Design Rules Featured

9:33am EDT July 22, 2002

Walking along the Boulevard of the Allies in Pittsburgh recently, I caught a glimpse of a small, street-level office lobby's bright greenish-yellow walls and orange ceiling with pink rafters, and it got my attention.

SBN was planning a special office issue, and we needed a "poster office."

Stepping into the office, which turned out to be the reception area of audio production firm Big Science, I noted the old pine floors with curved sections of treaded stainless steel around the edges. On one wall, a tall red 1950s Coca-Cola machine rose from the floor. But the aesthetic clincher, I thought, was the red vintage 1960s Vespa scooter suspended from the ceiling.

A quirky, eclectic creativity gushed from the walls, along with a neon sign, large purple flowers stenciled to the ceiling and a round mirror with an inflatable yellow frame shaped like the sun. I had found the creative masterpiece with which to frame our special issue. It had the look and feel of "cool," and that's what this issue was supposed to be about. At least initially.

Then I talked to the owners.

As we talked about their design decisions and philosophies, and their passion for the aesthetic as a key tenet of good business, I began to realize we had been missing the point about innovative office design. It's not just about color or designer furniture or wood-paneled walls, or even about off-beat collections of art, sculpture or history -- although all can play an important role.

It's not even just about plain or fancy, stuffy high-brow or metallic industrial chic, though each may reflect personality.

What I found, thanks in part to the edgy, almost beatnik, artistic perspectives of Big Science partners Jay Green and Scot Fleming, was that office design has much more to do with creativity, productivity and change than it does with cool. It's more about attitude than aesthetic.

It both reflects and embodies the heart and soul of a company and its leaders. It offers a delicate, intangible balance between function and form. It sets the tone and pace of a company. And it helps to brand.

For Green, president of this "sonic architecture" firm with five employees, and Fleming, vice president, the space they created evolved out of their desire for creativity in a workspace where they put in 12-plus hour days.

"We're here 12 to 16 hours a day, more days than not," Fleming says. "People should be as creatively inspired and comfortable as possible in their work space."

Adds Green: "Our sensation is wanting it to be just us. We're here a lot, and gray walls and cubes have little to do with us. This is what we find ourselves comfortable with."

The "this" to which he refers only begins with the colorful old stuff in the lobby area, surrounded by psychedelic colors. Follow the leopard print carpeted steps down into the heart of the business, and you'll find a dimly lit dining/kitchen area that looks like a cross between a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving and a tin-roofed bomb shelter.

On a large wall hangs a giant old Isaly's sign, fresh off a closed-down Isaly's store in the Meadville area, and beneath it sits an old wooden church pew. Throughout the common spaces are several gas-lit fireplaces.

"When the lights are right and we have a fire going, it's like Thanksgiving every day here," Fleming says.

"I love old things around me," Green says. "It provides sort of a dichotomy because of all of the new technology around us."

You'll find that technology in the form of hundreds of knobs and buttons on massive sound boards in the company's two enclosed sound studios, along with microphones, speakers and recording and editing equipment.

That strange but flowing mix of old and new, dark and light, whimsical and ghostly all comes down to who Green and Fleming think they are and what they want their customers to think about their creative energy. And they did it all themselves.

They pieced together the antiques collection. They custom-ordered the pounded steel-sculptured desks. They even rubbed dulling acid on the once-shiny corrugated tin ceilings they installed in the kitchen. To them, it's a much-needed exercise in creative expression, which they say inspires their real work every day.

"It was important to show and demonstrate our personality," Fleming says. "We immersed the whole process in an aura of our own attitude. A lot of what we do is dark, edgy and quirky. Part of the deliberation in this was to really scream out 'us.' Creating this place was a blast. It was intense."

Can you expect any less when you put your heart and soul into your space, as they did? But it wasn't haphazard or piecemeal. They thought long and hard about what they wanted, and that was to create a space that told potential customers -- from the moment they entered the colorfully contrasting space -- what they could expect from Big Science and its artistic audio work: A darker, edgier, eclectic creativity with a not-so-serious undertone.

"We do incredibly intense music and sound design," Fleming says, "so we wanted to provoke. We want them to know we don't try to be everything to everybody. To me, it's branding. It's all part of what we are, and now our clients expect it."

They knew they were taking a chance in wearing their personalities on the office's walls and ceilings and floors.

"It folds back into marketing," Green says. "But we have scared off a few clients by taking this approach. Still, it's a risk for us not to do it."

Such risks elude much of corporate Pittsburgh as many businesses simply try to blend into the environment or create a sterile atmosphere that proves more accommodating to the transient job-hopper than to the loyal, long-term employee. Unfortunately, such sterility also chases away creativity in a work force, which seems to demand such an environment.

You could say Big Science is an over-the-edge creative firm and can get away with "provoking" clients with their office design and edgy attitudes. But you're just a law firm or accounting practice or wire manufacturing company. Where can employee creativity possibly come in when you're practicing law or counting money or bending bucket handles?

"It's oppressive," Fleming says. "Anyone I've ever talked to who wants everything in cubicles and in neutral colors usually sets things up to keep people productive but not creative. We're at a time now where technology is driving the marketplace, and they're creative people. In this time of business development, you have to react to the employees' need for a creative environment."

Have you done that -- or better yet, do you continue to strive for such an environment? Our purpose in broaching the subject in such an expansive section is to get you to think about design as more than just taste or making sure the atmosphere isn't offensive to even the blandest of personalities.

See how pair Networks created a funky, fun workplace on a budget with the creative use of building materials. Explore the use of bright color-coding with Elliance as it builds a collaborative team environment.

Tying it altogether is our One On One interview with branding experts Robert Adam and Louis Filippo, who admonish you to take advantage of your space as a vital marketing/branding tool. I hope you'll take the time to read them all.

But more important, I hope these local business owners inspire you to reach beyond design for design's sake and prompt you to take a risk. Despite this section's title, there are no firm rules. That's what creativity and risk-taking are all about.

Business is all about taking risks. It's about standing out in a crowd. It's about making a bold statement about yourself and your business. And it's more than simply adopting business casual as the code of the day.

"We create an environment that allows people to feel comfortable, and a comfortable environment really equates to a creative environment," Green says.

But Fleming wants to make sure people understand that they're not just "rebelling against cubicles," as he puts it. They're in business to make money, just like the rest of us.

"It's not a clubhouse for guys who can't stand the corporate world," he says. But then he can't resist: "It's just the coolest space we think we could have in the world." Daniel Bates (dbates@sbnnet.com)is editor of SBN magazine.