Guys and Gals, Damen und Herren, Mesdames et Messieurs, 皆様 …
If you spend over six months commuting between Berlin, London, Tokyo and Paris, then you will eventually hear yourself talking about the service of Scandinavian airlines or the best ramen in Shibuya. Awful and somehow elitist, but I had the opportunity to get to know different cities, companies and their office cultures. At first I thought, it makes no difference to work in Berlin or anywhere else — as long as my team and the project stays the same. Of course, in the end, I was smarter.
Sometimes you do not choose the city, the city chooses you.
To catch you guys up, I wanna briefly share the context. I am Matthias, one of the Design Leads at Goodpatch, a digital product studio with client work and own products like Prott. We are located in Tokyo, Berlin, Munich and Taipei. Sometimes we share projects and our resources across our offices. This is such a time. A japanese client from the automotive segment asked for our support. The client asked our Tokyo studio, but we figured out that some of our Berlin-based members, including me, were a good fit for the particular scope of the project. But this is not an issue at all, because we always have an ongoing exchange between colleagues in Tokyo, Taipei and Berlin.
But this project was a bit different, we need to hop around different parties and locations.
Being an designer in Berlin
Let me start in Berlin. I have already discovered many different offices here. I worked as a freelancer for classic companies, small design studios and big agencies. That’s why I was able define my ideal work environment at some point. Then I found the studio which fits the best to me and my current living situation.
We are still a young company and need to find the right office culture with people from all over the world and different backgrounds. Part of our workflow is the implementation of Holacracy and different roles for each person. We are facing a lot to challenges to grow from a smaller team with less than fifteen people to … I am actually not sure yet. It’s an ongoing evaluation of the upcoming needs and circumstances.
Several things are already established to give all team members an attractive and inspiring environment. Things like German lessons for our international colleagues, a playground for ideas and technical experiments (a Lab), the chance to visit conferences and other events.
We know that communication and exchange is key, that’s why we have internal and external events to gain more knowledge and empathy. Some colleagues are organizing meet ups for the community in Berlin or booths at conferences. Others do mentoring for young startups. My lovely colleague Elaine wrote recently a charming article about all of these things in detail.
It sounds maybe a bit cheesy, but we try to share our knowledge about user centered design on the European ground and especially in Berlin. I know we are not the first with this ambition, but the creative industry is growing and it has so much space for collaborative learning.
I am saying this because it brings me to the next city and next studio we collaborated with.
Collaborating in London
This automotive project I mentioned leads us to London. The manufacturer already had a relationship with an English studio. The scale of the project is too large and spans across too many timezones to be handled by just a few people.
That’s why we came into the project. We needed to catch up with the guys from the other studio who spent already six months with the client. The specific reason was to jump in the same sprint rhythm and continue this on our own in Japan.
So it was a very interesting situation, because we from Goodpatch came to London to work for one month with and at another product studio. Exchange among two agencies for one client is not unusual, but in this case it was a bit different. Our two studios have such a similar profile and overlapping attitude — we both call ourselves product studios and we work on client projects and own products. Before we started to build the product for the client, I was afraid of an agency clash and territory fights.
It was such a relief to see that there is no competition. Our mindsets are much more oriented for collaboration. We integrated our tasks and were able to build a bigger, cross-globe team.
But even with all the similarities, I want to share some differences with you. The London studio started a few years earlier and is now also much bigger than us. I actually was really interested in this fact, because I was sure these guys had already run into a lot of the same troubles which we have still in front of us. I tried to absorb as much as possible from this stay in England.
Their project and people organization was different. What I discovered was that people have more specific roles and professions. In our smaller Berlin studio it is still important to cover more than one role. We need to be more generalist when it comes to design and daily office tasks. If there is no heavyweight expert for icons, you need to become the expert. If your office needs new meeting rooms, you need to think about this. You cannot stick to your specific job description on your contract. You need to be adaptable. And for me this was one of the big points why I joined a studio like this.
Finding the origin in Tokyo
Cut. Why we are now in Tokyo? If you read attentively, you know that the client and our product studio are based in Japan. Both have their origin here.
Goodpatch was founded in 2011 in Tokyo and is a bit different than regular Japanese companies. Maybe you are familiar with the different culture, but I wasn’t before I joined this company. So I faced two big challenges during my stay in Tokyo. One was obviously the Japanese culture and all the subtle differences in an interpersonal level.
With every new day in Tokyo I learn something new. A Japanese phrase, an unspoken behavior or ‘how to operate high tech washlet’. I thought I understood more by each day, but actually I discovered with every new insight, that I know less and less.
The culture and the interpersonal behaviour have so many layers, forget about learning all of them as a ‘gaijin’.
The other challenge was to gain an understanding for the professional environment during my work day at the client office. Like I said before, we at Goodaptch are a bit different than a normal Japanese company. Our founder Naofumi Tsuchiya brought the spirit of Silicon Valley to Japan — kind of. We have a design driven culture and bring this to clients who ask for it.
Big corporations appreciate this difference and ask us to introduce our mindset, workflow and office culture into their organisation and environment. This was one of the reasons why the automotive client reached out to us, besides building a product. Trying to introduce a user centered approach to an established company is one thing, to do this in Japan is another. It is not just the differences in the workflow compared to a startup. The biggest learning for me was the process involved in coming to a decision.
It was not easy to find the balance between adopting the local culture and interrupting the common workflow. I am still not sure how often I crossed the thin line between sharing my honest feedback and being disrespectful.
But the whole design team across London, Berlin and Tokyo were so open minded and acting in concert that I it was a complete pleasure to gain this experience and go through all its ups and downs.
We didn’t stop with Tokyo. Our next mission was to bring this design culture to Paris. The business partner of our client is located here and we did the same as we did in Tokyo — showing how and proving why design matters.
I wrote that I thought it made no different to work in London, Berlin, Paris or Tokyo. Well, yes and no. It depends on your priorities. The embodied office culture and your team is one thing and gave me support. But the whole eco-system around your daily life is something different and effects your mood. I thought I discovered in my previous years already many different work environments, but extending this in six month to four capitals was eye-opening.
I am very grateful that I had the chance to discover a cutting edge and inspiring product studio in London, a friendly and trustful Japanese corporate and a great team cohesion in our offices across Berlin and Tokyo. Now I know that finding the right work environment is an ongoing process that never stops — nor should it. Right now our studio is my perfect fit to my needs.