The elusive nature of company culture is what makes it both fascinating and frustrating. The role culture plays in the success of a design team can’t be quantified but is so significant that every leader we spoke to put it at the top of their list. Knowing how to design, nurture, curate, or even change culture seems like one of the greatest challenges of a growing company. In this chapter, we learn how leaders create and nurture a positive culture in their organizations.
In our conversations with leaders, we were interested to learn that many leaders don’t deliberately set out to create a particular culture. Instead, they provide a space for it to develop on its own—in a sense, acting like good parents: providing guidance and setting boundaries while allowing the culture to maintain its independence and develop its own personality. Even in the larger organizations and studios we visited, there was a feeling that the culture had a life of its own and the leadership was there to gently guide it along.
Being such a universal leadership topic, it made sense to start off the book talking about culture. This book doesn’t suggest what type of culture is the best or worst. Different cultures are just like the people that create them. Diversity in cultures is what makes the world go round. Trying to prescribe one generic cultural style to fit all design organizations is unnecessary and unhelpful.
We were mostly interested in the “why” behind culture as a strategic advantage for our design leaders. We wanted to know why they cared about culture. Our inquiry was into how leaders approached this subject to create the best possible culture for their specific organizations. Obviously there are generalizations about transparency, diversity, open communication, and supportive team structures that can be drawn from these observations, but the reasons for these patterns are more important than the patterns themselves. This chapter focuses on reasons to give culture your attention and how these deliberate efforts lead to positive outcomes.
Successful culture has many benefits. The one most frequently mentioned by our design leaders is the connection between a positive culture and the acquisition and retention of great talent. If a rewarding and supportive culture can be sustained, then culture can also have a strong influence on developing good chemistry between team members. The genesis of positive culture starts when the team is aligned with the inherent values and guiding vision of the organization. This bonding between people and the company vision gives culturally healthy companies an edge in several areas, not the least of which is that strongly aligned firms are attractive not only to design talent but to prospective clients. Design leaders agree that a strong culture plays directly into easier hiring, increased productivity, and overall job satisfaction. In one survey, 70% of our leaders stated that culture was “very important” to their company’s success.
On the other end of the spectrum, companies that lack a strong culture tend to be characterized by a lack of loyalty, issues with trust, little or no diversity, misaligned goals, and poor communication. Anthony and Natalie Armendariz, who together run Funsize in Austin agree. “We’ve been lucky enough to not have any turnover, in terms of someone wanting to leave. Turnover of staff is probably our biggest fear and something we work the hardest to try not to have. The culture here is the most important thing. The culture is number one.” Even though Funsize is only a few years old, they have prioritized culture from the beginning. Culture comes first at Funsize, and this level of interest in culture is tangible when you visit their office. Armendariz proudly walks around their office introducing us to every person and describing each detail of their space. His commitment to the team’s well-being is contagious.
In a talent marketplace characterized by signing bonuses and generous benefits, smaller agencies like Funsize have fewer resources to offer when competing for talent. They make up for that by providing flexible time and more intimacy with the business decisions. “We can’t be as competitive as some of the other agencies are in terms of salary, but what we can do is make sure that people are working on great products that they’re going to be proud of, on projects that they are excited about, and have a very high caliber portfolio versus their peers,” explains Armendariz. “We provide the opportunity to lead, to be involved in business decisions, and to manage their work hours. We work Monday through Thursday, meaning that we don’t work any of our designers more than 32 hours a week, and based on the teams we’ve put together recently, I’d say the average person is ... working 24 to 32 hours a week.”
Requiring so few hours was not something we came across very often in our interviews, but as we’ll see in other chapters, the number of hours spent at work doesn’t correlate with productivity. Time working together seems to be far more important than the time captured in the time-tracking tools. Even larger agencies use time-specific or time-related activities as a cultural bonding opportunity. Neil McPhedran, General Manager at Gray in Vancouver, points out how time connects their people. “We used to have a weekly status where we would spend a good hour and a half working through it and that was it. I’ve moved us towards more agile project management, so with a daily huddle at 9:17 a.m. we stand up and we do a quick round-the-horn of what everyone’s doing, and the idea is that we’re all responsible for our own things and we know that.” Quick, smart meetings like this one were frequently mentioned when we visited design firms and influenced the company culture from the bottom up.
