Conversations outside the box #5: Translating the brand culture into the workplace

Insights | 24 June, 2020

McCann headquarters Madrid

Jonathan Littman explores how the design of physical work environments is crucial in fostering the culture and identity of organisations.

As part of Think Work Out of the Box, our book on workplace transformation, Studio Banana sat down with leaders across various industries to hear their thoughts on what tools and environments can best serve the contemporary workforce.

Jonathan is the founder and CEO of The Innovation Hub, and the co-author of the international bestsellers The Art of Innovation and Ten Faces of Innovation. An adjunct professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of San Francisco, he is an internationally known expert on both fields as well as on tech ecosystems, and leads seminars and delivers keynotes on entrepreneurship, startups, and innovation in the US, Europe and China. Jonathan holds a B.A. in Rhetoric from the University of California at Berkeley.

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation about how important it is to analyse and chart the culture map of organisations to be able to design a work environment that cultivates and transmits that culture in an engaging way.

Much more than just a workspace

Studio Banana— We would like to direct the conversation with you to the topic of Brand Culture. It is undeniably a central aspect when creating and thinking about the environment of an organisation. We even see in it a starting point for a workplace project, since a deep understanding of an organisation’s DNA is key for design success. At Studio Banana, we believe that the work environment should be a translation and representation of an organisation and as such, reinforce its values, story and mission. Since you lead in-depth research and have developed ingenious methods to map the culture of an organisation, we would appreciate hearing your recent observations on the topic.

Jonathan Littman— I’d like to start by explaining my background and how my path to the topic of Brand Culture evolved. Trained as a journalist and author, I first wrote on different topics, many in the tech area and, among other publications, I contributed to the first Apple computer magazine. A watershed experience began when I started collaborating with IDEO on books on innovation and design thinking, while closely following the company’s development. At first, their methodology had not moved outside of ‘physical’, industrial design. But over the years, I tracked IDEO’s growth into new areas as they opened up new business opportunities through different kinds of experiential design and innovation.

Through this formative experience, I became more thoughtful about and attentive towards the physical environments I was immersed in, when meeting and interviewing founders from start-ups and established companies. It actually became one of my preferred subjects, the physical environment of companies. And since I am a native of San Francisco, I could visit the offices of, for instance, Facebook, Yahoo and Apple quite early on. 

I started developing my own critical approach to workplace design. A first aspect I observed, to my surprise, is that many companies spend impressive amounts of money on the entrance, the lobby, and other spaces to express their success and wealth. However, they often neglect to carefully design the interior to cultivate and transmit the culture of their company.

SB— So if we understand you correctly, you have often found a rupture between the image they were projecting and the actual identity of the organisation?

JL— Exactly. I found this disconnectedness which, most often, was due to an ambitious designer (and eventually a CEO) wanting to build an impressive, dramatic space with, for instance, high ceilings, cantilevers, or vertical daylight illumination. But there was no connection between the characteristics of this space and what made the company unique. Therefore, it became one of the main objectives of my own enterprise to foster this connection between brand culture, a company’s identity, and workplace design.

Closely related to these objectives is one of my popular books with IDEO, The Ten Faces of Innovation, which treats the subject of innovation in terms of different types of mindsets. In this book we developed the figure of an anthropologist in the field of design and business. This figure is someone with whom I obviously identify, particularly when I get the opportunity to observe companies from the inside out, and when I analyse the motivations orienting a specific design. One way I do this is by engaging the partners and/or people in charge, to better understand the reasons governing their design choices for specific parts of their workplace.

In parallel to my research, I started organizing experiential innovation labs in which the relationship between Brand Culture and workplace design constitutes one of the main themes. For obvious reasons, I did not want to host these labs in conventional (and boring) office meeting rooms. Rather, I wanted the participants to engage with and experience various commercial and work environments. The first reason was so that they could gain an understanding of the variety of possible spatial layouts and designs, and their relation to the culture of a specific work environment. The second reason for organising the experiential labs this way was to encourage a certain open-mindedness and inspiration for their own company’s building design. Just to give you an example, in San Francisco we have a unique and thriving ferry building shopping area, which I use as a starting point for immersion workshops.

Besides the commercial areas, the tech incubators and later on the co-working spaces also became important objects of analysis for my labs. Attendees from Europe and from China, especially, were very interested in visiting the various incubators spread across the Bay Area and wanted to immerse themselves in San Francisco’s booming tech scene. The “Notre Dame” of one of my tours is the Apple Store, the company’s flagship retail space in San Francisco, a great example of design focused both on increasing sales and heightening engagement with customers.

It goes without saying that excellent examples of workplaces that illustrate or inspire discussions about the relationship between Brand Culture and workplace design exist outside of San Francisco.

The full conversation, where we discuss the role of work environments and their relationship with the public space, can be found in the Organisation & Processes chapter of Think Work Out of the Box.

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To learn more about the future of work and how the workplace transformation will be linked with brand culture, follow Studio Banana on LinkedIn.