Total Teamwork: Imagination Ltd.
Home Base: London, England
Year Founded: 1978
The line would be 700 people long. And although they would be waiting to get into one of Britain's greatest attractions, most of the people in the line would be restless or tired, irritable or impatient. Everyone would know that the wait wouldn't last for more than 15 minutes. But knowing how long the wait will be often makes it that much more unbearable.
The final irony: The point of waiting in the 700-person line would be to have fun. Everyone would be waiting to take a seat at Skyscape, an attraction inside Britain's Millennium Dome, a sprawling, one-year exhibition that is part theme park, part architectural wonder, and part edutainment venue. Once inside Skyscape, visitors would watch a special 30-minute episode of a popular British comedy series, "Blackadder" — a kind of "Seinfeld" meets "Monty Python."
That is the scene that the people at British Sky Television — Skyscape's sponsor and a leader in multichannel entertainment in the UK — foresaw playing out at the attraction, if they did nothing to avoid it. "We knew that the film would be terrific," says Andrea Sullivan, 37, the director of corporate affairs for Sky who is running the project. "But to be a truly entertaining experience, it had to be fun from the moment that visitors walked through the door."
The possibility of a long line was a problem. After all, comedy works better when people start out with a smile on their faces. As it happened, just when Sky was worrying about the line problem, company officials were talking to an unusual British outfit — a 22-year-old design firm with the daring name Imagination Ltd. Sky needed someone to "manage the line," and, while not many companies would know where to begin with such a project (even Disney, master of crowds, does little more with its legendary lines than disguise their length), Imagination offered to tackle the job.
Imagination does all kinds of design work: graphic design, Web sites, product introductions, visitor centers — even the dramatic lighting of the famous Lloyd's building in London. Its 1999 revenues of £101.5 million, or about $160 million (up 25% from 1998), make it larger than its top two competitors — Enterprise IG, and Interbrand Newell and Sorrell — combined. Recently, the firm has begun to invent a whole new discipline: creating "brand experiences" that transcend physical spaces and traditional marketing practices.
For Imagination, Sky's queue problem presented a chance to have some fun. "This work was quite mad, really," says Ralph Ardill, 35, Imagination's director of marketing and strategic planning. "We wanted to push the queue experience to a new place."
In typical Imagination fashion, the firm started with a team of in-house employees — an architect, a lighting designer, a graphic designer, and a film director. Eventually, the core Imagination team brought a choreographer in to join the group. What could a film director possibly contribute to figuring out how to manage a line? And what might an architect and a choreographer talk to each other about?
At Imagination, those questions aren't dismissed as silly; they aren't even questions at all. When you're trying to "push the queue experience to a new place," having a film director, an architect, and a choreographer on your team might come in handy.
Imagination easily accomplishes something that most companies struggle with: It creates effective work teams, comprising people with a wide spectrum of talents who not only tackle projects together but also engage in real teamwork. At Imagination, employees know that the talent of the team is greater than the talent of its individual members. The members of each team learn from one another. They transcend the boundaries of their jobs, their functions, their training, and their tenure at the company.
Teamwork is how Imagination works. As the company creates interesting experiences for its customers — and for its customers' customers — it is also creating a space at its own headquarters in which "the team experience" flourishes.
These days, companies in all industries are infatuated with movie-production-style management — assembling a loose-knit team of freelance talent for each project. Imagination has assembled a company of 350 people built on the opposite principle: Make sure that your in-house people have a wide range of skills, use those people to assemble diverse teams, and don't hesitate to let the Web-page designers give the architects advice.
"When you sit in on our creative meetings," says Ardill, "you don't know the writer from the multimedia person from the architect. Our approach involves relationships, camaraderie, working things through. It's much different from working with a series of hired guns. Teamwork is a harder way of doing the work. But when it clicks, the result is a seamless experience."
In 1999, Imagination designers used teamwork to create the interior and exterior lighting for Disney's two cruise ships, Magic and Wonder. That same year, the company also redesigned the packaging for Ericsson's cell-phone products worldwide. It conceived, designed, and supervised the creation of two museum-size exhibits — one about transportation and the other about communication — at the Millennium Dome. And it managed the line at Skyscape.
So how has Imagination mastered the art of teamwork? "The culture at Imagination is this: You can articulate your ideas without fear," says Adrian Caddy, 34, the firm's creative director. That is not to say that no conflict exists within the company. As Caddy says, "Creative opinions are very strongly held."
Imagination's work style puts a premium on sharing information. Presentation, production, and construction deadlines are constantly looming; sharing ideas, raising problems, and offering suggestions only get the work done faster and better. Some of what makes Imagination so effective is structural in nature: Everyone attends all of the creative meetings; the IT guy sits between the lighting designer and the writer. Because so much of the company's work is done in-house, the design of a room, the lighting of that room, and the multimedia presentation in the room are all intertwined.
