While our livelihoods exist within the digital realm, inspiration has no such contextual boundaries.
We’ve discussed outlets, interactions, and moments to be seized while in the physical walls of our work environment. Within those halls is an enormous amount of energy to be harnessed and channeled—via our people—but what of the environment we pass through as we make our way into the office—via the people we design for?
In a design process, spatial dynamics are key to being mindful of the bigger picture in our work—via ethnography, user research, observation, and so on. Culturally, human connection and professional relationships are cultivated outside cubicle walls and email threads. In both instances, leveraging tangible interactions begins with the act of getting out of our chairs.
The Revolution of Stepping Away from Your Desk
There is an entire world of design and inspiration beyond the context the digital world affords us.
Though thinking outside the box is a hack term at this point, the sentiment is genuine: the box is our MacBook Pros. The soft ambient glow of a Retina display bathes our faces, its viewport locks our gaze and, in turn, our bodies. Taking a break often just means clicking over to a different screen. I’m sometimes guilty of this myself, and the process has a pattern:
Visual design block hinders momentum.
Best-of collections populate a barrage of new browser tabs. This daily winner, that nominee.
Via minimal effort I’ve ascertained mass audience-approved Web fonts, grid patterns, and content integrations.
It goes on: responsive navigational system libraries. App UI interaction snippets. All ripe for the picking. My synapses enjoy their coffee break
Having my viewport blinders on robs me of not just original thinking, but also truly understanding to where my inspiration vanished. Or where it came from in the first place. Quieting our minds is no small feat with the digital world perpetually clawing for our attention. Screens are omnipresent: at our desks, in our pockets, on public transport. It takes attention and effort to reserve time out of their reach, and exertion is always at odds with comfort—and habit, for that matter. Comfort is the bane of advancement.
There are smaller moments in the morning where I simply need to get outside. With the morning’s calm, preceding the day’s—and clients’—awakening. Some days welcome us with inspiration waiting to be seized, to be channeled as fuel as project-centric minutes loom large. Sometimes inspiration requires you to seek it out.
It’s at this moment where we need to challenge ourselves.
As with my earlier fika example of initially being unable to join my coworkers, this is the definitive point in which we liberate ourselves from those mental shackles. In the drudgery of the post-lunch afternoon, this can manifest in a simple walk around the block. The culture of the office sets the supportive tone here by letting these moments occur unfettered. In one company I worked at previously, I was required to sign out at the reception desk every time I walked out the front door; for lunch, for a breath of fresh air downstairs, for anything. The minutes I tallied, to be made up apples-for-apples upon my return. In this single act, I felt marginalized, scrutinized, and patronized. It provided for a steady stream of head-shaking resentment amongst my coworkers as well.
Trust and Performance
A creative culture openly supports the basic human need to let our minds breathe away from our desks. It lets the energy outside our walls inform the people within. There’s demonstrated trust from company to employee in getting out of the way, leaving that door wide open, and not lording over their minutes like Sauron over Mordor. Of course, there’s a balance to be had: an employee must also understand that this doesn’t mean take the afternoon off and go on a discovery walk. Something in the ballpark of a half-hour is usually solid. If people feel trusted, they will reward that notion with freshly charged creativity and increased productivity.
The study “Employee Trust and Workplace Performance,” published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, conducted research on the relationship between employee trust and workplace performance across three variables:
The business’s financial performance
Quality of service or product
Across strict measurement criteria, they noted that, “Higher levels of average employee trust in managers appear to be positively related to workplace financial performance and labor productivity.” In terms of quality of service or product, “Employee trust is positively associated with being in the ‘a lot better than average’ category.” Put simply: employee trust in management directly translates to a high quality of work and company profit.
On the business’s end, this trust and support need to be directly communicated to an employee when they’re hired. If it comes through the grapevine or is passively observed from afar, the notion that they can just take a break outside might be perceived as suspect or only for a privileged few. Even in a culture that’s known for its employee and growth-centered climate, this has to be an absolute known quantity from Day One.
