Unleash your creative talent

In an industry where the most precious commodity is ideas, creating a working environment where your staff can fulfil their creative potential is not only good practice, it’s good business as well

Those light bulbs of inspiration can flash on at any time. In fact, it somehow helps if you are in the bathroom at the time of the proverbial lightening striking. Who hasn’t had a supreme moment of creativity in the least accommodating of situations or had the most successful meeting of the month on the stairs?

Consultancies have generally embraced the idea that creativity flourishes in the least regulated of environments and so work spaces are generally sympathetic to this end. But some would say that much can still be done to fire the imagination and to nurture creativity. In an industry where ideas are a consultancy’s greatest asset, what can be done to keep design staff supercharged?

Most groups have already found food is the first step worth exploring. Interbrand Newell and Sorrell group creative director Francis Newell says the consultancy’s cafeteria, which is subsidised by the group, noticeably improves staff interaction and the free exchange of ideas.

“Food is a very important part of the working process, particularly if you start a job early and work late,” she points out.

Deepend new business development director Nick Farnhill says that since his group has employed its new chef, the three square meals staff get for £2.50 a day, has started to show in their waistlines as well as in their smiles.

In the workplace many consultancies operate flexible working hours on the understanding that staff are more than likely to work over time anyway. Johnson Banks creative director Michael Johnson suggests that in a similar way all the rules of the office must be broken down to inspire creativity and keep up morale.

“The only answer in the workplace is to have no rules at all. The less it feels like work the better,” he says. Outside of the office you should do anything but design, says Johnson, who used to visit the Royal Festival Hall if he needed inspiration. “I used to go to the Royal Festival Hall if I was stuck for an idea. I would go for a coffee and a bun in the cafeteria – it’s great because you can sit there for hours and they don’t hassle you to leave,” he says.

Johnson dashes a few theories on teamworking though. “I think designers are all very proud about their work and don’t generally get inspired by thrashing out ideas in a team. What we all do in practice is work on our own ideas individually making sure they are well thought out, before discussing them with a larger group. People don’t really ‘work’ in teams.”

The case for the recent trend in hotdesking has not convinced some designers either. Wickens Tutt Southgate creative partner and chairman Mark Wickens says his staff recently voted against the proposal unanimously because they wanted personal space in which to think at work.

“Until recently, we all had two desks,” he continues, “one with the usual paperwork and a pad, and one with a Mac.” The idea was to encourage people not to use the desk with the Mac until they had used the one with the pad to plan a little first.

HGV creative director Pierre Vermeer, meanwhile, refutes the pad personally and says he never uses one for work.

The point is that everyone works best in their own way, and the consultancy should constantly be aware of how to accommodate them. Wickens says he is forcing fewer such ideas now and everyone is back to single desks.

Time away from the confines of the studio is an essential enabler, unless your creative staff perform only while ripping their hair out by the roots. Some design groups are already experimenting with the Canadian practice of a “free” day off once a month and Paper White managing director Stephen Page would like to take it one step further. “I think that it would be a great idea if everybody spent Fridays outside of the office. As long as the time was spent positively, like going to a museum or a gallery, it would give people a chance to recharge their batteries.

“We offer this in reviews now and we actually have a few staff who work three- or four-day weeks (salaries are scaled accordingly). The dilemma, of course, is when I discuss four-day weeks with the senior designers, they say that in order to service a client they need to be available all week long,” he adds.

London concept and invention consultancy What If sells its off-beat consultancy skills to a host of multinational names, including Mars. The way the consultancy works has much resonance with many design consultancies, though its theories have become formalised into something of a written science. It is “run like a family” that will not be grown beyond 60 employees, according to What If partner and inventor (her current choice of job title) Kristina Murrin. Its working style aims to put into practice what it preaches about breaking down conventions.

“Before we started up I used to have two mes. These were Home Kris and Work Kris, who dressed and behaved differently. Now I am able to be one person like the rest of our staff,” she says, echoing Johnson.

The idea is to stimulate the imagination, what Murrin distinguishes as the “madness” balancing the “measure” of normal business styles.

“Yesterday we were working on a project to do with sausages, so we immediately brought in a chef to cook some up,” she says. By smelling and tasting and touching them you can only think sausages too, or so the idea goes.

Murrin operates an opinion box for staff to put forward suggestions on changing absolutely any aspect of the business. “Once a month we go through the slips of paper and the partners have to decide yes or no to every idea – on the spot. There is no way we can go away and think up reasons why or why not to act on something,” she says.

She offers a stark word of caution too to those already on their way to the perfectly transparent consultancy structure. It is important to keep a handle on the quality of your creative ideas and not end up focusing on the superficial. After all, scientists in lab coats produce some of the most radical ideas in the most clinical of environments.

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