“I’m not a fan of the open office,” says Brian Collins, as we’re sitting in the open office space he and his partner Lee Maschmeyer designed for their New York City based branding firm Collins. Collins isn’t alone in his general aversion to piling workers on top of each other in the name of serendipity. But the creative team at Collins asked for an open office plan. “The amount of energy and how much they liked being on top of each other was incredible,” added Collins. Collins (the founder) was overruled. Nobody, not even the founders, has a separate office.
Indeed, the open office is a polarizing phenomenon. While some argue there’s a creative byproduct from proximity to coworkers, others call it a cruel farce meant to save companies money, not improve employee productivity.
Most open offices don’t work because little thought goes into how they’re laid out. There is no one-size-fits-all open office. The best work spaces are designed with workers (and the type of work they do) in mind, which is exactly how Collins approached its new space. “We identified these core modalities of how we work,” explained Maschmeyer. “We had this desire to create a place that flowed with our workflows.” The open floor plan designed by Thiel Architecture, which includes a pen for the bulk of the creative team, and a slab of table for the product managers, is one such way the structure of the office facilitates work.
The research on designing for creative interactions has found that most spaces may increase casual interactions, but not necessarily creativity. The Collins partners recognize that. “How do you put creative teams in a tight-knit group together architecturally, so they feel permission to share ideas?” said Maschmeyer.
The main bull pen, where the bulk of the staff sits, is open–but purposeful. The are no dividers between desks so that the workers can see each other’s work and offer input and help. “It was a way to design serendipity into the experience,” explained Maschmeyer. But the setup also tries to create some semblance of privacy; no person sits facing another person. The product managers sit in a separate area, giving them privacy, while also signaling their authority.
Of course, not all types of work can flourish in a structureless environment. “Lots of times when you’re cranking on stuff, a lot of people want to get out of their heads,” noted Maschmeyer. For those moments, Collins created a library, which is by far the most ornate part of the office. Hundreds of thick art and design books fill the black steel shelves. Other artistic stimuli are perched on the shelves: a globe, a snow globe, children’s building blocks. An old black-and-white movie plays on a screen on one wall. Someone had left an Henri Matisse book open on the table. “The physicality of looking changes the way you perceive something,” explained Collins. “The fact you can take five or six books and look at them and see different patterns changes the way you look at things.”
On the other end of the creative spectrum, sometimes people need more interaction with the work. For that, Collins has a space called the jungle gym, which looks more like a windowless conference room than a children’s playpen. But inside, people have permission to tinker, interact, and if need be, body slam the work without interrupting other people in the office. A couple of Collins’s most recent digital interactive installations are displayed on the wall, just asking to be played with. The room also has more basic electronic equipment for more general hacking.
Even the walls at Collins serve a purpose. Instead of decorating with old work or artwork, Collins uses the walls as a way to display work in progress. Forcing people to walk by the imagery multiple times a day leads to more creative breakthroughs, Collins claims. “By leaving up systemically complex projects on the wall,” explains Collins, “other people will see systemic patterns and make suggestions.”
When thinking about how to design the office, Maschmeyer was inspired by MIT’s Building 20, as chronicled in Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn. Building 20 was a temporary World War II-era building on MIT’s campus that didn’t get torn down until 55 years later. Despite its alleged temporary status, MIT students and professors set up labs and studios in the makeshift work space. “What Stuart Brand found was the people who worked in the shoddy POS building were infinitely more happy and productive,” explained Maschmeyer. The Collins office is far from shoddy–it’s a beautiful top-floor Manhattan office building with skylights, wood floors, and original Danish mid-century modern furniture. But it pays homage to that theory. “When I was looking at what we’re doing, that was going through my head: How do we design the minimal amount of architecture so that people understand the delineation of space? How do we keep it basic enough and simple enough, finding the most effective white box for doing anything in, but still having it tell you what to do?”