Government Digital Services (GDS) in the UK, which specializes in “the digital transformation of the government,” goes as far as to physically post on a wall a list of exactly what their employees can seize, culturally. The unofficial stuff, as they’ve dubbed it. Noting things “it’s ok to do,” such as “go somewhere else to concentrate” or “not check email after hours,” employees new and old are crystal clear on the wonderful, oft unspoken, benefits their culture has to offer. Simple gesture, long-term impact.
In the spirit of seizing cultural benefits, let me show you what I do when my inspiration is lacking. I’ll draw my example from a morning I had not too long ago.
Heading out the front door as others walk in, I’m also exiting a state of stagnation. As I breathe in fresh air, I’m making myself available to an influx of new energy; I move, and I observe. Am I looking for something that will directly translate to the digital space? No. Perhaps the way a sign painter across the street painstakingly applies letter forms will influence my Web typography, or the way a tree branch buckles under a landing bird will inform a Web animation, but I’m not banking on it. In eureka moments, direct relations can happen. Such events are gifts, but the intent here is much broader.
Sensory interactions both grand and intimate are longing to be harnessed, processed as fuel. From my company’s Chicago location on this morning, I ventured East with subconscious intent toward the Loop. Casting my gaze upward, architecture carved its place in the sky. Refocusing on the bustle before me, a commuter walking in quick step thoughtfully paused to lend directions to a tourist. “The First Time I Met the Blues” poured forth from a street musician’s American Deluxe. Ingenuity, humility, and soul were the reward for my half-hour journey. Our human-centered jobs need to consistently be inspired by the very humans we’re creating for.
The digital realm is seductive. As problem solvers—simply as users ourselves—we’re ever drawn to its lure. Stepping away from the box is all it takes to begin a thought shift toward the value of out-of-office inspiration.
In Curated Environments
The inspiration we’re able to cull from the world outside our office’s front door is in large part moment specific, if you will: the interactions, observations, and experiences we happen upon can and will vary based on an endless degree of chance and circumstance. That spontaneity, and the variety it presents, is a large part of its value.
On the other side of the coin, visiting a thoughtfully curated environment where someone has keenly and specifically thought of every detail affords a different, tangible inspiration. One that’s deliberately planned and innately consistent.
Our field requires we give empathetic thought to the implications of every decision we make. We’re creating interactive experiences for humans that serve to be as functional, usable, and intuitive as possible. At the same time, we’re considering the value of every detail and the role it plays in the quality of the end product. This is where the synergy of inspiration between the digital and physical realms functions to our advantage.
Beauty in the Details
The Soho House group has hospitality-focused properties spanning Europe and North America. Designed as a space for creative souls to inspire and be inspired, the brand is known for its thoughtful fusion of industrial design, elegance, and comfort in its decor, furnishings, and art. Letting the respective building’s history and geographical location keenly inform the creative process, the painstaking craft of this marvelous balance is driven by resident Design Director Vicky Charles. As she noted in Better Interiors:
“Our design is very much led by and sympathetic to the local environment. We always work with custom design furniture and antiques but we respect the original finishes and architecture of the space, so each property is different.”
The Chicago House is walkable for me, and one I often frequent for haircuts, coffee, or writing—including the section you’re reading right now. Not only is every property unique, but each room in every property also has no duplicate; spanning the 40 quarters in this building, that’s a nontrivial feat. The structure—originally The Chicago Belting Factory—leverages much from its own history, as well as the city’s past, toward its present incarnation.
The structurally unsound water tower on the building’s roof was deconstructed and repurposed as a mural in the lobby. The blue tone employed on the exterior awnings, with full intention, matches original paint that was discovered in the warehouse. Chicago’s last remaining tannery, Horween Leather, lent their craftsmanship to the gym’s equipment.
Sitting on the Club Floor over a cup of coffee, there’s an energy to the space that’s fueled by these thoughtful details. They factor right down to the curve of the coffee cups and writing-conducive workspaces. These little unobtrusive rewards elicit positive emotional responses; they’re complimenting my experience of writing or just defusing. As in my digital, experiential work, the very same positive emotional responses gained through thoughtful user interactions compliment my user journey.
To Caffeine and Beyond
It’s no secret that people gravitate to coffee shops to work, read, or catch up with a friend. Like Soho House’s Club Floor, many coffee shops afford what Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic calls “just enough distraction.” That is to say, enough noise to break the harsh silence of an office environment, but not at live concert levels. Cafés can make for a phenomenal alternative for doing charged work away from our desks, especially when the environment is a deliberate, curated space conducive to creative energy.
