Keeping Ideas Weird - Design Bureau

Photos courtesy of Idea

Keeping Ideas Weird

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

By Sarah Handelman

Nestled away in a centuries-old converted mill, and tucked into the pastoral English countryside, is Idea*, a design-thinking studio that develops innovative products to help its clients use their workplaces more effectively. Idea’s kind of design-thinking is done in very non-traditional ways. The company’s unique method of conducting business includes holding meetings in an open-air boardroom, rain or shine. But don’t worry; if the British  drizzle takes a turn, there’s plenty of space to chat indoors, next to the energy-efficient wood-burning stove or the communal dining table. Idea’s interesting quirks and perks are what attract high-profile clients such as BBC and Google.

“Everything we do is different because you can’t have a set methodology or process with the innumerable, diverse projects we have,” says Idea creative Guy Miller, a veteran video game designer who now writes client reports that resemble novel-like page-turners instead of the more conventional fact-sheets. Chris Ager, another Idea creative team member, adds: “I wouldn’t really say there’s ever a routine about how the office works. That’s how we live and breathe as a business.” He says the team strives to make each project a new experience, even if it means flirting with the “f-word.” “We are quite prepared to fail. Of course we have to deliver successful projects, but people within the organization have the freedom to do something a bit different.” 

One of Idea’s, well, ideas is Me and My Workplace, an online suite of design tools that assesses office productivity and potential while using the surveyed outcome to shape the physical design of workspaces. Rather than hiring out pros to promote the product, a team of Idea’s graphic and interior designers, programmers, and writers developed the company’s first stop-motion animation. Although the film’s hand-drawn aesthetic errs more on the side of craft than Web 2.0, making shiny, streamlined projects isn’t part of Idea’s business plan. The firm does not cater to what clients think they want, but instead delivers what is best for business. “We don’t win them all,” Ager says. “But the lion’s share of our work comes when we’ve had a chance to develop things over time with clients and generate real change.”

Long train journeys between Idea’s Shropshire office and the smaller London-based Shoreditch office allow workers to unplug and take creative thinking off the screen. And because many Idea employees spend weeks meeting with clients, they often work remotely. The team’s extensive travel prompted the organization to share its remote workplace practices as a product. “Nine times out of ten, we’ll be in a café or the British Library because we can get good coffee and Wi-Fi,” Ager says. The office’s hand-picked network of London’s Internet hubs inspired Idea to develop WorkSnug, an augmented reality app that helps any mobile worker find the best places to productively tuck in with a coffee and connection. “Designing a workplace should not be about designing a location,” Ager says. “Your workplace is very much a virtual tool that helps you work wherever you need—or want—to work.” WorkSnug even implements technology to measure the volume of the nearest café, so an after-school craft hour won’t interrupt your work hour.  

Although the app garnered rave reviews, Ager doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. The technology has been in place for years. Idea just helps people and businesses use it better, and maybe have a little fun in the process.  “It feels quite normal to us, and it’s not like we’re trying hard to do it,” Ager says. “We’re always quite happy to be sitting slightly on the edge of the mainstream, otherwise we wouldn’t be what we are.”

 *Idea’s offbeat tendencies are apparent in its idiosyncratic spelling: iDEA which we have adjusted for readability.

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