McPhedran was clear that his primary goal in these meetings is to help his team get the most out of their day. By starting their day with an objective in mind, the teams are able to make each day a little more productive and enjoyable. This rippled through the organization and set the cultural tone for the team. “I can help people manage their time. I can hear a creative guy talking about doing this, this, this, and this and say no, you’re not doing all of that, it’s just impossible for you to do all of those, you can do this. Let’s help everyone out. Let’s prioritize. It’s a way that people can take ownership of their day, but it’s also a way that we can be accountable to each other. It’s been great, I think—a tremendous thing for us.” The daily or weekly activities allow the leadership to actively support their team’s best use of time. This guidance to the team’s day may seem insignificant, but it is a critical part of culture.
It’s clear to us that people are the core of any design culture. It follows that the founders are the people who will have the biggest influence on that culture—for better and worse. The personal characteristics of the founders or leaders will undoubtedly find their way into the culture of a business. “I don’t know if this is going to be a popular concept or not, but I think that when you are a founder or you have a couple of founders of an organization, you put a pretty strong imprint on that organization,” says Dave Gray of XPLANE. “You put your strengths, your weaknesses, and all your foibles into that organization whether you realize it or not.”
“There are a few of my influences for sure,” says Sarah Tesla at Make in Vancouver. “I’m into adventure traveling. I love food. I love art,” Tesla says as she points to the art gallery that makes up about a quarter of the entire design studio at Make. “I feel like a lot of the people here share some of those similar interests. We’re a big dog culture, so we have that going on. And we had a dog trainer come in and train three or four of the puppies that were here at one point. And a few of the team members do aerobics in the space after work. So there’s just little things.” Not all companies will feel the need to have art galleries in their studios or dog-friendly offices, but whether intentional or not, they will borrow from the leadership’s personalities and preferences.
“We’re deeply rooted in geek culture and also in open source, and so that tends to provide a bit of cultural shorthand,” says Tiffany Farriss, co-CEO at Palantir. “But we work really hard because inclusiveness and diversity are very important to us.” Building a welcoming and inclusive culture also has the benefit of providing a level playing field so that everyone has an opportunity to advance. “It takes a sustained effort to make sure that you have that and so what we’re focused on is—right now our initiative is around a culture of feedback. Being able to provide really actionable, direct, and timely feedback at any level to anyone on the project.”
Our conversations confirmed that successful leaders are always actively involved in curating and communicating the culture. It’s not something left to chance. Sometimes these communications are formal, but most often they are subtle. The important thing is that they are communicated regularly. Leaving culture to emerge on its own in a vacuum appears to be something that successful design leaders don’t think is a good idea. Companies that communicate their vision, values, and cultural policies more frequently are more likely to have a shared agenda. This translates to shared outcomes and happier teams. Happier teams lead to a positive culture.
We asked Tracey Halvorsen, President and Chief Visionary Officer at FastSpot, what her process was in creating a positive culture, and more specifically if she saw it as something that developed on its own or if she had an idea of what she wanted it to look like. “It has to develop because as time goes by, people change. You add new people to the dynamic and you change. I always knew that I wanted a culture that was very respectful, where everyone felt like they could do their best work. A bonus would be if everyone got along and had a lot of fun, too. I think, otherwise, it’s a job—but you want it to be a great job because you want people to stay.”
Tracey’s insight is a cornerstone to the success we saw in companies with positive cultures: there is a virtuous circle between rewarding work and happy teams. Work doesn’t always have to be fun, but the team should feel respected and acknowledged. Building a safe place for your team to be creative and do their best work might be the most useful thing a leader can do for culture in design-focused organizations.
There is a subtlety to this: culture cannot only be linked to being a fun place to work. Making the assumption that an expensive office space and free lunches can buy culture is a mistake. “I guess you can force culture by doing certain things, but putting a foosball table in a room doesn’t create culture,” points out Warren Wilansky of Plank in Montreal. “Taking people to a restaurant doesn’t create culture. Culture is created by the people in the room at that time. If you have a room of people who are nonpolitical and have each other’s backs, that is going to be the company culture. And that’s the way we are.” Wilansky makes a very critical point about culture: it’s all about the type of people in your organization. All businesses are a product of their founder’s personality and the people those leaders initially hired. This influence can be both positive and negative.
