Designing a Creative Space: Part 2

September 21, 2012

Part 2 of our series on designing creative spaces

When we moved offices, we used the opportunity to rethink our workspace and design a space that truly fosters creativity, teamwork, and great code. See Part 1 of the series for the lowdown on our inspiration and the project spaces.

Leisure space - a place for serendipitous discovery

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For someone who’s focused on “productivity”, the thought of putting couches in an office might be counter-intuitive, or merely viewed as a way to keep morale up with the hope that workers will stay at work longer and go back to their desks feeling more “productive”.

But in our experience, people are just as likely to have great ideas at a local coffee shop, out for lunch, or in the middle of a conversation about their latest personal project, as they are when they’re sitting in project spaces actively working on a project. When you look at it this way, sitting around on couches and talking trash about fantasy sports isn’t a waste of time- it’s just a different form of work. From this perspective, it’s not only a good idea to have a space in your office for downtime- it’s essential.

Like the coffee shops, lunch spots, and bars where these conversations unfold, a leisure space should offer a break from the high energy whiteboard-postit-computer environment, so people can loosen up, share what they’ve been up to, and think about the big picture. In this way, a leisure space should offer an environment that is different than project spaces. This is a place to not only socialize, but also tell someone about the cool thing you hacked together the night before, or the article you read on the train on your way into the office. This space needs to be casual, comfortable, and separated by a physical distance from the project spaces so it’s removed from the everyday working environment. Of course, frequent coffee shop and bar conversations are still encouraged, but a leisure space can provide a supplemental place to spontaneously share.

Our implementation

Our leisure space has a couple components to it. One is more of a living room setting with a couch, armchair, coffee table, and shag carpeting where people can flip open a laptop to learn about something new or talk about their latest creative endeavours. These couches are physically as far as possible from the project spaces, allowing us to relax, talk, and think in a different environment. We also keep lots of writing materials nearby to allow people to sketch out random revelations. As far as interwebs go, we keep an iPad on the couch, which is great for showing off a particularly interesting design or settle an absurd 6-pack bet that Mike, yet again, will win- he’s been on a roll lately.

The other part of our leisure space is a long set of tables. This space provides us with a place to eat lunch, have a solo rock-out-with-headphones coding session, or have informal conversations over coffee. There’s plenty of space for special guests, whether they be friends, family, or prospective employees. On the wall above the table is a colorful indoor mural of a digital landscape by Chicago artist Joe Miller.

Isolated space - a place for escape and private meetings

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So far all the spaces we’ve described have been open, casual, social, and loud. But no matter how creative you are, sometimes you just need a quiet place to work or meet. That’s where an isolated space comes into play. In contrast to the modular, exciting and chaotic environment on the floor, an isolated space should provide somewhere quiet, comforting, and permanent, where one can escape for candid meetings or solo work. This is a place to take an auditory break (a “ rest”, so to speak) from the creative bustle outside, and settle in for a moment of calm or a serious conversation.

In addition to being physically separated from the industrial frames and casters of the working spaces, the isolated space should be more finished and feature more organic materials, warm or dimmed lights, and soft surfaces. Just be careful not to make it so confined as to feel too cut off or claustrophobic; the idea is to provide auditory privacy, not a place to change your clothes. Stanford’s “Booth Noir”, as mentioned in Make Space, is a nice example of an isolated space with its cedar floors, complete lack of technology, and no-shoes policy.

The refined decor, acoustic isolation, and physical separation from other projects (which might be private) also make an isolated space ideal for meeting with clients, whether by phone, video conference, or in person.

Our implementation

To say the least, our previous office had a lot of background noise. We were, after all, within arm’s reach of the CTA Purple Line’s third rail, so everyone, including our clients on conference calls, could hear the train rumble by (sorry about that!). We spent a lot of time leaning in to hear what our clients were saying, and our clients spent a lot of time cursing the Purple Line Express. Our new office really needed a space where we could meet (remotely or in-person) with our clients in a relatively quiet environment, both for speaker and listener alike.

We designed our isolated space to be a glass-walled room in the interior of our office (with acoustic foam on the ceiling), which gives auditory privacy while letting in natural light. We chose deep blue paint for the walls and ceiling, and comfortable chairs on carpet to allow us to sit comfortably with clients or each other for extended periods of time. Rather than choose a rectangular or oval conference table that puts somebody at the head, we picked a circular one to encourage everyone in the room to assume leadership positions during discussions. We also installed a large screen TV for sharing visuals and impromptu movie nights, and are currently scouting around for some art and plants to liven up the exposed brick on the north wall of the room.

Personal space- a place for you

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So far, all the spaces we’ve described have been communal, which is intentional- we think a good creative environment encourages team interaction and collaboration. There are times, though, that a person needs a place of their own, which is what the personal space provides.

Inspired by Make Space’s concept of a “home base”, everyone should have their own personal space to do what they like with it. A personal space can hold personal pictures, jackets, bags, headphones, and reading materials (papers, newspapers, magazines, etc). One can use their personal space to take care of matters like checking up on their Twitter feeds, writing emails to friends, colleagues, and clients, and otherwise having privacy for things like working through a tutorial or watching a webcast.

The goal is to provide space for solo activities but not to encourage individuals to isolate themselves in their code cave. Personal spaces should intentionally offer visual privacy so employees can focus, get something done, and then rejoin the group in the project spaces. Personal spaces should all be close together to designate a portion of the office for dealing with personal matters, but not so far removed from the project spaces that we are inclined to stay put. A nice example of a personal space is the “Workbox” from Vitra’s Citizen Office concept (click overview to find it).

Our implementation

Initially, we considered building our own study carrels, consisting of a relatively small work surface with 14” visual barriers on the sides. The idea behind the study carrel concept was to give us a place to hunker down and get things done in without distraction. But after building a prototype and sitting at it for a few hours, we quickly realized that the carrel was too secluded, a touch on the rickety side, and not terribly attractive.

Instead, we found some sturdy small school-style desks with drawers and lined them up side by side, facing away from the other spaces. This way people at their personal spaces aren’t distracted by brainstorms going on in their periphery, and people elsewhere in the space have to walk right up to someone who’s at their personal space to get their attention, raising the barrier to interaction. At the same time, with their relatively small work surfaces and wooden chairs, our home bases are designed to be comfortable enough to sit at for an hour, but not so comfortable that people spend the whole day there by themselves- there are other places for that, like a library, coffee shop, or home.

Other design considerations

We think these frameworks go a long way when it comes to laying out and thinking about the kind of office space that will allow you to do your best work. But for fleshing out the details and maybe even coming up with some spaces of your own, a useful thought exercise is to consider, in an ideal world, who you would like to see in your office. Is it rockstar developers and designers from your city? Design your space to be capable of hosting a meetup, user group, or hackathon. What about the media- if you make waves in the headlines, how do you want your workspace to appear to the outside world? And don’t forget your clients or users- what sorts of furnishings or spaces would make them more comfortable and confident in your expertise? After designing a workspace for yourself, don’t forget to think about how it looks and functions for others.

In the everyday use of our new office so far, we’ve already found ourselves really enjoying some aspects of it, and recognizing faults in others. It is designed to continually be a work in progress, but we’re proud of our new office and we’re finding it a great place to work. If you have questions or would like to stop by, drop us a line- we’d love to give you a tour!

contributors to this post

headshot of Brian Lange
headshot of Dean Malmgren
headshot of Mike Stringer
headshot of Aaron Wolf
headshot of Suet Yi Lee