I have been known to paraphrase President Barack Obama’s first inaugural address in remarking that the “patchwork heritage” of my own work history is a strength, not than a weakness. Different company types, different clients, different workflows and organizational structures, different people and software and office architecture. At times it felt less like a patchwork quilt and more like camouflage — so speckled and varied where it all just blends together. Through it all, I’ve learned and taken the best bits both from a creative point of view, and in managing the logistics and workflows of a business.
Joining Mobility Labs meant yet another new start. New people, new projects, new commute, new office — all the usual. I thought I’d seen it all, but I find myself in a fresh new situation, even compared to my most recent work adventures. In spite of working in countless New York design agencies and in-house teams, both as a freelancer and staffer, I hadn’t worked in a group that is so thoroughly distributed. For the first time I chat with my co-workers principally via Google Hangouts rather than in-person, we write via Slack rather than email, we talk mainly of Products that may live for years over Projects which have a very short and distinct life on our desks. The designers are outnumbered by developers. It’s quite eye-opening.
I was struck by the differences in the office environment as well. Mobility Labs isn’t wholly based in New York, so we don’t have a conventional office, we are set up at a co-working space in SoHo. I didn’t realize quite how accustomed I had been to the idea of the design studio in the classic sense — large counter spaces, machines and printers, paper and pens of various sorts, walls covered with cork boards and our in-progress work or scribbled research notes, and most importantly, privacy and knowledge that this is all ours. It’s jarring to be in a place where everyone huddles over laptops, sometimes from communal couches, where there are no bookshelves or pinboards, no phones on desks. I have yet to print anything from this office, making it the closest thing to a “paperless office” I’ve seen. It’s not surprising that we’re also without staplers, binder clips, white out, or any other typical office bric-a-brac. It’s a BYOWorkstation approach.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some grandpa yearning for the return of rotary phones and carbon paper. I’ve never been a corporate stooge, never had an expense account, never enjoyed the luxury of handing off my marker-sketch designs to a “studio” who will render it all perfectly over night. I absolutely hate 3-hour marathon meetings, heavily-bageled though they may be. I have zero love for corner offices which shut out the light, or middle managers who insist on “checking in”, or layers of account coordinator types who spend more time gossiping than writing endless emails (which is impressive in its own right). My habits as a designer were forged in the fires of freelance and solo practice; I do my own production work, archive and manage my own resources, interact with clients, and do the billing myself.
And so the challenge for us now — and one we’re looking forward to — becomes one of moderation. How can we be modern and nimble, but still bring the best practices we’ve learned along the way from traditional workplaces. How can we grow our design offerings in a way that utilizes everyone’s skills and roles, without stepping on toes or doing extraneous work ourselves? How can we improve our systems and protocols without being formal or oppressive? How do we build a company culture across web video chats rather than lunches? As Creative Director, I have to ensure that I’m making efforts to get the best work from our team, rather than going it alone. My role is to direct creatives rather than create directives.
Things are different than before, but that’s not to say they’re worse. New challenges, new protocols, new people and projects. Every new patch begins with a first stitch.
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