“Every time you do things as a group, you’re creating culture. Good culture or bad culture,” Dave Gray, President of XPLANE, reminds us. “Anytime you do stuff with other people, you’re creating culture. And in an organization where you’re spending so much time with each other, especially in a smaller firm like a design firm, it’s like your family. They know your positives and your negatives. For example, one of the things that I imprinted in my organization very early on was a love of process and a rigor in terms of process. Even today, when I’m relatively hands-off and not really involved in day-to-day operations, I can still see the results of that process-oriented culture.”
It’s apparent that hiring a certain type of person will result in a certain type of culture. At Plank, Warren Wilansky says, “We’ve generally hired more introverted people and that’s a little bit more my personality.” We noticed that leaders in all design firms often hire people that share their values and approach to work. This creates a company culture that mirrors the founder’s personality in some way. Our interviews didn’t expose us to any failed cultures, but it seems obvious that toxic values will lead to toxic cultures. Of course, cultures may change or evolve as the company grows and as new people join the company because these new personalities bring different ideas and influences to the culture—that is, unless there is an ongoing and deliberate attempt to guide the culture.
Many of the design leaders we met had already shared insights into their company cultures on their blogs and in articles. The way these successful studios or teams share their cultural experiments with the public is a cultural element in itself. “We are incredibly transparent and open about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” says Jason Grigsby of CloudFour in Portland, OR. “Culture’s becoming this really loaded word in our society—or in our industry—and I didn’t even realize how loaded it was. We used to talk about culture and trying to find cultural fit and things of that nature. And now, I’m reticent to talk about it because there are so many other places where their description of culture is basically code for trying to find like-minded people and have them work crazy hours and all that stuff. That’s not us at all.”
Grigsby describes the culture at CloudFour as if to ward off any bad cultural spirits. “People come in at a reasonable hour and what’s reasonable varies, depending on what’s going on for them. Everybody works from home on Wednesdays and people just collaborate and do work. That’s the main thing that we’re focused on: how do we enable that collaboration? How do we make sure that people are working well together?” Building a safe and happy space that facilitates creative work is an essential factor in a design leader’s agenda, but “safe and happy” looks different to each company. Grisgsby add, “The last job position we posted was really interesting. The one thing we wrote in it was, ‘We’re not interested in startup insanity,’ and it really resonated with a bunch of people who were looking for the position. We spent a lot of time actually working on the language to try to make sure that it was inclusive and that we would get diversity of candidates and things like that. That attention to detail actually made a difference in the candidates that we received.”
For some companies, a safe place means having a culture that extends beyond the office. This can feel a little bit like the tech startup world where leadership doesn’t distinguish between time at work and time at play. We heard stories where the CEO invited everybody to go to his house in a resort town for a weekend for bonding and drinking. For a lot of people that have children, those types of excursions are not options. We can’t say whether this extension of culture is a good thing or a bad thing. What we can say is that any consistent activity that isn’t inclusive of the whole company can send the wrong message. Having a consistent foundation from which culture can develop is like having a set of values for your business to lean on.
At Teehan+Lax, they had a very clear idea of the foundation on which they wanted to build their company.1 Jon Lax says, “Geoff (cofounder) and I wanted to start a company where we would want to work. When we asked ourselves what we enjoyed doing, one of the conclusions we came to very early on was that we wanted to make the work that we did the centerpiece.” He continues, “What we value above all other things is the work that we do. We want to do work that is interesting. We want to do work that we think people are going to use.”
Lax goes on to describe the motivation for putting the work at the center of their company culture. “I know for myself—and I’m sure Geoff would say something similar, and all the principals here would have a similar story—the charge that I felt the first time I coded a web page in 1994, put it up, checked the log file, and saw that about 100 people had looked at it, had used it, had accessed it—I think I’ve been chasing that dragon ever since.”
Having such a strong foundation on which to build a company is going to have an ongoing effect on the emerging culture, which will develop around these leaders’ clear vision for the business. Lax told us, “We decided that the value of this company wouldn’t be about profit maximization. It wouldn’t be about aspiring to have global offices. I’m not saying those are bad things. I think for different entrepreneurs and leaders, some people aspire to global domination. That’s cool; it’s just not what inspired or motivated us. We were happiest doing work that we thought was good work.”
