Steve Jobs and….Workplace Design

By Ken Ashley

January 3rd, 2012 (ATLANTA)

As 2012 begins, I finally got a chance to read the biography of one of 2011’s most high profile leaders; Steve Jobs. The 600 page best seller is a very good read and chock full of interesting anecdotes about Jobs. The fact that it took so many words to tell his life story is striking and certainly indicates that he lived a full, fast-paced and amazingly successful business life. The cover art shows Jobs famous “stare” the captivated investors and partners and terrified lesser beings in meetings.

That Famous Stare - You'll Blink First

As it turns out, the denizen of all things computing, the visionary that created digital worldwide communications was a big fan of… in person meetings.  In the authorized biography, author Walter Isaascon describes Jobs innovation and genius as the principle architect of the Pixar headquarters. In this interesting vignette Isaacson tells the story of Steve Jobs and his take on workplace design. The original Pixar build-to-suit delivered in 2000 (a new $64 million, 150,000 square foot Pixar building is under construction nearby).

Given that Jobs used many of the same principles in the creation of the new Apple “Space Ship” Headquarters (profiled here by my friend Coy Davidson) still under construction in Cupertino, Jobs liked the results at Pixar. As you might know, and as is recounted in the book, Jobs had very strong ideas was not to be trifled with in terms of design and function.

The new Apple iteration will be a four-story, three million-square foot building set to hold 3,000 employees. This design philosophy will impact many at the worlds most valuable company. However, many of the formative design ideas come from the original Pixar office building.

“Interaction = Innovation”

Jobs knew that innovation and creativity don’t happen in cubes or though email.

Pixar designer and Academy Award-winning director (The Incredibles and Ratatouille) Brad Bird does a good job of describing the Pixar building that Jobs created:

“If you walk around downstairs in the animation area, you’ll see that it is unhinged. People are allowed to create whatever front to their office they want. One guy might build a front that’s like a Western town. Someone else might do something that looks like Hawaii…John [Lasseter – Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer] believes that if you have a loose, free kind of atmosphere, it helps creativity.”

“Then there’s our building. In the center, he created this big atrium area, which seems initially like a waste of space. The reason he did it was that everybody goes

Sketch of The Atrium Exterior

off and works in their individual areas. People who work on software code are here, people who animate are there, and people who do designs are over there. Steve put the mailboxes, the meetings rooms, the cafeteria, and, most insidiously and brilliantly, the bathrooms in the center—which initially drove us crazy—so that you run into everybody during the course of a day. [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.”

The Master of Design Creates Office Buildings Too

It’s fascinating to follow the thoughts of one of the world’s great innovators.

In an interview with Jobs towards the end of his life, Isaacson quotes the Pixar leader: “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,” and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”

Jobs and his team selected a site then tore down an old Del Monte fruit cannery in Emeryville, California, which is between Berkley and Oakland just across the Bay Bridge.  Typically into the smallest details  “Jobs obsessed over every aspect of the new building” says Isaacson. Not only did Jobs pick the steel for the beams, but instructed the steel workers on how to make the product to his specifications.

“The Right Kind Of Building Can Do Great Things For Culture”

Ed Catmull, who was then Pixar’s president, said “the Pixar building was Steve’s own movie.”  “ Steve had this belief that the right kind of building can do great things for a culture,” continued Catmull.

When planning for the new Pixar building, leadership originally wanted something similar to a standard Hollywood studio with a number of separate

iMeeting Nirvana

buildings. However, the Disney artists at Pixar said multiple buildings made them feel isolated. Not only did Jobs agree, but he ordered one building with a large atrium in the center that would encourage “random encounters.”

And so it was; the building was designed so that people could meet and talk in the central atrium. John Lasseter, Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer said “I kept running into people that I hadn’t seen for months. I’ve never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one.

The Love Lounge

Sometimes great architectural attributes are accidental. A Pixar animator found a small access door in the back of his new office and managed (of course) to explore the opening. He found that after a short crawl, he got to a mechanical room that provided access to the air conditioning. Isaacson recounts:

“He and his colleagues commandeered the secret room, festooned it with Christmas lights….and bar equipment. A video camera installed in the corridor

Accidental Coolness

allowed occupants to monitor who might be approaching. Pixar design lead Lasseter and Steve Jobs himself brought important visitor there and had them sign the wall. The signatures include Michael Eisner, Roy Disney, Tim Allen, and Randy Newman.”

Just because the architect didn’t design it doesn’t mean that cool features can’t happen organically in buildings.

CRE Lessons

Jobs was especially elegant when discussing his legacy toward the end of the book: “What drove me? I think most creative people want to express appreciation for …taking advantage… of work that has been done by others before us.” “I didn’t invent the language of mathematics I use.” “ Everything I do depends on other member of our species and the shoulders that we stand on.” “We use the talents that we have….to add something to that flow.” “That’s what has driven me.”

The master of innovation Steve Jobs created six industries (personal computers, animated movies, iTunes music, iPhones, tablet computing and digital publishing). Isaacson tells of Jobs many failures in the book, but Jobs was not afraid of risks including in the office environment. The fact that he designed three major office buildings merits close observation to see how his approach can work in the broader corporate America.

In commercial real estate some look at the standard build out as acceptable and safe. New design ideas can be dismissed quickly because we get outside of our comfort zone.  I’ve personally attended many design meetings where the team seems to be worried about “industry standards,” which translates to what is everyone else doing. It’s certainly OK to be aware of where the industry is headed, but I bet Jobs would tell us to not be constrained by it.

Then there is the budget issue, which is the great limiter of design. Of course we must count the beans, but not loose site of innovation that drives productivity, which is really the Holy Grail of office space creation.

Finally, focus on big game changing ideas and know that your instinct, combined with the guidance of a trusted architect is usually correct. Of course, few are as talented as Jobs at design, but you know your business best. When selecting an architect, find someone who can work with you to create an environment suitable to your culture instead of creating magazine cover shots with your new office.

Perhaps we can infuse more passion into the corporate office creation process – and take a few risks. The results of a design that works can dramatically impact an organization and its productivity. Steve Jobs affected the lives of millions but even he would certainly have agreed: you have to lead as well as challenge conventional wisdom. Be resolute in your convictions however, because innovation is not for wimps. When you succeed, Walter Isaacson is looking for his next biography subject.

5 responses to “Steve Jobs and….Workplace Design

  1. Thank you for such nice information, i really like this. Hope to see such things from you in future also.

    Best Regards.

  2. Thanks very much! You can count on it. Ken

  3. Brian Szpakowski

    Interesting article, thank you. My initial thoughts on seeing the new Apple building was that it was a terrible piece of office design. I am open minded but big circular buildings don’t seem particularly innovative or inspirational.
    The culture of the Apple workplace also worries me, although I cant argue with the results.

  4. Brian,

    Thanks for the note. I suppose design is a little like clothing – in the eye of the beholder. Jobs was a different individual on almost every level for sure. But your assessment is how many evaluate his career accomplishments – stunning results.


  5. The gist I got from reading this is -> innovation = Interaction.

    In my organization too, I felt that most innovative ideas come when people are interacting at the most.

    Brian, I want to add my point too. Everything has its pros and cons. Apple building design has many advantages and it was designed keeping in mind a very simple thought. Encourage Creativity, innovation.
    Ofcourse you might not agree, but what matters in the end are the results.

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