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Innovation labs: they’re all about the show, not the performance
Much has been written of late about the consistent lack of success delivered by internal innovation labs in major organisations. How big a…
Much has been written of late about the consistent lack of success delivered by internal innovation labs in major organisations. How big a factor is their dissimilarity with ‘real’ design studios?
By Mark Wilson, Founder Partner, Wilson Fletcher
When this article — ‘Peek Inside 7 of The Banking World’s Coolest Innovation Labs’ — circulated around the studio recently, it made me focus on an issue that’s been rattling around in the back of my head for a few years… Why do all internal innovation labs look the same, and why are they so unlike real design studios?
Look at some of the images featured in this article, all taken from innovation labs built in some of the pre-eminent banks in the world:
Top row: Standard Bank’s PlayRoom Innovation Centre; bottom row: Capital One Labs
Now take a look at some great ‘real’ studio spaces:
Clockwise from top left: studio at an architectural college, Pentagram’s New York studio, Steve Jobs in his home office in 2004, the Eames office at 901 Washington Boulevard
It’s not hard to spot the difference, right? Real design studios are more messy canvases than colourful playgrounds. They’re typically fairly austere architecturally, featuring occasional iconic objects and representations of the brilliant creative achievements of others. They are never neon-signed playgrounds full of bright coloured furniture, beanbags and swinging egg chairs. They feature occasional quirks, in often fairly scruffy environments. They are working studios, not design showrooms.
Many of the best designers’ studios I’ve been fortunate enough to visit over the years, across a range of disciplines, are presented with some embarrassment by their owners. The most common introduction is “sorry about the mess”, or “let me just move all of that stuff so we can sit down”. Great work, it seems, is best done in an environment more like a craftsman’s workshop than an art gallery.
In our own studio, while we’re not claiming to be Eames or Jobs, we certainly know how to make a mess. We never manage to find a way to tidy up the piles of posters that litter the studio. Our walls are always covered in stuff. Our tables are always covered in stuff. Something is always broken. Many desks are only a strong breeze away from disaster. None of it matters. It’s not the focus of anyone’s work here. We have a great studio, our clients love coming to work here, and I think that’s because it’s a workshop where it’s clear that all we care about is the work we do. It’s somehow a product of all of us who work in it.
Compare that with the kind of corporate innovation lab spaces shown above. I never get that sense when I go into, or see examples of, equivalent spaces that they’re designed to do the same things. All of them seem to follow a similar pattern — a pattern that is in almost every way the opposite of what a real design studio is like. But why?
I have a hunch that it’s really nothing to do with even attempting to create a great design studio. These spaces — apparently built on a premise that colour and playfulness (note the actual use of ‘playground’ in one example above) will lead to brilliant, creative thinking — are really driven by entirely different agendas.
Their purpose is not to create an environment where great work will actually be done; it’s to be a showcase for the organisation’s innovation efforts. Typically, I would suggest, they have been commissioned and paid for by people who have never even stepped into a real studio, let alone worked in one. The appearance of innovation matters more than the realisation of it.
Don’t get me wrong. They’re really, really alluring. Whenever I walk into them, my immediate visceral reaction is jealousy: we never have millions of dollars available to spend on our studio (and it shows). These are very easy spaces to walk into and be blown away by. They are, in every sense, impressive. They evidence an enormous financial commitment to making their respective organisations more innovative. They’re hard spaces to say no to.
And that’s the point — they’re designed to impress people who would never normally work in a bank to go and work there (or sell their companies to them). They’re designed to encourage people internally to think differently by sending a big signal to everyone that the organisation is taking innovation seriously, and so should they. And they’re designed to send a message to the markets that this is an organisation that’s investing in its future by bringing some Google-cool into its culture. They import their view of what design and innovation should look like and play it out big. They use the asset that they have in greatest abundance — money — and try to engineer creativity using playful facades. They impose, rather than reflect.
Innovation labs like these are beautifully constructed stages for the performance of innovation. They’re not design studios.
Personally, I find it takes about five minutes for reality to kick back in. I remember that we wouldn’t spend that money on our studio even if we had it, because it doesn’t lead to better work.
We wouldn’t become better designers if we had a scooter track or more fake foliage growing from our walls, and we don’t want to attract the type of person for whom it matters. Great designers don’t need to be surrounded by props and gimmicks to do their best work. The disconnect between this new generation of labs and real design studios is far from the only reason they aren’t successful, but is, ironically, the most visible.