Steve Jobs Office DesignMatt Drought, Director of Natural Training shares his thoughts on how Steve Jobs mastered design and how considered office design can transform working environments and a company’s performance.

Steve Jobs was known to be a perfectionist at the highest end of the scale.  He would delay products and projects by months or even years in the search for smooth lines, new materials, faster processors, no seams in any integrated parts, or a type of glass that had not been invented.  For example, he would ensure that the inside circuitry of a Mac was as beautiful as the outside – even though only engineers would ever see it.

The reason, as with most of human behaviour, stemmed from his childhood.  Steve Jobs’ father made cabinets for a living.  He used to teach Jobs about quality – how even the tiniest sacrifice wasn’t good enough.  For example, no-one sees the back of a cabinet, so you could in theory use cheap wood.  “However while the customer wouldn’t know that it was cheap, you would” he would tell Steve, “and you’re the one who has to live with it”.  Steve Jobs adopted this philosophy throughout his career at Apple – and it is particularly prevalent when it came to office design.

Jobs maintained that an office was an embodiment of the product, and vice versa.  He believed that employees would live up to their surrounds.  If they were in a poor working environment, that would appear in the craftsmanship of the product.  He aimed to create office environments that would inspire genius, not stifle it.  His President at Pixar, Ed Catmull, confirmed this obsession with office space:  “Steve had this firm belief that the right type of building can do great things for a culture.” One particular obsession was around meeting spaces.  Offices had to have free flowing space to encourage the open exchange of ideas.  Jobs wanted less of an office, and more of a campus.

So Jobs designed a completely new campus for Pixar to encourage random encounters.  He took his normal levels of obsession to even newer heights.  He built a massive atrium which every door spilled out to including all offices and the 600 seat theatre.  He desperately wanted to put only one bathroom in the building for everyone, thinking that would encourage even more serendipitous meetings, but that was regarded by others as a step too far.  

As a result, chance meetings happened – regularly.  “Steve’s theory worked from day one”, said John Lasseter, Creative Lead at Pixar at the time.  “I kept on running into people I hadn’t seen for months.  I’ve never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one.”  And without even thinking too hard, we all know the result of this amazing office space, too.  This was in the 1990s and early 2000s, when Pixar made hit after hit – Toy Story, Finding Nemo, A Bug’s Life, Cars, Up, The Incredibles - establishing themselves ahead of Disney (who later purchased them) as the leading movie house for kids.

These stories from the wonderful, short life of Steve Jobs were from the 1990s, but the spirit of his collaborative meeting philosophy lives on today.  And, with newly alert senses, I am seeing and experiencing the previously unnoticed aspects of office design that make great businesses thrive. 

Recently I visited Dell in Bangalore, a 6 story office building that hosts 6,000 people, yet is not much bigger than an office holding a third of that headcount in London.  The logistical operation alone to get that amount of people to work safely and on time was amazing – for example they don’t allow anyone to get there under their own steam.  Instead, a fleet of company buses haul people in each day through the choking traffic.  That strategy also has the added advantage of the bus driver being able to alert head office well in advance if someone doesn’t show for work, so they can organise back-up. 

The Dell office space was relatively traditional, with rows of desks set up in call centre fashion as you might expect.  But it was the rooftop that achieved the vision that Jobs had, albeit in a slightly different way.  The office designers at Dell had concluded that everyone should have one meeting point, at lunchtime, that gave them the freedom to relax and enjoy each other’s company.  So they set up a series of food outlets, indoors and outdoors, with music and a basketball court.  The volume of the chat and laughter in this space demands that you leave your work woes behind.  The space is inclusive, vibrant and wonderful.  It feels, at times, less like a lunch area and more like a carnival.

Similarly when I recently visited Fourfront Group’s office near Oxford Street, I got a sense of what a well-considered meeting space can do for a company culture.  Chairman Aki Stamatis and I took a wander through the offices, and at one stage I was drawn to sit down on a comfortable lounge sofa in small, casual meeting area on the bottom floor.  While the space was public and open, it retained a great sense of privacy at the same time.  We sat down and talked, and felt that no-one was listening in, yet there were no walls or a high ceiling.  I’m not a designer, far from it, but I know it is a clever piece of design.  In fact Fourfront Group use every inch of space intelligently, which I suppose they have to in London given that we don’t get the same 16 acre plots to work with enjoyed by Pixar!

We will leave the final word to Steve Jobs:  “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat, “said Jobs.  “That’s crazy.  Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions.  You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”

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