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The art of messing up and making things

A tech company, like Facebook, might be the last place you’d expect to stumble into an old-school print shop, replete with cans of ink and drying racks and hand-burned screens. For one thing, print is supposed to be dead. For another, Facebook makes software, not posters.

Yet Facebook’s Analog Research Laboratory is as analog and reminiscent of art school as can be. It’s also a pivotal part of Facebook’s company culture. The lab began grassroots-style when designers Ben Barry and Everett Katigbak found a corner of an unused warehouse and began building a print studio. Fellow employees began to take notice as the posters, printed with catchy slogans, were tacked up around the office.

Today, the lab is a fully-staffed “creative space for design and art making” that boasts its own Facebook page and Twitter handle. In keeping with the present day Maker Movement, the studio

The idea is simple: staff and employees can visit the studio to make and build things. In late May, for example, employees in Seattle screenprinted tote bags that riffed on a well-known Eleanor Roosevelt quote. The bags read: “The future belongs to those who make it.” While the tote bags are fun, it’s the process of making and building that’s important; it’s how new ideas are born.

Where art meets tech

Facebook is not alone. Trendsetting companies around the world, including Airbnb, Pinterest, Nike, and even IBM, are also making space for “makers” in the modern workplace, allowing employees to get their hands dirty and try something new, whether it’s screenprinting, woodworking, circuitry, or sewing.

These corporate “makerspaces” take a cue from maker communities like TechShop, which encourages artisans, technologists, and anyone interested in learning a new skill, to gather for classes, rent equipment, and to collaborate. From coffee-roasting to leatherworking, 3-D printing to electroluminescent wire, TechShop provides ample opportunity to work in and with new mediums.

Playing with new mediums is often the point. A great makerspace can serve as a special place where makers of all stripes can cross-pollinate and inspire one another to create something entirely new. They can be hubs of innovation and artisan craftsmanship, as well as labs in which tinkerers gather and projects can fail spectacularly.

Playing with new mediums is often the point. A great makerspace can serve as a special place where makers of all stripes can cross-pollinate and inspire one another to create something entirely new.

Just say yes to waffle irons

Ryan Noon is the studio manager for Nike’s Blue Ribbon Studio. Earlier this year at SXSW, Noon described the Blue Ribbon Studio as a “designer clubhouse” where designers can gather in one location, regardless of which department or building they report to. The studio is not so much a hive for shoe and apparel design so much as a space used to stretch a different muscle of the creative brain.

“What’s amazing is when people use the tools or machines ‘wrong’ and create something unusual and unexpected,” Noon said. “If they can think differently in the studio,

That’s the whole idea behind corporate makerspaces. Ideally, allowing employees to make time for physical making can translate to building better products. Whether or not the studio can measure its impact, it strives to offer hands-on activities for designers that include printmaking, working with fabrics, 3D printers, laser cutters, or melting things in a waffle iron. (What designer would say no to that?!) A lecture series also brings in visiting speakers and designers.

Art [is] for everyone

These spaces are all well and good for creatives, but what about everyone else? For so many of us, creativity rests on its laurels as we do the busywork of everything encapsulated in adult life, and as we focus on advancing our careers and growing our retirement funds. Art tends to be relegated only to the artists, or as a hobby on nights and weekends.

Yet what companies like Pinterest are finding, explained Tim Belonax, a senior brand designer, is that work—and the workforce—is changing. Belonax was part of the crew who created posters at the Facebook Analog Research Lab, back in the lab’s early days. And he’s right: Today, employees are bringing their whole selves to work and seek a flexible work-life balance. As the line between work and personal continues to blur, there must be room for art at work, and for the artists within us.

When it comes to physical making, there’s “no Ctrl-Z. You get to make mistakes and it’s okay. People want to actually ‘make’ things and learn new skills,” Belonax said. It’s true—if you mess up a poster, it’s either destined for the recycling bin or simply imperfect and one-of-a-kind, the way we all are.

When it comes to physical making, there’s no Ctrl-Z. You get to make mistakes and it’s okay.

At Pinterest, the makerspaces are dispersed and led by a variety of people. “The spaces really exemplify the culture of Pinterest,” Belonax said. Similarly, the Airbnb Common Studio is meant to give all employees a chance to disengage with their day-to-day work and try everything from foil stamping to 3D printing to leather and metal-working. Run by studio manager Alexandra Jane Williams, Airbnb chooses “easily accessible” activities that many people can do.

