John Boiler: How to Design Physical Space for Optimism and ROI
The co-founder and CEO of 72andSunny allows us inside his counterintuitive approach to “efficiency” in a modern creative company
When you look around an office, nine times out of 10 you can tell if it was designed for fear.
How does fear manifest in space? High walls. No windows. Closed spaces. By extracting management from the doers and makers of the company, there’s plausible deniability. When conversation is inhibited by high-walled cubicles, information is controlled. And to effectively instill fear in office culture, you have to control information. You have to make sure teams are segmented into departments, information is transmitted linearly and power is centralized.
We designed 72andSunny for the opposite of fear, for optimism. But we didn’t just design for optimism to make a point about traditional office cultures, we did it for the return on investment. When your business relies on the creative potential of your employees—a stance we’d argue all companies rely on to a varying degree—investing in a physical space that promotes optimism will also reap rewards in ROI.
1. A Return on Creativity
When we expanded to our second building in our Los Angeles campus, we ripped a hole through the second floor to create an amphitheater. Crazy? Maybe. Reckless? No. Sure, we gave up all that square footage, but what we gained was worth it. Having an open amphitheater gave us an open, gathering space for all company meetings and more “soft spaces” for spontaneous conversations and creative collisions. If everyone is creative, the key is to design around their creative potential.
The first things you’ll notice when you visit 72andSunny are the walls scattered around the office, set slightly apart by wooden platforms. These walls are covered with work, which is itself covered with Post-It Notes and red marker. There everyone on the team, from coordinators to producers to strategists, can weigh in on work, and it moves from something that you built to something we built. The wall is the key to the way we operate, and it continues to evolve from the way it started.
In most offices, the way of working adapts to layout of the space rather than the spaces adapting to that way of working. Reducing the friction created by standard office layout, which enhances the flow of a creative work style isn’t an industry-wide priority. Why? Because the expense is obvious while the upside, and the return, are not. Eleven years ago, when we had the opportunity to build 72andSunny from the ground up, we adapted the place to our creative process. Not having enough money to start in anything else but an empty warehouse with card tables and long, blank walls gave us plenty to work with.
As the years passed, we realized the value of making deliberate choices about geography and physicality in the creative process and started discovering stuff that worked and stuff that didn’t. If you optimize for inspiration and collaboration—two of the central building blocks of good work to us—you become mindful of the impact being created by where we work, who’s in what room when, and how we could conduct ourselves in these different venues. It’s a bit of alchemy and a bit of science.
2. A Return on Acceleration
So, when we started 72andSunny, everything moved up onto a wall. We have a saying here: “If it isn’t on the wall, it doesn’t mean shit.” We found that by sharing work early, while it’s still raw, we accelerate the iterations and arrive at great work quicker by inviting feedback in the beginning stages. Working on a wide canvas helps people commit to the idea whereas obsessing on an individual element in a “deck” can disconnect you and it from the whole.
For 72andSunny, Glenn Cole [72andSunny’s Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer] and I made the decision to sit at a table so we could interact with each other, ask questions of each other, build on each other’s ideas.
There have been plenty of articles published lately that push against open plan offices saying these kind of environments can be distracting. And they can be noisy and distracting, but it’s worth the tradeoff. It’s group productivity, rather than individual productivity, that we’re creating.
3. A Return on Culture
One of the biggest innovations in advertising was also a physical one; when DDB started putting copywriters and art directors together in a single office, they birthed modern advertising. But offices can be limiting if you try to move beyond the creative couple.
We loved things about our offices. You get your own space. You get a window. You feel like you’ve made it. But we started to notice things that weren’t great about them. When Glenn and I were leading Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam, we’d review work with individual teams with the doors shut. By the end of the day, we’d have four or five teams lined up at our door. They had to wait for the boss, and we couldn’t leave to go to the bathroom. It was dehumanizing for everyone.
Steve Jobs famously put the kitchens and bathrooms in the middle of Pixar’s offices so that people from different disciplines would have to mingle together throughout the day. The same principles work for us. We have kitchens, bars, and beer taps placed throughout the office so that people will run into each other.
But it’s not just about the office layout, it’s also about how the office feels: the furniture and the fixings. If you go into any agency, you can almost tell the moment they became hot by the kind of furniture they have. So we wanted design that would feel timeless, which was influenced heavily by the fact that we work in Howard Hughes’ old offices.
If you walk around the office, you’ll see pieces from 1928 to 1975, roughly spanning his career. It results in a look that feels at home in any of those decades.
Why This Matters
The way we use physical space is critical to the way we work in the creative business. Every few years, a new theory about working space emerges with a bang, then fades away. We don’t have lots of theories about workspace at 72andSunny—but we do have years of trial and error. For us, that experimentation has created data that guides our decision making.
One piece of data: 142 square feet per person. That’s the ratio of space per person that seems to work best for creativity. It gets a little intense when it gets much lower and the energy drops when it goes higher. How we got to that figure just took time and awareness of how people were feeling and acting.
Which is kinda the key point for me. A workspace is a manifestation of the unique people, product and way of working. It should be a reflection of it.
Not a container for it.
John Boiler is the co-founder and CEO of 72andSunny, which was named one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies in 2015. Previously Executive Creative Director of Wieden+Kennedy in Amsterdam, John is a designer by trade. 72andSunny has offices in Los Angeles, Amsterdam and New York. Its clients include Activision, adidas, Carlsberg, ESPN, Google, Samsung, Smirnoff, Sonos, Starbucks, Target, Totino’s, and truth.