San Francisco – Offering unique insight into their design firm, the co-founders of O+A have curated an exceptional book about workspace design – and that's not all. We assembled the team that created Studio O+A – 12 True Tales of Workplace Design to talk about the making of the book and – the making of the company. O+A founders Primo Orpilla and Verda Alexander, designer Elizabeth Vereker, illustrator Olivia Ward and writer Al McKee share their thoughts on what makes this San Francisco firm unique, how the book reflects that spirit – and why they turned their history into a comic book.
O+A came of age at the same time as Silicon Valley. Is there a connection?
Verda Alexander (PA): Absolutely. From our very first project, we were creating brainstorm rooms and breaking down cubicle walls and trying to think of different ways for people to work. Facebook was for sure our turnaround project, our breakout project. It was the one where all these elements came together most cleanly, and it had a very clear story, but we took a lot of our cues from what we had learned over the 17 years before Facebook.
Primo Orpilla (PO): You have to remember, there was a time when people didn’t take Silicon Valley seriously. Wall Street thought, ‘Oh, we’re giving these people money to invest in their companies and all they’re doing is playing ping-pong.’ That was the label for tech – they played ping-pong and drank beer. But we knew it was much more. We knew it was about creating the next generation of workplace, creating a more flattened organisation to space, rather than having hierarchal space. And that was a hard thing to sell outside of these 30 miles. You didn’t sell it in any major city, not even Los Angeles – because executives here in the Bay Area were more open than most, I think, to making quick and nimble moves and being scrappy.
When did people start taking Silicon Valley seriously?
PO: I think it was around 2009, 2010. What really happened was people started looking at these social media companies and recognising their value.
VA: I think, too, they had a trial run – which was that first tech bubble. For like a very brief two or three year period, you had these crazy schemes and all kinds of crazy ideas and crazy money with no business plan. After that bubble burst, everybody took a break and went back to the drawing board.
Elizabeth Vereker (EV): And there was a diversification of industries, right? It wasn’t just tech for tech’s sake or social media. Suddenly it was a lot more biotech and transportation and security and tech moving into all of these different fields that were more kind of grown up and established.
AM: And O+A was there on the ground designing spaces for these companies that were just as innovative as the companies themselves.
PO: We’re not a traditional firm and we never have been. The idea was if we added certain skill sets to our offering – writers, graphic designers – this would help in what we wanted to do with the spaces. We felt like if we could bring all of those things to bear, we could serve clients better and we’d have better solutions. Designing space isn’t just about putting up walls and calculating where people are going to sit and how many bathrooms. The kind of layering and storytelling and branding we do – we’ve tried to build a practice around that.
Which brings us to this book. Why did O+A want to do a book?
PO: I felt it was time. After 26 years, we have a body of work; a diverse history of workplace design over a period of years. I thought it was a good time to document that and share it.
VA: We really have been champions of change and creating better environments for people to work in. But around that, I think our process is unique and our culture is unique and trying to capture that in a book is what this project is about.
EV: We’d done some internal books before, but this is our first big print run, our first international print run.
How did you feel when you got this project as a designer?
EV: It was a dream. I think the most exciting thing was finding a way to create a book that was as unique and compelling as the projects within it, without getting in the way of the project. Kind of like when we design for our clients. It’s not about us; it’s all about them and who they are and their brand. For this book project, the biggest challenge for me was getting out of the way. Because I was very excited and wanted to design it and really wanted to dig in – but that wasn’t what the book needed. The book needed me to create a clear palette and a compelling way to tell our story and then really let the photos shine on their own.
What was your process for the book?
EV: My process is always the same. First I look outside and I gather a lot of different inspiration, whether it’s from old typography or fashion or different kinds of compositions and posters and then I just iterate, iterate, iterate. Any time I’m designing something new and staring at a blank page, I set a timer and I do a design exercise. I’ll start with the cover and I’ll say, ‘Okay I’m going to do this for four hours and every half hour, every twenty minutes, I’m going to switch to another one.’ So regardless of where I am in that design, it’s over. Copy and paste to the next one. And that’s how we worked through setting up the template and figuring out the typefaces and the breadth of page layouts. It was looking at one page a hundred different ways, picking the best one and then moving on.
AM: For me, the challenge was the fact that we had done those prior books. The writing challenge was tackling these projects again, as if for the first time.The best writing is always an act of discovery, so I tried to write about what we had learned from those projects – the sort of design principles that those projects illustrated. We came up with little design proverbs for each chapter; there are twelve true tales and then twelve design proverbs with essays that illustrate them.
And a comic book – which crops up in the middle of it all?
Olivia Ward (OA): And a comic book. I think it makes perfect sense for us. At O+A, everything is about pushing the boundaries and combining as many types of creativity and art and design as possible, so when tasked with telling the history, an illustrated history made sense. I guess a comic book was the next logical step.
AM: Usually in a book like this, the history of the company is kind of a snore. Who cares what the history of the company is? I thought this would be a way of doing it that would be entertaining. We could poke a little fun at ourselves.
What are you most happy about with the final book?
AM: I think it’s an accurate portrait of O+A. A book like this rarely gets read cover to cover, but I wanted it to be interesting no matter where you happen to open it up. I wanted it to grab you no matter where you start and I think it does.
EV: This book is living proof of our ethos as a company and that we believe every design has a story to tell. I love that we can draw these parallels from people like Willie Nelson and Maya Angelou, from very different parts of the world and different perspectives and show how they all relate. It’s kind of like how the different parts and pieces come together in design.
PO: I agree. I like it when different voices come together. I know it’s going to be much better if we have input and we have different points of view, and that’s what this book does and what O+A does. You pick this book up and you go through it, and it’s O+A.
VA: I think it’s a unique approach to a monograph. Just like we approach workplace uniquely, we approached this project uniquely. I like it as a package. At the end of the day, the reason we craft these stories is to create beautiful spaces – and, in this case, a beautiful book.
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