Imagination is deliberately nonhierarchical — only four people have formal titles — and on many projects, it's hard to tell who is in charge. But what looks like diffusion of authority, or even lack of authority, is in fact dispersal of responsibility: Since no one is in charge, everyone feels responsible for a project's success. The system also diminishes the existence of conventional power struggles. At Imagination, the competition lies in producing work that works, in coming up with suggestions that are better than those of your colleagues and your clients, in having your ideas taken seriously. Arguments between employees tend to be about things that matter — as opposed to office size, job title, or how many people you supervise.
It is an atmosphere that invites metaphor. Staffers offer a variety of examples to describe the interdisciplinary environment that exists at Imagination. They compare it to an art college, a medieval round table, an idea factory, and an Arab bazaar.
The most apt metaphor, however, is a circus. The company occupies two Edwardian-era buildings that the firm bought and restored 10 years ago (the restoration won awards), and the buildings are now connected across a private alley. A white, Teflon-coated tarp covers the buildings and encloses a six-story atrium. "It is a bit like a circus," says Martin Brown, 31, a graphic designer. "We've got a lot of performers and a few clowns. Enough to make it funny."
Inside the Journey Zone
Britain's Millennium Dome is the result of six years of national discussion about how to mark the year 2000 — six years punctuated by changing missions, changing visions, and changing governments. Its creation was controversial, and its early operation recently cost its head her job. But what all of this controversy overlooks is the fact that the Dome is absolutely spectacular. The soaring white building — the largest dome in the world, made of canvas and oversize circus-tent poles — is at once beautiful, awesome, and playful. Inside are 16 exhibitions, or zones: Mind, Faith, Body, Work, Money, Play, Journey, Talk, and so on. Each zone is an individual concept that is explored in its own area of the Dome.
At one point, Imagination was hired to run the entire Dome project. But, as politics and priorities changed, that role ended up in the hands of another corporation. In the end, however, Imagination was still involved with the project: It was hired by zone sponsor Ford Motor Co. to design the Journey Zone; by another zone sponsor, British Telecommunications PLC, to do the TalkZone; and by Sky to handle the queue problem.
The Journey Zone is a perfect example of the kind of work that Imagination does so well. It is a place that could only have been created in an environment where architecture, graphic design, history, the Internet, and writing constantly crisscross one another. Journey is a testament to the fruits of teamwork. Its instructional aspects are so entertaining that you don't feel lectured to. Its entertainment is so instructive that you don't feel pandered to.
The exhibit opens with a short film about why people take journeys. Images of reunions, departures, runners, tourists, and lovers alternate with silent text: "We journey ... " followed by phrases such as "to remember," "to taste the high life," "to explore," "to leave home," "to be together," "to be alone." As you pass through the early stages of the zone, it is easy to fall into a reverie. The space manages to connect prehistoric nomads to postindustrial skateboarders. Walking through, you learn things like the first time that horses were used for transportation in Europe (4500 BC) and the year that the stroke that we call the crawl was first used in swimming (2500 BC). Or that in the 1760s, extensive digging of canals in Europe lowered food prices. Images, video clips, artifacts, sound tracks, and models are mixed seamlessly to provide such interesting facts.
The history ramps lead you to a room where red "infographics" crowd together in a present-day crescendo of crisis. "We are going nowhere fast," reads the text on the wall. "Average speed of vehicles through London, 1889: 11 MPH. Average speed of vehicles through London, 1999: 11 MPH."
At this point, you are just one-third of the way through the Journey Zone. You haven't even begun to tackle the future. When you've finally experienced the entire zone, you probably won't have the energy to go immediately on to one of the remaining 15 zones (except, perhaps, for the Rest Zone). If you think about all of the work that went into Journey, your head will spin: Imagination did the whole thing — the building design, the films, the research and content, and the construction itself — in just 14 months.
Imagination brings a design intensity to its work that gives its productions heft and intelligence — whether the company is working on an exhibit about the history and future of transportation or on a large corporate exhibition (the firm's bread-and-butter projects). Imagination isn't precious about any of its work. It doesn't consider itself haute couture. "At Imagination, we value really good design," says Caddy. "Design that rubs against art. Not much design is like that. Most of it smacks of my dad putting on a Tommy Hilfiger suit."
The Art of Seamlessness
When you walk into the lobby of Skyscape — the part of the building where you stand in line — it's like stepping into the lobby of a building from "The Jetsons." The ceiling is a lattice set with colorful pods the shades and shapes of outsize Easter eggs. Light fixtures are in the lattice and in the pods, as well as running down the walls. TV monitors are sprinkled about — in the pods, hanging down from the ceiling on armatures, and set into the floor, where you can walk right over them.
