There is a perpetuated myth within the design community, that a single visionary is required to build great products. Rubbish. Great teams build great products; moreover, in my experience, the greatest teams prioritize and nurture a healthy and positive internal culture because they understand it is critical to the design process itself.
In 20 years of leading design studios and teams, ranging from a small boutique consultancy to several in global corporations, I have become obsessed with the differences between a successful studio and a merely effective one. Inevitably what makes or breaks a studio depends on its ability to evolve skills and competencies while remaining fastidiously creative. However, simple adaptability is not enough. In an ever-changing hyper-competitive landscape, what I’ve found to be even more important is the value of laughter, empathy, a collective responsibility and a distinct lack of ego.
My measure of success — beyond incredible products — has been creating studios and a studio culture where the creative capacity of the collective team is palpable; where designers love to come to work, and visitors remark how positive and creative it feels.
The following, is an attempt to create a guide for the (often-overlooked, humanist leaning) behaviors that make a studio happy, functional and sustainable. I believe there is a straight line between how the studio feels, how we as designers treat each other, and the innovative impact of the team. The value of articulating the characteristics of an effective studio will hopefully make each team member a more conscientious contributor. Of course, these characteristics will ebb and flow to varying degrees and should not be considered concrete rules. Rather, these behaviors serve as a guideline for creating a consistently positive, and as a result, a consistently more creative place to work.
SAY GOOD MORNING AND GOOD NIGHT
I know it sounds a bit crap, but politeness dictates that when you walk into a room that you say “Hello” and when you leave say “Goodbye.” It’s not that complicated. But this common courtesy is as important and plays functional role in a studio.
Because design work is naturally collaborative there needs to be some type of announcement that declares, “Here I am. I am going to contribute.” As someone who leads/listens to a team, I often use the way in which somebody says “Good morning” as a barometer of their mood. It tells me how they are feeling without me having to ask.
Alternatively, it is important that we end the day with “Goodnight, I am leaving.” Practically speaking it is good to know when someone leaves because you don’t know…if they will return the next morning. Seriously though, “Goodnight” is something we tell our children, our domestic partners and our parents. Invoking a ‘goodnight’ upon departure subliminally colors the studio with a similar familial spirit.
I also think it’s important to shake hands before business trips. I know this sounds weird, but it’s both a powerful and intimate gesture. People going on these trips often take work that represents the entire team; It’s an opportunity to look in one another’s eyes and say, “Godspeed and I hope it goes well.”
And when they return, it’s a moment of celebration. We are a team, so when people are away from the team, they are missed. When they return, the collective team is restored. It’s good. Let’s celebrate it.
While it may appear trivial, the act of observing (and even encouraging) these subtle cultural rituals increases a studio’s functionality by making it more personal.
BE OPTIMISTIC, EMBRACE FAILURE, AND LAUGH MORE
Designers know that great design requires constant iteration. Iteration means failure and repeated failure. The challenge then becomes, “How do you deal with repeated failure during the design process? ”
Design, through a humanist’s lens, sees optimism as a choice and creativity as an optimistic act. Therefore, constant optimism is a key ingredient to iteration. It fuels the persistence and tenacity necessary for sustaining the creative process, especially during challenging times. For example, the difficulty of innovating within a large corporation reflects a work environment where people often say, “No” or “I don’t understand” because change in corporate culture is often uncomfortable and slow. As a result, negativity must be confronted and countered — not just in a brainstorming session or during a proposal — but on a daily basis.
The role of laughter in an effective studio also cannot be understated. Laughter can be exclusive or inclusive: how one defines the role of laughter within the studio defines the studio itself. If we cannot laugh at and laugh with, then we cannot function.
Laughter deflates conflict when a moment becomes too serious.
Laughter invites participation and draws a team closer together.
Laughter offers a rallying cry (“Laughing in the face of adversity’), especially when “The Business” asks the team to “do more with less.”
Laughter leads to creativity.
Laughter is serious business.
EAT AND COOK TOGETHER
What applies to a family often applies to a studio. I was raised in a household that believes, “A family that eats together stays together.” There is something so natural and primitive about coming together to eat. People (even overly serious, so-called managers) let their guard down when they eat — and that’s a good thing. History supports this observation. Great bands, movements and many great ventures have all started around a kitchen table — invariably with wine — but we’ll save “The Value of Alcohol” for another essay.
