Hannah Ruskin, principal designer at Swell Spaces, has been crafting Bay Area startup offices for years. She’s had plenty of time to consider how physical space affects the people working within it.
Unsurprisingly, there’s more to modern office design than expensive furniture and open layouts. Translating the client’s brand into a productive, stylish, and efficient work space requires a certain finesse. Here’s how Hannah does it.
1) Tell us a bit about yourself and your company
“The business has been around for about 5 years,” she says. Hannah studied installation art rather than interior design, but for her, the fields are similar. “One is functional and one is pure fun. Instead of using a bale of hay, we’re using a chair.”
Hannah’s artistic background seems to inform her work in interior design. She was always curious about “how people move within a space,” which is fundamental to both art and office design.
2) What were your favorite offices to work on?
Hannah designed on Patreon‘s first office, back when they were a humble team of 20. “We worked directly with over 50 of their creators to commission custom pieces,” from wallpapers to large-scale artwork. The space was a blank canvas, and thanks to the creative nature of the company, Patreon wanted to incorporate more than the usual amount of startup quirkiness.
Instead of focusing on minimal, functional furniture, Patreon went all out in requesting features like a music lounge and a recording studio. “There’s a drum kit in the reception area,” Hannah explains, so visitors can catch a glimpse of the company’s culture from a mile away.
SoftTech VC offered the opposite challenge. The company had to appear welcoming to a broad audience, but they “didn’t want to look like bankers from the 90s”. Each room has a different color theme, and the space features terrariums and local art. Some rooms in the office cater to the creative startups that the firm invests in, but nothing is so off-the-walls as to put off potential partners.
In both projects, the central goal was to “create an impressive space that wouldn’t make anyone feel out of place,” whether they’re investors managing millions or scrappy artists establishing a new business.
3) For you, what’s the relationship between office design and worker productivity?
“If an office is designed well, productivity increases, client happiness increases, and employee happiness increases.” There’s no end to the benefits, but how do we know when an office is well-designed?
Startups often want a space that’s approachable and aesthetically pleasing to attract new recruits, but if they don’t have an efficient layout and a functional floor plan beneath the “fancy fun stuff”, the company will suffer.
You need different environments to maximize productivity. Workers wander around during the day, and it’s helpful to have rooms that cater to different activities. As we see in large coworking spaces, it’s common to have a lounge area, an eating area, and a quiet work area all under the same roof.
This is, of course, part of a larger trend. “In the last 10 years, we’ve left the traditional employee-tied-to-their-desk mentality,” Hannah explains, “and the trend is for office spaces to have different types of working environments.” Furthermore, “if you don’t provide enough of those different types, employees feel trapped.”
4) What are some practical design techniques you use to increase worker happiness?
“One of the biggest questions that I like to ask at the beginning of a project is, ‘how do you like to work?'”. It’s a mistake to group all startups under the same demographics. Many workers are over 30 (a big deal in the startup scene), and not everyone wants a kegerator in the office.
First, understand the team’s priorities. Should lunch be a productive time with discussions and workshops, or is it just a brief break? Do people prefer to work in groups, or does the team want privacy? How do you deal with deadlines? Once you understand how the team likes to work, you can put together a floor plan to reflect that.
At the same time, no layout will cater to every case. Startups require flexibility, if only because they’re constantly growing. To mitigate this, Hannah tries to use modular furniture like sectional sofas and items on wheels. That way, the space can be rearranged if growth demands a new layout.
5) What’s one thing managers should know about office design and how it affects business?
“Number one: know when to call in the professionals.” This is true even when the founder or office manager has a good sense of design. Even if the company can handle the practicalities of office design in-house, it’s hard to think about the bigger picture. “It’s not because the person’s not capable, but because they have a full-time job,” Hannah says.
If cost is an issue, a two-hour consulting session might be enough to get the design moving in the right direction. Much of the work can be done in-house, but it’s easy to bite off more than you can chew.
6) Are there any unique/surprising ways in which you’ve used design to express a client’s company culture?
Hannah worked on Shyp‘s first couple of offices, and she had fun with it. “I had their logo cut out of cardboard, because they’re a shipping company.” It was made into an inexpensive installation (roughly $100 total), and it “referenced the brand directly.” Similarly, she made a custom coffee table using a shipping pallet, applying Shyp’s logo and brand colors to it.
Rather than relying entirely on abstractions like logos, Hannah brought elements of the shipping industry into the office. This direct approach might not work for all industries, but it’s a great technique whenever it’s possible. The connection to the brand is more personal and eye-catching when it’s physically present in the space.
Chewse, a food delivery startup, is another office where Hannah applied this technique. “Food is a huge part of their culture,” she explains. “Different team members cook for the office once a month,” and they’re very involved with the catering companies that they work with.
The Chewse kitchen is fully-equipped, so the team can cook together and eat together. A fancy kitchen would be a convenience for any company, but it’s culturally on point for Chewse. To top it off, the kitchen’s tables can lock together during big group meals, forming the heart in their logo.
Branding isn’t as effective when you walk into an office and “it’s just a big logo, or every wall is the color of the website.” Rather, “you have to get to what’s underneath the color, what’s underneath the logo shape. Why was this company started, and what are the people here interested in?”. Answer those questions, and you’ll make meaningful use of the brand.