Walking into the studio of my French students for the first time, I was a bit shocked at how bad the space was. Dirty walls, boxes everywhere, desks haphazardly put together and absolutely no sense of creativity in sight - except for 12 students, their laptops open, waiting patiently to start the lesson. I was a little surprised. Here was a dedicated space for them for a year, and yet there was no indication it belonged to them. Instead it was a shell, void of life, more akin to a disused storage room.
By Jason Little, Landor
So my first lesson didn't start as planned. Instead it began with a discussion on how to find inspiration by being in the right mindset. If they were going to be searching for ideas every day, they should collectively try to create an environment around them that would foster this. Returning after lunch, things had changed dramatically. All the junk had been removed, the room tidied, and a few posters had been put up. The class sat smiling up at me, content with themselves and seeking acknowledgment for their efforts. It got me thinking.
The studio. The agency. The office. For many, the space in which we spend our time creating is our second home. For some, the amount of time spent there could even deem it a primary space of residence. For the small minority, it actually is the home, working from the bedroom or kitchen table. Whatever the space, there is one key trait of all successful studios - they are built collectively through the mutual agreement or permission between management and staff. You see, I believe good creativity is an outcome of good studio culture.
I have worked in design studios ranging in all sizes, from two to over a hundred people, and realize that without a good culture, a studio is nothing but a factory that will rarely produce anything but mediocre work. A good studio culture comes from everyone having a collective drive with a clear purpose and creative intent, whilst being highly motivated and enjoying the journey. That's it. Studio culture doesn't just happen. I'm almost certain it's something to be desired and maintained, and its value to the company shouldn't be underestimated. Although there is no standard model, studio culture can be summed up in three parts: what you do; how you do it, and why you do it.
So what's the story? It would seem that "what" is the easy part. What type of work does the agency do, and for whom? I don't need to wax lyrical about the various offerings delivered under the greater umbrella of creativity. You work with clients to service their creative needs based on your experience, capabilities, and choice. Big clients or small clients, commercial or pro bono. Viktor & Rolf or Kmart. Whom you work for is your call - or theirs.
I think it's more important to look at how to create the conditions under which creativity will flourish rather than at processes and tools. To examine "how" you do the work, you must consider your unique proposition, methodology, and the environment in which this takes place. You see, even if you have all the right people with the right skills in your business, it's no guarantee of success. Apparently, the primary way any studio can achieve a high level of creativity is through happiness. Studios need to focus on helping people feel relaxed and comfortable in their working environment, help them achieve their personal goals, and find their inner Zen. Otherwise it's as creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson describes: "I meet all kinds of people who don't enjoy what they do, they simply go through their lives getting on with it. They get no great pleasure from what they do, they endure it, rather than enjoy it, and wait for the weekend."
A good studio should enable a good flow of communication. It must also be a place with personality and creative inspiration all around, from the music and atmosphere to an individual's ability to express themselves through their workspace. The creative environment should transcend the studio walls and encapsulate the entire agency and its ethos. Every space paints a picture of how the agency operates. What practices are put in place to encourage open communication, or freely allows the coming together of minds?
"We trade off the creative capabilities of [individuals in] our culture, but also how they are feeling, what mood they are in. So we sit down like a family every day and have a cooked lunch and a chat. Creativity is a difficult process that's best supported in a stable environment that has a full stomach and an empty mind," explains Dean Poole of Alt Group. It's during those relaxed moments of conversation that ideas often jostle around together and lead to new innovations and creative developments in the studio.
Pixar understood and followed the concept that a healthy creative environment provides an access point to creativity. To enable ideas and creativity, Pixar arranged its studios so employees could operate in the most relaxed and friendly condition. Pixar's animators' cottages, the most eclectic, comfortable, and well-lived-in workspaces imaginable, are a clear example of Pixar's ability to empower its employees, enable play in a trusted environment, and generate exceptional results.
The most important question any business should know the answer to is, "Why?" Why does the company exist - what is its purpose and reason for being; what does it believe in? If you're the sort of person who doesn't know why, then I have bad news for you: You're screwed. People will only dedicate themselves and make sacrifices to a company if they believe in what it stands for. Let's be clear though, it's not a one-way street. Your employees need to be treated well and believe in themselves. Whilst money is an important component of motivation it's not the single most important aspect for a designer. What a designer is concerned about is doing great design and finding creative fulfillment.
Studios must continually provide opportunities for every individual. Let me give a few examples about what I mean: Studios should give everyone a chance to work across a variety of clients and industries. They should provide a level of trust and autonomy, and help individuals advance beyond their comfort level. Studios should enable direct client contact through presentations and feedback, and they should mentor interns and aid the development of the more junior staff. Every individual is different, and his or her desire to learn, play, and take risks is universal; to have the trust and backing of the studio to support these aspirations is important. Saul Bass understood his personal motivations when he said, "I want everything we do, that I do personally, that our office does, to be beautiful. I don't give a damn whether the client understands that that's worth anything, or that the client thinks it's worth anything, or whether it is worth anything. It's worth it to me. It's the way I want to live my life. I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares."
Let's be clear: We know that finding a balance between a company's needs and an individual's is crucial. We know that a design studio, along with needing to be a profitable business, should provide the environment and staff development necessary to achieve creativity. But the most important thing at stake is to determine what makes people get out of bed in the morning and come to work - why the best people would want to work with you and make your studio the most creative place it can be. As marketing consultant Simon Sinek summarised, "People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it," and this is as relevant internally as it is externally. The "why" drives behavior, and if you don't know why you do what you do, your employees will respond to that absence of clarity with a lack of drive and loyalty. Simon goes on to say, "If you hire people just because they can do a job, they'll work for your money; but if you hire people who believe what you believe, they'll work for you with blood and sweat and tears."
Of course you could ignore everything and assume that studio culture sorts itself out despite what is provided by the head honchos in management. But I'll stick to believing in the Kevin Costner character's vision of framework and empowerment: "If you build it, he will come." About the author
Jason Little is creative director in the Paris office of Landor Associates.
Before his move to Paris, he served as creative director for three years in Landor's Sydney office, where he was responsible for major projects across the disciplines of identity and branding, packaging, and environmental design.
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