Workplace Culture: Probiotic or Pathogen to Creativity
Written by
Michael Westfield
September 11, 2012

Culture in the work­place can breed inno­va­tion, cama­raderie, and suc­cess or it can breed medi­oc­rity, malaise, and malcontent.

Creatives are more attuned to the work­place cul­ture, but how much atten­tion are we actu­ally giv­ing cul­ture in the work­place? Whether we work for a big agency, a small shop or just our­selves – we know it’s impor­tant. We know its value. We know when we fit with the cul­ture and every­thing feels pur­pose­ful. We know when there is a cul­ture that doesn’t sup­port cre­ativ­ity, where we exert energy rolling a boul­der up a hill like Sisyphus. It has a direct impact on our cre­ativ­ity and there­fore our product.

How many of us are con­sciously choos­ing a work­place that has a cul­ture we mesh with? Do we even know how to do that? Or do we just brush it aside dur­ing an inter­view because we’re so focused on get­ting a job?

Culture is one of the great­est influ­encers on whether the job you choose will be just a ‘job’ or an impor­tant step­ping stone in the cre­ation of a ‘career’. Yet, it’s the most dif­fi­cult aspect to pin­point while inter­view­ing.” says Heidi Ehlers, a career con­sul­tant that spe­cial­izes in cre­ative careers, and founder of Heidi Consults. “Creatives tend to be heav­ily influ­enced by what a place ‘feels’ like, but under­stand, a com­pany that hires well knows that the hir­ing process is akin to a well-planned seduc­tion. Smart com­pa­nies know how to make you feel what they want you to feel. They know your hot but­tons. To take emo­tion out of it, engage your left brain. Before you begin job hunt­ing, make a list of the spe­cific ele­ments of cul­ture that are the most impor­tant to you at this stage in your career, then write out a list of ques­tions to ask (along with the answers you are look­ing for). Use this to ana­lyze how well they actu­ally match up.”

All com­pa­nies have a cul­ture. One that is sup­ported either actively or pas­sively by the upper man­age­ment. How many are delib­er­ately cre­at­ing the cul­ture they want? Many Fortune 500 com­pa­nies do – com­pa­nies like Google, Walmart, Coca-Cola, Disney, and Apple. Just what kind of cul­ture are they breed­ing and how do they do it? In this 2008 inter­view with Brad Bird of Pixar, we get a behind-the-scenes on how Pixar actively fos­ters a cul­ture of inno­va­tion. They know com­pla­cency is their enemy and that peo­ple need to be involved, to be part of a uni­fied team. To this end, they cri­tique everyone’s sketches at the same time; they are “humil­i­ated and encour­aged together,” they cre­ated PU (Pixar University) to encour­age peo­ple to learn out­side of their areas, and they even designed the build­ing to ensure spon­ta­neous encoun­ters between employ­ees. “[Jobs] real­ized that when peo­ple run into each other, when they make eye con­tact, things hap­pen. So he made it impos­si­ble for you not to run into the rest of the company.”

Kent Hollrah, founder of design con­sul­tancy Simple & Stout, says “My worst expe­ri­ences with cul­ture and cre­ativ­ity have occurred when the com­pany lead­ers have had low self-esteem. When your man­agers start mak­ing fun of peo­ple, peo­ple on the street, design­ers or designs or even worse, folks within the com­pany, that desire to try some­thing out­ra­geous gets curbed. Why risk it know­ing you might be the butt of the joke when you leave the room?”

My best expe­ri­ences have been when there is a cul­ture of pro­to­typ­ing. I love when lone wolves or small teams come up with crazy ideas and present them for you to expe­ri­ence before you can form the opin­ion of “that won’t work.” I strongly believe that ideas are cheap. Execution is everything.”

Though cre­atives are more attuned to work­place cul­ture, I believe it is a desire shared across the board. People today are look­ing for pur­pose in their jobs. It isn’t enough to just bring home a pay­check; we want to believe in the com­pany and its mis­sion. We are look­ing for places that stand for some­thing, com­pa­nies that are mak­ing a dif­fer­ence. Look at the rise of B-corps like Tom’s Shoes and Method – for-profit com­pa­nies with baked-in social com­po­nents. B-corps are redefin­ing suc­cess in busi­ness. We want our work to mean some­thing, to be worthwhile.

Some design­ers move in-house to be part of a com­pany they believe in. Others take the free­lance route because they can find no place where their per­sonal val­ues are shared by the com­pany they work for, so they go carve out a bit of that for them­selves, choos­ing clients and projects with sim­i­lar val­ues. Are we con­scious then, on our own, about the cul­ture we are cre­at­ing for our own busi­ness? Do we have a vision, some­thing we are headed towards? If not, we are surely fol­low­ing a path that will leave us unfulfilled.

Fostering a pos­i­tive (pro­bi­otic) cul­ture is key to inno­v­a­tive, suc­cess­ful com­pa­nies over the long haul, whether it is a com­pany of thou­sands or a com­pany of one. As is the case with all things worth­while, this is eas­ier said than done.  “I don’t think it’s easy to fos­ter. On the busi­ness side it takes time, space and money. On the project side, it takes inter­est­ing prob­lem spaces. On the human side, it takes **some­thing** to cycle past the obvi­ous answers and reach.” says Kent Hollrah.

Be mind­ful of the cul­ture you work in, espe­cially if it is cur­rently at-odds with your val­ues. Workplace cul­ture has a direct impact on your cre­ativ­ity, and as a cre­ative you must be vig­i­lant in mak­ing sure your cre­ativ­ity thrives. Define the cul­ture you are look­ing for and then find it or go cre­ate it for your­self. If not, you may find your cre­ativ­ity with­er­ing on the vine.

We’d love to hear what YOU have to say on this topic. In the com­ments below, let us know:

Where did you expe­ri­ence the best cul­tural fit?  What made it such a good fit for you?

How has work­place cul­ture affected the work you do(good or bad)?

If you are an inde­pen­dent designer,  what spe­cific things are you doing to fos­ter the cul­ture you want?

AIGA encourages thoughtful, responsible discourse. Please add comments judiciously, and refrain from maligning any individual, institution or body of work. Read our policy on commenting.
  • Andy Linke

    Great arti­cle!  Couldn’t agree more about Culture fos­ter­ing or dis­cour­ag­ing cre­ativ­ity.  I’ve worked in a cou­ple “Creative” places, and have expe­ri­enced both.  If a work­place cul­tural truly inspires cre­ativ­ity you will be cre­ative even after work hours fin­ish — for­tu­nately I have that on a daily basis now.  Whereas pre­vi­ously i’ve been in the oppo­site where the cul­ture made it feel more like data input rather than being creative. 

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