After four years at Frog Design, the “James Bond of design research” Jan Chipchase is leaving to start his own consultancy, Studio D Radiodurans. “I enjoyed my time at Frog, but it’s definitely time to move on,” Chipchase told Fast Company. “The way business was set up there definitely gets in the way of doing the right thing for clients and for society. With this new venture comes the opportunity to stand behind work that we, a small team of people I love to work with, believe in and are proud of.” (Frog told Fast Company it does not comment on staffing matters.)
Solo, Chipchase will continue the work he did at Frog, but “with far less overhead and far more fun,” he explained. Specifically, he will help global companies with international research, design, and innovation projects, such as traveling to four different countries to find the next billion users of a service, or delving into male grooming habits across cultures, for example. But now that he on longer has to operate within a corporate structure, he has full control on what he chooses to take on, and can spend as much time as he wants on projects. “Being independent allows me to do the most interesting work, with the most interesting clients with a minimum of overhead,” he explained.
One working technique Chipchase hopes to build on in his new venture is his practice of running what he calls “pop up studios.” When doing research in different countries–which is a big part his job–Chipchase has devised a system for how to best facilitate collaboration and creativity.
Usually, when companies send employees abroad, they put them up in a fancy hotel, removed from the local people they might be working with. Not Chipchase. “It surprises me how little people think about their working environment, and how accepting they are of the boring-as-fuck corporate status quo,” he wrote on an Instagram photo of one of his spaces in Myanmar. For each international project he creates an “office space” to house all the people working on the project, from C-suite execs to local partners.
“Wherever possible I like to put my international crew and my local crew in the same accommodation, under the same roof,” Chipchase explained. “I have a principle, which is If you sit around the same table, and drink from the same the jug, and break bread under the same roof, you’ll have a very different level of trust and understanding than a team that just meets in a hotel lobby.”
These makeshift workspaces are a variation of the war room or project room, which block out everyday office distractions by providing a dedicated space for creative thinking on a particular project. Chipchase has taken this idea and made it portable. “Part of the beauty of this approach is its accessibility,” he explained.
The space itself doesn’t really matter–Chipchase has transformed houses, guesthouses, boutique hotels, love hotels, island retreats, a train carriage (en route to Tibet), a whorehouse, and even the occasional mountain lodge into temporary offices. “Mountain air and long walks are particularly good for the team to step back and see the big picture,” he said.
No matter the accommodations, putting everyone under one roof–or train–helps bridge interpersonal and cultural divides between people who come from different backgrounds. Everyone involved feels like they have an equal stake in the project. That, Chipchase has found, elevates the creativity of individuals on the team, as well as the team as a whole. The system also works so well that Chipchase can hire the people, plop them in a hut, and leave them to their own devices–he doesn’t have to babysit.
At Frog, Chipchase was able set up pop-ups with clients open to new ways of doing business. But working in a large organization meant he had to edit his process to fit Frog’s cost model. “The pressure in a large organization is to squeeze more revenue out of a shorter amount of time,” he explained. “That’s fine, that’s what a consultancy is about. But that DNA can get in the way of giving things an appropriate amount of time.”
On his own, Chipchase will not only have the freedom to create pop up studios on his own terms, but to take on ambitious and risky projects. He has, for example, ventured to Afghanistan and Bolivian slums–areas that large companies don’t want to go, but Chipchase feels comfortable in. He has already overseen a project in Myanmar, and per his Instagram, set up shop in the Bolivian salt flats, a somewhat harsh environment: bitter cold, high up, and surrounded by corrosive elements. But Chipchase accepts the challenge. “The ideal project for Studio D Radiodurans: to survive where others do not,” he writes beside a photo of that week’s pop up office.