Space for Creativity and the Future of Workplace Design | David Schwarz

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

David Schwarz, the founding partner at HUSH, specializes in designing brand experiences and spaces that foster creativity, collaboration, and trust. In this episode, David breaks down the concept of experience design and how looking at an organization through different design lenses — like space, light, sound, and material — enables HUSH to craft an experience that positions the brand’s story in the real world, and resonates with its audience in an impactful and meaningful way.

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Jo Meunier [00:00:17] Hello and welcome to The Future of Work Podcast by Allwork.Space. I’m Jo Meunier. And today I’m looking forward to talking to David Schwarz from HUSH. David is an award winning creative leader. He spent nearly the past 20 years designing brand experiences to integrate content, interactivity, architecture and technology. Internally, David focuses on making space for creativity, which of course will resonate deeply with anyone connected to working. In David’s words, “creating space for creativity means cultivating studio environments that foster collaboration and trust, that promote democratic contribution, and generate an open source repository of cultural, stylistic and technological knowledge to inspire teams”. So enough from me. Hello, David, and thank you for joining us on the Future of Work podcast today. 

David Schwarz [00:01:07] Thank you so much for having me. 

Jo Meunier [00:01:09] Really pleased to have you. I’m really looking forward to this conversation, I have to say. So I’m going to jump straight in and say first of all, can you give us a quick whirlwind tour of what you’ve been doing for the past couple of decades and how you came to create your brand, HUSH?

David Schwarz [00:01:23] Sure. So I was actually not trained as a designer. I went to an undergrad liberal arts college. But I’d always been interested in design and art and architecture and sort of active in the arts in that way. But I think maybe I didn’t have the confidence to commit to this sort of pursuit. 

David Schwarz [00:01:44] It only really went or I jumped into the dot com design boom in 1999 in San Francisco, where there was a lot of craziness going on. And, you know, there were parties for these small companies called Google and things that you didn’t even know what they did. But, you know, I was enthralled by the way design and interface and technology and storytelling kind of all came together in this rapid fire away in this new medium. I went to graduate school Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, which was a really transformative time for me. I worked harder than ever and just lived every bit of information I could get my hands on. Studied films, digital, architecture. I studied branding and design and animation. I was a massive sponge. And it felt really, really powerful. 

[00:02:44] So basically after that, I had a lot of freelance jobs where I came in as a designer and art director for digital agencies at the time. And I did some work in commercial direction for television and it was a pretty varied experience. And I quickly was put in positions far beyond what I actually knew how to do. That was maybe just because I really love taking on challenges and maybe I had the guise of someone who could do it well, even if I didn’t have the hours behind me. So people took risks on me and I just jumped in and did it and I was somewhat successful. So in retrospect, we started the company in 2006. 

David Schwarz [00:03:36] We started HUSH as a sort of amalgamation of a lot of these experiences we picked up along the way. I had a more visual design and spatial design background. My partner had more of a technical background and it was like a CCO / CTO kind of marriage. And we built the studio in a way that reflected a lot of our backgrounds where we had this quite varied experience through creative, and thinking about the way people interact with ideas and stories and spaces and content. And it was kind of new at the time, frankly. It wasn’t really industry per se, like ‘experience design’ — what we call that now was kind of happening, you know, it was part of what architects always thought about, part of what digital companies always thought about. 

David Schwarz [00:04:34] But maybe not with the parlance that we use today. So I guess that’s short for saying we kind of knew what we wanted to go. But it was more setting sail in a direction, not having it perfectly scripted. 

Jo Meunier [00:04:51] And experience design. Can you explain what that means in a nutshell, if that’s possible? 

David Schwarz [00:04:59] Absolutely. So first, let me say it’s the worst nomenclature in the world. It’s terrible. I think what it is, in truth, is really thinking about how people, human beings understand a story or an idea or meaning of an organization through all of the design lenses possible. Right. How does space and light and sound and material and interface and image, create this 360 degree understanding of an idea? 