My team at work has full reign to design and code agnostic of workspace; around the office proper, that freedom is well utilized. There’s still an apprehension to do so away from the office. So ingrained are we to stay within our physical walls during business hours that I’ve actually had to make it a requirement that my team picks a café to work from one morning a week. Without having chatted about it beforehand, I later discovered Jaan Orvet did the same imposed coffee shop trip with his team over in Sweden. Psychological shackles of unhealthy cultures past have no geographic boundaries.
The selection of which coffee shop to work from isn’t an arbitrary one. Via peer dialogues and online reviews we do our homework in advance, ascertaining how conducive a potential space is to curated inspiration and seizable energy. One such long-time favorite is Heritage Bicycles General Store, in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. Founded by Michael and Melissa Salvatore, Heritage is equal parts custom bike manufacturer—the first in the city since 1982—and ultra-curated café. In an open floor plan intentionally designed to generate energy and conversation via its seating arrangement—mostly communal—the “placement with purpose” interior decorating offers plenty of spatial inspiration.
The ol’ typewriter, handcrafted reclaimed wood table, and coffee shop combo may scream hipster, but for our intents and purposes that’s an association I’m quite comfortable with. The hipster-driven, handcrafted movement gets its share of sneers, but at its heart is a passion for craft: through coffee shops, niche clothing stores, or farm-to-table restaurants. In that way, be it through the lens of beans or selvage denim or pork shoulder, there’s a deliberate and focused nature that fuels the selection of elements down to a microscopic level of detail. Quality in the end product defines the goal of the process.
Over the years, via syncing up with Orvet in Stockholm for our standing coffee chats, we often continue our dialogue outside with specific stops in mind. Sometimes, it’s been a denim boutique on the island of Södermalm. Other times, a brilliantly stocked magazine shop. One such example of the latter has been Papercut, who’s ambition is “to create the ultimate store for people who consider fashion, art, literature, design, film, music, … an important part of their lives.” Its scope and scale have been daunting to me in the times I’ve had the opportunity to browse.
That said, the sheer quantity of material has not come at the sake of its careful selection; the shop is magnificently curated. At the various companies with which Jaan has done his experience-based work, he’s brought his team to Papercut, mid-workday, often. As he noted about one such excursion:
“The decision to go there was to spend an hour in a nicely curated environment where the people that work there can answer a question about any title. [It’s about] being in an environment where someone has thought about every aspect, because that’s what we need to do. So, instead of talking about the importance of quality, going to a quality place to pick up magazines is a way of bringing it into day-to-day life.”
Observation as Fuel
Colleagues have asked me, “How do you workshop inspiration?”
All of the observation-centric inspiration we’ve discussed to this point—be it spontaneous or curated—has direct, leverageable value toward the quality of our digital work. Training ourselves on how to document these moments to later be processed as fuel is where the magic begins.
About a year after the first edition of this book’s release I was invited to speak in Stockholm, Sweden at international agency Futurice’s “Design Day”. Under the banner of “Rethink / Refresh”, Futurice flew in designers from their six offices—Helsinki, Tampere, London, Berlin, Munich, and Stockholm—for a day of inspiration, collaboration, and recalibration. The event was conceived around the following mindset:
“The meaning of design in digital services has long ago passed a tipping point. For one, design is no longer exclusively about digital or the visible—but that’s not news. What is a bit on the newish side is a need for a different type of projects from our clients around the world.”
In addition to speaking on the methodologies Cultivating a Creative Culture to kick off the day’s events—at 2:00 AM Chicago time, no less—running a workshop on harnessing and leveraging inspiration was my contribution to the afternoon program. As designers and researchers, we have an implicit requirement to observe the human beings we’re creating for, connect with them, and engage them in our process and design. This very exercise can be run in the comfort of your own workspace to help your team train their eyes and develop some simple, effective observation-based habits.
As much as this was about the Futurice team training their eyes and minds, it was about the human connection; people sharing their stories and organic dialogue. This broke down barriers for many who didn’t know one another previously, having arrived from different international cities and offices.
