By the People …

Taking a cue from TV’s Trading Spaces, Julie Miller’s co-workers at GSD&M spent a few hours last summer overhauling the media supervisor’s office. Her two file cabinets were reduced to one, an unsightly bookshelf was discarded and reams of paper were filed away. Then her desk was turned to face visitors, rather than the window, and a blank wall was spruced up with shadow boxes containing floating candles inside fish bowls. The GSD&M crew, working on a budget of just $10, brought in a rug, draped colorful tablecloths from the ceiling and covered Miller’s file cabinet with corkboard and mirrors.

“It provides a great atmosphere for anyone who comes into my office,” says Miller, one of six media staffers to get a work-space revamp since the Austin, Texas, shop started the makeover project last July.

While many ad agencies can boast of stylish spaces, experts say it’s as important to consider client impressions when designing office space as it is to give staff a sense of investment and pride in their environment.

Brian Wheelis, GSD&M group media director, says he launched the Trading Spaces program because “the key to your work space is having an environment that allows you to think more positively.” In the wake of downsizing, many employees have less space, which can be demoralizing, says Susan Boyle, managing partner at HLW International, an architecture and design firm in New York that has worked with agencies including TBWA\Chiat\Day and Saatchi & Saatchi. One way to counteract that, she says, is to give people a say in their surroundings. “It’s the belief that your environment totally affects your work and outcome and ability,” she says.

Soliciting staff input into office design can increase loyalty and motivation, says Tom Vecchione, design director at Gensler, a New York architectural design consultant that works with ad agencies nationwide. That’s especially true as agency offices—some 80 percent, estimates Vecchione—move to an open environment, without cubicle walls. “You don’t have to allow each employee to pick a different-color chair,” he notes. “It’s ineffective for a company to [allow] random decisions on individual tastes. But a sense of ownership is extremely critical. As long as employees are involved in the process of design, that’s what’s important.”

When Capstrat moved a few years ago, CEO Ken Eudy asked his 51 employees to help pick new furniture and gave staffers $300 each for personal decor. “To the extent that you give ownership of work space to employees, it makes for a better work environment,” Eudy says. His staff chose Herman Miller-designed cubicles that offer more space with 120-degree angles. Terry Beal, production coordinator at the Raleigh, N.C., shop, decorated hers with Christmas lights, a rocket-ship gumball machine and stuffed hamsters (the critters sing, “I work hard for the money”).

“I work for a unique company that allows employee input on various levels,” Beal says. “You have more respect for the management, because they let us pick things out and ask for our opinions.”

At The Zimmerman Agency in Tallahassee, Fla., founder Curtis Zimmerman was constantly turning down requests from creatives who wanted to brainstorm at the beach, 45 minutes away. So six months ago, he asked staffers for ideas on how to fashion a beach in the office. The conference room is now decorated with Adirondack chairs, an ocean mural, fish hanging from the ceiling, banners from client Cruzan Rum and a sprinkling of sand.

“If [creatives] want to lie on the floor in there, they can do that, and have the sound of the waves on the beach,” says Zimmerman. “But more than anything, it’s their space.” Except when jealous staffers try taking it over, he adds.

Even bathrooms are being brightened up. At Star Group in Cherry Hill, N.J., the women’s restroom now has a Margaritaville theme, thanks to another recent Trading Spaces-style event, this one sponsored by client Kimberly-Clark. The experience taught partner and creative director Tracy Donofry something important about the agency’s environment.

“A space says a lot about what your creative represents,” she says. “The environment you’re in can get stagnant, and creative people are so driven by their surroundings.”