David Schwarz [00:05:43] And that idea could be what a company or a brand stands for, for its customer or for its employee in the workplace. Or it could be what a cultural institution hopes to do in the world. But in any sense, it’s really looking at design through all these lenses and knowing that they’re greater than the sum of their parts. And so if you understand how to manipulate each of those things in the right way, you can really position that story in the real world, in its optimal space. Of course, underneath that, it has categories of things like service design, you know if you’re in a consumer facing process, it has an operational process, a program piece, a journey piece. And also, we believe, it has a sort of beauty and artistic and aesthetic piece, like everything we do is meant to be perceived to the senses in a beautiful way. So the problem is, that word ‘experience’: it’s like mud or clay. It’s just pulled in every direction by anyone who needs it. So there’s lots of people using the words, experience design, to talk purely about digital applications. The experience within the rectangle or the interface. And that’s fair. It’s just not the same definition we have. So it’s a good catch all. But once you’re in the business and you have peers trying to work out exactly what you do and what you don’t do and what our approaches are, it gets tough, because it’s not as nuanced as it needs to be. 

Jo Meunier [00:07:15] Yeah. And I want to ask you how you apply experience design to the workplace. But I’m also interested in your workplace journey. You’ve created HUSH and you’ve been through that journey of building a business and bringing on people. So, what was it like? Where did you work, when you first started the business and how and what does your workplace look like now? 

David Schwarz [00:07:42] That’s a great question. So in a professional career history like beat by beat. Well, it’s pretty simple, actually. So when I was in San Francisco before I went to graduate school, I worked for a small studio that was eventually acquired by one of the management consulting firms. It was a digital agency called Total Creative, there were about 20 people to start, maybe 80 when we left. I saw some growth there over a couple of years. And I was just, I was green, you know, I was fresh. 

David Schwarz [00:08:12] I didn’t know what I was doing. But again, the CEO saw some twinkle in my eye or something. And he gave me more opportunity than I deserve. But I saw what a good culture does. I saw what rapid growth does to a company. I saw what concessions that sometimes are made around culture in favor of growth. I saw what unlimited investment and an incredibly hot market does in terms of, you know, there are hundreds of Aeron chairs and beer in the office and, you know, bar stools and pool tables and foosball. You know, it was when it was really first becoming part of company culture in the workplace, like, hey, work is fun. So stay at work longer! That kind of idea. 

David Schwarz [00:09:10] So I learned a lot about that because I was very close to a scale of business that wasn’t hard to see. It wasn’t a thousand or two thousand person company. I could see everyone from top to bottom who was working there and I could see the stresses and opportunities. So I learned a lot about that. I went to school and when I left school, the first job I ever had was with a person called Kyle Cooper. He was pretty famous at the time in L.A. because he had done seven film titles, you know, with Brad Pitt. And he was this famous film title at the time director. And he saw my work as a graduate and I got to work for him. I didn’t work there very long because it was very difficult and exhausting and frankly, scary to work for him, even though he was really talented. So I didn’t love that. But I learned a lot very quickly. But then I just kept taking new opportunities. And I freelanced between L.A., San Francisco, Chicago and New York, just going to different agencies and studios and working on different types of digital and film projects. And I did that for six or seven years. 

David Schwarz [00:10:23] It was a way to look into workplaces, a way to see what resonated with me. It was a voyeuristic kind of experience, where you could see how different companies, maybe even working in the same space, approached things incredibly differently or how their culture or leadership affected the way their outcomes were, even if they were working on the same kind of work. So that was super, super revealing. I made my way to New York at that time and I met my business partner at a company called Brand New School, it’s still around, still a very successful design company. And, like I said, we were put on projects that we shouldn’t have been on. 

