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Why You (Yes, You!) Need a Cool Office

Google's swimming pools and massage parlors may be outside most business's budgets, but investing in a creative office is a lot easier--and more important--than you might think.

"How to kill creativity: Keep doing what you're doing."

That's according to Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, in her Harvard Business Review article, "How to Kill Creativity," Amabile's groundbreaking research on creativity has challenged traditional ways of thinking about work environments. "If you want to spark innovation," she continues, "rethink how you motivate, reward and assign work to people."

A Business That Brings Your Designs to Life

If you want one-of-a-kind, custom-made furniture and décor that won't break the bank, make an appointment with Because We Can, an Oakland, Calif.-based design-build studio started in late 2005 by Jeffrey McGrew, 34, and Jillian Northrup, 31.

The husband-and-wife team helps businesses design and redesign their offices, and have turned cubicles into futuristic cityscapes, and built out a 3,500-square-foot space with a Victorian submarine theme for Three Rings Design in San Francisco.

It's not as expensive as you might think, since Because We Can cuts out the middleman by building everything in-house. "Most of our projects come in at the same price or less of just doing standard cubes," Northrup says. "Because we are a design-build, we can finish a project at a much lower cost than if you just hire a designer who has to farm everything out to be built." On the design side, the company uses the latest technology to allow clients to see accurate renderings and 3-D views of the project, which safeguards against hidden costs and disappointment due to a designer's unrealistic expectations.

"To come into a bland, white wall and gray-carpet office filled with cubes and fluorescent lighting is creative death to many people," says McGrew, pointing out that the reason we decorate our homes is because we want to be in a positive environment. Designing a personalized space has another benefit, Northrup adds. "We have had many of our clients say that it was much easier to find employees that were a good fit once the walls themselves showed what the personality of the office was."

One way to rethink is by designing a cool office space. When you own a company, there's no reason you can't make the change.

Not convinced? Just spend a few minutes with 40-year-old Alex Kjerulf, a Copenhagen, Denmark-based consultant who helps business owners realize that (like the title of his book), Happy Hour is 9 to 5.

A former entrepreneur in the IT industry, Kjerulf saw firsthand how much better a company performed when employees liked coming to work. The technology industry, he notes, is a place where the war for talent has been fought for some time, so tech businesses have courted their hires with unique offices--most famously, Google, Apple and Pixar.

The reasoning is straightforward. "If you come into the office and everything looks uniform, gray, bland and boring, your thinking tends to be that way. If you come into a place that's stimulating, your mind will become more creative," he says.

Creative surroundings make us happy, and I think it's a good way for management to show it cares," he adds. Still, you can't win them all. One of Kjerulf's clients, Lego in Denmark, has a communal area complete with beach chairs and sand. "The creative people tend to use it, but the bookkeeping department--not so much," he says.

Kjerulf says some people consider impractical costs as a reason against investing in a creative office, but the greatest barrier is really a mental one. "'Cool' furnishings don't have to cost more than regular ones," he says, pointing out that the Google Zurich, Switzerland office was decorated very economically. "They got some old ski lift cars for free and turned them into telephone booths. It looks amazing."

On a smaller scale, it's simpler. "We're talking some paint other than white or gray and some cool furniture. Or maybe every chair in the office doesn't need to be the same model or color." He suggests getting outside help with design, which isn't as expensive as one might think and will ensure the end result looks good.

One thing you should think about is whether customers and prospective employees will take your company seriously if the work space is unconventional. "There's no doubt about it," Kjerulf says. "Some people will be put off by a creative office space, but a lot of people will absolutely love it, and those are the fun, creative people that you really need to attract.

Everyone can make their workplace more creative with respect for the kind of business they do," he asserts. "It mainly comes down to this: Do you dare to be different?"

Case Study: {E} House Studio
Rick Quinn, 61, and husband-and-wife team Aaron and Chris Quinn--31 and 30, respectively--have put a lot of effort into designing their {e}house studio office in Charleston, S.C. The branding firm, founded in 2002, specializes in web design and marketing, so it's especially important for the Quinns to work in a creative environment.

"Our office space is a collaboration of design techniques and things that make it unique and a place of our own," Chris says. Although the studio benefits from wood flooring, French doors, lots of windows and original brick fireplaces, the Quinns' additions have turned it into a work area that's ideally suited for themselves, other employees and their clients.

"We didn't want people to have separate offices, so our entire team works in an open space where we can all see each other and communicate when needed--dogs included," Chris says.

Think eco-friendly beanbags, art from local artists, paint colors that match the company's website and printed material, and chalkboard walls that cut down on paper and provide a place where an idea can be jotted down instantly.

The expense, however, definitely wasn't what provided the challenge--it was figuring out the best way to use the space. "Though our office is not small, we had to find the most efficient way to have everyone work in one large studio space together," Chris says. "We [also] had to get creative with our desk placement to avoid the sun glare while having all the power accessibility needed."

In fact, she adds, {e}house studio employees use laptops so they're not tied to their desks, which helps keep their minds fresh and inspired.

Design Tips From {E} House

Fortunately for {e}house studio, co-founder Chris Quinn has a background in interior design. If you aren't as blessed, consider these tips. Begin with a discussion of what the creative space should offer and what you want it to look like.

  • Spend money on equipment you need to be more productive, not on fancy artwork or décor.
  • If you don't have access to a consultant or designer, you might feel a little overwhelmed. It can help to pick an inspiration piece and design the space around it.
  • Look through art and design books, subscribe to craft magazines like MAKE and ReadyMade, or browse the internet for ideas and products.
  • Pick up useful how-to tips and enjoy some office eye-candy on {e}house's website. Check out "5 Ways to Create a Creative Office Space" and "Designing With Creatives In Mind."

Jennifer Wang is a staff writer at Entrepreneur magazine in Southern California.
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