Let’s consider some points along a potential day’s journey:
Commuting through the city on a given morning
Pausing for a cup at a favorite café
Creating, once in “design mode” at your desk
These experiences (1 and 2) comprise a million moments waiting to be annexed as inspiration, and processed as fuel (3).
On a seven foot–long sheet of paper, let’s map the above points (1, 2, and 3), as shown in Figure 1. By intent, this paper should preferably lay flat on a large table instead of being whiteboarded in dry-erase marker—though the latter scenario will work in a pinch. I’ll explain why I prefer the former method in a moment.
Beneath each experience, we’ll list a couple columns, noting what people can Observe (A) at points along the way, and what the Takeaways (B) were from the respective observations. For example, under those subheaders I use a couple prewritten kick-starting concepts:
1. Commuting in the city:
A. Seeing someone pause and give directions to stranger B. Empathy
This person has somewhere to be; they’re pausing to help a stranger find where they need to go. This person has been in that stranger’s shoes before and they understand how it feels to be lost.
2. Pausing in a café:
A. The act of crafting an espresso B. Process to quality
The barista is going through a very detailed process: tamping down the grounds, getting the pour and the crema just right. Preceding this was the careful selection of the roast. Ultimately, you’re tasting the end product, the fruit of someone’s labor and attention to detail.
3. Creating in the office:
Observations are redubbed Fuel. The Fuel is correspondingly mapped over to actual UX processes / artifacts, which I call Opportunity: wireframing, user interviews, testing and refinement, and so on.
The reason I prefer large-paper format over whiteboard is that each point of the journey is tangibly represented in Lego form. For my workshop in Sweden, the Legos themselves became oft photographed celebrities; to the participants, they provided an unexpected degree of visual interest and engagement with the space. They got people intrigued, talking, and added just the right amount of playfulness to lower their collective guard and sharing.
To get the ball rolling in Stockholm, I cited a personal example of something I had observed that very morning on my walk from the hotel to the event venue: two fathers pushing their child in a stroller, and a teddy bear that had been dropped onto the sidewalk. Another person—moving at a morning commute’s pace in the opposite direction—halted her steps, picked up the bear, and caught back up with the family to reunite beloved stuffed animal and child. Human connection and compassion: the precise values our work demands.
This story sparked momentum within the group, and their own observations soon followed. This process—mapping observations to takeaways—benefits from such momentum, but can also take some coaching to cull. As we’re training the eye and mind to observe and process experiences that would typically be dismissed over the course of a day, this coaching is vital and intrinsic to the workshop’s long-lasting value.
As with observing, a similar evolution of perception is required when we get back to the office and shift into “design mode” at our desks. This is when our takeaways become fuel—both perceptually, and verbally on the sheet of paper; fuel that ignites opportunity against our design process and deliverables.
Using the initial examples I gave in this section of a stranger pausing to give directions, or in visiting a local café, a sample, filled-in sheet can end up looking like that in Figure 2.
You’ll notice the Takeaways from both the Commute and Pause columns net out with the following:
Shape / form
Process to quality
Now, focus on the Create column specifically. As I noted a moment ago, those Takeaways are now dubbed Fuel, and that Fuel informs tangible and process-based Opportunity: How do their platform or device or connectivity impact their journey? How are they feeling? Are they lost? Are they delighted? Are they frustrated?
Or, what about process to quality through observing that barista at his craft? In UX, before producing any sort of tangible artifact, the vital process of Discovery helps researchers and designers genuinely understand people they’re creating for, and the issues they’re up against. They’re taking the necessary time to listen, learn, research, and question. This process at the beginning of an initiative directly informs overall quality of a product at its completion.
As part of our professional livelihoods, we need to have the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation; that is, quite literally, the definition of empathy—thanks, Cambridge Dictionary. Having actual observed experiences in that regard provides us added human-centered fuel toward that imperative responsibility.
As we’ve discussed, the goal of this workshop is to get people accustomed to observing, processing, and leveraging as fuel in their creative process: the tangible informing the digital informing the ultimate human experience. Ensuring this fuel is always at your fingertips brings the leveraging portion home and is the secret sauce to this exercise.