David Schwarz [00:11:17] You know, we somehow got to be leaders of these projects. We flew to Argentina. We were directing commercials with 300, 400 people. We were doing all this director client work that really taught us a lot. And we learned on the job without it being our own capital at risk. So we learned that we worked well together and we’re very collaborative and it just set the stage. And over a Banh Mi sandwich in the Lower East Side, we said, hey, you know, we should start a company. Yeah, let’s do it. You know, the naivety of starting a business! But we both were kind of entrepreneurial. We were both at the point where we were, at the time, the owner of Brand New School, which was probably a hundred person company at the time, was probably only a few years older than we were, maybe four or five years. 

David Schwarz [00:12:05] So from our standpoint, we were like, well, we can either start building our own brand with our own sweat and our own money or, you know, work for someone else. And there’s nowhere to go. So we did it. And I was very naive and it was kind of a slow roll for a long time. And we were small, but it’s always been just very methodical growth and great strategic growth, and just trying to do right by what we want to do, and what we want to put into the world. 

Jo Meunier [00:12:36] Fantastic. And the rest is history. 

David Schwarz [00:12:39] Kind of, or history is still in progress. We still have a lot to do, you know. 

Jo Meunier [00:12:42] Yeah. And talking again about the experience design that you mentioned earlier. So how do you apply that to the workplace today? What are the steps that you go through…? 

David Schwarz [00:12:53] To the workplace of our clients or our own workplace? 

Jo Meunier [00:12:56] Let’s start with your clients. 

David Schwarz [00:12:58] Great. So workplace experience design is a growing piece of our business. It’s a substantive piece of our business. So we’re experts in a certain part of it or, you know, newbies in another way. So I want to be clear about that. I think we’re looking at it from a new lens, which might be really valuable, I think. Sometimes those new lenses help everyone unlock some of the same problems that have been there for the whole time. So. Basically, our firm really leans in to experience design in the workplace through the lens of non commodity experiences. Let me define that… Let’s talk about pre-COVID. In the workplace, there’s a lot in the workplace that we have nothing to do with, but it’s fundamental to what makes employees happy and efficient. If you were to imagine a rectangle in your head right now, this is an abstract idea of what an organization invests in its workplace in terms of money and space. Of that rectangle, we probably only really are hired to think about a reasonably small percentage of that, maybe less than 20 percent. The rest of it is quite functional. It’s programming around workspaces and desks and conference rooms and food and beverage and wellness spaces and breakout spaces. And, you know, these are fundamental parts of any workplace program. And most of those things are handled by architects, as they likely should be. The remaining 10 or 20 percent that we really lean into is, I would say, the things that help people collaborate, commune, play, interact, learn, participate, create together. That’s the stuff that we like to design within the workplace. 

David Schwarz [00:15:20] And it’s qualitative in value, but it can be highly, highly valuable. So some examples might be, we’ve done experience centers in the workplace where both employees and partners come to learn more about the culture or information or best practices or vision of the company. We’ve done interactive spaces that allow people to participate in their own culture… suggest things, get feedback, understand their coworkers and other locations, communicate in weird new ways. So we’ve also done large, gestures in, you know, big commercial workspace lobbies that sort of set the tone for a company of who they are and what they’re intending to be, so that anyone who walks in, existing employees, their guests, partners, media recruits is a big one for H.R., you know, feels instantly as if this company is the place for me. We work a lot with big tech, the Ubers, the Facebooks, the Googles, the LinkedIns of the world. And we often are helping them bring that sentiment of what it means to work at an innovative, visionary technology company to life in ways that feel a little bit more human and a little less digital, if that makes sense.

Jo Meunier [00:16:53] Yeah. And you mentioned earlier that creating spaces for collaboration and play and so on, they’re very important to building the company’s culture, your client’s culture. But obviously, in our current situation, these spaces are under the spotlight at the moment. And this kind of in-person collaboration that we thrive on isn’t happening in the same way it was before. So I’m interested in how you can design workplaces, well, in a post-COVID world — we’re not there yet — we’re still ‘during-COVID’. So how has that changed what you do? 

