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Office Design for Creativity

In Flexibility we like to profile innovative uses of office space. Stephen Jupp visited top advertising agency St. Luke's Communications Limited to see a radical approach to stimulating creativity through office design

Do you really understand your clients? Before telling anyone what to do, "you must walk for a day in their moccasins". That is the St. Luke's approach to understanding their clients, and is reflected in their office environment.

Different approach

It is an amazing experience to enter one of St. Luke's client rooms. You walk into, for example, the Boots* room to be confronted with bunk beds and images of teen hunks. Immediately your mind starts to think of the world into which you are trying to project an image.

Similarly the Eurostar** room is equipped, not with a conference table and chairs, but with four seats and a table from the train itself. You are transported into the world you are selling. Interestingly, the clients find it increases their creativity too.

The whole way of working at St. Luke's is different. It takes back to first principles the raison d'etre of the organisation - in this case to release creativity and imagination to the benefit of clients. What is your image of creativity? Not, surely, people in suits sitting at desks in a conventional office going through a linear process? That must stifle creativity, and yet is the way in many creative organisations. How would you engender creativity?

Different work settings

The client rooms provide one way. Another is probably our stereotype of a creative environment - bold colours and wacky furniture. Don't knock it - because it works. And this dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist found that, against his "better judgement", he actually liked it, and would work there given the chance! Add to this the ability to work anywhere in the building, for example:

  • In the excellent Italian restaurant that is the staff canteen, surrounded by library rooms and an imaginative patio area in a light well;

  • At a desktop PC on a sweeping curve of desk at the back of reception, backed by a curved soft seat area with newspapers, fruit and tea on tap;

  • In the formal meeting room, where the door, complete with porthole, is an aircraft wing;

  • On a dais in the main office area, against a wall of pastel wind squares and above the engine room of an IT centre;

  • In the womb, a dark pink meeting room which feels just like that and incubates ideas;

  • Or with the finance people, inhabiting a slightly more conventional corner of the office.

Different work

Talk to the Hub staff (reception is part of the Hub), and you will realise that it is not just the environment that is different. Moving round the organisation to do different jobs is almost as easy, either within the day, or day by day, or week by week. But the sense of responsibility is there, expressed in the phrases "it's a bit hectic with most of the hub staff on holiday, so I'm still running the hub when I'm upstairs". And you quickly discover that you're talking to the owner, or rather one of them, since St. Luke's is owned by its staff, all of them.

The free and easy atmosphere might lead you to believe that they are prima-donnas. Far from it. Teams are a core part of what any advertising agency does, and St. Luke's is no exception. You can sit anywhere and work anytime, but it is your personal responsibility to see that your behaviour doesn't damage the team. Then you come to the difficult question "who disciplines anti-social behaviour". The answer is not as obvious as it sounds.

In a more traditional structure, empowerment means the handing down of power. If the organisation is owned by everyone, then everyone can rise to true freedom from the concepts of authority and power. Asserting power would seriously damage this concept, so that discipline really has to be through peers, not from above. A serious dilemma.

Different stimulation

The Monday morning meeting started as a talk by the MD. Then it was a different person each week. At the moment it is Tai Chi, a form of Japanese exercise. On the last Friday of each month, there is a party to celebrate the work for that month. One person tells everyone about their five favourite things.

When the initial shock of such a different working environment is becoming a norm again, how can creativity be re-stimulated? Andy Law, the Managing Director, describes it as an experimental environment. The environment evolves as good ideas are tried. Every so often an art student is brought in to change the work environment and stimulate fresh thought. "It's not a virtual office, but a resource centre", says Andy Law, "like the history or geography departments in a university". This type of working is often described as a university work style.

Practically different

Obviously to gain the excitement, freedom and innovation that this workplace offers, there is no owned space. Near the hub is a rack of individual in trays and cordless telephone chargers. Each person also has a locker and a shoulder bag. Andy Law told me, "We use our lockers to keep things. If you haven't looked at it for a time, then it's probably not worth keeping, so we have a skip every month for people to clear out what they don't need or want to keep."

Computers have gone through phases. Initially they were private, behind glass partitions only opened to the few. Then they became personal, embodied in the term PC. The third age is proving to be the public computer, available to all. St. Luke's has plenty of computers (ironically PC's!), some small, some large, etc. There are less than the number of people, but always plenty. People can also buy their own PC for home use through the company scheme, using it to work from home as well.

Before St. Luke's was formed on St. Luke's day 1995, the London office of Chiat Day was 35 staff in 11,000 sq ft. St. Luke's moved to an old toffee factory with five floors totalling 15,000 sq ft., and has expanded to 75 staff. There's still room for more expansion. Of the 75, only half a dozen are support staff, who operate based on the hub.

See the difference

If you want to see this for yourself, St. Luke's are planning to hold regular seminars. As soon as dates are available, we will post them on this site. But if you are not prepared to take up some of the ideas, then don't take their time just sight seeing, please!

St. Luke's can be contacted via electronic mail at (a web site is planned for the new year).

St. Luke's Communications Limited is one of the top ten advertising agencies in the UK.

*Boots the Chemist is a major manufacturer and retailer of pharmaceutical and beauty products. St. Luke's are famous for their updating (the image) of Boots' No. 7 range of cosmetics.

**Eurostar is the marketing name of European Passenger Services, who provide high speed (186 mph) inter city train services between London and Paris / Brussels.

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