In contrast, the
term “fixtures” is used for items that could be removed and taken
with you if you relocate. Your lease agreement should specify
whether you are allowed (or perhaps required) to remove any
fixtures at the end of the lease. If you have a long-term lease,
it's fairly common to make comprehensive leasehold
improvements-permanent modifications that tailor the space to your
needs. With short-term leases, however, fewer changes are made.
Often there's a narrower focus on the arrangement of furniture and
equipment, and some of these items might even be rented from
vendors rather than purchased.
As you make financial commitments, speak with your accountant
about how they should be recorded on your books. For tax purposes,
different items will be depreciated in different ways. In the
United States, most leasehold improvements to commercial buildings
are depreciated over the course of 39 years. With some leasehold
improvements, however, it may be possible to shorten the
depreciation schedule to match the term of your lease. Other
categories such as fixtures, furniture and equipment are
depreciated more quickly. Federal tax codes change periodically and
state requirements sometimes vary, so you'll want expert guidance
from your CPA.
Build-outs and remodels require specialized expertise. As a
designer you may be tempted to take on projects like this entirely
on your own. Think carefully before making this decision. Do you
have the appropriate skills and experience, and do you have time to
spare from paid client assignments? It usually makes sense to bring
in professional advisors from outside your firm.
Advice from a space planner might be free if he or she
represents a company that sells contract furnishings or modular
office systems (the consultation might be viewed as a marketing
expense by that company). An interior architect can work with you
to analyze needs and develop plans, guide the selection of
materials and fixtures, prepare blueprints and construction
documents, coordinate any necessary permits, seek competitive bids
from contractors such as carpenters and electricians and monitor
the quality of contracted work as it's being done. Obviously, all
of this can make your life a lot easier! You'll also want advice
from a computer network consultant on data and phone connections,
onsite (and perhaps offsite) servers and wireless capabilities.
The best configuration of your space depends on your particular
situation and needs. Keep in mind that three of the most essential
elements for creating comfortable work areas are good airflow, good
lighting and noise control. Many design firms have high ceilings
but low interior walls. Private offices are few and tend to have a
glass wall or glass door opening onto a larger, shared space. Open
areas are not divided into boxy, corporate-style cubicles. Instead,
flexible infrastructure and modular furniture systems allow team
members to be grouped into reconfigurable “pods” that place several
collaborators (staff and freelancers) in close proximity to each
other. Many firms put everything on wheels, making it easy to move
desks, whiteboards and partitions as needed.
As you go through the planning and construction process, be sure
to keep employees in the loop. Get early input from everyone who
will use the finished space. Ask what elements they would like to
see. Be open to ideas, but don't let this request for input devolve
into decision-making by committee. It's important to have the
involvement of all stakeholders, but it's also important to
maintain strong project leadership and clear decision-making
A large project like this will take weeks or months to complete.
During that time, provide regular updates to the staff. Uncertainty
and lack of information can lead to anxiety. Reduce the stress of
moving or reconfiguring by giving employees as much information as
possible. As the process moves forward, take employees to see the
new space, show them blueprints and even build models to help them
visualize what the finished workplace will be like.
Many design firms also factor in some flexibility for individual
employees by providing options for the final components that will
go into their personal spaces. Allow workers to control what they
can. Give them a chance to personalize their new workspaces by
choosing from a pre-selected menu of items such as chairs, desks,
tables, file drawers, bookshelves, or lamps.
When you're ready to occupy the finished space, orchestrate the
actual move-in very carefully to minimize disruptions to daily
activities as much as you can. There will be an adjustment period
as everyone settles in, but client projects must go on!
When it comes to facilities, the biggest challenge for creative
firms is that needs are not static. Personal and team requirements
change over time. Your firm will have turnover in staff, bringing
new employees with different personal preferences. You'll also have
to cope with larger adjustments as your mix of services evolves.
For example: the space, lighting and equipment needs for print
design are different from those of web development. What's ideal
today will be less than ideal three years from now if the services
that you provide to clients have changed. When laying out space, be
sure to allow for growth and flexibility.
Shel Perkins is a graphic designer, management consultant and educator with more than twenty years of experience in managing the operations of leading design firms in the U.S. and the U.K. He has served on the national boards of AIGA and the Association
of Professional Design Firms. He has been honored as an AIGA Fellow "in recognition of significant personal and professional contributions to raising the standards of excellence within the design community." The third edition of his best-selling book, Talent
Is Not Enough: Business Secrets For Designers, is available from New Riders.
If your design firm is already operating successfully, why write a business plan after the fact? Discover how the document itself is part of a larger strategic planning process.
Section: Tools and Resources -
As a follow-up to his introduction to business planning, Shel Perkins offers more advice on drafting the final sections of your business plan, including marketing, technology and finances.
As the largest professional association
of designers in the world, AIGA is committed to advancing the value and
impact of design, both locally and globally, and working together to
inspire, support and learn from each other, at every stage of our
careers. Whether you're an established designer looking to give back or a
student just starting out, there's a membership level for you.
Section: About AIGA -
Take advantage of the many benefits that come with being an AIGA member: savings, information, community, inspiration and more.
In-house, agency, or freelance? Why AIGA’s resident career expert thinks agency, followed by in-house, then freelance is the best path for students and emerging designers.
Section: Inspiration -
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