A design studio is a bridge between the creative and commercial worlds. For the Made Shop, a self-described “shape-shifting” design outfit based in Denver and L.A., how you travel that bridge matters: for your work, your clients, your team, and especially for you as a person.
The Made Shop’s six-person team makes many metaphors about how exactly—or inexactly, rather—they maneuver to produce their multifaceted work. (The studio specializes in branding, but it’s obvious they can do anything). From their gabled studio in Denver’s Highlands neighborhood, they “shoot arrows into bushes,” do things the Momofuku way—that is, “the long, hard, stupid way”—and purposefully try to get lost. On a good day, hopefully even a little bit bored.
In January, the Made Shop shifted to a four-day workweek. To announce the change, owners Marke and Kim Johnson, who co-founded the studio in the early 2000s and live next door with their three daughters, gave each designer a OneClock to symbolize the gift of time. “There are a lot of ways to reward ourselves and our employees, the most obvious being compensation, but we’re very aware of how time is maybe the one thing no one’s making more of right now,” says Marke. “For us personally, time is what we want more than anything.”
To keep business afloat and clients happy, Kim and Marke have to keep a close eye on the clock to meet deadlines and stay within budgets, but they’re conscious of how an emphasis on efficiency constricts the creative process and what comes of it. Time can play tricks on the creative mind. Too much paralyzes with its infinite possibility; too little trades on inspiration. How to use time as a material, to explore it as a tool alongside a notebook or camera, has been an ongoing investigation for the Made Shop.
“From the beginning, we’ve embraced wasting time, of doing things like chef David Chang: ‘the long, hard, stupid way,’” explains Marke. “Moving in a zone of efficiency is a way to redo things you’ve done before, and we’re not about that. Our job as designers is to do new things. You can’t do that efficiently. You have to get lost and make mistakes. The clock is an anathema to getting lost.”
Getting clear on when to implement efficiency—in administrative systems, for instance—is a way the studio has carved out more time for experimentation. “Early on, we went down every rabbit trail to find the unexpected solution. We’ve since learned how to be ruthless about efficiency for the things that don’t need creativity, buying ourselves time to waste on the things that do,” Marke says.
It’s not that the designers don’t like constraints. They do. “In our work designing album artwork for the band Son Lux, we used time as a constraint in a pretty serious way,” explains Adam Blake, who joined Marke and Kim as a co-founder in 2010. Son Lux had participated in NPR’s 28-day challenge that invited bands to write, record, and produce a full-length album all within the month of February. They asked the Made Shop if they could make album artwork in a week. Their answer? No. But in a day? Yes. “In a weird way, a week felt like both not enough time and too much,” says Marke. “We gave ourselves 28 hours. The idea was about unbridled, ephemeral creativity. It was a riot of color and form.”
When they’re not given constraints by a client, they generate their own. One of their go-to practices is something they call “shooting arrows into bushes,” where they intentionally avoid the easiest, most obvious solution and instead use divergent thinking to find “the worthwhile target to hit.” The goal is to create choices rather than make decisions. “When you’re in divergent mode, you’re filling the board, finding what’s interesting, and then letting it go and moving on to find the next interesting thing,” explains Marke. “Once you’re ready to converge, you dive in and refine. Both are important tools, but they make for really different outcomes.”
In everything, and especially creative work, time can expand like a balloon, but it can just as easily deflate or suddenly pop. Yes, time moves at a precisely measured pace, but we all know its propensity to feel loopy, strange, slippery. And the latter, the nonlinear, is a critical space to enter into when you’re making work of any kind.
Often referred to as “being in the zone,” the bubble of flow-state making feels egoless to designer Parker Metcalf, who joined the studio last year. “I can’t help but get a little spiritual about it,” he says. “When you’re in the flow, every move feels essential. You’re detached, not fixated or obsessed, just moving without question. My most beautiful work comes when I release control.” Designer Kate Petrik agrees. For her, time takes on a magical, generous quality. “When I’m in the flow, I somehow always get done what needs to get done. What was meant to happen happens.”
Learning how to jump-start that flow state is a necessary skill for designers when they’re up against deadlines. “You have to stay experimental,” says Davis Scruggs, who brings both design and photography chops to the studio. “Fail fast. As soon as I have the smallest idea I try it out to see if it holds water. If it doesn’t, it’s gone. Just try, try, try.”
Davis often turns to his notebook to doodle, even if for only a few moments, to loosen up and shift his perspective on whatever problem he’s trying to solve. The other designers have their own techniques. Parker switches to “absorb mode” and spends time looking; Adam likes to jump in the shower. “I’ve learned that I must stay true to my process even if I’m on a really tight timeline,” says Kate. “I need to go through all of the steps I normally would, just on a smaller scale.”
The Made Shop has been busy this winter, but the four-day workweek has also brought spaciousness. With the extra time, Kim and Marke are hoping to get back to some good old-fashioned boredom. “Losing track of time is very abnormal for me,” says Kim, who deftly manages the studio’s business operations; her flow-state transpires when she’s a few spreadsheets deep in Quickbooks, or quilting. “If I’m bored, I’m in a really good place.” She and Marke believe that a scarcity of boredom impinges on creativity at home and in the studio. “The only way to have a good idea is to get a little bored, which we almost never let ourselves do because of technology,” says Marke. “We want and need to bring boredom back.”