Lunchtime marks a natural pause in the day and becomes a great opportunity for conversation and ultimately creativity. Eating at your desk or in one’s cubicle seems so awful to me and far too solitary for a culture tied so closely to collaboration. Instead, find a table so that members of the team can eat together as a group — doing so will bring a team together. Therefore, a studio should prioritize eating together. You are bound to learn something about your colleagues or yourself.
But it’s worth going one step further so let me tell you a quick story…
Team events within a big corporation are set up to facilitate these informal conversations but often do the opposite: you go to a nice restaurant, everyone orders expensive food and lots of wine, they drink until they get drunk, and you go back to your hotel room. One year, our budget ran low so we thought, “What if we did the opposite? Go to the wilderness, buy food, and cook for each other.”
What happened next was amazing! Somebody invariably took responsibility for cooking, another for preparing food, and someone else for laying the table. Without much discussion the whole team was buzzing around the kitchen, like a hive working towards a common goal. There’s something inherently vulnerable about cooking together and for each other. It’s humbling to serve and to be served.
GOOD STUDIOS BUILD GOOD WALLS
It is important when you walk into any studio that you feel as much as see what is being built — the studio should crackle with creative energy. Specifically, I believe you can determine the health of any design studio simply by looking at its walls.
The benefit of getting work up and out of your computer and onto the walls of a studio are as follows:
Increases Visibility: Walls move work from the virtual to the physical world, allowing it to become even more visible, interactive, tangible, and environmental.
Facilitate Conversations: Walls facilitate conversation and informal reviews because people naturally gather in front of them.
Grows Collective Ownership: Walls create a culture of collective ownership because they invite people to literally build upon the ideas of others.
Facilitates Iteration: Walls with heavy layering reflect healthy projects because they show that there have been several iterations to the work.
Clarifies Ideas: When Walls get too complicated they can be torn down and re-built again. What sticks, sticks.
Creates Connections: Walls also allow people to draw connections in non-linear ways because they allow you to see areas of tension, synergy, and overlap that you might not see otherwise. They allow you to see the whole picture through its individual elements.
Simplifies Thinking: Other times, out of the seemingly visual complexity of images, the wall flips and a singular vision emerges.
Inspires: When people are trying to envision new things they draw from the well of what they know. Often times ideas blossoms from our immediate environment such as walls or the bric-a-brac on desks.
A studio’s walls are living walls. Their viability depends on gardening and nurturing to foster creativity and productivity. This analogy extends to both their creation and destruction — both tilling and harvesting.
Read more about our Wall in a joint research project conducted by Stanford University and Helsinki University of Technology here.
Books add to the overall feel of a studio’s environment. A studio filled with books gives the impression that its designers are thoughtful, intelligent, and resourceful — so at the very least they give the studio an intellectual appearance, ha!
It seems that every design studio feels compelled to line its shelves with how to be more creative, how to be a design hero, how everyone else does everything better than us, and that is fine. However, I offer an alternative take.
As designers we are often asking people to take a leap of faith and to picture a world that doesn’t quite exist. We are, at our essence, doing nothing more than creating fiction and telling good stories — an essential part of human communication. Wouldn’t it then make sense to, at the very least, invite fiction into the studio or at the most encourage it to flourish?
Storytelling is a craft. It’s emotional and it’s part of the design process. We should therefore read and study fiction.
DESIGN THE DESIGNING
There’s one very simple rule when innovating: design the process to fit the project.
In the world of consulting, customizing the design process is easy because every project is different. But in big corporations every project can be more or less the same — you are essentially designing another product very similar to the last one. Design within big corporations needs, therefore, to behave a little like it is consulting.
Regardless of where you work, the challenge becomes how to modify the design process. That process begins by designing a metaphoric window, frame, or filter for people to see the world the way you see it: which requires designing itself.
If people can understand your vision of the project through this lens, then empower them to be experts of it — allowing them to apply this view to various parts of a project. If you can do this, a project has enormous potential.
