Designing a Creative Space: Part 1

September 17, 2012

Part 2 of our series on designing creative spaces

When we started gearing up for the move to our new office downtown in January, we realized that this was a good time to hit the reset button and really consider what we wanted our office to be. As we’ve previously asserted, we believe data science is a creative practice, and we weren’t too keen on creating a cube-farm code factory, or for that matter, just buying everybody a big desk and three monitors and calling it a day.

Early in the process, we ran across Make Space, a new book based on the work at Stanford University’s d.school and its Environments Collaborative Initiative, and the soon after it arrived several of us read it cover to cover, absorbing insights and design ideas. It’s a clever book and we highly recommend it for anyone interested in designing their office or collaborative space.

But this was just the beginning. Everywhere we went, we started paying attention to things we hadn’t noticed before. How did different spaces and furniture make us feel, and why? Where did spaces encourage group work and interaction? Where did they stifle it? Most importantly, what kind of places did we do our best work? And what features of the space inspired this work?

Our observations

We liked the whiteboards and post-it notes that covered the walls of our old office, which made it easy to quickly throw up an idea on the wall for everyone to see. We didn’t like that the space kept us sitting at our desks all day and didn’t offer privacy for personal conversations and conference calls.

We liked the bar-height tables, wooden chairs, and background music at Kickstand Espresso Bar (our favorite hangout in Lakeview), whose environment gave us a great space to work on our own for a little while or have quick group gatherings in an informal atmosphere. On the other hand, the constant espresso pulls made the space slightly suboptimal for more formal business meetings.

We liked the glass-walled group work rooms with circular tables, comfortable chairs, and whiteboards at the Ford Engineering Design Center at Northwestern, which give students auditory privacy for group meetings and a private space for work. We disliked the formality and the harsh fluorescent lighting, which made us uncomfortable after sticking around for too long.

Taking inspiration from the book and from these places, we started to focus in on four spaces to meet our needs: project spaces for work, leisure spaces socializing and sharing, isolated spaces for meetings and personal retreats, and personal spaces for solo tweak-out sessions and personal matters. With these observations in mind, we started to create sketch ups of different ways we could organize our new space to accommodate all of our use cases.

Project spaces- a place for work

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Project spaces are where the magic (and the hard work) happens. A good way to organize project spaces is by primary “unit of work.” For different companies, this could be projects, departments, feature teams, whatever -- just give people a communal space to come together and immerse themselves in the task at hand. As a for-hire consultancy that has multiple ongoing engagements, our primary “unit of work” is a project, so that’s how we decided to organize. The important part is that each project gets dedicated space for putting up and storing documents, drawings, inspirations, tasks, et cetera, so that people can use the space to immerse themselves in what they’re working on and not have to worry about “cleaning up” until after something is done.

These working spaces should be divided, but not in a permanent or exclusive manner. This allows groups to focus, but it should remain easy for people from other spaces to observe what’s going on and hop into a conversation if they have something to add. When people need privacy, there will be other places to go.

These spaces (and for that matter, most of the spaces we’ll mention) should be modular and easy to move and reconfigure. When we set out to design a space, we didn’t assume we were going to get it right the first time (or even the hundredth time), and you shouldn’t either. By keeping things modular and putting things on casters so they’re easy to move, the space can be a sort of an iterative design project in itself, able to be experimented with and improved as you learn.

Project spaces should also have lots of writable surfaces so workers can throw ideas up for others to see. Provide whiteboards, scrap paper, Post-It notes, Sharpies, sketch pads, printers- just make it easy for workers to get things out of their brains and onto a surface to share. And don’t forget tables and easels to put these things on- this way it’s easy for team members to place new sketches, articles, or notes for everyone to see. In addition to these “capture materials”, people should have all the resources necessary for work at their fingertips- whether that’s power for laptops, dedicated workstations on carts, or prototyping materials.

Another thing to consider is posture- this is addressed a lot in Make Space. For a creative, high energy area like this, having people standing or close to standing (i.e. on stools rather than in big cushy chairs) is better- it encourages people to be up, active, and moving from idea to idea. Again, for the times when they need to settle, there will be other places. As far as furniture goes, consider keeping things industrial: work benches on casters, metal stools, and the like. Not only do these things encourage an upright posture, but they’re durable, cheap compared to expensive office furniture, and they emphasize that this is a place to get your hands dirty and get things done.

Our implementation

As we just mentioned, we like industrial furniture for project spaces, so we got butcher block-topped workbenches to act as dedicated project tables- they even have outlets built in for keeping our computers powered. We also built our own version of what the Stanford d.school calls “z-boards”. They’re basically homemade whiteboards hung on industrial clothing racks. These give us lots of space to write on and hang sketches and wireframes, while also acting as dividers. Of course, all of these furnishings are on casters for quick reconfiguration. Need more whiteboard space? Roll another z-board over. Client coming in for a workshop? Expand the space and wheel any sensitive information into the corner.

We’re big fans of pair programming so we also set up modular workstations with good sized monitors and ample table space, allowing two people to comfortably crowd around and pass the keyboard back and forth.

Part 2: Leisure, isolation, personal space, and more..

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