Distributed Design Studio

Redefining the workplace

Repost from MIIM Designs blog

During my time at MIIM Designs, I have had the opportunity to work on projects for UN-Habitat, design a competition entry for Boston ReGen, meet with a client from Accra, Ghana, and go to the Architecture for Humanity (AFH) Design Like You Give a Damn conference in San Francisco. Not your typical internship. Also not typical is being able to do this while having never met anyone from the studio, not physically at least.

How is this possible? MIIM Designs is one of a handful of design studios which operates what I’ll call a ‘distributed design studio.’ This is a studio which has a home office and may mandate employees come in a certain number of days, but recognizes the office as only one possible place of work. In fact, a distributed design studio has employees scattered across the country, each contributing and collaborating from wherever is most convenient for them.

Most design studios conduct at least some business in a remote manner. Today’s studios collaborate with outside experts and consultants and contract out specialized work to a third party. The medium for this collaboration is the internet. Be it email, shared files on cloud drives, instant messenger, etc., today’s collaboration with third parties happens over the internet. As we move into a more collaborative era, and as more experts are brought on projects of increasing complexity, the internet becomes an increasingly necessary tool which we will employ to get our work done.

And yet, while we as a profession rely on internet collaboration, and as it becomes increasingly important to do so, it is given surprisingly little attention and confidence. Much time is spent complaining about the inefficient online workflows, or inadequate online tools, but little time is spent designing these tools to meet the needs of the studios, or finding replacements for these inadequate tools.

Remote collaboration is integral to successful BIM (Building Information Modeling). In some ways, BIM makes remote work more feasible. Revit, for instance, has robust tools for managing collaborators working from one central file, as does Archicad. When mixed with a project manager such as Base Camp, Team Box or Trello and an instant messenger of choice, you have a workflow ready to be mobilized. Software developers take their remote collaboration one step further and unite some of these tools when they use GitHub. Leave a comment if you know of a similar tool for designers (or if you are interested in building one).

Rush-hours are an unnecessary consequence of a way of doing business with outdated technology. Lifestyles should be upgraded to keep pace.

At MIIM Designs, we don’t seek to totally invent a new way of running a design studio; we rely on working models. European countries have been moving toward remote business. Germany, for instance, is able to come close to John Maynard Keynes’ dream of leveraging technology to reduce workload while remaining highly productive. Germany also has a 30-hour work week, and it remains the fourth largest economy in the world.
Just as in a shared office space, the ease at which information can flow is key. As I mentioned, many office-based studios use online or networked tools to transfer information. This is great, and the prevalence of these tools within the profession is what opens the door to remote collaboration. If throughout my day in an office I communicate through chat and file sharing, why do I need to risk my life and my health in rush hour traffic twice a day?

MIIM Designs has drawn from diverse models and has been able to successfully operate a design studio delivering quality design while having a team which is distributed from coast to coast, with some (such as myself) being entirely remote. Design collaboration does not always require co-location. Co-location is often inefficient.

That is the ‘why’ of operating a distributed design firm. How do you do it? There are many tools out there, some free, some low cost, and some quite expensive, which can help organize your team.

At MIIM, we make extensive use of Google products (Google Headquarters is just down the street from our Palo Alto office). We collaborate through files stored in the cloud, and video chat often using Google Hangout. This has so far been robust enough for us to get work done — just be sure you have a high speed internet connection wherever you happen to be working.

Is this distributed team an asset or a liability? Designed correctly, your team will be nimble and resilient. They arrive rested and ready without the stresses of rush hour or the dread of being chained to a desk while the sun rises and sets. Most importantly, you can market your distributed team as one which has a variety of viewpoints. Their separate locations feeds them different inspiration which can be poured into the design. This difference in location also helps to stave off developing a homogeneous office environment which can kill creativity and the sharing of ideas.

Lastly, it is important to be sure to pay the market rate of the home base, no matter where the designer is located. Jason Fried, author of Remote: Office Not Required, brings out the old mantra “Equal Pay for Equal Work” when referring to this. You should be hiring the best and paying market rate for the skills as well.

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Bryan is a designer, artist, and writer — ever exploring what it means to be native to our time and place.

For inquiries and commissions email bryan@fallowspace.com

Let’s chat on Twitter: @bmock

Follow my work on Instagram: @bryanmock