EMBRACE THE FRINGE
I believe creative people want “to make”. In corporations or complex projects, the products we make often take an inordinate amount of time. As a result, I assume that most designers (myself included) work on fringe projects — creative projects made outside of the studio.
What’s interesting is that many of these fringe projects are regularly the complete antithesis of what we do internally. These projects exemplify raw creativity and are quicker, usually made by hand, and very personal in nature. People often pick fringe projects that fill a gap in a skill that they’ve lost, forgotten, or simply don’t possess. Examples of fringe projects in our studio included birdhouses, brewing beer and complete custom bike frames, to name a few.
To be clear, this isn’t a “Fun Friday” or a 20% approach where fringe projects eventually become studio projects. I believe that 100% of people’s time should be focused on product and program work.
But instead of fighting or formalizing these, we celebrated our fringe projects by publishing them, whether they were in our quarterly magazine or simply by talking about them openly. Much like the aforementioned studio walls, fringe projects became part of the fabric of studio and made us sharper. And I think the fact that they are so different added that color and richness, that vibrancy, to compliment and enhance what was going on in the studio.
Language defines the territory of projects. It is therefore important to constantly check that people share the same understanding of a word, phrase or name. Ideally at the outset of the project you should define the language, almost to the point of giving each person on the team a list: when we say this, this is what ‘this’ means. This pedantic approach is particularly important in multicultural studios where a diverse language encourages multiple, sometimes volatile, interpretations
Language also comes out of projects. Sometime you need to invent words to communicate the needs of a project. Other times, you need to be acutely aware how words, and their meanings, evolve during the design process. In our studio, we documented language in two ways. ‘Talk of the Studio,’ a weekly email, included overheard quotes in and around the studio. We also published a list of a project’s words, and their meanings, in the lexicon section of our quarterly magazine.
Finally, I think language is as revealing as body language. The repeated words and phrases are as significant as open shoulders or a furrowed brow. I am very sensitive to how people say things and why they say them because it reveals a lot about their mindset and motivations.
MEET OUT IN THE OPEN
There are very few highly confidential things in an effective studio, so why go in a room and close the door? Instead, move most conversations out in the open. They will be better as a result.
Conversations in the open allow others to tune in, tune out or overhear what is going on. Sometimes people, not initially part of the conversation, will spontaneously jump in, taking the conversation in a new and more interesting direction.
Moreover, if there are difficult things that people need to say, maybe they will pick their words a little more carefully if conversations take place out in the open. The potential for damage and offense is much greater behind closed doors, than out in the open.
EVERYONE LEADS AT SOME POINT
I don’t believe you should bind line management with creative leadership. If you do, a team will quickly become subservient and will design only what they are instructed to design.
This style of management also contradicts the very nature of creative projects, which at their heart are amorphous, tangible, evolving things. They are physical (I always do this funny, bowl shape hand gesture about a project). You can shape them and deflect them and nudge them in the right direction. They need to be “fed, watered and nurtured.” Sometimes they are weak and sometimes they are robust, but they always need love.
At any point everyone should feel the responsibility, or the opportunity, to lead. It is so important to be collectively responsible. No one person can lead these dynamic projects effectively in a studio because they are never two-dimensional.
This also creates collective accountability, generating a feeling that at least one piece of a project belongs to an individual. Thus, at any moment a member of the team should be able to point to the project as say, “We made this. I did that.”
Designing products for people requires that you get inside their minds, feelings, motivations and values. To do so, a smart designer must invert their own worldview and see the world through someone else’s eyes in order to empathize with them. This ability to empathize with others, a very humanist behavior, is perhaps the most important capability and characteristic of both a studio and a designer.
HIRE A BOOKIE
Competition motivates a team, that’s a given. But betting on shit seems to be galvanizing and brings a team together.
Successful office pools that maintain clear rules and occur regularly and quickly generate excitement. Most importantly, they should feel inclusive, allowing everyone a fair shot at winning regardless of the bet.
Besides setting the stakes, establishing deadlines and collecting money, a good office bookie is a good communicator. This includes regular, engaging emails that summarize the competition and the betting. Most importantly, the office bookie maintains enthusiasm and keeps the betting friendly.
