Valuing design in coworking spaces

A focus on how reorganising the physical workplace communicates design value

This post looks at a move away from the archetype “design studio” structure to coworking spaces and their adoption within larger corporations. With reference to two Australian examples at Turpin + Crawford Studio and ACMI X, the first part of this article will look at how the physical work environment for designers is shifting. In the second part of this article, I will discuss how coworking communicates the value of design and can be used as a frame to evaluate the design process. Finally, these ideas will be applied to my personal design practice through the coworking framework of the “full-stack employee”.

Part 1: The reorganisation of the physical design space

A number of factors have contributed to the reorganisation of the physical design space. With the rise of freelancing [1], digital technologies and budget airlines [2], the mentality has shifted around where designers can and should work. Technology is empowering an increasingly mobile workforce and for many designers, the archetype “design studio” (i.e. one permanent studio space for one company) has been replaced by more flexible solutions. Termed as the “Gig Economy” [3] or “Remote Work Revolution” [4], designers are now looking for workplaces that give them opportunities to move and collaborate with people around the world.

One of the physical solutions to this problem is coworking spaces — a working environment where freelancers, small companies and start-ups can share equipment and rub elbows. Though there is argument as to when the coworking movement actually started, this timeline from Deskmag [5] will give you more details about its history.

With the number of contingent workers predicted to increase worldwide [6], coworking will play a critical role in the evolving workforce. Companies such as WeWork, the largest shared space provider in the US, are amongst the many new businesses already profiting from this new shift in how designers and other professionals work together. Valued at 10 billion dollars after less than five years in business, its success is bringing more visibility to this emerging work environment.

Turpin + Crawford Studio, Sydney

Example 1: Turpin + Crawford Studio
An independent coworking studio

Turpin + Crawford Studio is one example of a successful coworking space from my personal design practice. I worked in this studio for 3 years as a digital designer and shared the space with public artists, a small engineering firm, industrial designers and a couple of architects. This model of coworking provided a natural solution to managing small, independent businesses. We pooled resources, had lunches together and collaborated on a number of interdisciplinary projects in Public Art and design.

Coworking gave me the context to understand the benefits of working in interdisciplinary teams, with each profession bringing a specific set of skills and insights to a project. Having a space that so easily enabled collaboration allowed for innovation throughout the design process. Sometimes it just took a conversation with an engineer or lighting designer to take the trajectory of your project down a completely different path.

Big corporations are also interested in how they can embed coworking communities into their workforce. According to the 2020 Intuit Report, more than 80% of corporations are planning to increase their use of the flexible workforce in coming years. With this transition, corporations have already started exploring coworking spaces to cut down commute times, trigger innovation and embed a new mix of designers into their organisations. Jamie Russo of Enerspace Coworking is one of many people documenting these trends.

“Coke now has a coworking space. One of their objectives is to bring outside people in, so it is open to the public. Right now there are more tactical reasons for them to look at coworking spaces. Everyone is trying to figure out this serendipitous interaction piece.” (Russo, 2015) [7]

Similarly, corporations such as Ford, Converse and Verizon are looking at how to adopt the coworking model in their existing structure. Verizon just announced a new development in partnership with Grind which they cite as a “center for new innovation and collaboration.”

The Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne

Example 2: ACMI X
Coworking spaces embedded into larger corporations

Another example a bit closer home is ACMI X [8], the new coworking space developed under the larger banner of ACMI (The Australian Centre for the Moving Image) in Melbourne. I visited the space a few weeks ago and was tempted to move our whole studio there.

This is the first time an Australian Museum has created a dedicated coworking space for practitioners, artists and businesses in the creative industries. The 60-seat studio in the Southbank arts precinct will also house the Melbourne offices of the NFSA (National Film and Sound Archive), allowing for collaborations between independent workers and larger corporations.

