This is an excerpt from from my new book, Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers, out now from HOW Books.
Culture is everything people in a design business do that supports the process of making work happen. Culture can create joy for designers, while improvements in process can facilitate profit. A common misperception is that culture emerges organically based on the decisions of a business owner or CEO. But a design studio’s culture is not created solely by those at the top. For a design-led business, culture is generated from ongoing contributions and discoveries from both studio owners and employees.
In researching my recent book on how design businesses can be more successful, I began to see important building blocks that were present in the most successful studios. These building blocks are divided into two groups: hard building blocks and soft building blocks. Hard building blocks are realized through a budget, meaning that you can allocate money and time for them as part of business overhead. The soft building blocks can be created through the decisions employees make over the course of their daily work, life and play (with less material investment by the owners).
A healthy studio culture draws equally from both types of building blocks. They provide emotional and material stability to employees in the face of ongoing work challenges, and often clients, family and the general public perceive them as ingredients of the company’s brand. These building blocks are equally present within design firms and in-house design teams—though for the latter, the composition of some building blocks may be heavily influenced by the company's overall behavior and needs.
Let’s take a deep dive into these building blocks, with important questions to ask yourself (and your team) in order to create a strong studio culture.
The “hard” building blocks of design studio culture
Type of Work
Type of work is the largest cultural building block for any studio, as the majority of the time in the studio is spent immersed in the work.
The kinds of customers selected by the business owner, the design disciplines practiced by the staff and the way projects are delivered by the team all contribute to the excitement that motivates employees and owners when they start work every morning.
What follows are the questions you should be asking yourself before the phone rings and prospective clients ask you if you’d like to take on a project. Your answers, and how they may overlap (or not) with your staff’s answers, will help you better understand where you can take your studio portfolio.
- What industries do you want to work with? As an example: Health care or consumer electronics?
- What size of client do you prefer? Working with small companies or only the Fortune 100?
- Are you working with for-profit companies? Are you focusing on opportunities from the nonprofit sector? Or are you interested in working with start-up firms?
- How deeply are you entrenched in helping shape your client’s business? Are you a strategic partner, or does the client see you more as an executional vendor?
- What types of brands are you seeking to work with? Small, hip local companies? Or older, established international firms?
- What ethical stance do you take on certain types of clients? For example, working with a religious organization may not be considered appropriate for some studios, while others would jump at the chance.
Discipline and practices of design
- What types of design does your studio want to practice? Print design? Interactive? Industrial? Environmental? Service?
- What tangible things do you want to generate? One of the benefits of designing products, environments and brand systems is that every project generates physical evidence of your efforts. When creating interactive products or online advertising, that may not be the case. You may blink and miss it.
- On what scale do you want to operate? For example: If your firm focuses on branding, do you want to create simple identity systems or the kind with hundreds of moving parts?
- What other disciplines would you like to partner with? For instance, an interior designer may work with an architecture firm to design a retail space.
Style of delivery
- What size projects do you seek? Do you prefer short-term projects, or would you enjoy working on an engagement that lasts years?
- Are there specific delivery processes you prefer over others? Some designers like to work in a controlled waterfall-style project process, while others like the close collaboration and constant change that emerges from an agile or scrum-based project process.
- Where are the clients located? Are you comfortable working with clients in a completely virtual manner, or do you prefer face-to-face interaction?
- What level of security do you want as part of the client relationship? For example, do you desire a client retainer, which guarantees revenue at the cost of freedom? Or do you generate revenues from flat fees, causing the staff to regularly propose and secure new work as part of their work life? This can influence the studio atmosphere.
Once you know what kind of work you’d like to create, you’ll need a space where you can make the magic happen. Studio owners must carefully consider the placement of their work space, the studio layout, the use of the studio environment and whether a formal space is even necessary to get the design work done.
You may be tempted to lease or purchase space in a far away, yet “up and coming” neighborhood that is great for your budget. However, getting to work shouldn’t be hard work for your employees or your clients. Otherwise you are implicitly charging your employees time that they could be using to take care of their wants and needs. Well-placed studios can help support those needs, by being near local coffee shops and restaurants, gyms and yoga studios, public transit or the freeway.
