Robin Howie

Studio is an Attitude

I’d like to talk a little about how we work, but first, if you’re not familiar with our work Fieldwork Facility is a design studio for uncharted territories. We work in the intersection of communication, innovation and place.

In that last paragraph, there’s one word I hold very dearly… it’s a word that helps us orienteer how we operate as a business, that word is ‘studio’. We are a design studio. I place a lot of emphasis on that word. We are not an agency. We are not a consultancy. We are a studio.

We are a studio because our attitude is to use the workplace as an environment for creating… the location of where we work is our laboratory for studious activity. We research. We make. We experiment. We Craft. Discuss. Iterate. Experiment. Fail. Learn. Succeed. We see our studio as an environment that incubates the process of learning and discovery through creative endeavor, we work hard to make our studio an environment where we can always evolve and make work for uncharted territories.

Here’s the thing though: Our ‘studio’ isn’t always a ‘place’— instead we see ‘studio’ as a mindset that helps us orienteer how we work. What I want to talk about is that our modes of thinking are deeply connected with our modes of working… at Fieldwork Facility our work is interdisciplinary though it’s fair to say that communication is at the core of everything we do… so it won’t come as a surprise that the language we use is incredibly important to us.

Language matters

I would never call Fieldwork Facility a ‘Design Agency’ or a ‘Design Consultancy’. As a Studio we have agency, we aim to create impact and have a measured value for our clients and stakeholders… however, I really dislike the term ‘Design Agency’… for me, the pair of words boil down to offer a transactional relationship; a design agent creates design because design has been requested.

The thing is at Fieldwork Facility we are equal parts pragmatists and idealists… sure designers are asked to propose functional solutions but we also believe design has a transformational capacity too, our ability to spot what design can do is what makes us unusual … essentially we like to look for the greater opportunity in a design challenge, this is tricky when it comes to more ‘transactional briefs’ because they tend to have a predetermined finish line. For us, design and innovation need both parameters and space, the magic happens in the tension between what we need to do and what we could do.

In legal terms an agent is someone who acts on your behalf; that makes sense… a design agency could then be understood as an organisation that strategizes, designs and executes on your behalf… although my personal opinion is that this doesn’t sound like all that of a wonderful relationship. It reeks of the ego’s you can find throughout the creative industry — where people get their noses out of joint over ‘who knows best’.

At FF we find that the collaborative relationships where both the designer and client aim to support and empower each other will create the most rewarding, meaningful and most impactful work. I cringe at the thought of saying anything like ‘we are the experts — our word is gospel’, instead our expertise is to find ways of understanding the bigger picture so we can offer an intelligent perspective and hopefully propose ideas beyond what was expected or anticipated from us.

So why do so many design businesses call themselves ‘Agencies’… well, put simply it sounds big and impressive doesn’t it? I asked one client what they thought the difference between a studio and an agency was and her reply was simple… Agencies sound bigger and probably do bigger work with bigger clients. Oof. That stings a little — but I get it, it’s just semantics… but it's a message that is driven by the biggest voices in the room. To be a little blunt; there are other rooms with more interesting conversations.

I’ve found that we are quite lucky at Fieldwork Facility … our clients are generally self-selecting… they typically get who we are and how we work… we very rarely get someone looking for any old design agency, typically we’ve been sought out, which is lovely. Over time we hope to see a diversity of scale in the projects that we take on — but the thought of calling ourselves an ‘Agency’ so we can chase ‘bigger work’… Nope. No thanks. I’d rather stick to our guns and play our own game.

Likewise, the thought of calling the studio ‘consultants’ gives me heart palpitations. ‘Consultancy’ has always seemed, the oddest of descriptions for a creative practice… sure a part of what we do is critical thought and feeding that back to our clients — but calling a design business a consultancy to me is a little odd… a business that consults other businesses on design… sorry, what is it that you do again?

We are here to make change, not talk about change. I’d much rather be clear that rather than talking about design we actually deliver it too. I have a suspicion there’s an odd silo mentality at play with hiring ‘design consultants’… perhaps there is passed on experience of how to spend an organisations money, i.e. hire consultants to tell you what you should do and then spend more money with another agency to help you actually do it… and perhaps later down the line hire a studio to breathe life into it all when it all falls flat. For me, the ‘consultancy’ monicker plays up to this… don’t get me wrong there are excellent companies that frame what they do as being an agency or consultancy… I’m just explaining how and why I frame our own way of working, and I’m doing this because language is critically important when you work in communication.

Studio as an attitude, not a place

So how does the term ‘studio’ fit our way of working at Fieldwork Facility… awkwardly… but that’s just fine with me. You see, I believe that the words agency, consultancy and studio aren’t just places where we work, they are the mindsets of how we work.

At Fieldwork Facility our aim is to have the confidence that our ‘studio’ is wherever we are working.

Sure, a studio can be a physical location — like our base is in Shoreditch in East London, it’s the place where we come home to. However we place a huge emphasis on research at FF and we aim to completely immerse ourselves in every design challenge at hand… it will come as no surprise that we see it as crucial to spend time embedded in the environments that we are designing for, but we think that heading back to base after research should not be a default option — where you work is an important decision to make in the creative process.

After research and immersion what should happen next? does the design team need objective distance from the research environment? (i.e time to head back to base), or does the project need to incubate within the research environment? (i.e create a popup studio within the project site). Or perhaps the team and project needs something a little between the two? Creatives feed off of unfamiliar environments and I believe we can manipulate the spaces where we work to encourage us to work in different ways to influence what we are working on.