David Schwarz [00:17:36] Well, as with any huge challenge comes some amazing opportunity. And I actually think, the last several months have shown that we’re incredibly well-positioned to rethink the way workplaces are designed in ways that aren’t incremental, but rather, really, different. You know, I want to go there. I think the expectation now of our world and modern workers is incredibly different. And I think the risk at hand right now is that companies will take incremental steps to address COVID but not revolutionary steps. And what a waste of a pivotal moment. What a waste of the potential to really change the way we will work in the future and what the workplace becomes. I mean, if this is a 10 percent shift, if all we’re doing is making six foot radii around people and changing circulation flows and changing the density of workers, but we’re keeping the same program, it’s just like these tweaks to the program and we’re putting hand sanitizer and stickers on the wall, if that’s what comes out of this — we really lost.

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One of our clients, a big bank based in London, has said this is a myth busting moment. The myths around work that have been created for decades are finally coming to an end because the myths are busted, because productivity is often higher and happiness is often higher. And that’s the data. So if that’s the data, all the assumptions we made about gathering people on what they had to do and their expectations for time in time out and the functions they had there, it’s all gone. So if the myth is busted, we have to re-brief our entire team and start from scratch. And I think what I’m hoping to do is very specific. Let me go back to my rectangle analogy. If that rectangle was a pre-COVID rectangle, that’s the space a company would have invested for its employees pre-COVID. What I’m seeing a lot is clients saying, oh, well, we used to have a hundred X there, but now we’re going to have 30 percent less. We have 70 X in there. But 70 X needs to be spread out pretty safe. So we’re going to spread that 70 X back out into that rectangle. So now it’s just a less dense, creative thing. That’s basically 95 percent of what you hear and see as action plans from architecture and workplace design teams around the world. How sad is that? So what really needs to happen is not just a shift in that way, but, asking ourselves what the purpose of the workplace is now. I still believe that the workplace and the architecture of companies, the architecture of organizations like how they manifest their company in physicalized form, is one of the most substantive ways a company can express itself to the world. I think it has a gravitas and a totality that goes far beyond just a brand or just a digital platform. And even companies like Facebook, you know, lean so much into their campus and campus design as a way of giving reality to the digital vision, if you will.

So culture is probably my biggest, you know, I ring the culture bell of the workplace all the time. And I think that this shift with COVID, has demonstrated that we can do so much of the functional things we were once doing at work, not at work, whether it’s at home or in ‘third places’. That’s fine. But we cannot replace culture in those homes or third places. And so the thesis I have and I think it’s worth asking the audience is, you know, if culture is the north star of the workplace, then how does that change the program and experience design of the workplace? And I would argue that in this imaginary rectangle, we keep referencing, the bulk of that rectangle, at least 50 percent of it should now become dedicated to experiences that you literally cannot do at home or in third places because they require, people coming together safely, of course. And interacting with ideas and tools and information and content and objects and spaces that are like no other. Could it happen because they need to be financed by a large organization with the scale and power to make these spaces? And much like, you know, you can go online and ride a digital roller coaster. But going to a theme park, the roller coaster is pretty unique and you and I cannot recreate the roller coaster in our homes or in third places. It’s the same thing. So that’s what I envision. I envision workplaces where going to work is not an everyday thing. It’s certainly a hybrid thing. And when you go to work, it’s very highly tuned to the program set by the organization. And it happens in these ritualistic beats. Imagine where your teams are working, distributed, and you’re super efficient, but you have weekly or bi-weekly or monthly all hands where your teams come and they use the space to do innovation sprints or there’s an education program for three days and then they come back and the next week they do everyone on campus working in these spaces with these tools and experiences to manifest innovative ideas and do quick prototyping and R&D. 

David Schwarz [00:24:25] And then they go back to their work from home or they go back to third places where they then use all the beautiful tools and zooms and workplace and Microsoft Teams, and all these things, to actually execute and operationalize the things they came up with together in the workplace, because that’s where real collaboration inspiration happens. 

David Schwarz [00:24:47] So why don’t we do it? And then you can think about how H.R. uses these things. Recruiting is one of the biggest drivers of design that I’ve seen in the last five years as all these companies compete over the same talent, campuses should become like temples to recruitment. You know, amazing places where they use the space to get people invested in deeper insight into what the company is about and the potential. That’s what space should be used for. So anyway, I’m waxing poetic. 