Through the implementation of particular behaviors, these leaders—even unwittingly—continue to influence culture. Lax and his principals keep their team focused on the work by asking themselves, “Would we stand up in a room of our peers and claim this work as our own? Would we be proud to say that we worked on this? If the answer is no, we go back and figure out why not.”
By maintaining a close focus on their motivations for producing functional work they could be proud of, the leadership at Teehan+Lax have instilled strong values in their organization. Although, Lax acknowledges, despite having such a clear vision very early on, it did take them a few years to fully realize this. “The values that we started to instill in this organization, even though Geoff and I said these things to each other very early on in the business, took us a few years, and we had to look back to see that we’d created this culture where the work is the number one thing.”
Our observation is that design leaders need to be conscious of what their own preferences and behaviors signal to the company as a whole. How leaders spend their time tells the rest of the team what’s important and what’s a low priority. This informs the culture. “On any typical day, I’m building a team so I can focus on working on design with a capital D. Inspiring and leading is how I spend my time.”
From our conversations and interviews, it was not always clear whether culture happened spontaneously or deliberately in successful design organizations. What was obvious, though, was that it wasn’t ignored. It was a well-understood and thoughtfully considered part of everyday decision making. “I think that when you create a culture and you have a set of values, what you’re really saying is: when I have to make decisions, I’m going to make decisions that optimize this dimension over another dimension,” explains Jon Lax of Teehan+Lax. Deliberate design culture is like a good strategy—it’s a vision that’s held on course by a set of consistent guidelines and actions.
“For most leaders, it’s an afterthought. It’s not about having people follow you—it’s about making people feel good about what they are doing,” says Nancy Lyons, President at Clockwork. “It’s not just self-help corporate marketing speak. Leadership needs to decide who they want to be internally and the rest follows organically. What are the things that we hold sacred? What are we not willing to let go? We have a corporate vocabulary that surpasses the touchy-feely stuff and that is super important.” This intentional direction is consistent among successful design companies. They may not dictate every aspect of their company’s culture, but they don’t leave it to chance. Once they set forth the vision and guidelines, these leaders monitor the culture and nudge it back on course if it gets away from the vision.
Vince LeVecchia, cofounder of Portland-based Instrument, is pretty emphatic about how culture gets designed. “You don’t create culture, you create this container and you put great people in it and you have some values and some philosophies that you run your business by—work-life balance, “work smart, play hard”—things like that, and the culture is born out of that. I really feel that the people around here create the culture and they create it organically. I can’t force people to want a ping-pong tournament or to start a bowling team. All that’s contrived if I’m doing it. We just put great people in the room and we see those people become friends, become partners in life, get married. Not everybody’s hanging out, but a lot of people come to like each other. It’s looking someone in the eye and thinking, you’re going to be a great community member at Instrument, and if that’s true, then the culture is created by those people.”
The design leaders also connect cultural success with company success. Nancy Lyons reiterated this idea in simple terms: “The best way to create culture is to prove it with the numbers.” By making culture accountable, leaders prevent it from becoming ethereal.
How leaders structure their organizations can also be part of their deliberate cultural vision. The type of culture you create is often a product of the organization you wish to create. “One of my mentors told me that you want to think about what kind of organization you are creating,” says Dave Gray from XPLANE. “There’s something that he called a ‘membership organization’ and there’s something that he called a ‘nurturing organization,’ and they’re not the same. They run differently. They operate differently.” This anecdote is one of the most insightful descriptions we’ve heard, and helps to connect the dots between organizational structure and culture—a gap that’s too often overlooked. “So let’s say you have a membership organization,” Gray explains. “That is the kind of organization where you have to be really, really good at the job to even get a job there; we only hire the best and if we hire you and you’re not doing the best, you’re out. That kind of organization is going to be very merit-based. A nurturing organization will be one where the focus is on hiring the right people and then training and developing them. The skills and abilities might not be apparent upfront, but people are helped into them.”
At Fresh Tilled Soil, we chose the latter direction. Although we experimented with both types of people, we quickly learned that we were better at growing people than we were at hiring industry experts. The significance of our name and the idea of helping people grow was not lost on us. Culture is a living, breathing thing and that means you have to feed it to help it grow. The best way to feed your culture is to create ways for members of the team to bond with each other. The opportunities for bonding don’t need to be cheesy or complicated. Simple is better. We particularly like this suggestion from BancVue’s Skottie O’Mahony: “I did a presentation just about me that explained my background, explained how I got where I got, where my inspiration comes from, stuff like that.” This presentation gave the team a chance to get to know Skottie and develop a deeper understanding of his viewpoints. “And I’m actually asking each team member to do the same thing, to share with the rest of the team, what their background is, what makes them tick, because I think that’s really important for the rest of the people on the team and it will help the team.”
