Welcome to the first of a 10 part blog series on Designing Culture.
I’m curious about organizational culture in general, and the culture of culture makers in specific.
What are their habits for creating truly great teams?
How do they empower individual and organizational ingenuity?
What are their practices for cultivating communication and collaboration both internally and with their clients?
To this end, I decided to talk to some of the best and most interesting people in the business. I’m looking forward to having (and sharing) some great conversations.
Last week I met with the good folks from Manmade, a San Francisco-based strategic design consultancy. I attended the CCA Graduate Design Program with Manmade Designer, Kate VandenBerghe. Kate was kind enough to arrange a conversation with Principal Jon Williams and Studio Manager Charlotte Cunningham.
The week before our meeting I sent Kate a small package.
It included some choose-your-own-adventure style activities that I hoped would be fun and begin to unpack Manmade’s culture. This included a pair of dice that Kate first had to roll. If the numbers totaled 2-6, she was to open envelope “Zebra”; if they totaled 7-12, she was to open envelope “Pepper”. Inside Zebra were three Luck Magnets that she was instructed to give away in the next 40 minutes. Inside Pepper was an IdeaLib poster (like a MadLib) that she was instructed to hang in a public place. The poster asked people to fill in the blanks: Ideas are like _______, because they _______, therefore _______.
When I arrived, my first impression of the office was that it is very orderly. Things are tidy and white; work is screen driven. People are in good spirits, jazz music is playing. There’s an “office dog friend” named Bodhi who is very sweet. In my short time at Manmade, it became clear that Bodhi brought a lot of joy to the office.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Let’s jump right in. Where does the identity of the office come from?
Stanley Kubrick, Muller Brockmann, Edward Tufte, and Buckminster Fuller were some of the names tossed around. With a list like that, it’s not surprising that the office felt a bit like an inspiring blank slate. As a big D design company, Jon and Kate said that it’s important for them to practice empathy for their clients’ brands. The way they achieve this empathy is to let go of their ego. I would say that they hit their mark spatially – the physical environment felt fairly ego-free.
How do you develop collaboration and communication with your clients?
Jon said that over time they’ve shifted their language to be “less mystifying and more universal” so that clients can understand their design process without needing an advanced degree in design. I think this is a good practice. Sometimes we get too caught up in our design speak. Jon added that sometimes they give their clients a mini branding 101 course. Again, this helps clients who may not be familiar with the in-depth strategic and tactical approach to the branding process. Manmade also typically conducts content and document audits so that they extremely familiar with their client’s brand, and that they designed a lessons learned process that actively informs each new project.
Do you have any daily or weekly rituals that you employ to cultivate creativity?
Kate said she’s been using evernote to capture ideas and share them across multiple platforms. Like all of us, they said that they let some of these slip over time. They like practicing “forced distractions”, like a group field trip to a museum, office stretch time, or a pancake breakfast.
Are there specific practices you have that contribute to the generation of new ideas?
At first Jon said coffee and we all laughed. But as we talked about his answer, we realized that it wasn’t so much about the coffee, as much as it was the walk down the street. He’s a self-proclaimed kinesthetic thinker – he likes to move and think (Steve Jobs was famous for his walking meetings). Getting out of his chair / the office contributes to Jon’s creative productivity. It’s “a chance for the idea to breathe”. In fact, they said, insight often happens off-site, or in analog ways, like sketching. Preparation and manifestation occurs in the office.
Are there things about the space itself that contribute to the generation of ideas? Everyone agreed that having music in the office was a good thing. Charlotte pointed out that the office had great natural lighting and a bank of windows through which she could gaze and ruminate. They have a breakout room where they can spread out and explore ideas in analog ways. In this room was an awesome chair made of cardboard blocks. The blocks were left over from a client project, so they decided to make something for the office. I thought this was a great example of spontaneous creative group bonding. Artifact = shared narrative, embodied history.
Are there formal ways that colleagues can recognize each others work?
Kate shared a story from her experience working at Macworld. They had a system called High-Fives where a co-worker could give another co-worker a “High-Five” form as recognition for something they did at work. They would make it official by having the High-Five form signed by their manager. When they collected five High-Fives employees received a $100 bonus. I think better than the money was the active recognition ladder that this practice established.
If you could wave a wand and change one thing about your office culture, what would it be?
They said that they would love to convert the storage area into a lounge; someplace in the office where they could “get away without going away”; a private place to lay down for a minute, watch a video, or read.
Work. Lounge. Work. Sounds like a good recipe to me.