Studio culture

Published:  May 11, 2011
Studio culture

Walking into the studio of my French students for the first time a few weeks ago, I was a bit shocked at how bad the space was. Dirty walls, boxes everywhere, desks haphazardly put together and absolutely no sense of creativity in sight – with the exception of 12 students, their laptops open, waiting patiently to start the lesson. I was a little surprised. Here was a dedicated space for them for a year, and yet there was no indication it belonged to them. Instead it was a shell, void of life.

So my first lesson didn’t start as planned. Instead it began with a discussion on how to find inspiration through being in the right mindset. If they were going to be searching for ideas every day, they should collectively try to create an environment around them that would foster this. After lunch, things had changed dramatically. All the junk had been removed, the room tidied, and a few posters had been put up. They sat smiling up at me, content with themselves and seeking acknowledgment. It got me thinking.

The studio. The agency. The office. For many, the space in which we spend our time creating is our second home. For some, the amount of time spent there could even deem it a primary space of residence. For the minority, it actually is the home, working from the bedroom or kitchen table. Whatever the space, there is one key trait of all successful studios – they are built collectively through the mutual agreement or permission between management and staff. You see, I believe good creativity is an outcome of good studio culture.

Alt Group studio

Having worked in design studios ranging across all sizes, from two to over 100 people, you realise that without a good culture you have nothing but a factory that will rarely produce work above a level of mediocrity. A good studio culture is a collective drive by everyone with a clear purpose and creative intent, while being highly motivated and enjoying the journey. That’s it. Studio culture doesn’t just happen. I’m almost certain it’s something to be desired and maintained, and its value to the company shouldn’t be underestimated. Although there is no standard model, the culture of an agency can essentially be summed up in three parts: What you do. How you do it. Why you do it.

So what’s the story? Well, it would seem that the ‘what’ is the easy part. What is the type of work the agency does, and for whom? You have clients who pay you to service their creative needs. You work with them based on your experience, capabilities and choice. I don’t need to wax lyrical about the various offerings we as creatives deliver under the greater umbrella of creativity. So, big clients, small clients, commercial or pro bono, Victor & Rolf versus Kmart… whoever you work for is your call. Or theirs.

‘How’ do you do the work? This means your unique proposition, methodology and way of tackling things, and, in turn, the environment in which this takes place. I think it’s more important to look at how we create the conditions under which creativity will flourish, rather than our processes and tools. You see, even if you have all the right people and skills in your business, it’s no guarantee of success. Apparently, happiness is the underlying goal for any studio looking to achieve a high level of creativity. Studios need to focus on helping its people feel relaxed and comfortable in their working environment, while helping them to achieve their own personal goals and, in turn, their inner Zen. Otherwise, it’s as author and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson describes: “I meet all kinds of people who don’t enjoy what they do; they simply go through their lives getting on with it. They get no great pleasure from what they do; they endure it, rather than enjoy it, and wait for the weekend.”

Interbrand Sydney's work

It seems perfectly obvious that creating a place to generate ideas is all about setting the foundations and framework. A good studio should function at a level that enables a good flow of communication. It must also be a place with personality and creative inspiration all around, from the music and atmosphere, to the individual’s ability to express themselves through their workspace. The creative environment should transcend the studio walls, and encapsulate the entire agency and its ethos. Every space paints a picture of how the agency operates. What practices are put in place to encourage open communication, or the coming together of minds freely?

“We trade off the creative capabilities of our culture, but also how they are feeling, what mood they are in. So we sit down like a family every day and have a cooked lunch and chat. Creativity is a difficult process that’s best supported in a stable environment that has a full stomach and an empty mind,” explains Dean Poole of Alt Group. It’s in these areas, during relaxed moments of conversation, that ideas often jostle around together, leading to new innovations and creative developments in the studio.