The layout of a studio helps facilitate the flow of conversation and the style of work taking place. Studio layouts can be open, closed or some combination of open and closed elements.
Closed environments are manifested through cube farms, closed-door offices and conference rooms—areas where people can seal themselves off from others and focus on their work. My first years as a designer took place in studio environments where each designer had his own cubicle, and any ongoing conversations required us to peek our heads over walls. At one point, we joked about sawing holes in the cubicle walls so we could see each other’s faces without having to stand up. (This was before video chat, mind you.) The layout of the space was a direct reflection of the kind of work that was taking place: production-heavy print deliverables.
On the other end of the spectrum, I have been working the past six years in entirely open studios, with little to no privacy possible unless I exit the studio floor. The complexity of the work product—much of it rooted in designing and developing interactive products and services—requires constant collaboration. An open studio plan encourages ad hoc conversation and a cross-pollination of ideas that otherwise would never see the light of day. However, an open plan also requires pockets of privacy, whether via conference rooms or closed-door “war rooms” where the staff can work without distraction. Noise-canceling headphones also are handy—I consider them the new “do not disturb” sign.
Use of environment
Decisions about the use of studio space can have a major impact on culture for both employees and visitors to your studio.
Design Commission leases an affordable studio space within the Tashiro Kaplan Artist Lofts. As a requirement in the lease, part of the design studio must be run as an art gallery. Every first Thursday of the month, the employees have to put on a show as part of a community art walk. Year after year, they have exhibited work from a range of international artists as well as created their own interactive art installations. This activity is also reflected online through a gallery website.
Other examples come from design studios that intentionally preserve a portion of their space for bringing in visiting artists and fellows, running a small retail store or subletting office space to like-minded businesses.
Co-location via virtual spaces
Some businesses choose to forgo a leased office space and work virtually, using by-the-meeting office spaces for face-to-face meetings with clients. In these situations, design teams work from home or from a local coffee shop, connecting regularly through email, IM, phone calls, video chat and online collaboration tools such as Basecamp, Campfire and WebEx. With the recent increase in drop-in and shared spaces, you can have the benefits of a studio environment on demand—providing the needed infrastructure at a fraction of the cost of leasing a full-time space. Plus, you also get the benefit of having some office mates to chat with.
Amenities help create an atmosphere that supports staff as they go about their business. These amenities can help satisfy creature comforts—such as the daily caffeine fix—or encourage the staff to stick around the office, whether to socialize or to stay at work a little longer. (Sometimes both.)
Amenities are factored into the studio overhead as part of the benefits provided to all employees. They may be as simple as free soda and juice in the fridge, or a studio iTunes account stocked with thousands of tunes. Whether it’s locally sourced fruits and vegetables as a daily late afternoon snack or ice cream sundaes with chocolate chip cookie dough on the side after a hard week, what does your studio provide to keep your staff well-fed and happy?
Amenities may also include side benefits, such as subsidized gym memberships, a weekly on-site masseuse or free dining for those who choose to work past 7 p.m. Be aware that these perks can say a lot about your firm to potential employees. If you offer free cab rides home after 9 p.m., you might be broadcasting that working there requires staying late.
Training is a line item struck from studio budgets when cash flow is meager. But both on-site and off-site training opportunities help foster a culture of continual learning. Designers are refreshed and revitalized by information and inspiration from outside their daily purview or work responsibilities. This can happen in person or virtually, whether by attending conferences and events, taking classes in new techniques or technologies, or fostering staff-led learning opportunities within your company.
Strapped for cash but want to satisfy your staff? Rotate the staffers who attend important events and require them to summarize and share what they learned with the studio.
The “soft” building blocks of design studio culture
All work and no play can make a design team wear away. For this reason, design business owners should carve out dedicated time where studio staff can decompress and grow closer on a personal level.
Community-building activities and social outlets may be designed into the workday by studio management and staff, but ideally they should be realized and enlivened by the staff. Whether movie nights, Friday afternoon cheese tastings or ad-hoc happy hours, semiregular social outlets are often the highlight of a busy week. They become rituals ingrained in the company operations.
