One morning three years ago, I woke up with a startling thought: LUNAR’s studio was in the wrong building. We had opened a San Francisco office in the late ’90s as an experimental annex to our headquarters in nearby Palo Alto. Over the course of a decade, the experiment not only proved successful, but San Francisco had become the center of gravity for our team. And yet, we were still living in an experimental space practically under a highway overpass outfitted with IKEA furniture. It was time to move.
Six months ago, we relocated to a new studio in San Francisco, a century-old factory in the city’s design epicenter adjacent to Potrero Hill. Like any massive change, our space search, remodel, and move wasn’t without its challenges, but now that we’ve experienced the fruits of those efforts, I can say that it’s turned out to be a huge success. It is possible to create a spectacular space that improves collaboration and productivity. Here’s the advice I give to others who are just starting the journey.
A workspace is as much an opportunity to express who you are as a company as it is a functional place to get work done. This is an important chance to put your brand into three-dimensions, to surround yourselves with personality and character, to create some theater for your prospective employees and partners.
Be forewarned though. This kind of expression is not borne from “design thinking.” This is not user-centered design that emanates from interviews of every employee or that integrates 1,000 voices. This design mandate needs to come from an individual or very small team so that it has a singular voice. This kind of creative personality comes from individual idiosyncrasy, so it cannot be a large group effort.
At LUNAR, we achieved this first and foremost by picking a building with history. This could be considered cheating, but we’re not afraid to admit it. The bones of the building–the straightforward layout, the authentic materials, the south-facing natural light–made a rich and warm canvas for our vision. In fact, much of our renovation aimed to reclaim views of the brick and timber construction hidden behind an overzealous use of drywall.
To this canvas, we added only minimal features–the most prominent one being our lighted promenade, which leads visitors from the streetscape deep inside our space. Through the magic of programmable lighting sequences, the promenade welcomes you, as if the building itself is responding to a new person in the space. “I felt like I was walking down the catwalk” and “it was like getting a standing ovation” are some of the comments we’ve gotten from visitors already.
In concert with creating a distinctive voice in the space, it’s crucial to identify the fundamentals of function: Who goes where, what goes here, how should one get there. This is where user engagement is of vital importance. In our case, we had a team that had already worked together for years, and as a result, the organization had a lot of embedded lessons that we mined for the purpose of creating a new space that would anticipate our needs.
For us and our culture, we chose to sit in an open floor plan resembling a newsroom. From the CEO to interns, we share the same sightlines. The benefit is that cross-fertilization is turbo-charged. The team shares a greater awareness about what others are doing–and it’s easier to create ad hoc channels of learning and communication that lead to better design outcomes. To counter the potential chaos, we have built plenty of conference rooms, so that everyone has access to privacy and quiet when they need it. In fact, we can easily fit the entire company into our collection of conference rooms so that everyone has access to open or private work environments whenever needed.
Another result of this collaborative design approach is our generous kitchen, where we have doubled up on microwaves, dishwashers, fridges, and sinks in order to accommodate the lunch-hour crush. Our kitchen embodies the old idea of the hearth, a welcoming place for connecting to others over the excuse of food or coffee. A delightful outcome is that meetings happen in the kitchen all day long, some planned and some accidental.
Early on in our planning we remembered to revisit this book. It reinforced that we wanted to create a space that would evolve as we learned how to optimize it from living and working in it. I had also just experienced this effect at home and knew that we could benefit from it at work.
To create a design that could “learn,” we shelved plans to build custom furniture and dividers for the individual workstations, the co-lab (our project-specific work area), and conference rooms. Not only did this save us some money at a time of some pretty big cash outlays, it’s allowing us to continuously innovate how we use the space. The building itself is delightful to be in, and the built features leave plenty of open space for the experimental layout of furniture and dividers. We’ll construct more precious furniture and fixtures once we have more clarity about our needs and preferences–and even then, we won’t build anything that can’t be upgraded, improved, reconfigured, or summarily ripped out.
Knitting these three principles together is the main design challenge, but when you keep all of these questions alive through the planning, design, and build processes, you can create a unique space that is inspirational and adaptive to the needs of your brand, culture, and work. This approach is certainly paying dividends for us at LUNAR.