At Design Day, near the conclusion of the workshop I gave each attendee a Chicago flag-branded Field Notes memo book. Though they imparted a touch of my home while in Scandinavia, for your purposes the brand and Chicagoness of the notepad are ultimately irrelevant; its scale and form factor are the point. Our target should be the size of an average smartphone.
In order to have an ever-present fountain of inspiration always on hand—and in their back pocket—I want you to, as moments present themselves, document (mobile phone) and record (memo book). When you see a moment of empathy, or a magazine display that’s curated, or the shape and form of architecture piercing the sky: take a picture with your smartphone, and jot down the corresponding context of the moment. If your memo book is at home, add a few words to a consistent text file on your phone instead.
So the next time you’re sketching hierarchical placement of shape and form for a wireframe, or defining the top tasks of a journey map, or have a few minutes before your next conference call gets under way, while participants ask each other, “Can you hear me?” you’ll have human-centered fuel at your fingertips.
Hackathons and Retreats
There are many companies out there who offer professional development–based perks to their employees: online courses, association memberships, and industry conference trips among them. For example, when I was with Nansen the conference-trip option was already a part of their cultural offering—something I keenly considered as I weighed my options.
The one stipulation was that, upon an employee’s conference return, they present back to the company what they got out of the opportunity and the potential worth to other team members in attending next year. Not a bad deal, right? It’s a strong demonstration that employees are seen as much more than instruments of client-project execution and showed that we wanted our team members to grow and evolve.
Inspiration acquired from conferences in our industry can be quite valuable: you’re listening to thought leaders present on tech trends, their professional experience, and insights into where design and development are headed. Beyond an overall sense of being recharged and re-energized toward our crafts, the end goal is to infuse this new learning back into our daily work and active projects.
When you’re in a seat at a conference, it’s called passive learning. By and large, you’re not so much engaging with the material and speaker as much as absorbing nuggets of wisdom. Focusing on a notepad to jot down a resonated thought or grabbing a mobile device to tweet a sound bite serves as a pervasive distraction against the overall experience. You’re being talked at from afar, with the dynamism of conversational exchange lost.
We can do more toward the benefits obtained by sending someone to a conference, and at a fraction the cost. Let’s consider the spirit of a hackathon instead. At the highest level, a hackathon encourages a group of people to create—programmatically and visually, ideally—in unison and produce something amazing together, typically over the course of a few days or weekends. This partnered problem solving builds a shared creative energy that lasts well beyond the event’s conclusion. It’s why so many people love to participate.
It’s this idea—of people coming together, creating something amazing without the constraints of the context of client work—that inspired Clearleft to start their Hack Farm concept.
Beginning in 2011, and repeated annually since, the entirety of their agency has come together as a single team to build something unique and fun. Having rented a farmhouse away from the buzz of the city for their inaugural event, and going into it without a plan of what to hack, they came away with Map Tales, a tool to help people tell stories illustrated with maps.
I tried to push Andy Budd a bit to ascertain how challenging it was for their company to shut down operations for a week, put projects and deliverables on hold, and trek into rural England to get away from it all. Despite my prodding, the fish weren’t biting.
There was no challenge, no trepidation. Budd explained that it was the most natural thing in the world for them to do:
“We wanted to do it as a retreat or an escape from commercialization. We went in with the idea that whatever we built wasn’t going to be a thing. We don’t want to launch it and ship it and make millions. We want to have a bit of fun. We want to explore new ways of thinking, new ways of working.”
And though Clearleft is a mid-size company, size isn’t a limiting factor toward the same cultural support. Twitter’s quarterly internal Hack Week has yielded everything from practical functionality like the ability to archive your own tweets to the more fanciful open-source, photo-tweeting birdhouse. Many organizations have seen the value of these types of internal retreats; the wins, they are aplenty.
Leveraging Clearleft’s Hack Farm as our model, my friend and colleague Andreas Carlsson and I started a program a few years back called Wintercamp. With the very goal of fostering active over passive learning, everyone in the business—all roles from our global locations—was invited to centralize at a retreat in rural Sweden to create something together. The process of what we’d build was a learning process: too preplanned—going in with designated options—at first, and then not planned enough—going in and figuring it out on site. And ultimately, as in Little Red Riding Hood’s porridge [sic], just right: a couple tracks—ideas, more broadly—over a few very fluid teams.
