Lessons from the Original Creative Workplace

Susan S. Szenasy talks with creative leaders from advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy and Allied Works, the architects of W+K’s breakthrough Portland office.

Original Creative Workplace
Wieden+Kennedy, central atrium. © Hélène Binet.

For the past two years, Metropolis’s publisher and editor in chief, Susan S. Szenasy, has been leading a series of discussions with industry leaders on key issues surrounding human-centered design. On August 18, 2016, she talked to current and former creative leaders from the Portland, Oregon–based advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy, and Allied Works, the architects of W+K’s breakthrough Portland office. Together they laid the groundwork for designing workplaces for creative people and connecting them to the city and its community. The conversation was sponsored by DuPont Surfaces, Sunbrella, and USGBC. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation, prepared by Dora Vanette.

Designing the Creative Workplace

Susan S. Szenasy (SSS): We’re seeing a new understanding of how the 21st century is going to work. Companies are trying to figure out how their workforce can be more creative, and what their role is within the community. In Portland you have a historic perspective—the design of your offices helped establish the creative workplace movement. What is your take on this evolution?

Susan Hoffman, global executive creative director, Wieden + Kennedy Portland (SH): Dan Wieden and David Kennedy like to say our building needs to be our best ad. They wanted this space to be the town hall for Portland. During the design process, [founding principal] Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works asked us: Where can people play? Where can people come together? Where can individuals find a private space when they need it? When we first moved in [in 2000], we were about 150 people. Now we’re at 700—and I could see that going up to a thousand—but because of the design the sound is absorbed and the space never feels too crowded. The building has lasted well, and it still has growth potential.

SSS: Many businesses claim to be creative, but they’re strictly bottom-line. W+K are clearly creative, but they’re also a very successful business. How do they combine creativity with business?

John C. Jay, president of global creative, Fast Retailing Co. Ltd. (JCJ): The people who control the purse strings are the creative people. The structure of every office around the world is a threesome—two people from the creative side and one person from the business side. That’s built into the place. They are very ambitious, and independent. They’ve been called the largest independent agency in the world. I think the creative spaces have a lot to do with that success. How can a company up the ante in terms of our creativity in order to solve business problems?

SH: The conversations are never about money first, ever. They’re never about deadlines. Eventually those things have to come into the discussion. It’s all about what can we do for our clients that is creative and unique for them? It’s fun to be around people who just think that way. The attitude is always can-do, sometimes to a fault.

Original Creative Workplace
Wieden+Kennedy.Each working group has its own resources: lounge, conference room, kitchen. © Alllied Works Architecture.

Keeping Standards High

SSS: How are you able to assess growth and keep standards high? What’s your advice to successful companies that need to keep their soul while they continue to grow?

Chris Riley, founder and principal, Studioriley (CR): An important conversation is about how work gets done. How many people can work in a team and still have the capacity to come up with creative ideas and execute them at an extraordinary level of quality? Managing 50 people is really hard. That’s why the agency broke itself up into separate units. The architecture began to reflect that collection of work groups rather than a unified body. So the space can operate at an individual scale, but people can also work as part of their daily operating units—plus they can be part of a larger community.

SSS: Let’s talk about the process of designing the W+K space, going from the scale of the city down to the single person. How does that work?

Kyle Lommen, principal, Allied Works (KL): There are two factors that create successful spaces. One is visionary leadership. The other is being open to dialogue. Part of our process from the beginning of a project is to bring tools to help companies create a dialogue with themselves, and distill insights that help us to create spaces that work for them.

Thea von Geldern, senior associate, Allied Works (TvG): Our process is to cast a wide net, leading with different departments and staff within those departments. We listen. We allow the important pieces of those conversations to rise as they’re either replicated throughout different groups, or as they’re reflected in the questions that the leadership is having.

JCJ: Great work is a two-way street. The smartest work is always done for the smartest clients. I cannot expect that an architect or an ad agency will do their best work unless I’m at my best too. The intelligence and the provocativeness have to be shared.

Original Creative Workplace
Wieden+Kennedy. Working groups take advantage of the interstitial space to hold informal meetings. © Alllied Works Architecture.

Telling the Story

KL: It’s all about the dialogue. When Brad presented his vision for the building, he did not blind his client with pictures and models. He started with telling a story, engaging in a dialogue that created a narrative upon which he could build the architecture. I think the same idea could be applied to many other disciplines—embarking on a conversation that is well informed and thoroughly researched. Recently, there’s been a shift from independent research to learning through dialogue. One thing that’s weak in the design industry is that our technologies have made the visual aspect incredibly easy—but we need to focus more on narrative storytelling.

SSS: The W+K building has an incredible atrium. It goes a long way to encourage collaboration and community building. But from a real estate point of view, such a great empty space is considered a huge waste. Why do you need the atrium?

JCJ: Everything revolves around that atrium. It is a gathering place but it’s also very intimate. The bleachers invite individual meetings. You can have private conversations without the sound hitting anyone else—you can have 20 different small meetings. It is the most intimate and yet the most vast space as well.

TvG: Brad was aware of the artistic process and respected it. He didn’t know what would exactly happen in the atrium, but I think he knew that if he provided the space, these artists would take it over and make the environment their own.

JCJ: I’d also like to give credit to two historical precedents. The American department store at the turn of the millennium is the first. These department stores were built around atriums so that you could look down into the ground floor. And the second space is the American high school gymnasium—those bleachers have become the most copied thing around.

TvG: When we want to create a communal space in a building we look to its precedent, and ask ourselves, What are other communal spaces that exist in our culture, in other cultures? In this example we looked at India’s stepwells, as a place where the entire community can come together. There is something about the physical nature of that space that draws people together. The same can be said about the chief’s hut, which was another source of inspiration. You can see these layers of circulation—definitely in the center, but a variety of activity could happen anywhere around the space.

Brent Linden, associate principal, Allied Works (BL): There are fundamentals to the ways people socialize and the ways they navigate the world, especially in a creative work environment where all you need to do to design a space is get out of people’s way. Humans are creative, no matter what they do. So you need to design a space that’s going to inspire them.

Original Creative Workplace
Panelists and attendees at the offices of Allied Works.

SSS: There’s much talk about the idea of the agile workforce that can work anywhere because technology allows this to happen. This is not about the agility of the technology, but about the needs of creative humans using that technology.

BL: The rise of coworking spaces shows that although technology has allowed us to disperse, people have a fundamental need to be around each other. They also have a fundamental need to have their space. You need a desk, even if it’s just to park your brain there. I think we’re coming to the end of praising this technological ability to disperse us, and we’re realizing that as humans, we need contact. Understanding the scale of cities and what that brings to a human body, everything from the spirit—which is about air and light, to the eye, to the hand—down to the monastic cell, a place to retreat and process the performance that you’ve just encountered in going out into the city. We care about these human issues. We want to make sure first and foremost that people can be human beings in the space that we’re providing them.

SSS: In Portland there’s a lot of talk about how the city is outgrowing itself, and losing its soul. It takes a lot of understanding to keep a city’s creative ethos going. What are some ways that can be achieved?

CR: Sixteen years ago, there wasn’t the creative community that now exists in Portland. At that time we had to figure out our relationship with the city. We needed to figure out what we meant to other creative people in the city. W+K’s atrium is not only a place where the larger community can gather; it’s also a place into which you can invite the city and be a part of a conversation about the culture of creativity. It keeps teaching us about creative spaces as well as community spaces.

SH: Dan used to say, I want a place that is the town hall for Portland. It’s not about Wieden + Kennedy, it’s for Portland.

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