Of course, people are way more complex than their resumes. Backgrounds and skills can’t guarantee outcomes. When these leaders organize their businesses, they are doing so with outcomes in mind. “We recently did a reorganization of the company. Traditionally, we had been organized around departments,” explains Tiffany Farriss about her Chicago-based design and development firm. “The departments were basically by discipline, so you might have the front-end developers. You might have your engineers. You might have designers. You might have your project managers. You’d have ... silos, and the project teams were cut orthogonally against those.” The reality of creating successful outcomes in design projects means the team isn’t going to be organized by skills. “Your project teams could change based on the needs of the project. Who you were working with can change in any given time, and you work with them for the duration of that project. In some cases, you move on to the next project and you might have a whole new group of people to work with. What we’ve recently done is realized we want to enable these teams to really get to know each other and to start realizing the gains of being a ... high-performing team. To do that, we created production units that are fully integrated. You have PMs, designers, devs, and engineers that will always work together, and a project will live within a single lane so we can deliver better results for our clients and then have the teams be more familiar, have that velocity gain that you have when you have a team that really does know how to work together.”
We’ve seen that a deliberate approach to culture provides a safe and creative place for people to do their best work. The question a lot of young leaders still ask is, “How do we get all these different people working together under a single cultural umbrella?” The answer to this question is nuanced. Our leaders often have wildly opposing views on how to do this. In our interviews and survey results, the vast majority of respondents agreed that culture was important, but not all agreed that directing it was possible.
We dug into these questions with our design leaders and asked them to tell us how they find the right people for their culture. “Am I looking for similar qualities? Yeah. Everybody fills a different role, so I’m not going to say if they don’t laugh at my jokes, they’re out the door,” laughs Jeff Kushmerek, previously Chief Product Officer at FlashNotes and now VP of Professional Services at Virgin Pulse, who admits that a quirky sense of humor is something he’s looking for in new hires. “We’re with each other more than we’re with our families, unfortunately. So, you do have to work with people that you’re going to enjoy working with. Not everybody’s got to be knee-slapping funny, but they can’t be on the opposite end of that. ‘That person’s a jerk but man they can design their way out of a paper bag,’ is not going to work out for you, you know?”
Diversity in personalities and skills might be the common thread in successful businesses, but not at the expense of personalities that want to keep learning. A learning culture suggests a maturity that will lead to problem-solving and growth. “Everyone can do a better job, no matter who they are. People that want to be better are easier to work with,” says John Torres of America’s Test Kitchen, creator of Cook’s Illustrated. He reinforces the personal maturity aspects of this interaction. “I want to work with adults with personalities that mesh well together. I want to be solving problems with people who care about the outcomes and the people they worked with.”
Tiffany Farriss warns that culture requires hard work and lots of communication. “The culture of trust really hinges on your ability to communicate with each other. A lot of that communication is around feedback. Making sure that anything that needs to be talked about gets talked about. Making sure that each person has the tools to talk about it appropriately and talk about it in a way that leads to a productive resolution.” These communication loops aren’t just going to impact individuals and direct relationships. “A culture of good communication helps with your projects. It helps with your team dynamic. It definitely helps your client. It’s also a tremendous amount of work and takes a lot of effort.”
The fact that culture requires a serious amount of attention and work is probably why so many companies fail at achieving a positive culture. The design leaders that impressed us the most were the leaders that invested a healthy amount of time in understanding culture and nurturing their company’s culture. They didn’t always know exactly what their culture would evolve to become, but they were deeply invested in guiding the culture as it evolved. These leaders reminded us of good parents, not obsessive helicopter parents.
