Chance and Productivity

A Q&A with Studio O+A on how workplaces foster creativity, and how designers can help.

For the third year in a row, Metropolis publisher and editor in chief Susan S. Szenasy has led a series of discussions with industry leaders on important issues surrounding human-centered design. On February 8, in San Francisco, she talked with cofounders and principals of Studio O+A, the director of office envisioning at Microsoft, and a creative strategist at Studio A+ about how workplaces foster creativity. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation prepared by S. T. White.


Susan S. Szenasy, director of design innovation, Metropolis (SSS): Verda, give us an assessment of where you started in finding solutions for tech companies and how you got here. It’s important to know the background in order to project what’s about to happen.

Verda Alexander, cofounder and principal, Studio O+A (VA): My cofounder, Primo [Orpilla], and I have been thinking about radical workplaces for 25 years. We started in Silicon Valley and have been lucky to be in the right place at the right time where we could push the envelope. Today, the idea is “anything can be done in the workplace.” There’s more of a work-life blur.

A radical workplace might be an ugly workplace, something that challenges us. I believe that it’s about the fight. If we’re always set up to succeed, we’ll never fail. Therefore, we can’t learn from our failures.

Primo Orpilla, cofounder and principal, Studio O+A (PO): The new iterations of workplaces are a vast departure from cube-based, hard-wall, hierarchical offices. We’ve arrived at a more flat, flowing organization where collaboration is the norm. There had to be a shift in how people perceived space and the way companies are managed. Companies, in the past, were run by sales and marketing people. Now, companies are owned by engineer-entrepreneurs who need people to be innovative. Offices have come off the perimeter so everyone can share the windows in an open, democratic space. Creating different space types is becoming normal, and we want to take that to another level. The atmosphere today tends to be more humanistic and familial. If people connect in comfortable, welcoming environments, there will be more inspired work. As technology is constantly influencing our day, we try to inspire moments of casual conversation.

SSS: Anton, what is the direction of the Microsoft office space? How does the envisioning group that you lead imagine an increasingly productive, connected future?


Anton Andrews, director, office envisioning, Microsoft (AA): We used to have individual tools designed for workers at individual desks, which they used to create documents that might be shared with someone. Clearly, that’s not the world we live in now. When we talk about workplace productivity, there’s a difficult feeling you get in the pit of your stomach. A friend described it as a barbed-wire feeling, but that’s not how we think about work anymore. Work can be a tremendously meaningful place. People want to contribute, get recognition, and be part of something larger than themselves. Another big shift is that the world is becoming more interconnected. Information flows more freely and quickly through networks than through hierarchical systems. A third shift is the pace of technology, like AI [artificial intelligence], for example. Taken together, these shifts transform a predictable office world into a volatile environment. Recently, we learned the term “VUCA”—volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity—from the military. The older model of efficiency depends on a predictable environment, but how should we behave in a volatile environment? What are the tools and organizational structures that allow us to survive?

SSS: If data is coming at such a high speed, in order to make sense of it we need a stable of data analysts to help organizations flourish.

Cisco Meraki, San Francisco. © Jasper Sanidad.

AA: Yes, data analyst will be a secure job for the next ten years. I think knowledge exchange is even more crucial to survive in unpredictable environments. The architectural floor plate needs to be thought of as a communication and cohesion tool. Let’s look at a life-and-death situation. I spent three hours talking with retired general Stanley McChrystal, who wrote a book I recommend called Team of Teams. He talked about how the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) realized that they were a hierarchy fighting a network. The network was quicker, more agile, and responsive and was outwitting them at every turn. Even though the JSOC had the bigger organization, with better equipment, they were organized in a hierarchical model, which was always too late. What he did was flip their communication protocol from “need to know” to “need not to know.” He decided to allow information to flow freely between everyone, which in his case meant 20,000 people. He removed the hierarchy and said, “I want to hear from the junior female analyst, as opposed to the colonel who you report up to, because she’s the person on the ground who knows what just happened.” The retailer Zara’s factories run at 75 percent, a suboptimal efficiency. They send teams around the stores and ask what’s not selling and why. The teams share their findings with the stores every day. They call this “decision making at the edges” because decisions can be made without going up and down the hierarchy. In a typical hierarchy, the VP would have to wait for a report to be compiled before making a decision about the collection. But this way changes can go straight to production because of the slack built into it, so the turnaround is three to four weeks versus the industry average of six months. Instead of efficiency, they’re focused on effectiveness in a volatile world.