Jo Meunier [00:25:25] That’s that’s really interesting potential future scenario where these offices, they’re all over the world, thousands of office locations and rather than just letting them sit virtually empty, they could become collaboration hubs. 

Jo Meunier [00:25:40] And so long as we’re in the situation where people are required to work remotely, from home, or work in these different places, keeping a central office is effectively like keeping the culture intact, isn’t it? And it’s where you bring your people to remind them of the brand and the culture and to reignite those creative juices. For people who are stuck at home in isolation, it’s difficult to get creative, isn’t it? And you’re a creative firm. And so you must feel this, too. It’s difficult to innovate and think creatively when we’re stuck at home and we can’t collaborate with other people. 

David Schwarz [00:26:21] Exactly. But if I know that at a certain cadence and for various reasons, not one time or one off, but I have a schedule of moments that allow me to ‘come back to the hive’ or come back together. And I know those are coming. I would argue that I would, psychologically, I’m going to enjoy the efficiencies and flexibility I have while I’m working from home to do the endeavors that are optimized there. And my desire to go back to the office and work with people and my stress from working at home in this sort of isolation will be mediated because I know it’s coming. It’s part of the program. It’s part of how I work and how the future of work strategy goes. So, you know, I actually think it’ll have emotional benefits on both sides. The lean into the scenarios and working from home and being efficient in those ways, the doing, if you will, the doing and the operationalizing, the execution, very efficient things that require efficient digital tools, of which there are thousands, so we’re covered. And then the abstract things that are less about doing but about asking and opening questions and meandering and exploring that are best done interpersonally and with the physical space and temporal space to be able to do that. Let’s design the spaces to do that. 

Jo Meunier [00:27:59] Absolutely. And I love what you said then about coming back to the hive. It really is the hive, isn’t it? 

David Schwarz [00:28:06] Yeah, it’s a hive. Right. The hive is where the queen bee controls the rhythms and directs what should happen with it, with all the other bees. I think it’s not a bad metaphor. 

Jo Meunier [00:28:19] Absolutely. I love that. And we’re reaching the end of our episode. 

Jo Meunier [00:28:24] But there was one thing I wanted to ask you about that we haven’t touched on yet, and that’s about the use of data. I know that you, as part of the experiences that you create, you often incorporate the use of data, and it’s such a big, big part of our world now. So how do you use data and why do you think it can be valuable in experience design? 

David Schwarz [00:28:47] So that’s a great question. So data, we’ve used a lot of data in interesting ways, not scary ways; interesting, creative, inspiring ways. So, you know, data has a Pavlovian response, and I want your audience to know, data does have a dark side and I think we’ve spent some time talking and thinking about that. But there is also, in modern design in all senses, it’s also an asset. It’s also a tool in your tool box, a paint brush in your kit. And so it’s not that we need and require data. It’s just that, virtually every modern large company thinks about data intrinsically as part of what it is and what it does. This is, you know, exponential for companies in banking or big tech, where the data is the only way the company runs. It’s how it gets its efficiencies of scale. It’s how it gets knowledge. It’s how it makes the innovation happen. 

David Schwarz [00:30:01] So to think about that being true for those kinds of organizations and not bringing that to the surface somehow in experience design or in the workplace seems like a missing opportunity. And seems like if you’re gonna talk about the culture of a company or where it’s headed, to not use that tool would be strange. So here’s how we might use it with some examples. For LinkedIn, last year we did a project in one of their main buildings in their campus in California, we leveraged all the data of their insights platform to help visualize for everyone, all their employees, as well as their guests and partners, trends in the global workforce, which effectively shows people how the work they’re doing is manifesting in creating more equality between demand and supply of global workers. 