The same film is running on every monitor. It's a sophisticated yet silly series of mimed sketches about — what else? — standing in line. Wandering around the lobby, among the hundreds of people standing in line, are about a dozen performers. They too are doing funny skits about standing in line.
Just in case you're not catching the mood, there are smiley faces everywhere. Skyscape is the only venue at the tightly controlled Dome with its own logo: five perfectly round faces in a row, each a different color, and each with a different expression of joy (a winking smiley, an astonished smiley, a content smiley, an amazed smiley, and a smiley laughing so hard that its eyes are squeezed shut). The purpose: Sky wants you to be happy.
Skyscape immediately evokes numerous questions in visitors: How did all of this come about? Did the architect put the lights in the pods, or did the lighting designer put the pods in the lattice? Did the graphic designer do the smiley faces first, which then inspired the curvy architectural pods, or was it the other way around? How did all of these pieces come together so seamlessly?
The first step in an Imagination project is to sum up its goal in a sentence or two — a "brief" — and to make sure that everyone, including the client, is familiar with that brief. The result: Everyone stays focused. For the Skyscape queue project, the brief was "uncomplicated joy." James Kennedy, who managed the project day-to-day for Sky, uses that phrase. Ralph Ardill, who oversaw the project at Imagination, uses it. And so do the Imagination architect, account manager, and graphic artist who are working on that project.
No confusion there.
Second, for this particular project, Ardill broadened the idea of managing the line to managing the "queue experience." "We wanted to look at the management and design of the total visitor experience," says Ardill. That idea fit with Sullivan's goal: a prefilm setting that would help humanize Sky, as well as put people in a good mood. This kind of conversation, and the redefinition of a job from the perspective of what people will be experiencing, is a hallmark of Imagination's approach.
Third, Ardill and Caddy immediately created a core team — while the themes were still being developed. This is a critical difference in the way that Imagination works. It means that everyone's ideas are available from the beginning; it means that no particular talent is presumed to be primary — or secondary.
Then, the team meets. And even with a project like Skyscape, which amounts to a relatively simple interior design, the impact of teamwork is evident. "Often, the lighting designer is brought in after the architect has done the design," says Kate Wilkins, 30, the lighting designer who worked on Skyscape. "Here, we are all involved from the start. If you look at Skyscape, the lighting is integral. The lighting pods are part of the design; they're incorporated into it."
Because a lot of the creative work gets done at Imagination's meetings, they do not result in eye rolling. In fact, so many ideas get floated and hashed out at weekly project sessions, that the paternity of any particular element or idea is often cloudy. After the meetings, designers scramble to their drafting tables or computer screens to bring the discussions to life.
Finally, at Imagination, the clients are often an ongoing influence on the team. Even though they can't be physically present at each meeting, they are consulted often enough to become a source of ideas and inspiration. The smiley-face logo, for instance, was pursued mainly because Sky pushed for it. Following Sky's lead, Imagination found the right way to design the logo.
Increasingly, Imagination takes projects well beyond the boundaries that other design firms or agencies might have taken them to. For Skyscape, Imagination didn't just contract to design the space; the firm also contracted to oversee it throughout the one-year life of the Dome. Imagination arranged a training program for the Dome's youthful "yellow coat" staff, beyond the standard Dome training, and Skyscape managers brief the "yellow coats" before every performance of Blackadder.
"We are in the experience business," says Ardill, "not the interior-design business. Sky is relying on someone else to construct and deliver something that it has no experience with itself. What if one of the monitors in the space fails? It's not enough to have the idea."
Talent and Respect
One day five years ago, Adrian Caddy sliced the spine off an issue of "GQ" magazine and started sorting the pages into categories. "We were working on a project — I don't remember what — and we had the adverts in one pile, and the editorial sections in another pile. We started thinking, What makes a magazine? What if 'GQ' weren't a magazine but a place? And then we thought, What if we could turn the magazine into something like Club GQ?" (Caddy and Ardill liked the idea so much that they wrangled time with Condé Nast's senior executive in the UK, Nicholas Coleridge, and formally pitched it to him.)
While the idea for Club GQ never took off, it represented the crystallization of a critical question for Imagination: What business was the firm really in? With its stable of designers, architects, lighting experts, theater people, writers, and film directors, Imagination wasn't an advertising agency, a design group, or a theatrical-production company. So what was it?
The idea for Club GQ came out of a small, experimental group that included Caddy and Ardill. The name of the group was Brand Development, and its initial mission was to find ways to deepen the brands of some of Imagination's biggest clients, such as Ford. But what Brand Development really did was to reinvent the Imagination brand: The company learned to marshal its creative resources to produce "brand experiences" — a whole new kind of work created by a whole new way of working.
