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Spatial design for creative collaboration

„Spaces should be enabling!“

How creative collaboration in space and the space itself affects creative collaboration. A workshop talk with Arne Schultchen, founder and creative lead of dfhn.

Very briefly: How does creative collaboration actually work?

AS: With lots of guests around a round table. I couldn’t make it shorter.

Okay, the slightly longer version?

AS: The nature of creative collaboration is very hospitable. It aims to bring many different people together in a familiar and trusting way in order to shape joint projects together. That is its purpose. That is why it invites people to a round table with a free choice of seats. This makes everyone feel equally welcome and valued.

And the effect?

AS: Creative Collaboration knows that guests have very different characters, abilities and vanities. They want community, but also seek individual freedom. They want dynamism and movement, but also retreat and serenity. This needs to be moderated. Ideally, a shared rhythm is created, almost a flow experience. Then moderation is no longer necessary.

Are there images?

AS: All the images that take us into biological and neuro-biological worlds are fascinating. They are the most “collaborative places” imaginable. Equally impressive are children at play. When they have a “usable” environment, together they come up with incredible ideas. And everyone is behind it!

And something more precise?

AS: As designers, we look for bold and simplistic images. For example, we rediscovered our thought patterns for creative collaboration in the sensational illustrations of Paul Sougy. He illustrated nature and anatomy studies in the 1950s. His depictions of organic structures and very lively processes are still inspiring today. They were used on large-format teaching charts for school lessons – one of which hangs in our studio.

How do you embody creative collaboration in a space?

AS: Twelve years ago, we developed our ideal collaboration environment for our offsite location on the river Elbe: A central round table, four multifunctional walls on castors, a long bar table and 14 stools. And two lounge chairs by Castiglioni & Laviani, which were a must.

We successfully held countless workshops with this modular environment. It’s almost crazy: the presence of the modules gives us the confidence that the space will follow our processes. For example, as soon as you start working on one of the mobile blackboard walls, it’s clear that the next one will also be drawn into the process. Then the next one after that.
The special feature: The spatial entry of a new element into the process always enables a transition, a development step in the process. Gathering, reopening, realigning. Or when the multifunctional walls are transformed into individual workstations, everyone moves them into their ideal “working position”. Once this little maneuver is successful, there is nothing but concentrated serenity. The room design has become part of the process in which we operate. Incidentally, today more than ever we think FLOW is a fitting name for our place.

What exactly are you working on today?

AS: We are currently working on new modular furniture systems for project work. The focus is on the challenge: how can spatial design help shape the course of innovative and tranformational projects – often of a complex and interdisciplinary nature? The expectations for the success of these projects are often very high. Our aim is to design the spatial environment in such a way that it becomes a stimulating, creative partner for the processes.

What’s new or different about it?

AS: The novelty is perhaps not so much the individual functionality of each module. Instead, it is the interaction of different modules with human behavior in the room: from standing to sitting to lying down, from leaning forward to leaning back, from leaning towards each other to leaning away from each other, from looking into the room to looking out. On the one hand, it should enable project teams to develop their ideas in a structured way, but on the other hand also spontaneously, situationally and playfully. Both are equally important to us.

We achieve this by ensuring that projects and their processes not only take place in the mind, but are also literally taken in hand. We want our room modules to be pushed, turned, rotated, changed and repurposed. Our thesis is that the more they are touched, the better off the people in the process will be. And thus, of course, the project – spaces should empower!

How to measure the contribution of a room module system?

AS: It will always depend first and foremost on people, on their ability and willingness to recognize and experience spaces and processes as dynamic units. You could perhaps call it human-space empathy. The most important thing is that some people are confident enough to take things, furniture and rooms into their own hands, while others first have to learn how. We found that this is where the greatest liberation lies, in experiencing that you don’t have to surrender to a space, but want to set it in motion and use it yourself.

We think that far too often today, far too much energy is lost simply to endure project work in an uninspiring environment. Not only for this reason, spatial design for creative collaboration is a highly interesting subject of research: How do people organize themselves in an “enabling” environment? How do new patterns of behavior develop that lead us to new design patterns? How does an ideal process choreography emerge in space? How can digital, virtual process flows be integrated? And of course: What are tangible and measurable contributions to project success?

What’s the next step?

AS: We want to keep opening our view on the subject. After all, it is not only of great importance for our working environment. For example, we are currently working on a modular room design for contemporary and future-oriented learning in schools. This is a topic that is very close to my heart, as the digitalized world is not only leading to a paradigm shift in terms of content and organization in the classroom, but also requires a rethink of the spatial learning environment.

With this in mind, we also want to examine our design systems with a view to intelligent, digital application and networking options and are planning to initiate an accompanying scientific study together with a university and partners from the corporate world.

We are convinced that new, challenging and empowering spatial process environments have a lasting positive impact on the intensity and effectiveness of creative collaboration. Because they connect, unite and are simply fun. In short: lots of people having lots of fun and lots of movement for lots of shared ideas at lots of round tables!