Office politics

The work of individual designers is well documented, but little historical research exists about the workings of individual studios. Adrian Shaughnessy asks why

The graphic design studio – its layout, its management, its psychology and its physical appearance – is curiously absent from design commentary. You can find writing on every aspect of design, but the studio itself receives scant attention.

Design history is written from the perspective of the individual designer, and most discussion of contemporary design centres around individual personalities.

Yet very few designers work entirely on their own. Even design’s most singular figures – the Paul Rands, the Alan Fletchers – had studios with assistants. And by far the most common way for designers to organise themselves is in the collaborative shape of a studio.

But the place where most designers work, and where nearly all design emanates from, remains a no-go area for serious commentary.

It’s easy to see why/ studios are messy things; they’re formed by the people who work in them and therefore have multiple personalities. Speak to the head of a studio and their assessment of its character will differ from that of a junior member.

Trying to chart the ebb and flow of a design office, who did what and when, is impossible. No wonder commentators prefer the easier target of the individual designer.

There have been studios that have enjoyed the spotlight of historical scrutiny – names like Design Research Unit, Studio Boggeri, Total and Pentagram. But compared to the way attention is lavished on the solo designer, it’s small beer.

You’d think at least designers might have explored the subject in print. Not so.

One of the few important designers to theorise the studio was Otl Aicher. With doctrinaire thoroughness he offered a vision of his ideal office. For Aicher, transparency was the key.

‘My profession requires me to work with other people,’ he wrote. ‘And so I want to be in the same room as them. Anyone is permitted to see and hear what I am doing. This is the only way to produce the correct network of work and workers. I want to be in sight of them and not to have to open doors to get to them.’

For most graphic designers, evolving a philosophy relating to studios is problematical. It takes designers into the unfamiliar realms of workplace psychology, space planning and the sheer expense of fixtures and fittings. Only the largest and wealthiest design groups can afford the square footage, the interior design and superior furnishings that make a great studio.

When I quizzed Erik Spiekermann on the subject of studios – their ideal size, their physical layout, how you manage them – he began by noting ‘Everybody in London works in spaces we [Germans] wouldn’t even go into. Where British studios have eight people, we’d have two.’

It’s hard to theorise the studio when for many designers it’s a case of making do and muddling through. It’s also a vast undertaking. We need answers to many questions. Productivity vs creativity? Open-plan vs partitions? Meetings with clients by the desk, or a lavish boardroom? Shelving – Vitsoe or Ikea? And that’s before we worry about what magazines to have in reception; whether to have posters on the wall; where to put the bikes; and what the studio music policy is.

Mundane stuff, yes, but critical factors in running a successful studio. Odd then that the studio is a neglected subject for serious discussion.

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