Psychogeography — the drifting studio

Over the years I have discovered a toolkit of place-types that can help shape the creative process; different places offer different modes of thinking and working. For example, a seat on a bus is great for rapid ideation — whereas a seat on a train is great for synthesis and writing. A park will offer a relaxed pace of thinking that is open and connective whereas a busy street is good for encouraging tunnel vision around a single idea.

Airport lounges and libraries can be good for solo exploration, breakfast spots and walks around the block are great to get the team firing on all cylinders.

Sometimes if I find our thinking getting a little lofty then we will head to work in places where people converge so that we can ground our thinking; a visit to a multi-cultural market will bring sharp perspective to how you think through an idea when you’re surrounded by different walks of life doing their daily business. Here, some ideas will be invigorated, others really quickly fall down.

In terms of getting things done hotel lobbies have different cadences to coffeeshops. Rented apartments can make great project bases instead of our studio in Shoreditch — a choice of neighbourhood is a lens that will affect how you approach the work and your perspective on the design challenge too. Jan Chipchase is a big inspiration here.

Sometimes you need to fade into the background and just be part of how a place works, being incognito can feel like a superpower, but then so can the opposite — sometimes sticking out like a sore thumb and setting up a studio on a streetbench or kerb can be liberating and exciting to work in plain view.

Let’s take a second to acknowledge that ever since the industrial revolution ‘productivity’ has become a global obsession and the typical workspace is formatted to be both highly productive and economically viable. It’s pretty clear that our work doesn’t have much in common with factory shifts.. so we approach where we work with flexibility. The two most important decisions in where the day's studio will be are: What type of environment might best shape the creative process? and When is the right time to pull the ripcord and change that working environment?

The latter question is the harder one, and its mostly directed by the productivity gremlins that sit on our shoulders. It takes confidence to keep going in an unfamiliar environment and trust the process. But sometimes you cant just keep hammering a cube into a triangular hole… it takes a little experience and intuition that a certain place might be the wrong tool for the job and to move on. Productivity and focus are two very different things.

Velocity — The studio as a journey

Often the ‘studio is an attitude’ ethos isn’t about a place at all — the act of a journey is an incredibly powerful tool… for years now the phrase ‘take an idea for a walk’ has become not just our mantra but a literal exercise. I find that typically a concept isn’t fully formed until it’s literally been taken for a walk, flipped around in the mind and seen from all perspectives — slowly percolating into something full of promise and stacks of potential.

Walking is a form of active rest that somehow unlocks the subconscious to pull ideas and connections forward. With our obsession with productivity, the idea of walking as a form of work might seem preposterous, but it’s not like its a new idea at all… here’s a few under-achieving individuals who have been documented as using walking as a key part of work: The composers Tchaikovsky & Beethoven, the writers CS Lewis and Charles Dickens, US Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Barack Obama even a few of Nobel prize winners, Paul Dirac (Physics) Herbert Simon (Economics), James Watson and Francis Crick (Medicine) who discovered the structure of DNA… the list goes on and on, most recently I heard that Ernő Rubik solved the engineering for his cube whilst walking, Lin Manuel Miranda wrote the lyrics to Hamilton whilst on walks and Steve Jobs notoriously took important meetings whilst walking.

I’ve experimented with other modes of transportation too. Busses, trains, planes all make viable pop-up studios, they each have their own qualities linked to comfortability and velocity. Yes, I am that guy who occasionally whips out a laptop on the tube, but I would always ask my neighbour if they mind first.

I’m painfully aware that this just sounds like that we work in coffee shops and hotels all day hitting up the smashed avocado in a millennial nomadic-work lifestyle. But honestly, for me this is about shifting perspective from beyond the four walls of a studio space and using place and journey as a design tool.

Nor am I advocating a 24/7 everywhere-is-a-workplace. Hell no. Work/life balance is crucial. This is really about making work more fruitful, its about finding space to approach work with eyes wide open and creating the space to feed curious minds… and being a bit more active throughout the day.

Studio equipment

Honestly, what is needed to make this approach work is very little. Sure the team is armed with smartphones, laptops, pens, sketchbooks, occasionally A6 notepads and post-its but absolutely none of this is uniform… whilst walking a phone for notes and pictures or just an A6 notepad and pen will do.

The only ‘key’ bit of equipment I carry with me at all times is 100% tokenistic… I carry the studio's door sign with me everywhere I go… Instead of fixing it to a wall I take it with me as a reminder that I carry the Fieldwork Facility studio as an attitude with me. It lives in my rucksack and comes with me wherever I go.

This article was written in the studio:

– The Overground (London)
– On a GWR train between Reading and Paddington.
– At the Fieldwork Facility base in the Tea Building, Shoreditch.
– The Citizen M Hotel, Southwark
– A bus between Colca Canyon and Arequipa, Peru
– The Central Line (London)
– Zurich Airport
– Flight EZ8118
– Ometasando Coffee, Fitzrovia
– A bench near to Tottenham Court Road
– On foot, all over London

Robin Howie

National Park City Maker paper*

London is now officially the worlds first National Park City!
We were so proud to be able to help out the National Park City Foundation by designing a newspaper that will inspire Londoners to make London greener, healthier and wilder... A few spreads below from the newspaper that we designed over a week...

Look out for copies all over London.

Robin Howie

How we reimagined community consultation and created the Museum of Us

Over on our Medium we have written up a detailed post on our collaboration with the NLA to reimagine community cosultation.
Here’s the link!