Melbourne studio Büro North designs everything from logos to signage and wayfinding systems. Many design studios also offer a multi-disciplinary suite of services, but Büro North differentiates by taking an ‘evidence-based’ approach to design, painstakingly gathering data to demonstrate the impact of its work.
As a result, the studio has grown from five staff in 2009 to 16 today, and counts amongst its clients some of the biggest infrastructure developments in Australia.
Established in 2004 by Soren Luckins, an industrial and graphic designer, Büro North favors a collaborative model in which teamwork leads to more original results.
In 2009, Finn Butler joined Büro North as co-director, overseeing the studio’s expansion into wayfinding design, or “the science of defining, planning and shaping the contents of a built environment for navigational purposes”.
Büro North has since grown its client base to include long-term projects such as the $1 billion Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) Melbourne, Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre and Perth Airport.
Creativeinnovation caught up with Finn Butler to find out why wayfinding design presents a major opportunity for Büro North.
How do you define Büro North?
Büro North is a multi-disciplinary design studio, which provides everything from branding to graphic design, environmental graphics, wayfinding and signage.
We employ graphic designers, architects and industrial designers in roles they were not originally trained to do. This is our key point of difference.
Having such a broad collection of skills is very useful: the way a graphic designer approaches a problem is very different to someone with architectural training. When different skill sets come together, unusual outcomes often result.
Büro North also differentiates by offering ‘evidence-based design’. What does this entail?
Whenever we deliver a project, we try to collect primary data that reveals the economic impact of our work. This means we can put a dollar value against the design work we do and build a business case to support our engagement.
A lot of clients find it difficult quantifying the value of design.
Yet staff retention, customer satisfaction, wasted staff time… all of these things can be quantified. If we can provide case studies and client references to support the impact of design, then we stop talking about design and begin talking about our clients’ business.
How do you gather evidence to support your designs?
Throughout the design process, we test and evaluate how staff members interact, how stress levels are impacted, how people move through a site. Then, once we’ve implemented our design solutions, we go back to the site to measure whether our designs are making a contribution.
Because we’re measuring at both ends, we can show there’s a tangible benefit to our work. When you’re talking to non-designers, that’s pretty powerful stuff.
Why did you join Büro North as a partner in 2009?
Soren felt there was a piece missing from the studio’s offering. He already had an affinity with evidence-based processes as an industrial designer, which is a very user-centric field of design. Whilst he could design and create environmental graphics, he wanted to do more to address the fundamental question of why anything is designed in the first place.
I have a background in designing for major infrastructure projects such as Railtrack and Heathrow Terminal 5 in London, and I’m interested in the strategy that underpins design. This means we both look at problems from a completely different angle. It seemed like a good fit.
What is ‘wayfinding design’?
Wayfinding is about prompting people using a site to respond in the way you need them to. It’s about designing behaviour, rather than designing signage elements.
When I was involved in designing Heathrow Terminal 5, I was involved in developing not only the airport’s design package, but also operational processes such as checking in, allocating stands to aircraft, and coordinating baggage carousels.
I realised wayfinding goes beyond signage and graphics to designing operational processes. That’s one of the things we find very interesting at Büro North. We enjoy having a real impact on how a site or business operates.
Why did Büro North expand into this field of design?
The studio was already working in environmental graphics, but wayfinding allows our designers to get involved in projects much sooner. Whereas environmental graphics tend to be designed after the architects and developers are finished, wayfinding provides a strategic rationale for design, and fundamentally changes the way people interact with a site.
By expanding into wayfinding design, Büro North is now involved in projects a year or more earlier than we would otherwise be.
How do you secure new clients?
We tend not to chase projects but spend a lot of time trying to build relationships with people we’d like to work with. This means when the projects come around – if they eventuate – the client understands the value of engaging us early.
As a multi-disciplinary design studio, how do you break down your revenue streams?
I wouldn’t say any part of the business is dominant or more valuable than any other.
We have access to some of the largest environmental design and wayfinding projects in Australia. We also take a lot of pleasure in working on smaller graphic design projects. In terms of their value to the business, they’re just as important because we see the fruits of our labour sooner. Culturally, that’s very important.
We worked with the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne for four years – that’s a long time to wait to see the end result. If all our jobs were like this, it would be very difficult to run a studio. We need a mix of small and large-scale projects across the board.
How do you retain a creative edge?
Every month, we allocate a certain amount of time to pro bono clients and self-funded projects.
Anybody in the studio can come up with an idea and write a proposal. If we like it, we’ll give them all the tools they need to get a team together to deliver something they wouldn’t be able to deliver on their own. In terms of training, and giving people an opportunity to experiment in a risk-free environment, this is very valuable.
How has the studio grown since 2009?
It’s certainly got bigger. When I joined there were five staff, there are now 16. Much of the growth occurred in the space of two years, which brought its own challenges in terms of improving systems, and structuring and staffing large projects.
We decided to create a transparent business model that engages everybody to take responsibility for their own workflow.
Why is transparency important?
I think our studio is more transparent than anywhere Soren and I have ever worked. Obviously there is an element of hierarchy, because different people have different levels of expertise and responsibility, which demands a certain structure.
But in terms of how the business is structured culturally, our fee proposals are not negotiated with the client and then hidden away. At Büro North, people know the value of their time, and what their cost is to the business. They also understand the value of their colleagues, which creates a level of trust and respect.
Was Büro North impacted by the GFC?
The GFC was an interesting time. Entering the GFC, we were careful to ensure we had diversity in our projects and client base. In particular, we made sure we had a good spread of government-funded projects in the portfolio, and I think that was a good thing to do. Our maximum growth was achieved during the GFC – it wasn’t a bad time for us.
What’s your focus for 2012?
Our key focus is providing Büro North with a structure that enables people to stay within the business and develop their careers here, and ultimately take equity in the company. We see that as fundamental to the future of Büro North.
Has revenue experienced a similar trajectory in line with staff growth?
This might seem like an obvious statement, but growth costs money. In 2009, Büro North made it into BRW’s Top 100 of Fastest Growing Small Businesses. I said to Soren, ‘Wow, if we’re doing that, why don’t we have any money?’
At the time, we seemed to be taking on a new member of staff every other week, and training them up. Some took, others didn’t – growing is an expensive process.
How much bigger would you like to grow?
Our current size is a great size to be. If we were to grow more, I don’t believe it would give us access to larger projects or more projects. The challenge for us now is being more selective.
We don’t want to keep growing simply to fill the demand – that’s not the business we want to be. We’re motivated by the same goal, which is to build something different and lasting.
Who are your competitors?
There are obviously outfits that we pitch against frequently. But we tend to attract clients who are looking for strategic solutions, which may influence the operational side of their business. You could argue that amongst this small group of clients, our competition is quite limited.
Where does this interest in ‘evidence-based design’ derive from?
An evidence-based approach is critical if you want your design solution to be meaningful. If you’re designing an information delivery system for a large hospital, it’s an expensive capital investment for the client.
It would be a huge risk to design based on assumption, rather than design based on evidence collected on site. It’s important to collect data that’s unique to the demands of the clients, the profile of the users, and the environment that the facility exists in.
We are also interested in generating new primary data: carrying out tests; looking at how users perform within a site; investigating how or why they make decisions – these kinds of insights create unique design solutions.
How do you recruit people who can deliver evidence-based design?
We try to employ people who are willing to use their skills in different ways – they may have been trained as an architect, but perhaps those skills can be employed for other purposes, such as running audits for wayfinding systems, or investigating how people make decisions.
This article was originally published in Creativeinnovation, supporting the business of creative enterprise.