Culture Club

Published:  January 20, 2011
Culture Club

One of the advantages of writing for Desktop has always been the excuse to get in touch with people whose work I find inspiring. Over the past nine years I have profiled over 100 designers, studios and agencies and met a wonderful array of creative people. Some have sold out, either literally or creatively, while others no longer exist. Many have gone on to have great success, so I wondered – from this large group of people and organisations, is it possible to find a secret to that success?

Some studios place great emphasis on their process and like to think that it is a unique selling point. This is understandable given that a process is much easier to sell than the magic that happens when you are gazing out of the window brewing up an idea. Looking at the studios I have profiled over the years there are two things that stand out. The first is that they all have roughly the same process and it is rarely unique. The second is that the most successful studios share a particular asset – a great culture. Process is a useful display for an individual freelancer because they are a culture of one, but as soon as there is more than one person involved culture is what makes or breaks a studio. Here are four key ways that studios develop the kind of culture that is the envy of their peers.






There is nothing like having Monty Burns as your boss if you want the life sucked out of your work. Studios that have managing directors, creative directors and founders who haven’t forgotten their sense of fun and creativity pretty much give everyone else permission to play – and play allows for crazy ideas that can be moulded into shape for projects. Agencies like Poke, Dare and the Chopping Block have founders and key management who remain as keen to crack open a can of bad puns as they were when they sat at the back of the school bus. Most of them, like magneticNorth’s Brendan Dawes, also never lost their desire to make, to play and to experiment. And above all else they refuse to be boring.

I have had the privilege of working in a few of these environments, and it is clear from the moment you walk in that these are places of play as well as work and in the best places this difference is rarely acknowledged. Meetings can be the vampires of the creative heart and these too require a leadership willing to break down hierarchies and the usual business norms in order to draw the best out of people and build the trust that allows staff to suggest off-the-wall ideas. Again, the people make the studio, which brings us to the next point.

Hire for personality

Simon Waterfall, ex- co-founder and creative director of Poke and founder of fashion label, Social Suicide, previously explained that Poke made a particular effort to choose its mix of staff. “You never want to have three people the same, because they can all do the same thing,” he advised. “When you see something that you can do, there are only two responses. One is, ‘Ooh! That’s better than I can do [it],’ or ‘Oh, that’s worse than I can do it’. When you see something in a completely new field by someone else, something in you goes back to that childhood experience of, ‘F**k me! How did you make that?!’ You’re allowed to be generous of spirit, you’re allowed to have that wonderment. Choosing the most diverse group so that they don’t step on each other’s toes and have enough goodwill to be able to work together – that’s great.”

Teams and studios are like a good curry – you need a careful blend of flavours and none should overpower the dish.

Big Spaceship office space

Big Spaceship office space

Organise for relationships

Another way to go about building culture is to organise it. Along with the other approaches here, the founders of New York agency Big Spaceship spent a lot of time finding the ultimate way to organise their teams as the company grew. Initially following the usual route of having designers, coders, account managers and interns all sitting in their respective groups, they soon realised this was not creating the kind of culture and bonds that produced the best work, not to mention happy staff. Having tried several approaches, they settled on creating teams from mixed groups – almost like mini studios within the larger one – and arranged their enormous space accordingly. Their teams even have their own names, mascots, customs and rituals, which helps to build up a real sense of camaraderie.

Work on it

All relationships require work. The fact is you probably spend more time with your work colleagues than your partner or family. It is all too easy to get distracted by the pressure of deadlines, politics and the daily grind, so you don’t notice the gradual burnout and end up taking each other for granted. Forget embarrassingly forced corporate team-building days and remember what it was like to have fun and the creative high jinks you got up to at design school. Again, Poke and Big Spaceship come up trumps here and spend a good deal of time on simply having fun and letting off steam – sometimes this ‘fun’ time turns out real projects too. Google also have its famous 20 percent time. Stefan Sagmeister shuts down his studio for a one-year sabbatical every seven years and Carsonified has a four-day week, but pays its staff a full wage. magneticNorth has a range of side projects and events outside of its daily routine and, closer to home, Australia’s Soap Creative, Holler and Digital Eskimo make sure they work on building a culture in which people want to live, work and play.

Though I only have the space to mention just a few of the agencies, studios and designers here who have given me their time over the years and submitted to my pestering and deadlines on top of their daily pressures, my thanks goes out to everyone who has featured in my writing over the years, and, of course, to you for reading. Thank-you.

Thumbnail image: Digital Eskimo.

From Desktop magazine.

4 Responses

  1. Pingback: Bookmarks for January 4th through January 21st « vlog 4.0 [a blog about vogs]

  2. I should tell you the reality that I need to concur with you relating to your piece with regard to Culture Club Desktop. While i identify more and more that folks are simply just not really ready to pay attention to reasoning when it comes to this idea. Carry on the nice job and My partner and i will continue on viewing with the all other satisfied readership on this website.

  3. Awesome article! I work from home office at the moment, but not only will take these tips on board – but it has also motivated me to get an office :)

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