Design Process and Collaboration at Instrument
An Interview with JD Hooge, Partner and Chief Creative Officer
Based out of Portland, Oregon, Instrument is a well-known and widely-respected independent digital agency. Their clients have ranged from Google and eBay to Nike and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
With a team of 130 spread across multiple multidisciplinary teams, process and collaboration are sure to be a challenge. I spoke to JD Hooge, Instrument’s co-founder and Chief Creative Officer, about the origins of the company, the relationship between design and engineering, and the tools and processes that enable communication within disciplines.
Tell me about how Instrument got started.
My two business partners started Instrument in Burlington Vermont — it was a straight-up web development shop. They moved to Portland in 2006. It was the two of them and a couple of developers. Justin [Lewis, now the CEO of Instrument] reached out to me in 2007. I was freelance doing interactive design and development at the time. They were really good on the engineering side (really strong at both front and back-end). So, for the next couple years, we hired each other back and forth. I started hiring a couple of employees and they continued to grow their team. I was using them for their strong suit, they were using us for our strong suit, as a really nice organic complement to one another. And then in 2011 we merged the businesses together. We had about 25 employees at the time. The idea was to embrace design and technology at the same level. Most companies are usually skewed one way or the other.
How have you been able to ensure that design and engineering have an equal role?
It hasn’t been a problem. It isn’t something we’ve had to make sure happens. It’s part of our culture — part of our DNA. Today we have 130 people, and our design and development teams are almost neck-and-neck. Thirty-five to forty designers, thirty-five to forty developers. And then we have a strategy discipline, we have a writing discipline, and production. None of those are quite as big as the design or development disciplines.
We’ve always just balanced each other out. We have a lot of people who are designers and developers. One practical way we have to ensure that those are equally balanced is that we’re all split into multidisciplinary teams — all the developers don’t sit together, all the designers don’t sit together. Everyone’s scattered across the whole company in teams that are based around clients. Producers, developers, strategists, art directors, coders, front-end, back-end… everyone’s kind of mixed up together. So those are really like little boutique agencies. We have four core teams like that. We look for projects that utilize all of our skills.
How does collaboration work in those cross-disciplinary teams?
Every team is different. We’re very open to processes and tools and methods. We’ve always had sort of an anti-process point of view, since everything we do is so different — every client we take on, every challenge we have is really unique, so there’s no formula that’s going to work for everyone, and we don’t try to tell our clients that “this is our process.” The team, process, and deliverables are totally based on what needs to be done in that particular case.
We are extremely collaborative with our clients, and with one another. On the tools front, we’ve used Basecamp forever. We use Slack now a lot — Slack is huge for everyone, from operations to bookkeeping to front-desk employees and every discipline. We use Hangouts a lot.
Our new space is really designed for collaboration, so we have a lot of spaces to work. We’ve got these large standup desks with whiteboard tops that have stools and everyone can gather there for a session, and we have a lot of bar seating for one or two people to post up at the bar. We’ve got cubbies that fit two people, and we have a lot of little meeting rooms that are pretty versatile. We just have a lot of different ways to collaborate, and what I’ve found since we’ve moved in here is that people are exploring and testing things out. Like, “Maybe we should go upstairs and sit up by the kitchen and use that space for a while.”
Have you guys been using Wake? How does it fit in with your workflow?
Yeah, probably should’ve mentioned that. The design team is obsessed with Wake. We’ve been using it for about five months or so. People really love it, and we’ve been having conversations about: how can we use Wake together? How can we use it better? Why are some people scared to post on it, and others are all over it all the time? Should we post stuff from the past, or should we only post stuff that’s in progress? Are we trying to get serious feedback, or are we just trying to show off?
It’s been really good for us. It filled a hole that we didn’t realize was there, mostly because we’re multidisciplinary now and we’re spread across multiple floors. We get together as a design discipline maybe once a month, so it’s huge for us to see what’s going on in the other teams. Someone on the Google team has no idea what’s going on downstairs in another team, and now we can constantly see what other people are doing. It adds a bit of competitiveness, which I don’t think is a bad thing at all, and it’s also inspirational to the people. I think it pushes people in a good way.
What does your team do differently now than it did a year ago?
Our goal for the year is to be more united as a discipline. Since we’re spread out, people don’t always see the work being created by other teams. Wake has allowed for a lot more exposure between teams. I’ve seen more cross-team engagement around design discussions, and I’ve seen some new side projects spawn between designers.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the design world today?
I don’t know if this is the biggest challenge, but… there’s too much inspiration. There are too many Pinterest boards and too many beautiful things to look at. Things that don’t necessarily have much to do with the problem you’re probably solving.
It’s not just visual noise. Technology and devices and social media are are obviously a constant distraction. I’d say there’s just a lot of noise — visual noise, inspiration, and so much information and data coming at you at all times. I feel like people are either in two camps: they’re either in the camp of, “I’m going to be intentional and put boundaries up for myself and get on top of it and find my practice that allows me to focus and be creative,” or they’re just going with the river, on every device and every channel all the time. I think that’s a challenge and I don’t know what the answer is, because I think it’s probably different for everyone. But it’s a new challenge — it wasn’t like that when I started doing this.
Photos of the Instrument office were taken by Andrew Pogue.
To change the way your team collaborates, check out Wake — a private space to share and discuss design work with your team.