“We make almost everything you can think of,” Williams said. “When we created the room, we really just wanted to encourage everyone to create something.” In fact, every new hire who visits Airbnb’s headquarters creates their own keychain using a foil stamper. A studio highlight, however, has to be the 3D print of a Pokéball.

Initially, Airbnb expected the art department would make the most use the studio, but the majority of visitors are non-creatives. “It’s nice to be able to start and finish something within one visit,” Williams said. “That rarely happens in our day-to-day anymore.”

Making the case for art

The benefits of making art are known, even as the arts continue to go unfunded in many public schools across the United States. An arts education isn’t about churning out future artists; instead, the value is more fundamental. In young children, art helps develop crucial motor and language skills, contributes to problem-solving and the ability to self-regulate (as does unstructured, imaginative, creative play), helps develop spatial skills and soft skills, broadens cultural awareness, and encourages kids to take risks and be inventive.

A 2013 study on the educational effects of visiting an art museum was able to establish a causal relationship between exposure to the arts and improved critical thinking, higher levels of social tolerance, and greater historical empathy.

It’s no stretch of the imagination, then, that similar exposure to art and arts activities benefit adults as well. Makerspaces offer employees a chance to learn a new skill, participate in team-building, blow off some steam, and to problem-solve. Art can be a great distraction from other problems at work, but it also creates problems of its own. Ask anyone who’s ever baked a cake from scratch, or fired up a kiln, how many things can go wrong. Overcoming the hurdles of creation can lend a real sense of accomplishment.

Art as therapy has also been well-documented, and visual arts have been linked to helping patients with chronic illnesses feel more positive emotions, less anxiety, and, in cases of HIV patients, actually raise CD4+ lymphocyte counts. That’s right—the physical act of making has an actual physical impact.

The return on screenprinting

If there are clear benefits to the individual, it can be harder to justify the value of a makerspace to a business, not to mention the time spent away from one’s actual desk (even as modern workplaces are trending away from assigned seating).

Of the “Creating Space for Making in the Workplace” panelists at SXSW, Noon was the only one paid to run a makerspace. He runs a team of five and has the support of Nike’s CEO, a former designer. Yet even Noon admitted, “We’re having to constantly change the perception of ‘what work means.’” It’s a great question—do we show up to get the job done, or to challenge the status quo?

The IBM Make Lab is not officially sanctioned or funded by IBM. Instead, it’s a function of design at IBM that rose from a very human desire to make a mess and to work through and test ideas. As an unofficial part of company culture, the lab occupies a 400-square foot teaching space where designers, primarily, can also print posters and t-shirts. According to the website, IBM’s design studios are also roving spaces—living, breathing ventures that can spontaneously pop-up anywhere.

“Since IBM is an older company, [a makerspace] is a strange idea for them,” shared Patrick Chew, a visual designer at IBM. “Nothing we make is going to improve software and there is a lot of attention to the bottom line. To justify the lab’s value, you have to focus on outreach, visibility, recruiting, and retention. Employees love these labs, and if you use these labs to justify recruiting and retention, it can help your cause.”

“Nothing we make is going to improve software and there is a lot of attention to the bottom line. To justify the lab’s value, you have to focus on outreach, visibility, recruiting, and retention.” - Patrick Chew

Imagine the potential results if a creative team ran workshops for engineers and, in return, engineers taught employees basic coding. Or, perhaps your makerspace could offer a company-wide service, like design-thinking sessions around problems different organizations are trying to solve for. In this way, the space can add value that is both palpable and quantifiable.

Want to kickstart a maker culture at your own company? Follow these steps to make it happen.

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DIY: Be your own maker

If you’re not ready to go full hog and launch a company-wide makerspace, consider what you can personally do to create a more maker-like environment. As many makers know, meetings can be the death of creativity and productivity. That’s why many makers adopt a “maker schedule” by blocking their calendar for a few hours at a time, or maybe even for a full day. The first step to making a creative leap

While software company Zendesk doesn’t have an official makerspace, members of the in-house creative and marketing teams sometimes gather in communal spaces for “Sketch Tuesdays”. Over lunch, everyone gets the same illustration assignment, and no formal drawing skills (or makerspace) are required.

And even though IBM’s makerspace is unsanctioned, IBM designers have a clear mission statement: “We believe that human experiences drive business.” Baked into that statement is the implication that human experiences are like humans—a little bit messy. We’re known for false starts and missteps and happy accidents. And sometimes, the discoveries we make along the way can have everything to do with our success.