What this change in work environments shows us is that design and the physical presence of designers has value. Freelancers, small businesses and big corporations are all seeing the need to shift away from the classic design studio and make space for the modern designer. Coworking is a global phenomena that provides one such solution, catering to designers who need flexibility and want to be exposed to the insights of other professionals. It creates a space of collaboration between disciplines, as well as a framework in which we can evaluate the design process.

Part 2: Communicating design value through coworking

There is a growing discourse on how best to communicate design value. The British Design Council’s Design Economy Report [9], as well as Deloitte’s Centre for the Edge [10] and The Design Management Institute [11], are just some of the voices championing the quantitive value of design. Looking directly at how much money design generates for the economy, as well as the increase in productivity, innovation and applications to new technology, design is becoming a tangible commodity. Design and innovation are key to the shift in global economies, and designers are being sought out to facilitate design thinking and create solutions.

Within this new context, coworking spaces can also be used as a conduit to communicate design value. This physical reorganisation of the workplace acts as the ideal case study to show how the inclusion of designers in collaborative spaces can lead to innovation. The creation of new ecosystems (or intellectual ecologies — the mixing of other disciplines with design) become places where innovation can occur, or new questions be asked.

According to an article on Radical innovation: crossing knowledge boundaries with interdisciplinary teams [12] released by the University of Cambridge, innovation is found at the boundaries between disciplines, not by narrowly concentrating in one sphere. With a particular focus on the mixing of anthropology, strategic policy and design, their work looks at how the combination of people and skills in unexpected ways can lead to radical innovation.

Designers in particular, are skilled at spanning boundaries in these collaborative environments. As noted by social theorist Latour (2008) [13], the design process gives designers the skills they need to reframe and recognise the contextual dimensions of a project. Bringing to bear a specific repository of knowledge and insights, the incorporation of designers into interdisciplinary teams can lead to new and creative perspectives. Latour also commends how design invites interpretation and engagement with the material world. Not all modern designers create artefacts, but can use them as tools for intervention and interaction to navigate the problems they encounter.

Nigel Thrift (2006) is another social theorist that places design at the centre of the creative economy. He lists three factors that make designers especially valuable in this interdisciplinary context (adapted from Radical innovation: crossing knowledge boundaries with interdisciplinary teams):

1. The obsession with knowledge and creativity
Knowledge and creativity is the currency of the designer and is gained at many stages of the design process. Amongst other things, research, sketches, note-taking, concept mapping, reframing, design meetings and constant evaluation are design tools used to extend knowledge and promote creativity.
2. The need to draw clients into the design process
Designers are seen as facilitators or sense-makers. Design workshops, scheduled meetings, feedback milestones and constant communication are some of the ways that designers include clients in the creative process to create mutual understanding.
3. The ability to extend concepts
The method of abduction (i.e. the logical method of turning data into information or knowledge) or design synthesis allows designers to extend and reframe concepts using their unique experiences and insights about the world.

With the embedding of coworking spaces into larger corporations, designers are also able to effect change and innovation on a larger scale. Derek Neighbors, co-founder of the coworking and collaborative space Gangplank [14], notes that the inclusion of new professionals such as designers into the corporate environment is changing the way companies work.

“I think that this movement is teaching not only individual freelancers a lot but is teaching corporate America a lot about how people interact, what makes them effective at creation and is really defining the future of how companies interact with each other on a deeper level.” (Neighbors, 2013) [15]

In this context, design’s value is found in its ability to help companies rethink existing structures of interaction. Using a suite of design tools and processes, designers can use coworking as an artefact to invert the hierarchical structure of the physical workspace and allow collaboration across all parts of a company. Designers are teaching established clients more efficient ways of working, and in some cases, restructuring entire corporations.

The full-stack designer

Part 3: Personal evaluation and the “full-stack designer”

Coworking spaces not only allow us to evaluate design in a collaborative context, but also reveal an emerging type of designer: the “full-stack employee” [16]. Adept at navigating our rapidly evolving technological landscape, a full-stack designer can work anywhere and with anyone. They have an appetite for new ideas and skills, allowing them to collaborate and work in interdisciplinary groups effectively. Often mobile and usually online, they’re connected via mobile, Slack [17] or some other collaborative conversational platform, and can make intuitive decisions amidst an abundance of information. They’re up to date on the latest trends in design, as well as other disciplines, and can as easily to talk to an engineer as another designer. They may not know enough code for production, but understand what GitHub[18] is for and could pick-up new skills if necessary.