David Schwarz [00:31:05] Where is knowledge going? Where are skills going? How are these industries changing? How can one industry actually be more correlated to another industry in ways that only big data could tell you? So we allowed employees to participate in that, learn in that and see it at a grand scale, because ultimately their work on the LinkedIn platform every day is in service of this knowledge. A second example is the work we did for an amazing biotech company called United Therapeutics in Silver Spring, Maryland. I think the largest employer in that city. Amazing company, forward-thinking CEO Martine Rothblatt. You should watch your TED talk. They built a new headquarters building on their campus, and it happened to be a completely site net zero building, meaning it produced as much energy as it used onsite, which is really, a feat of engineering, especially in the east coast of the United States, where climate swings rapidly around the seasons. So why do people work for United Therapeutics? Because it’s an incredibly innovative company. It saves lives with its biotech innovation. If they’re going to build a building, it’s gonna be the most incredibly engineered building ever. If they’re going to build a car, it’s going to be the same. So Martine wanted to show her employees and potential employees this new tenacious vision they had about, helping the world and building something that doesn’t use any energy that it doesn’t produce. So how do we do that? We employed experience design based on the data of the building to share back to all employees what the building is doing at any given time. And every employee knows if the building is making energy or using energy. 

David Schwarz [00:33:06] And they can tune, suddenly, their own behaviors in the workplace to help that building achieve its mission every day. So you think about that. It’s not an education platform, although it is. It’s not a big brother yelling at people when they’re using it, when they put the lights on. It’s a beautiful, integrated set of experiences in the building that is intimately tied to the data of the building, tied into the data systems and energy systems of the buildings. That’s a perfect example where data becomes part of the message of what the company is all about. And I could give you more examples, but those are the kinds of things we think about. And in that way, data is performing just like any other kind of cultural organizational input. And it’s just something we’re pretty good at bringing to life. 

Jo Meunier [00:34:05] Yeah, absolutely. And data is such a big part of our world now. And it’s going to continue to be that way, isn’t it? As we step towards the future of work. And that does bring me nicely onto my last question. 

Jo Meunier [00:34:17] This is the future of podcast so of course, we’re really interested in what you think might be coming around the corner in terms of the workplace and design and the experience. And so I’m just interested to know if you have any other thoughts that you want to add about the future of work and how HUSH is gearing up for that?

David Schwarz [00:34:41] Yeah, I mean, I think I would double back on what I mentioned, our core vision and thesis is, can we reclaim the workplace as an experience center and divest the workplace of work. 

Jo Meunier [00:35:05] OK.

David Schwarz [00:35:08] That’s kind of what I think is our whole flip that we’d like to see. And even if we get halfway there or a quarter of the way there, I think it will be a refreshing way to set up the next era of what it means to be an employee. And I think, you know, we’ve spent the last decade and a half, two decades being cajoled into coming to work because of amenities and free food and a nice chair and beautiful materials. And that’s cool. I get it. I’m a designer by trade. I fetishize architecture and things and spaces like anyone else in our field. But I believe we are ripe for a new era where bells and whistles aren’t the thing and we’re not forced to be there. We are there to really do things like never before and impossible to do elsewhere. And that’s a pretty cool vision, I think. 

Jo Meunier [00:36:16] Yeah, absolutely. I love that. Brilliant. Okay. Well, thank you so much, David, for joining us today. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. And can you finish by telling us how our listeners can find out more about HUSH  and the work that you do? 

David Schwarz [00:36:32] Absolutely. You can go to our website, which is heyhush.com. Hey, HUSH dot com. And our Instagram account is @officialHUSHstudios and we publish a bunch of content on LinkedIn and other posts. So thought leadership is on LinkedIn. Website for hiring and open roles and core portfolio stuff. And Instagram for work in progress, cool creative tests, visualizations and other ideas. 

Jo Meunier [00:37:06] That’s fantastic. Well, thank you so much, David. And we look forward to having you back on the podcast again someday. 

David Schwarz [00:37:12] Thank you so much. This is really wonderful. I appreciate it. Good luck. 

Jo Meunier [00:37:15] Thank you. Take care. 

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