Improving Design Productivity: Creatives Need Privacy


I'm a bit of an introvert. I find group activities somewhat draining. I find solitude rejuvenating and I do my best creative work when I'm alone. 

Given that, it's kind of funny that I've spent my career leading large groups of designers and artists in creative settings, Fortune 500 companies, global brand consultancies and learning institutions

I began weaving the web of my career as a fine artist. A solitary pursuit for the most part. When I needed to find a path to make a better living I got my MFA so I could teach. I loved teaching because I love learning and have a passion for helping others to achieve their creative potential. 

Later, I found that being a creative director was a lot like teaching except you made a tad more money. Plus, your work and the work of your teams are enjoyed by people all over the world. 

No artist wants to work in a total vacuum.

But with this transition came a need to be more outgoing. To be more often involved in group pursuits than individual ones. I built up that muscle. And it took a lot of trips to the gym.

Susan Cain, in her book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" writes about how in the 20th century as our society moved from agrarian communities in the country to the cities, we changed. We went from working with a small group of people who we knew well to living and working in large groups of people we didn't know. Being "outgoing" became the goal. Our heros became the great salesman of the world. Our bible, Dale Carnegie's "How to win friends and influence people". 

This evolution brought with it physical changes to where and how we are working. In the corporate world and in design studios, the move to create open floor plan work spaces has reached a critical mass. In a reaction to breaking down the walls of de-personalization that the Dilbert-esque office cubicle seas wrought, we have lost something that was worth protecting. Solitude. As it turns out, designers need solitude. 

They need quiet and privacy to ruminate and play with ideas. Without distraction.

The casualties of this evolution are everywhere. You can see them in any design studio in the world hiding under their noise-cancelling headphones. They aren't just getting into their own jams. They are trying to escape the constant noise and distraction that the crumbling of the cubicle walls has brought down on them. 

One designer at Whirlpool articulates what I have heard over and over in my years as a creative leader: 

"I work in an open-plan office, and hate talking to the people near me. I just don't want to annoy everyone else. So instead, I hole up at my desk, earphones on all day. I email people who sit five feet from me. Whoever designed my office has absolutely failed.”

“Instead of making people more collaborative, it separated them. This trend needs to stop."

The results of this trend are also quantifiable it turns out. Finland's Institute of Occupational Health reports a decline of 5-10% of the performance of cognitive tasks like reading, writing and other creative work when in an open office setting. Management might be too drunk on work-pod Kool-Aide and the cost savings in office furniture. Or the shoulder-surfing-tabs-keeping and "what the hell are these people doing?". 

Open office plans just look cool. And if we look cool and modern, we are cool and modern, right? I mean, can you imagine a design firm with cubes? I didn't think so. This, it turns out, is a big part of the problem.

The facts increasingly point to this: Companies see open, collaborative spaces as an extension of their brand image. They are more interested in how it looks, than how well it actually works. Solitude is just out of fashion. Simple as that. And for creatives and designers that's a problem. 

It should be a problem for their companies, too.

All this is outweighing optimal creative productivity. And since when has business turned its back on improved productivity? Especially when in today's business world, creativity and innovation are what separates the winners from the also-rans.

The fact is people whose work is distracted make 50% more mistakes and take twice as long to finish. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that we are working longer hours than ever.

Plus, most designers don't like it. You've heard "A happy wife is a happy life"? Well, it goes triple for a happy designer.

The real question is: What does work? The answer is choice. Balance. Companies and agencies need to give designers access to both kinds of work spaces. If I were to place a bet, I would bet that the spaces that afford designers quiet, uninterrupted concentration and a reasonable amount of visual privacy will be the ones being fought over. Tooth and nail, if I know my designers. 

The pendulum of open floor plan offices needs to swing back to center.

In re-watching Susan Cain's amazing TED talk about the power of introversion, one statement jumped out at me. "There are no revelations without solitude."  

What design revelations and innovations have we already missed by removing our creatives space to think?

photo credit: Ben Mautner