Coworking is an ideal environment for this type of modern designer, providing a common and flexible space for collaboration to occur. Full-stackers reveal a move away from the industrial definitions of “the designer”, to designers as leaders and sense-makers in interdisciplinary teams. Through the design process, they are able to facilitate the interaction between both their team members and clients to create shared ideas and meaning.

Whilst I do not claim to be a fully-fledged “full-stack designer”, my current role as both a Designer and Producer (at work we decided to call this a Design Producer) does follow this new interdisciplinary trajectory. Value is created in my ability to lead teams and facilitate meaning between the client, designer (myself) and our internal team of software engineers and programmers. From initial proposal to final evaluation, my value as a designer is not only seen in the artefacts I create; whether they be apps, websites and interactive media; but also in my interactions with people throughout the process.

The multidisciplinary skills I have learnt over the years also aligns with this new shift in designing. I wouldn’t back myself coding any of our projects, but I understand the basic concepts of the code we create and have been known to perform a good copy-paste in Sublime Text [19]. I’m also happy to do a bit of video-editing, 3D modelling, writing, content management or learn a new software platform if the project requires. Similarly, my role as a Design Producer means that I have to interact with Hardware Suppliers, Civil Engineers, Exhibition Designers, Architects and Curators. Being able to comprehend the situation and frame my communication accordingly is key to mutual understanding in these interdisciplinary projects. Navigating disciplines outside of design has helped me recognise the unique insights each profession offers and the value of collaboration.

Personal experience in coworking studios, as well as my current interdisciplinary work environment, act as frameworks I can use to understand my value as a designer. Within my personal practice, I have seen the expectations of the designer shift to a multi-skilled leadership role — the “full-stack designer”. Value is formed through my ability to take on these new requirements, bring unique insights into the project and lead collaborative teams. Like a currency, value becomes something that is developed, shared and exchanged throughout the design process.

However, there is still a lot I’ll need to learn. According to Chris Messina (2015), Developer Experience Lead at Uber, “the conventional seams between disciplines are fraying, and the set of skills necessary to succeed are broader and more nebulous than they’ve been before.” Rethinking the way designers work with others and gaining insights from other disciplines will be key to success in this new hybrid economy. The nature of how we work is shifting and the highest value designers will be those who are ready for these changes.


[1] Tarì, M and Vanni, I (2005), On the Life and Deeds of San Precario, Patron Saint of Precarious Workers and Lives

[2] Pastier, M (2015), Coworking Spaces Are the Future of Work… Until Their Own Disruption

[3] White, S. K. (2016), Hiring trends for 2016: Welcome to the gig economy

[4] Georgiev, G (2015), The Remote Work Revolution

[5] Deskmag (2010), The history of coworking presented by Deskmag!date=2004-11-16_03:14:53!

[6] Intuit (2010), The Intuit 2020 Report

[7] Schneider, A (2015), The Rise of Coworking

[8] ACMI X

[9] The Design Economy

[10] Deloitte’s Centre for the Edge

[11] Design Management Institute

[12] Blackwell, A.F., Wilson, L., Street, A., Boulton, C., and Knell, J.(2009), Radical innovation: crossing knowledge boundaries with interdisciplinary teams

[13] Latour, B (2008), A cautious Prometheus? A few steps toward a philosophy of design (with special attention to Peter Sloterdijk), Keynote lecture to Design History Society conference, Falmouth Cornwall

[14] Gangplank

[15] Strauss, K (2013), Why coworking spaces are here to stay

[16] Messina, C (2015), The full-stack employee

[17] Slack

[18] GitHub

[19] Sublime Text

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