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Culture, by design

We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a design agency’s culture and how to foster an environment that is a catalyst for creativity, not a killer of it.

We’ve considered new seating arrangements. We’ve thought about decoration. About catchy names and titles for our employees—or no titles at all. A pledge of allegiance? A drop of blood? Mustache Wednesdays? Get the Led out Fridays? More parties?

If you’re reading this, you’re probably sitting somewhere that’s trying to establish, maintain or change a culture. Maybe you’re at a startup in a shared workspace with conversations fluttering around you—lots of little cultures. Or, perhaps you’re a lifer at a Fortune 500 company where culture is a heavy word, with lots of history to contend with. Culture can be visualized as your surroundings, but it’s not dependent upon them. For a creative company, the signature icons of dogs and bikes, music and tattoos, IdeaPaint and beer, are not an answer, but rather a result of a thriving culture.

Every day, we ask ourselves what inspires our people and how we can manifest that all around us.

When we started our design agency, HUSH, in 2006, our intentions were pretty focused—and in retrospect, maybe a little naive. We simply wanted to plant our own flag, grab the wheel, and steer our creative lives in the direction we wanted. Culture was something to think about later, once you had one to think about. But in more than five years, we’ve done some tacking, and have come a long way—and as it turns out the process of starting and growing a design agency can be as creative as the work itself. Who knew?

But when you get busy, as we all are, it’s easy to forget culture. The culture of a company is like its soil; if arid and dry, nothing can grow no matter how promising. Even the best minds and most powerful of talents can wilt, or die, without culture—and before that there’ll be a lot of frustration, internal chaos, and misdirection.

At a boutique creative shop, culture is defined one person at a time—everyone matters, whatever his or her level, age, or experience. They count. One for one.

In order to define culture, you have to say it out loud. If your coworkers don’t know it, word for word, they won’t believe it, nor will they be able to express it to others. You can write it in a manifesto—that’s a good start—but you need to speak about it openly and often. People need to know why they’re doing what they’re doing—and reminding them is a daily task. You also need to listen, because culture is plastic; it ebbs and flows. It’s like that scene in Ghost—just you and Demi Moore, working the clay, molding the culture together. Messy. Good messy.

Creative culture is also fragile because creativity itself is fragile and fleeting. People talk of the “gift” of creativity. But if you think about it, it’s less like a gift, and more like a muscle. Tapping into your team’s creative strength requires the backing of your peers and a support mechanism that assures no idea is too small, that great things can come from the oddest of places, and that not knowing something is actually just an opportunity to learn—not a sign of failure. 

In fact, when we were hiring our creative director, we expressed that one of the best parts about HUSH is that nearly every project requires solutions that are at least 50% unknown. The unknown could be technical, talent, scale, materials, support, bandwidth, or all of the above. But we assured him that, as designers and conceptual thinkers, we adapt and excel and deliver. We’re not making widgets. We’re reinventing ourselves every day into new creative forms with new languages, technologies, inspirations, and processes.

So as we reinvent ourselves and our ideas, our desire for a culture of growth, experimentation, and risk remains steadfast. It wasn’t always so but it’s front and center now—and will remain so. We continue to think above the project level, and up to the human level—which is everything.

A positive, supportive creative culture is a sine wave, and will ebb and flow over time. But given some care and attention, and a team whose members know they are the shepherds of culture creation too, the result is magnificent: Work just isn’t work anymore.

David Schwarz is creative partner at HUSH.

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