The Dome's Journey Zone and TalkZone are probably the most compelling examples of Imagination trying to create a complete experience. "Journey is, literally, a journey about journeys," says Caddy. The notion of "brand experience" is intentionally circular: The kind of work that Imagination does, and the way that the company does its work, converge and reinforce each other. In the course of creating multitextured experiences for its clients, Imagination has created multitextured teams for itself.
In that way, Imagination has solved the mystery at the heart of teamwork: The essence of teamwork is that people contribute selflessly. They rise above themselves, and they are committed to their goal and to one another. But why doesn't that happen all the time? "At many ad agencies," says Andrew Horberry, 37, account manager for the Journey Zone, "you are hired to fulfill a traditional kind of craft role. At Imagination, people still have roles. But rather than jealously guard those roles and say, 'You can't question me! I'm the subject-matter expert!,' they are willing to really listen."
At Imagination, the team approach works because it allows anyone to contribute to anything — and all team members are expected to come up with ideas outside of their own areas. And it works because, ultimately, all members also know what their role on the team is. It's hard to imagine creating something from scratch with only a set of rules or policies to follow, but it is part of the unwritten psychology at Imagination. People make all kinds of suggestions, and people take all kinds of suggestions. But there is a self-regulating mechanism: Filmmakers can't impose their will on architects, and writers and graphic artists must ultimately come to agreement.
The two critical ingredients to the balance between giving advice and taking advice are talent and respect. Imagination chooses its people carefully — based on the quality of their work, on their open-mindedness, and on their curiosity about the world beyond their own expertise. Says Chris White, 33, who wrote the Journey Zone's text: "The integrated approach breeds respect for one another. When you work alone, or in isolation within your discipline, you can get an overblown sense of your own importance to a project."
At Imagination, people see one another's talents in action every day. The film director sees the power of the lighting designer. The graphic artist appreciates the poetry of the writer. People get suggestions from their colleagues, and many of those suggestions turn out to be good ones. What's more, because people respect one another, they come to respect one another's judgment as well. And so at Imagination, a suggestion not taken is not an insult; it's simply the exercise of more experienced judgment.
The hard part, of course, is that design taste, like artistic taste, is intensely felt and difficult to debate. No one pretends that cheerful harmony reigns at Imagination. There are still deadlines, delays, snags, disputes — and clients with their own creative ideas.
"I'm stubborn," says Kate Wilkins. "I have a hard-core attitude. I know that I'm almost always right when it comes to lighting. The only time I'm ever sorry about how something comes out is when I backed down. So I'm thought of as a somewhat difficult customer here. But people know my work, and they trust me. They know that I'm not being stubborn just to be difficult."
Charles Fishman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior editor. He is his own brand experience. Learn more about Imagination Ltd. on the Web (www.imagination.co.uk), or view an example of Imagination's Web design at Ford's Journey zone (www.journey.ford.co.uk).
Sidebar: The Total Teamwork Agenda
Imagination is funny. The company may be Britain's largest design firm, but its interdisciplinary approach puts it more on a par with a theater troupe or a circus than with a traditional design company. The official Imagination brochure lists 26 disciplines used to attack projects — a range of talent that gives Imagination's work its special texture. But creative people are notoriously independent and notoriously difficult to manage. How does Imagination herd its extraordinary collection of talent into fast-working, high-performance teams?
Start the project before there is a project.
Because of the kind of work that Imagination does — from corporate-exhibition stands to the dinosaur exhibition at London's Natural History Museum — projects are often only loosely defined at the start. But Imagination teams are assembled early, often before the company and the client have reached a final agreement about the goals of the project. In that way, the team often defines the project, rather than the project defining the team.
Make the brief brief — and share it.
Even for the most complicated projects, Imagination team members ultimately know exactly what the goal of the project is. All members use the same words and phrases to express that goal, and the goal is usually boiled down to a sentence or two. Every idea can be tested against what the team and the client are trying to accomplish.
Everyone comes to the table.
Imagination projects are managed, in part, through weekly meetings — meetings in which ideas are batted around, problems are raised, and progress on deadlines is assessed. Unlike many firms, Imagination involves everyone in a project by inviting all employees to all meetings. Production people and client-contact people are just as much a part of the team as creative types. The result: The company avoids production problems, and client-service reps have the information that they need to keep clients happy.
Responsibility to the people!
Imagination is an egalitarian environment — not only within the company's artistic disciplines but also among its people. On most project teams, no one is actually "in charge." The result isn't chaos. In fact, it's just the opposite. Dispersing the power also disperses the responsibility.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.