Workplace Culture: Probiotic or Pathogen to Creativity

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?

By Michael Westfield
Published September 11, 2012
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.