The celebrated animation studio Pixar understands and follows the principle of a healthy creative environment as an access point to creativity. Everything is arranged for employees to operate in the most relaxed and friendly conditions, to enable ideas and creativity to thrive. The most eclectic, comfortable and well-lived in workspaces imaginable, the animators’ cottages, are a clear example of Pixar’s ability to empower its employees, enable play in a trusted environment and generate exceptional results.

The most important factor of any healthy business culture is ‘why’. Why does the company exist, what is its purpose and reason for being, what does it believe in? If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t know why, then I have bad news for you. You’re screwed. When you think about it, it’s easy to see that people will only dedicate themselves and make sacrifices to the company if they believe in what the company stands for. Let’s be clear though, it’s not a one-way street. They need to be treated well and believed in, themselves. While money is an important component of motivation, it’s not the single most important aspect for a designer. What a designer is concerned about is doing great design and finding creative fulfilment.

Landor's London studio

Studios must continually provide opportunities for every individual. Let me give you a few examples:

  • to work across a variety of clients and industries at different scales
  • to provide a level of trust and autonomy
  • to help them advance beyond their our own limitations
  • to enable direct client contact through presenting and feedback, and
  • to manage or mentor interns or the development of more junior staff.

Every individual is different, but his or her ability and willingness to learn, play and take risks, and also have the trust and backing of the studio to pursue their aspirations, is universal.

The great graphic designer and film credit maestro Saul Bass understood his personal motivations when he said, “I want everything we do, that I do personally, that our office does, to be beautiful. I don’t give a damn whether the client understands that it’s worth anything, or that the client thinks it’s worth anything, or whether it is worth anything! It’s worth it to me. It’s the way I want to live my life. I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.”

So let’s be clear. We know that happiness comes when there is a balance between the company’s needs and the individual’s needs. We know that even though a design studio has the tough task of being both a profitable business and a place of creativity, it needs to provide the foundations on how to achieve it – environment and staff development. The most important thing at stake though, is what makes people get out of bed in the morning to come to work. Why the best people work with you and make your studio the most creative place it can be. As the marketing consultant Simon Sinek once said, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”, and this is as relevant and important internally as it is externally. The ‘why’ drives behaviour, and if you don’t know why you do what you do, people will respond to that lack of reason or clarity through a lack of drive and loyalty. “If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money, but if you hire people who believe what you believe, they work for you with blood and sweat and tears.”

Of course, you could ignore everything and assume that studio culture sorts itself out, irrelevant of what is provided by the head honchos in management. I, however, will stick to believing in Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams vision of framework and empowerment when searching for creative ideas: “If you build it, they will come.”

Landor's London studio

When it comes to studio culture, how do you provide an environment and create the conditions under which creativity will flourish?

Sydney, Australia
Creative director: Mike Rigby
At Interbrand Sydney, we get all the benefits of being part of a large and multifaceted communications group – interesting spaces, 300 plus people, grand boardrooms, a roof top terrace bar and so on – combined with the family atmosphere of our own smaller studio. We fundamentally believe that a culture can only be as creative as the people contributing to it. From production staff, writers and strategists, to client services and, of course, creatives, all have been employed as much for their rich and varied personal interests, as they have their professional capabilities. This automatically gives us an interesting and energetic dynamic.

Once you have a room full of naturally creative people, the cultural framework can be based on just a few simple principles: ownership, encouragement, opportunity and recognition.

Ultimately, we have 30 staff, with the one common aim to produce great work – and that is everyone’s responsibility.

Interbrand Sydney team

Hackett Films
Sydney, Australia
Creative director: James Hackett
When thinking about a creative studio I subscribe, as many others do, to the ‘middle class bohemian fantasy’. I believe this fantasy has its roots in Andy Warhol’s 1960s studio in New York City known as The Factory. Since Warhol’s defining art versus commerce polemic, many with creative aspirations have dreamed of a warehouse in which they can feel creatively free. Hackett Films isn’t frequented by quite as many transvestites and amphetamine addicts as The Factory, nor do we have any delusions that what we are producing is art. That said, there is some life drawing on the walls and the subjects are actually nude! I believe every creative studio should have a little bit of that ‘anything is possible’ vibe that The Factory so wholeheartedly embraced. Creativity is fun. That notion should be celebrated in some way, in the physicality of the workplace.


