The Analog Spaces in Digital Companies
Primo Orpilla, the co-founder of the architecture and design firm Studio O+A, has been designing offices for digital-technology companies for more than thirty years, basically since the start of the PC era. His clients have included Cisco and Microsoft, PayPal and Facebook, Uber and Yelp. I met with Orpilla a year and a half ago, at Yelp, which occupies a dozen floors of a historic office tower in downtown San Francisco and where he walked me through his theory of tech-office design. That theory, in short, is this: the more digital the company, the more analog the space should feel.
Although they differ in size and location, O+A-designed offices do not tend to have an abundance of high-tech gadgets. Orpilla told me tech-filled environments at tech companies are miserable as we walked through the reception area at Yelp. The company allows customers to rate small businesses and write online reviews, and Orpilla had created a reception area to look a bit like a general store, complete with glass jars filled with Yelp pencils, and a shiny bronze cash register. I half-expected robot baristas, touch screens on every surface, and other portents of the office of the future, but what I found at Yelp, and other O+A-designed company offices I visited, were workplaces that were intentionally not tech-driven. “We suggest not to bring too much technology in. It’s omnipresent,” Orpilla said. He characterized high-tech spaces as cold. “We want it more tactile and rough,” he said, “more authentic to the building and a material.” In fact, Orpilla saw a kind of wannabe effect: nontechnology companies like banks, law firms, and retailers tend to jam all the latest technology into their office design as if to attest that they are cutting edge.
O+A offices are unified by several spaces that Orpilla and his team have designed to encourage face-to-face conversations. These might be casual encounters between an engineer and a salesperson in line for the two-day-a-week free buffet in the cafeteria (a Town Hall), a one-on-one problem-solving session in a small, cocoonlike dome (a Shelter), or a formal meeting of executives during a crisis (the War Room). “The whole point of all these spaces is to get you to put down your device and read inflections, read body language, and have meaningful conversations,” Orpilla said, as we walked into what Yelp called its All Hands floor, which was a large cafeteria with polished concrete floors and exposed brick walls. There were racks of free snacks and cereal, and a wooden coffee bar at its core staffed by an in-house, nonrobotic barista. At large communal tables and intimate booths, different Yelp employees, most wearing company T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts, sat, talked, and worked. The obligatory foosball table was nearby, and Orpilla told me that the company purposefully put a greater selection of better food on this floor compared to the break rooms on individual floors, to force people from different departments together, and ideally, to come away with new ideas.
We continued our tour through Yelp’s engineering floor with John Lieu, the company’s director of facilities and real estate. Yelp’s actual work areas were recognizable to anyone who is familiar with the rows of desks where employees work at computers in an open-plan office. What struck me was the sheer quantity of whiteboards in these spaces. There were whiteboards on walls, on wheels, and even laminated onto some furniture. Surely one of the leading technology companies in the world could afford the latest digital Smart Boards, or other interactive collaboration technology. In fact, Lieu had designed the office with large digital displays in the place of whiteboards.
“I nearly had a revolt from the engineers,” Lieu said, when this technology was unveiled. Whole departments bristled at the the loss of their whiteboards. Lieu reluctantly brought them back, and, to his surprise, he noticed an immediate impact on the way the engineers worked. Writing on the whiteboard brought engineers out from behind their screens, and enticed them to take risks and share ideas with others. “If it’s all computer-based, are you really collaborating?” he asked. “I mean collaborating emotionally and physically?”
Orpilla thinks that as digital technology becomes more pervasive, all office design will move in the direction of intentionally analog spaces and features, to encourage —and even compel—collaboration, and that such features would increasingly be seen as necessities that feed the success of workers and organizations. An intentionally analog workplace matters to Silicon Valley digital-technology companies for two reasons. The first, which I saw at Yelp, was creating a strong corporate culture, bound by real relationships, in an industry where the nature of the work, and the tools used to do it, naturally lean toward isolation. Offices that appeared at first glance like adult play rooms — with their colorful graffiti murals, rainbow furniture, and rooms filled with board games and musical instruments— were in fact carefully designed to maximize analog interactions, with an eye toward fostering the company’s culture of innovation and productivity. The other main reason why overtly analog workplaces dominated digital tech companies was that, with the exception of consumer-hardware manufacturers, such as Apple and GoPro, whose digital products you can hold in your hand, software companies are by their very nature ephemeral. Corporate headquarters are their one presence in the real world, serving as embassies to the analog realm, where the virtual brand can transcend into the physical.
The translation of abstract digital brands into an analog presence can also be pretty simple, and homegrown. Something like this happened in late 2010 at Facebook, when Everett Katigbak, a designer on Facebook’s marketing team with a background in letterpress printing, along with another designer on the marketing team named Ben Barry, set up some of their printing equipment in the corner of a Facebook warehouse to create art in their spare time.* Jokingly, they called it the Analog Research Laboratory. At a company with a notoriously tech-centric culture, their little printing operation was initially just a personal outlet for hands-on expression. “Others at the company said ‘We are a digital company and we communicate via digital means,’ Ben and I just got a bit antsy and wanted to make stuff,” Katigbak, who now works at the payment company Stripe, said. “Part of this was our frustration over an obsession with data and metrics.”
They began making signs for the workplace, with slogans about Facebook’s hacker-derived work culture: “If It Works, It’s Obsolete,” “Is This a Technology Company?” “Move Fast and Break Things,” and every possible variation on the word hack and its use in a phrase.
Employees began noticing these signs hanging on cubicle walls and in hallways, and requested their own. Eventually, word got around and the two ended up producing hand-printed signs for Facebook’s annual app-developer conference. When that proved immensely popular, the Analog Research Laboratory was brought into Facebook’s corporate structure, with its own dedicated space (next to a woodshop), budget, and full-time staff.
The Analog Research Laboratory is situated right near the main visitor’s entrance at Facebook’s sprawling, million-square-foot Menlo Park campus. The whole place, which is a closed village of different buildings and connected outdoor plazas, has a bright yet tightly controlled “Truman Show” vibe to it, and the posters and signs the Analog Research Laboratory produces play a part. You can’t walk five feet at Facebook without bumping into a sign extolling the virtues of hacking or the sense of community that employees are supposed to share. Many outside Facebook have called the Analog Research Laboratory the company’s propaganda factory, and it certainly feels as if a poster of Mark Zuckerberg swimming across the Yangtze River, or Sheryl Sandberg smashing a Twitter bird under her outstretched fist, could emerge from its printing press at any moment. But at a company so large, charged with managing a social network whose very definition is amorphous, sometimes a little propaganda keeps people motivated. Tim Belonax was the Analog Research Laboratory’s principal designer from 2011 to 2015. I interviewed him nearly two years ago, when he was still at the company, over kale salads at one of the company’s free cafeterias. “How do you drive a large community and continue fostering a culture of autonomy?” he asked. “The mission of the lab is to provoke and instill creativity in people.”
Today, the lab regularly hosts different teams from the company, who often come in to make their own motivational signs. It is both a team-building exercise and a stress relief, but also a way of distilling the collective work of a team into a tangible, visible slogan. An executive with the company’s design team told me that employees needed this grounding element, because it gave them a different, more permanent sense of accomplishment than anything they made online. The poster on the wall would endure long after the project that inspired it vanished from the Web site.
This piece is adapted from David Sax’s book “The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter,” which will be published this month by PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group.
*An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of Everett Katigbak.