As a former industrial designer for Apple, world-renowned consultant, and designer of the now-iconic Beats By Dre headphones, Robert Brunner has always let the desired end result lead his design process. "We work by getting a conceptual ideal set first, and figuring out how to get there, which is what a lot of companies do wrong," he says. "They fit all the pieces together first and end up with mediocrity."
The same philosophy applies to the workspace at Ammunition, where he is a partner and cofounder. Despite varying opinions on open offices, Brunner believes that for the high degree of collaboration required of his organization, a flexible, fluid workspace is critical.
"We have a relatively flat organization," says Brunner. There are three partners and a few people in charge of disciplines, and then everybody else. We like to form and reform teams in a pretty ad hoc way. We have strong designers who work independently, but also have to work well together. It allows our 50 people to work together as 75—you have to have the attitude of helping each other and you won't last long if you don't keep your ego in check. I don't even have an office, just a conference room with couches that I spend a lot of time in. We need the ability to move around and change people's seating positions as needed. And in our meeting space, all the walls are glass—there's no hiding."
Ammunition's 9,565-square-foot office is in San Francisco's historic Roundhouse Building, a former train depot with ample natural light. When the company remodeled the space, they expanded the kitchen area to be able to fit all 50 employees, which they use for an all-hands lunch at least once a week. There's a large shop area with 3-D printers and other materials for designers to test ideas and create prototypes, and lots of space for bikes, to encourage two-wheeled commutes to work.
Brunner believes that in addition to practical features, there's a big emotional component to a work environment, and that a collaborative space that supports brainstorming and open testing encourages the principle that it's all right to fail, as long as you're pushing out innovative ideas.
"In all the studios I've managed, this is one of the most important things that fosters creativity," says Brunner. "You need to push innovative ideas, but also actually be able to act on them. If it's stupid, so what, we'll move on, but all ideas are positive and we'll figure out what to do with them—just keep in mind that at some point you'll have to figure this out. People pay us to be creative and they also pay us to get stuff out into the world."
The fluid space also facilitates collaboration with outside partners, which is particularly important for a design agency that works in the complicated tech world. And Brunner says that early, in-person cooperation, from the very first conceptual discussions, is key.
"I always describe the technical part of Ammunition as knowing just enough to be dangerous," says Brunner. "Headphones, for example, are one of the most difficult things we've ever had to design. Ergonomic, audio, structural . . . they're very complicated. We have a very close partnership with engineering company Alloy; they really are part of our team and are here all the time. We'll say, 'Here's what we want to achieve. Let's figure out how we do it.' That happens in that face-to-face collaboration process, it doesn't happen with sharing files. It's crucial to that product, that integration of technical and creative thinking happens early on. You have to make tradeoffs along that path, but that collective thinking early on is what's extremely important."