Hackett Films studio

Landor Associates
London, UK
Executive creative director: Peter Knapp
I think the art of creating a good studio is centred on two things:

  • There must be absolute clarity around the purpose and intention of the studio outputs, in the broadest sense. What are we trying to achieve as a company and as a studio? Everyone must be marching to the same tune and have a common collective vision.
  • There needs to be ‘balance’. You must juxtapose a sense of teamwork versus internal competition, you must input ‘creative fuel’ to expect a ‘creative output’ and you must encourage rabid ambition alongside a learning culture.


Landor's London studio

The Partners
London, UK
Creative partner: Greg Quinton
Our building is an obvious part of our culture; it’s a lovely Victorian warehouse with the expected designer/minimalist overtones, but I realised only recently that an important part of what works is that the teams spread across three floors – which actually means our culture has subtle differences or subcultures.

OK, so we have these three subcultures. Each of the three teams is headed by a creative and client director – left and right brain. They run the teams, but they also (just slightly) play the role of parents and creating a sense of security and creative support.

The thing that bonds the whole company is the shared ambition – of an impossible goal.
When I was made creative partner, I had the infamous challenge, a quote from (one of our usually modest and reserved) founding partners painted on the wall in gold script as a constant reminder.


'Dead client' in the The Partners' courtyard

The Chase
Manchester, UK
Creative director: Stephen Royle
We all have the same single belief in the way that we work. We don’t ram it down everyone’s throats. It just works that way. We’re called creative consultants, and it’s creativity that’s central to what we do.

We have a philosophy that is as old as the company itself, which began as a story founders Ben and Lionel heard about an Indian craftsman on the radio. There was once an old Indian craftsman who carved elephants from blocks of timber. When asked what his secret was, he’d discreetly say, “I cut away the wood that just doesn’t look like an elephant should.”

And that’s the way that we work. Whittling away at the wood that doesn’t look like an elephant. Leaving the best bits. The bits that are relevant. We reckon it’s important to realise what an animal isn’t just as much as what it thinks it is.

Alt Group
Auckland, New Zealand
Creative director: Dean Poole

“Some people think of culture as something that grows on stale bread.” Creativity is a messy process, not a deterministic one, and trying to unpick how it works, you end up destroying the thing that you are trying to create. But one thing we do know is, ideas emerge out of culture, not from a managed process. We believe strongly in conversations, not conversations that are about sharing knowledge – did you know this, or this means that. These types of conversations don’t end up going anywhere. We prefer conversations that wobble around the subject. If you start with facts, they usually already belong to someone else. If you can get people to share their lived experiences, you always arrive somewhere you never knew. The trick for us is creating an environment that supports a perpetual state of not knowing, that enables people to design something without ‘knowing’ too much.

Alt Group studio

Sydney, Australia
Creative director: Linda Jukic
Moon was founded on creativity. It’s part of our DNA. It has been important to us along the journey of our growth (we are currently at 95 people) that we maintain that spirit and sensibility. The following are a few of our ways of working that provide an environment that fosters creativity:

  • Every Tuesday morning we run a session called ‘boom’ where the whole agency attends. Briefs are put out and the session is used as a collective brainstorming session, as well as a stimuli session. We believe ideas can come from anywhere, and we believe in the old truth that no idea is a bad idea. It’s amazing what leads to what when ideas are put out there.
  • Every wall in our space is a pin-up space. Anyone and everyone uses these walls to share their work in progress, as a place for review and feedback.

We take on several small creative projects each year. From charity to arts to boutique businesses, these projects provide us with an opportunity to explore and show off our best creative self.

Foosball table, Moon

All images copyright respective agencies.

Thumbnail image copyright Alt Group.

From desktop magazine.

2 Responses

  1. If only my studio looked as swanky as these fine examples! ;)

  2. Great spaces with a great overview of the studios.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *