Designing spaces for creativity

A very interesting conversation with my colleague Rena (@Renroon) yesterday got us looking at the different ways that workspaces are arranged and for what purpose. It got me thinking about the different models that I’ve experienced and their cultures since there is clearly work to be done in determining which model suits which culture best. So to begin with a brief description of some models:

  • The Richards Group, Dallas, TX, USA – This is an amazing agency run by Stan Richards himself and he has set down a number of guidelines (read rules) as to how his business should operate, he even wrote a book about it (The Peaceable Kingdom). The majority of the arrangement is to guide interaction both formal and informal between employees, but also keep things efficient. In terms of physical organisation the building has no doors (apart from finance) and all the floors are more or less laid out the same with 8 cubes around a central workbench; people are generally mixed up (so they don’t sit with their teams and this creates great overall agency cohesion) and hierarchy increases as you get closer to the window seats which have more space (so we can still tell who the boss is!). Beyond this there are a large number of conference rooms in different shapes and sizes, some designed for larger client presentations and other small rooms designed to be ‘war-rooms’ around a specific project. In addition to this very open environment they also created a stairwell in the center of the building based on the insight that people don’t talk in elevators but that they do stop and chat when they meet on the stairs. When you add all these to the fact that you aren’t supposed to use the elevators between floors, and internal emails are theoretically forbidden, we seem to be driving towards an open environment that gets people together when they need to, but also builds cohesion across the whole organisation (caveat, I was there in 2001/2002 it may have changed since then. And as an aside, he also controls very carefully the external (packaging) of the agency – every single employee’s voicemail is recorded by the same lady, all phones are always answered by a real person in the name of the individual (even if it has to bounce to 3 assistants/receptionists) and no PowerPoint is allowed!
  • Ogilvy & Mather, Paris, France – On the other side of the Atlantic, O&M in Paris is the hub for many European accounts and the small building on Avenue George V hides a nest of productivity. Here workspaces are divided into different sized offices that can house 1,3 or 6 people depending on the size. Again conference rooms are littered around the building along with some more social areas where people can sit and chat. In this case, lots of very large (floor to ceiling doors) but that could completely change the ambiance when either left open or closed. The combined effect of these is efficiency in communication across teams (group account directors on one account sit together) but also quite a lot of real work and thinking getting done.
  • FullSIX, Paris, France – Strangely enough, here there was clearly a model that was working as both old and new sites mirrored each other in organisation. For the account teams, offices hold between 3 and 5 people who normally work together, and senior members of staff either have their own office or are grouped together in twos. Creative teams all sit together in one room, making spaces tight for teams over 8, but ideal for the 7 and 8 man teams. Finally the technical department were placed in one larger office, and it’s worth noting that these are the guys who tend to work with headsets on all the time – so it ends up feeling like a library. This is very similar to the O&M model above, but taken a step further as we can see clear differentiation between the type of workspaces developed for PM/account, creative and technical teams.
  • JWT, New York, NY, USA – This office on Lexington won awards for the interior design and you can feel the impact as soon as you step into the reception. The very high ceilings give a warehouse-like feeling and almost incites you to keep quieter to avoid the noise bouncing off the walls. Cubes are arranged in zones which vary in shape and size and each floor is littered with conference and huddle rooms as well as open chat areas. The overall feeling is that there is always a spot where people can have an informal conversation. The cafeteria in the building is also a big plus and another spot for people to get together. See the Fast Company and HQ articles on the office design and this piece from the NY Post about the changes.
  • JWT, London, UK – Very similar to its US counterpart (although with lower ceilings), JWT in London has a combination of desks and offices for senior staff. No cubes this time (I think they are frowned on in the UK) and desks are simply next to each other. The fact that each area is not too large makes them feel like individual offices even if there are no doors. The cafe and garden are a big plus and in the summer this is probably the most creative spot!
  • JWT, Paris, France –  I had the pleasure of experience both the before (Levallois) and after (Neuilly) of JWT in Paris, and I think we can call this move a triumph of design and a failure in space planning for efficiency/creativity. The old building had smaller floors arranged around a central elevator bank which meant that the overall spaces were smaller and the use of bookcases separated off individual areas to give the effect of offices ranging from 4 to 12 people. The new building created two massive open spaces for creative and account service, with no real isolation for desks from each other or the corridor. With the little space available, the designers had attempted to stick ininformal meeting areas (to replace the lack of conference rooms) by placing round booths with high sides, but unfortunately these are both situated in high traffic areas and also act as megaphones for the people inside. This combined with a large amount of white (floors, walls, ceilings) made things feel clinical, and quickly dirty – in my opinion not a success.
  • Leo Burnett, Dubai, UAE – In my current position, I have the luxury of my own office, which saves me from the noise when I need to close the door and think. Here we have, as of much in Dubai, a mix of American and European – for account management, a combination of smaller spaces with cubes and separations, the use of glass on many office and smaller room walls helps to create the notion of space even when things are quite tight, but this still feels relatively structured, since teams are generally sitting together there is a constant ‘din’. The creative department mirrors european markets with a couple of larger open plan spaces. There are a number of more ‘standard’ conference rooms that are not all adapted to informal chatter and a cafeteria that probably doesn’t get used as much as it should outside of mealtimes. The planning department has attempted to create a hybrid of different models by creating a single bench desk where planners (and other team members) can ‘dock-in’ to work – the model works to a certain extent, but since each team member has no specific ‘delimited’ space the desktop itself quickly turns into one long chaos… Not to say that this doesn’t drive creativity and thought, but the environment is focussed only on team work and individuals needs to ‘run and hide’ to focus alone.
  • Leo Burnett, Beirut, Lebanon – A much older office than it’s sister in Dubai, this office has had to evolve with the space available to it and strangely enough it mirrors the (succesful) European experiences. A collective hive of smaller offices housing 2 or 3 people mean that there can be both isolation and group-think.

So, what is the conclusion based on the above? The first answer is that there is probably a need for greater research (or it potentially exists already), as we need to understand both productivity for different job-types in different models and then also compare this to different cultural approaches to teamwork and productivity. Geert Hofstede‘s framework for assessing culture is probably also very relevant here as we start to look at how each culture understands and works with hierarchy – more Latin and Arab cultures have a need to physically demonstrate who the boss is by separating and isolating them, whilst anglo-saxon cultures can assimilate this without the need for visual and physical reassurance. But it does feel, in my opinion, that we need to think harder about what our offices look and feel like; this means thinking about the packaging of an agency and reflect that in the colours, and objects that surround us (and this probably means no partitions on cubes), it also means thinking about how people work together (usually small teams) and what the overall objectives or an agency are. We need to create environments that are condusive to informal conversation as it is when you are least expecting it that great ideas jump onto the table. So my conclusions are a few guidelines for agency interior design (take them at face value, this list is most definitely a work in progress):

  • An overall feeling that represents the industry and the organisation for the employees – not just for the clients
  • Volume and variety of informal meeting places with enough privacy to not bother those around and the tools to be productive (sometimes a bean bag room is great for teens, but adults need chairs…)
  • Offices for 3-4 people who work together on particular projects with a door that can be closed for privacy when needed
  • An overall ethos of working at your desk and thinking about the people around you
  • No more cubes and partitions!

There are professionals that are specialised in the design of spaces and we have  heard a great deal on software and high-tech companies, particularly Google, it is just a shame that our business has such tight margins that this sort of investment is considered a luxury and normally only applied to our flagship ‘stores’.

Some connections to interesting articles:

The above observations are all based on personal experience.

By Lex Bradshaw-Zanger

A digital native and integrated brand marketer with a passion for marketing-communications and product design, Lex has a truly international outlook and experience, having worked both in major marketing agencies and client-side brands across Europe, the US and the Middle East.

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