Editor’s note—The correct reference is to The Story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, not Little Red Riding Hood.
We developed tools we could use in our daily process once back on home turf. We’d participate in open collaboration and nonadversarial discussion. We put faces to names of people only previously known from an email chain. Our titles were irrelevant; the teams we formed, flat and collegial.
When participants weren’t focused on work, they’d cook for one another, have endless discussions about their mutual crafts, and enjoy the surrounding expansive grounds and leisure activities. At the end of each day, the various project teams would present to each other what they’ve accomplished, what the pitfalls were, and solicit open and honest feedback.
People returned to their home offices recharged. Invigorated and inspired by their global coworkers, they acted as living embodiments of the culture. The projects worked on at Wintercamp continued as formal entities once we were back at our desks, which kept the momentum going. And teams functioned more effectively, having worked toward common goals and made deeper personal connections.
All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy
The rural environment in which Wintercamp is held is a deliberate selection, conducive to outdoor enjoyment and activities that promote humanizing the experience. That said, the start-up atmosphere of Wintercamp had often compromised our participants actually getting outdoors. People had become so charged from creating that they’ve rarely left the cabin.
And so, Carlsson and I reevaluated the experience and turned it into something else. Enter [x]Camp.
[x]Camp was conceived specifically to get people interacting with their environment and thinking away from their laptops. To have them rethink problems and solutions by utilizing their surroundings, and to have those surroundings supply maximum, unending inspiration.
I secured the Hauer Ranch in Moab, Utah, just minutes from Arches National Park, which is shown in Figure 3, to provide exactly such an experience. With a dozen coworkers distributed between three SUV’s, we hashed out some rough themes to work on over the four-hour drive from Salt Lake City down to Moab. Inclusive of the benefit of its surroundings and isolation, the Ranch was also selected because its Wi-Fi connection was, as advertised, passable at best. Basic browsing and email checking were about as involved in the digital world as we could get. And that was the point.
Day One consisted of a five-hour guided hike in the national park’s aptly named The Fiery Furnace, shown in Figure 4, to reset our thinking, set the tone for the camp, and let the environment refuel us. Over the following three days developers sketched database diagrams in the crimson Utah dirt, standups were held upon ancient stone cliffs, and passionate dialogues evolved over wee-hour campfires.
This is a company culture extending its boundaries beyond its walls. It’s a tangible demonstration of support and respect that an elevator pitch could never deliver.
Via thoughtful planning, lots of research, and trial and error, Carlsson and I developed two ongoing internal camps that have became a staple to the company’s identity. People I’d interviewed for roles on my team while at that company had directly cited the camps as the reason they reached out. This positive outward and inward buzz is invaluable, but when it comes down to brass tacks, at what cost does this all come to the company which ultimately foots the bill?
Well, if a business uses the thought of “costliness” as a demerit against the act of sending employees to conferences, I can tell you this about our camps: they come in at about a third the cost, per person, in a comparative sense. By doing advanced logistical planning, centralizing a location to stay, and cooking for one another on a daily basis, costs are mitigated drastically. We’ve held our versions abroad and within the States, but the duration, scale, and activities can always be adjusted to suit a designated budget.
Process Pairing is Priceless
There’s value in the smart planning of an off-site trip: both for quality of team interactions at the ultimate destination and the business’ bottom line.
At the highest level, however, there is one cost we simply cannot afford to incur: a disconnection between culture and creation. Off-site camps, presentation mentorship, fika breaks, and first-day Fridays have a human-centered core that begs for a counterpart in our design process. Let’s look at why.
Justin is a multi-faceted designer, author, and speaker. Over the past 20 years, Justin has immersed himself in tangible and digital media. A perpetual student of design, observation, and the creative process, Justin builds teams and cultivates cultures around the perspectives and skillsets that designers use daily in their work: empathy, objectivity, and creativity. With Josef Müller-Brockmann and user advocacy claiming equal parts of his creative heart, Justin graduated from School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), earning a BFA in Visual Communications. He is the author of the celebrated book Creative Culture: Human-Centered Interaction, Design, and Inspiration and speaks internationally on culture and design.