Building a consensus around the culture is another tactic deployed by our leaders. Having the team agree on elements of culture allows them to buy into the outcome. By being included in the decision-making that leads to guidelines or policy, the team is also invested in the outcomes. This means increasing communication. When you increase opportunities for communication, you also increase understanding. “In today’s context, it’s very important in my opinion to, artificially at first, make different team members around the world have more video conversations than email or chat,” says Karim Marucci of Crowd Favorite. “There’s something that’s lost in today’s culture with only electronic communication, and that’s the human aspect of just trying to make sure that we understand each other and what’s important to each other. So it’s been very difficult, yet very rewarding to try and figure that out with Skype video or Google Hangouts, or the new tools that are coming out. My company was one of the first companies that bought the Cisco system, back in the day, that cost over a hundred-thousand dollars, and now you can do it with eighty-dollar webcams. So it’s about making sure that you set it up so people, even if they’re not necessarily in the same room, can still feel part of the same team.”
Thinking ahead to when his company is larger, Anthony Armendariz tells us, “The long-term goal for us, in terms of retention and not losing strong talent, is to get them where they need to be financially with competitive salaries. We offer a lot of benefits, but I still think we want to be able to bridge that gap and we also want to grow these people into leaders themselves. Obviously I love running this business, but I’m looking forward to the day when I don’t necessarily have to be in every meeting or every call or every design review.”
This last point is an important one. Allowing culture to support activities like talent acquisition is critical to sustained growth but it can’t always be the responsibility of the leadership. As the company grows, the culture must mature enough to stand on its own feet. A design leader can’t be at every touchpoint or fix the culture every time it falters. The design leader’s best investment is to get everyone in the company to own the culture.
How your team is structured will also influence the culture of your organization. Architecting culture can often be as simple as having certain people or roles sit next to each other. The more thoughtful the team structure, the bigger the impact. “We are entirely team-based,” says Geoff Wilson. “Our entire organization is split into teams and we operate each team separately. A typical team for us consists of a project manager, a visual designer, a front-end developer, two software developers or back-end developers, depending on what you want to call them, and then a quality assurance tester. We also have user-experience professionals, UX researchers, and marketing strategists who can create copy and marketing strategy, so we will insert them into teams as well, depending on the needs of the particular project.”
Wilson elaborates on how the teams work with clients and how this ultimately influences the culture of their firm. “If it’s a consumer-facing project, you’re almost assuredly going to have involvement from both UX and marketing on a project team, so the team will become a little bit bigger.” The team is at the center of a series of concentric circles. These teams generate work that then generates a reputation for the company. This team-first organizational structure influences the culture of the company. “Our entire culture is centered around empowering our teams. We encourage our teams to name themselves [and] create their own set of values so that the team’s values are compatible with the company’s values, but we [also] encourage each team to have their own values set, their own way of working together, their own code of being, a code of conduct for members of their team. We really encourage our teams to take ownership, to own their client relationships, to act as their own small business unit within our agency. We give each of our teams a monthly morale budget, typically $250 per month per team, which the team uses to go out to dinner together, to go out for happy hour together, to go to a baseball game together, whatever the team chooses to do with it. But we encourage our teams to do something with that budget every month so they’re constantly having an opportunity to continue to grow their personal relationships and celebrate their wins. As they achieve milestones in their projects, we want them to go out and be able to enjoy that outside of work together.”
Whether you believe culture can be created or merely guided, the consensus is unanimous—culture is critically important to company success. The people you hire have the biggest impact on your culture. Knowing this and taking the time to invest in the right hires results in a better business. Design leaders often point to the fact that although their jobs revolve around the design and development, their work is to bring the best team together. America’s Test Kitchen’s John Torres says it best. “Ultimately, as design leaders, we’re building teams and companies, not products and things.”
Culture is definitely a high priority for successfully run design businesses.
To create culture, leaders need to construct the container and fill it with the right people. The container is made of the vision and values of the organization.
Healthy cultures can be thought of as learning cultures, which have a growth mentality and a desire to challenge themselves.
You can’t create culture with ping-pong tables and beanbags.
The people in your organization have the biggest influence on the culture.
Even though you can’t control every aspect of the culture, don’t ignore it.
Healthy culture appears to increase staff retention and loyalty.
Team structures influence company culture. Select and combine teammates carefully.
Teams with mature attitudes toward personal growth are more likely to create a healthy culture.
1 Since this interview Teehan+Lax has dissolved the company. Lax and his partner Geoff Teehan have gone on to full-time design leadership positions at Facebook. Their decision to shutter the studio at the height of its growth was surprising to the design industry.