From personal experience, the sheer prospect of winning something is thrilling. After winning the only bet I have ever won in the studio I went out a bought a pair of sunglasses, something I couldn’t have gotten away with normally, but it was 100 dollars cash and my wife was none the wiser. Ha!
Examples bets include The Super Bowl, NCAA basketball tournament, the name (and gender) of the royal baby, the World Cup, and the sale date of the company.
We spend most of our time with our colleagues at work rather than with our partners or families. So whether we like it or not, we are all going through this life together. We should embrace that fact.
Yes, I understand people value privacy and you must respect that boundary. But the reality of the modern studio is that boundaries often blur. In fact, I think it is good that they are blurred. Children, pets, and hobbies — shared human connections and interests — promote this intimacy.
For example, my job at Nokia demanded I regularly go to Finland to see my guv’nor, Marko. Personally, it was important that my family knew who Marko was because my job demanded I leave them for another person. When Marko visited I invited him over for dinner so my wife and children could get to know him. My world became smaller.
I go somewhere everyday; they go somewhere everyday. I ask them about their friends; they ask about mine. By putting a face with a name, what I do becomes more relevant to them.
This relationship cuts both ways. For the studio it is important for the team to know my family as well: when you get me, you get the family. There are all these management books that say, “You should be the first one in and the last one to leave.”
I often had to leave earlier as my son had a football match. Basically, it’s important the team knows what is important to me and I know what is important to the team.
My definition of a dickhead is a person whose ambition for themselves or their own career is greater than their ambition for the project or team.
If you have a Dickhead in the studio then the entire environment, the productivity, the creativity, and the product decisions themselves skew away from the product or team goals. As a result, the product is a vehicle for their ego, and it should be the inverse.
I also don’t believe that you have to be a Dickhead to lead people, studios, and projects. Some of the most brilliant people I’ve worked with are also some of the most open, generous, and humane people — people who have the ability to draw creativity out of others and who listen more than they talk.
I believe it is a perpetuated myth that great products are built by a single visionary. Often the people who think they are visionaries are just egomaniacal Dickheads. I honestly believe that great teams build great products and that careers are made by people that prioritize great products first, not their own ambition. End of rant.
FIND A GOOD MIRROR
The studio mirror is a distinct role and a job title. In our studio Luke’s role was to archive our work and reflect it back to the team in a unique way, much like the documentation of these principles. Pursued with persistence and the eye of a journalist, the Studio Mirror should capture not only WHAT is being made but HOW and by WHOM. This isn’t simply dumping files on a server but rather curating the content in a way that is compelling and consumable for the team. For example, our studio created a quarterly magazine. You can read ADQ2.1: The Launch Issue here.
There are many reasons to identify a single person to own the documentation process. First and foremost, the details of a project are easy to forget, especially when projects last several years. Archiving work is both productive and functional; a reflective studio believes that the work can always be done a little better. Finally, a well-documented project also makes it easier for new studio members to enter a project quickly and efficiently.
But perhaps the most important value for persistently documenting the collective work of a studio is that it is a sound investment in the future. The longer I work the more I have come to appreciate how people behave throughout the entire design process. Thus, the story of the product is not only how the product itself evolves, but also how the individuals and team grew while making it.
In a world which demands so much in the present, I value that at some point in the future I can look back through our quarterly magazines with a glass of whiskey in my hand, examining the process of what was made and how we made it, and think, “That was a good place to work, I learned something and we made great things.”
Rhys Newman is a designer, artist, cyclist, and founder of OMATA Inc. He was VP of Everyday Adventure for HERE, a Nokia Company, and was previously responsible for building Nokia’s Advanced Design team. He is also a designer in residence at several tech companies, where he helps build happy and motivated studios where designers want to work, creativity is the priority and innovation happens. He is also co-writing and illustrating the Universal Truths of Cycling.
Luke Johnson is an Internal Communications Strategist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Before that, he worked as a design researcher and principle designer on HERE’s Everyday Adventure’s design team with Rhys. He was also the team’s Studio Mirror. Luke’s embedded approach to design produces tangle artifacts that visualize and communicate internal culture, builds community and celebrates how individuals and teams add value to organizations.
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