When I lived on the East Coast, Wednesday lunch meant Tex-Mex. It was our ritual for decompression. The studio principal would take the last few minutes of lunch to encourage staffers to talk about what was happening in their work and to tap into the creativity of the other designers to help them solve any problems they might be having. (It also made the lunch billable!)
The larger the business, the more these connection opportunities will help define the culture and inspire your staff. “The details, rituals and the camaraderie are an important part of frog culture,” says Doreen Lorenzo, president of frog, a global innovation firm. “For example, coffee time is at 4 p.m. every day at every office. It is a time to pause, maybe grab a bite to eat, talk to someone you haven’t spoken to, even play a friendly but competitive game of foosball. I often thought that if we took coffee time away we would have the highest attrition frog has ever seen. These small details make it an important reason why people choose to work at frog.”
While earning money is obviously important for running a stable business, many studios also donate staff time or money toward passion projects related to nonprofit, educational and philanthropic causes. Studios can provide staffers with charity days that they can use individually or in groups. Some studios donate their space or evening hours toward supporting local educational or fundraising events. The costs of these efforts are included in studio overhead and can influence the type of work that a studio receives.
Design business owners set the tone regarding how the performance of studio staff and their work should be recognized. The best recognition for your efforts should come from your client’s customers. Studio staffers, however, may desire additional praise from their peers, the press or the blogosphere. Some studios take pains to enter competitions, though such efforts can be costly and steal time and attention away from other endeavors.
Also, recognition doesn’t have to be solely about the work. The personal passions of studio staff can be shared with the world, as long as you continue to support your studio culture and properly represent your brand.
How the studio owners lead a team, as well as how staff are properly trained and supported in taking leadership roles, can have major cultural implications for staff happiness. Not enough leadership, and your core staff may feel adrift. Too much active leadership, and your staff can feel like there’s no space in the work (or the studio) for their vision.
A high level of challenge in client projects can supercharge a studio environment. Smaller-scale, more tactical projects may exercise the staff’s skills and craft sensibilities. Tackling larger-scale projects and design problems can provide the studio with new perspectives on persistent issues in the world and give your staff the chance to make a difference.
Additionally studio owners and staff can take on internal projects and initiatives to stay nimble and challenged when the project work isn’t as stimulating as they would like. Regular critique of ongoing projects should also challenge designers and studio owners to realize their best work.
Ownership is the one of the best indicators of healthy leadership. Ownership is when the staff feels like they have control over their time and their work product. It emerges when business leaders provide their designers with the necessary space to ideate and create appropriate design solutions. It can also arise when a designer is able to imprint her unique perspectives and expertise on any of the cultural building blocks, such as the design of her office space, securing the right type of work, gaining a leadership role, receiving recognition or even coordinating a guest speaker series for the office.
Some design businesses provide incentives for demonstrating ownership around growing studio accounts, such as profit sharing. Staff can also gain an ownership stake in the studio if they stay with the studio for a substantial period of time. However, such monetary carrots might not appeal to everyone, and they should never preclude your staff receiving regular opportunities that align with their evolving passions.
What studio culture would you like to create?
Now that you know the building blocks of design studio culture, what are you going to do to focus on the culture at your studio or business?
I’ve created a Studio Culture Worksheet along with David Conrad, the Studio Director of Design Commission, to help you answer the following questions: What can your staff do to create their ideal studio culture? And how can that culture align with everyone’s desired working environment?
Here’s how to use the worksheet:
- Take the worksheet and list what cultural building blocks you currently have in place as part of your studio.
- Consider, based on what you want to do in the future, what new building blocks might increase joy. Add them to the worksheet.
- Highlight which cultural building blocks you could give to others to increase their sense of ownership.
- Have other team members do steps 1–3 with their own copy of the worksheet.
- Merge all of your answers together and implement what the majority of the staff want first. Delegate ownership of specific initiatives to those on your team that have growth goals aligned with the culture-building activities.
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