Behind every sun-soaked, pristine architecture or design office, there’s a design philosophy linking desk layout and succulent placement to employees’ creativity. But as design writer Rob Alderson points out in the new book The Creative Workplace, creativity is difficult to explicitly define, and the creative process varies widely from person to person. So how do you design an office that will aid in the creative process for a group of individuals?
“The big challenge with a lot of creative studios is that they started with a small group of people, and as an agency grows to 10 or 20 people, suddenly you have people with different creative processes,” Alderson says. Historically, he says, workplace culture has skewed toward extroverts, thus the Ping-Pong tables and wacky flourishes that have become cliches at tech companies and are supposed to encourage employees to interact with each other. Google, for instance, is famous for its purposefully long lines in the cafeteria that are meant to subtly nudge people into conversation with their neighbor during the wait.
That may be helpful for some, but other creative processes hinge on being able to sit alone with an idea and focus individually. In that respect, many studios have also designed for private spaces within open offices that let people escape into solitude for a time. Tel Aviv, Israel-based digital design studio Jelly Button & Hamutzim, for instance, has a layout that allows for a cozy, public space in the center with private and semiprivate offices along the edge. Wooden panes mark off desks from the common area without totally obscuring either from view. There’s also the New York-based advertising agency Barbarian Group, which took the common creative agency trope of the long, white worktable and magnified it 10-fold to create a “Superdesk” that snakes its way around the entire office. The desk connects everyone in the company, but it also bubbles up to create cave-like wooden nooks where one can work privately or hold small meetings.
Open offices; corners of privacy; bright, clean, orderly spaces–Alderson says even in a book that tries to bring together the most eclectic and nonconforming workplaces, there’s still a fairly obvious checklist that places tend to adhere to. The best places take these ideas and mold them into a work environment that both portrays a certain image to clients and actually meets the needs of its employees, he says. Swedish architecture studio Mer, for example, uses its posh office design as a marketing tool, particularly a common room wallpapered with literal crumpled up pieces of paper that plays on the idea of working with a blank slate. But the studio also listened to the ideas of staff. Instead of assigned desks, employees can work from whichever workstation best fits a particular task.
“For a lot of creative businesses, the idea of creativity and happenstance is important,” says Alderson. “You want to build in spaces where people from different teams can work together–that’s not about building a foosball table, but building in spaces that people can run into each other. Successful places concentrate on the physical attributes but also think about the kind of culture they want to have for their employees.”
Check out 16 companies that got it right in the slide show above. The Creative Workplace is out from Roads Publishing and is available here.