Alrik Koudenburg, creative strategy director, Studio A+ (AK): What I find most interesting is to ask how design can organize people around a common goal, which usually means a bit of democracy. There’s interplay between design and culture. For instance, inventions come from a tech world, but then we make them our own. We’ve had smartphones since 2005 or so, and it’s taken us easily ten years to grow up and use them in a way that doesn’t create distance between us.

AA: If you look at a lot of the huge market disrupters, like Uber, they didn’t just introduce digital technology into cars. They changed the relationship between the customer and the driver. The idea of the taxi has completely changed. We need to think differently about how we support work. Work is a journey from the inception of an idea to the completion of a project, so we’re no longer just asking how to help people write a document.


VA: Part of the problem with technologies like Lyft and Uber is that they cater to ease of life. I’m curious about a bigger social message through workplace design. Can we make a leap and create these spaces that aren’t all about convenience? We’ve created the most convenient spaces imaginable for the last ten years. What if we start putting obstacles in front of people? What if we start making people think about an alternative to a nest where you turn your life on or off remotely? There’s a pull toward challenging experiences, like going to a cabin in the forest and chopping wood. Adversity opens up your mind, and it will enable us to survive in the future.

SSS: Yes, we have a human need to touch and make things. At first, it seems like adversity, but it’s actually a realization of who we are—we reconnect with something we lost in the industrial age. We are often inside glass buildings where everything is centrally controlled. We have no idea where the switch is or how to control it. We want to get control back.

AA: We’re essentially talking about creativity. Our focus is super creativity. Because of AI, the window of human employability is going to shift toward exercising human judgment and thinking critically and, of course, toward social skills. The executive function in our brain tells us, “Hey, you have to get this done by this time. What is the sequence of actions you’re going to do?” Then, when you’re in the shower or chopping wood, your imagination network switches on. We have to distract the executive function to allow the rest of the brain to percolate and have creative collisions.

Uber, San Francisco. © Jasper Sanidad.

PO: We have a tendency to customize our environments to what works best. It may not always be the most efficient way, but I prefer spaces that make us more responsive and active. Verda was telling us a story from 1998 about an office for engineers that we designed with a beautiful layout set up for efficiency. When she went back the next day, the design was completely hacked. Desks and cubicle walls had been rearranged. It shows how human nature wants to create its own environment.

AA: I think it’s actually harmful for the organization if a space can’t be fluid. It’s beyond people being less responsive, because if knowledge doesn’t flow, people won’t be able to organize themselves around projects as needed.

AK: Design does have a huge influence on our behavior, but the organization needs to have a healthy ecosystem where everybody has a voice.

AA: Architecture is only one piece of that puzzle. Culture comes first, obviously. All of these things have to slot together. You need to gauge where you are with a particular client and then figure out how much education they need and what role you want to play.

SSS: That’s really interesting because these days we talk a great deal about storytelling.


AA: One example is when we built a Bucky dome pod to experiment with meeting rooms. Rectangular meeting rooms create a hierarchy with one presenter and one screen; this makes it uncomfortable to interrupt. The Bucky dome is round with active surfaces behind every speaker. Everyone can turn and look at another screen without disrupting the flow. We call it “stardust formation.” Then we lined two rooms with cameras and microphones to capture everything in an admittedly intrusive way, so people could connect. We made it completely transparent so there could be a live exchange of the presentations and reactions that could be spliced together. Each room had a richer, more emotional understanding of the meeting.

PO: These air-dropped domes are sort of like cabanas or temporary shelters, so they feel more informal. There’s also no door. In order to create a human experience, what should a room feel like? We don’t want to feel like a cog in a machine, so there’s tactile wood, soft surfaces, and things that look like they were bolted on by hand. A clean, aircraftlike interior has a different effect.

AA: Another space we built together was a “collaboration corner.” It’s a corner of 100-point multitouch whiteboards. You can hydrate the space with any project, which can be replaced immediately by the next team’s materials. If the knowledge exchange inside your company’s boundaries is slower than it is out in the world, you’re basically hosed. Everything we’ve been talking about is accelerating knowledge exchange, as well as creating new conditions for creativity. Those two things go together because, ultimately, they allow more creative work.

Szenasy (left) and panelists at Studio O+A.

Verda Alexander and Primo Orpilla, Studio O+A cofounders and principals

Anton Andrews, director of office envisioning, Microsoft
Alrik Koudenburg, creative strategy director, Studio A+

Susan S. Szenasy, director of design innovation, Metropolis magazine.

The Metropolis Think Tank series is presented in partnership with Corian® Design, DXV/GROHE, Shaw Contract, Staples Business Advantage, and Sunbrella Contract Fabrics.

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