Dan Harden Featured in Innovation Magazine’s “What Is the Future of the Design Studio?”

June 29, 2021

Getting Back to the Studio(s)
This article was written for and originally published in INNOVATION.


If you had told me a year ago that everyone at Whipsaw would be working from home for the next year, I would have said, “Impossible. Our creativity-based business requires in-person togetherness to work.” Well, work-from-home became a reality, and I was wrong. Not only did we survive, but we grew from it.

We looked at the pandemic as a big design problem. By necessity, we adopted new communication methods and tweaked our processes. We began holding biweekly Zoom staff meetings, and spiced them up with viewpoints about personal inspiration. We made a bad situation tenable, and even fun at times. People that normally didn’t socialize ironically became closer…virtually.

During this time, our San Francisco and San Jose studios remained shuttered. The spaces are only used for special in-person meetings or big assembly projects. Our studios feel like places of design worship because they’re easy to get inspired in. One is an old foundry with original ceiling gantry, rusty chains hanging from beams, and church-like windows. The other is a horse stable from 1880. We have “jam rooms” where we get into creative flow states like jazz musicians. We have “design hootenannys” where people jump in to solve an immediate design problem, like on-call firefighters. Designers, UXers, and engineers commingle in big open spaces, which ignite conversation and spontaneous innovation. That all came to a screeching halt a year ago. 

As we near the end of this dreadful pandemic, we are determining how to return to our studios while asking, “Do they still make sense? If so, how should they be modified?” Creative people are highly influenced by their surroundings. They are inspired by light, materials, finishes, and architectural style. It helps to be surrounded by good design to produce good design. 

Furthermore, design is a social endeavor. We feed off one another. Walk by someone’s monitor and an idea suddenly sparks. State a viewpoint and others will instantly build on it. Doodle a sketch and run to the shop to hog it out. That doesn’t happen at home. Designers and design firms still need studios.

However, we’ll have to make adjustments. For one, we are addicted to video…because it’s awesome. We’ll need to add conference rooms to allow for more video calls. Video software will need to improve to give creatives more tools. (“Annotate” doesn’t cut it.) Since WFH will be an option, desks must be more public, modular, and cleanable to accommodate a more transient workforce. We’ll make the studios better “resource centers” so folks coming in a few days a week can access information more readily. The studios don’t need to be as big, but their quality needs to be amped up. They should showcase who we are and act as “clubhouses” for the in-and-out staff. Studios should also act as sales tools for potential clients and look amazing over video, since many clients will be reticent to travel for the foreseeable future. 

We’re still in uncharted territory when it comes to returning to the workspace, but I think design studios remain as relevant and necessary as always, albeit with changes. They facilitate our best work, bring us together, and serve as iconic destinations that symbolize what you believe in.