28 Apr 2020

It's the end of the studio as we know it

Ross Clugston, Executive Creative Director at Superunion NY, writes for Ad Age on how creatives can, and should be working during lockdown. 

Every challenge presents an opportunity - a statement that's never been more true than in the past month. 

During isolation, every creative or communication success has been born of need and empowered by the willingness to prototype or be unconventional. Whether experimenting with new technology or borrowing techniques from my six-year-old son's school morning kick-offs (at morning team meetings we ask everyone to rank their workload as red, orange or green so we can plan or the day) the process of reevaluating how we work and communicate has opened my eyes to the way creatives can, and should, be working. 

At Superunion, the transition from a company with 750 employees across 22 studios to one virtual studio has been remarkable...and our work has never been better.  

I credit this to being away from the usual distractions of studio life. For years we've found ways to minimise office interruptions: arriving at 6 a.m. to get in three hours of quiet time or staying past 8 p.m. to deliver what was discussed between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Now, my team has never had as much freedom to be creative and to dictate for themselves when and where that creativity happens. 

The past few weeks have proved that conventional studio space isn't optimised for creative work. If we want to uphold and maintain the quality of work we've unlocked over this time, studio life can't go back to the status quo. Here's why:

Creative space has been limited by its physical location in a studio

A studio is space where you are free to be creative - but the process is highly visible to all. While working remotely, we've tested a number of tools, including a virtual 100-by-100-foot critique wall. I've always believed the best work is created when everyone in the studio can give feedback. The virtual crit wall allows us to do just that. We've found that the ability to leave comments on the wall leads to less pressure and fear of judgement than commenting on our physical wall. The technology enables us to take a step back for new perspectives, which always spark new ideas. 

We can include clients in the creative process in new ways

Instead of asking clients to get on a plane and fly halfway across the country to visit our studio, we now invite them to be a part of the virtual critique wall. 

While there are fewer moving parts than when hosting a client - we no longer have to think of catering, printing and mounting posters and hosting clients after hours - the theatrics of a big reveal are still at play, and even heightened. Getting the run-of-show just right requires rehearsal. We've been investing time into completing more dry runs in order to help prep the team for client meetings. We create plan A's, B's, C's and D's to ensure that we show up in the best way possible and land the plane every time. 

In-person collaboration does not mean better creative

The idea that physical proximity produces the best work is accepted as the norm. But being away from the studio has revealed multiple other methods to work creatively - practices that will democratise the creative industry going forward. I used to have a "no remote freelancer" rule, but working from home has made me rethink this. In this new normal, designers can be anywhere, in any time zone, and collaborate just as efficiently and effectively. We have three designers in Sao Paulo, and two strategists working out of London, who are perfectly in sync with our North American team - which is spread across New York, New Jersey, Vancouver, San Francisco and Texas. 

When we return to the studio, things will not be the same. As creatives, we should use these learnings to change how studio spaces function - if we decide to use them at all. The revered open floor plan just doesn't work for creatives. Open office plans were conceived to monitor productivity, flatten hierarchies and save costs. While they look like bustling hives of inspiration, they impede parts of the creative process. Hopefully, we can finally let go of the open plan, assigned desks and one volume level for music. 

Let's start to focus on the things we need in order to get work done. Let's create areas that better serve the humans using them, such as considered spaces (library-like quiet zones for heads-down creativity), collaboration spaces (loud, music-filled zones for riffing ideas and being inspired) and social spaces (conversational restaurant-like zones for recharging). 

COVID-19 will prove that creativity has no boundaries and will flourish even in the most challenging of times. We shouldn't be afraid to harness our learnings and change for the better. 

First published in Ad Age