Voices

What kind of workspace do you need to be creative?

By Kerem Alper

15 December 2014 - 15:00

Kerem Alper is co-founder of Turkey’s first creative hub — a communal work space for creative professionals — called ATÖLYE Istanbul. Here, he explains what creative professionals need from their working space.

What is a ‘creative hub’ and why is there a market for it? Why will people pay to rent a spot in a ‘creative work space’ when most cafes have free WiFi?

My company, ATÖLYE Istanbul, is a production and creativity hub for creative entrepreneurs in Istanbul. Members pay a fee to have access to work in a communal space with prototyping tools like a 3D printer, laser cutter, traditional tools and a media lab.

We also run design thinking and innovation workshops for individuals and corporations. The idea is that our network members can share their knowledge with each other, through experiential classes, workshops and seminars taught by their peers.

How did you come up with the idea to start your business?

The idea to start the space actually came from me and my co-founder trying to meet our own needs. We spent ten years in the US studying and working, and when we went home to Istanbul, we realised that we lacked a community of creative entrepreneurs around us to work with on projects.

This realisation led to the initial prototype of our idea. We brought expert designers, entrepreneurs, engineers, social scientists into the same room to try to better understand their needs. They didn’t necessarily need a work desk, but rather a community to bounce ideas off of and get feedback from. They also needed an atelier of digital and analogue prototyping tools so that they could turn their design concepts into reality within a short time frame. Istanbul is a huge city with widely dispersed resources, and that creates a big burden on the creative sectors.

These initial ideas slowly evolved as we gathered the first circle of community members. We’re still gathering data on creative entrepreneurs’ needs, so that we can tackle them in the physical work space, as well as on a digital platform.

What does your work space look like?

We’re currently renovating the actual space, which will be opening in the spring of 2015. It’s 600 square meters, inside a historical beer factory in the centre of Istanbul. It has high ceilings, brick walls, and an industrial feel to it. There is a huge courtyard in the centre of the factory where we will be holding outdoor events. There’s also a concert hall, a gallery, a few restaurants, a microbrewery and an architecture studio in the same location.

What makes a work space function well? 

What makes a work space function well is the balance between its professionalism and its amateurism. This is what we are working towards creating at ATÖLYE Istanbul. On one hand, the space needs to be clean and tidy, with well-maintained infrastructure and services available without disruption. On the other hand, it needs to be perceived as a community workspace that’s more than just a few desks, fast internet and free coffee. For that to happen, we have been working hard at curating the culture of the space. We do this by offering workshops, engaging co-workers in various projects and helping them feel ownership of their space.

What tips would you give people working at home, or in an office, on improving their creativity and productivity?

It’s tough to maintain an inspiring atmosphere at home. Being part of an interdisciplinary community of artists, designers, entrepreneurs, engineers, and social scientists is invaluable to a creative entrepreneur, and it can be difficult to replicate this at home. If you’re working at home, you should try to create an environment of organised, focused chaos. However, there’s no reason to be untidy for the sake of it. Organisational messiness needs to have a structure to it, based on the project this person is working on.

Natural light and plants are critical to creativity. Nature doesn’t have anything that’s ninety degrees; yet everything at our homes has that character, so one needs to amend it in order to be in a more natural environment where one can be more creative. Plants increase oxygen levels in a space, and natural light helps people think with a clear head and focus better.

Can you really get as much work done in a big open-plan office with lots of distractions as at a quiet desk in a traditional office? What do these spaces offer that traditional workspaces don’t have?

It’s been proven by academic research that workspace has a big role in the creative process of an artist, a designer or an entrepreneur. It’s very important to have a workspace where you can get your head down, and be focused and productive. But ‘co-creation’ spaces or ‘maker spaces’ also need to provide people with conditions in which it’s easy to socialise with one another and work together on projects. This takes a tremendous effort from the project architect’s point of view. However, when done well, it has the potential to create huge value for the people working in a space.

Is there as much of a market for creative workspaces in Istanbul as in London? What are the challenges for replicating a thriving artistic district like East London in Istanbul?

Istanbul is currently amidst a transformation, with a steadily developing economy, a rising supply and demand for the arts, more tourists, and a young population eager for new ideas. The city has a rich creative history, which includes both traditional craftsmanship and heavy industrial activity in its outskirts.

However, there’s no convenient fabrication hub where designers can create prototypes of their designs quickly. What’s more, emerging young design talent often get locked into stable jobs that don’t give them space for creativity. Istanbul’s heritage in industry and craftsmanship is not appreciated or exploited in the context of art and design.

Big corporations like Google are incorporating some of the start-up culture perks of a creative communal workspace. Will other, more traditional companies ever follow suit?

The working environment that young creative people demand in order to produce good work has been transformed over the past few years. Companies in all sectors are facing the same issue. If they want to keep recruiting and retaining top talent, and keep coming up with new ideas, they will need to deal with this in one way or another.

The way to make a company’s employees happy has shifted from paying them more to giving them more freedom to do the things they are passionate about, and helping them channel that energy into what is right for the company. That’s why Google employees can spend 20 per cent of their working day doing anything they want, unrelated to Google. It’s also why Facebook, a company that only lives on the web and in our phones, has a wood workshop and a digital prototyping lab on its campus for its employees to use for free.

Traditional companies will have no choice but to follow suit. It’s the only way they can attract talent and stay alive.

We often associate creativity with working in isolation — companies starting in people’s garages, artists working alone in their garrets. Do we need other people around us to be creative? 

Creativity is a process that needs to balance out extroversion and introversion. Most creative entrepreneurs do not want to be in isolation, but nor do they want to be distracted by other people all the time. Both states of mind actually nourish the creative process.

If someone else was going to set up a company like yours, what advice would you give them?

Don’t wait for the perfect conditions to arise. They never will. Start by doing, by testing your idea. Engage with your community early on. Don’t tell people what you are doing, tell them why you are doing it. People don’t buy into what you do, they buy into why you do it.

Have principles and an honest manifesto that will keep you on track as you get distracted by the many pulls and pushes from your environment. Do not fear competitors; if you are copied, it shows that you are doing something right. And create more value than you capture.

Kerem Alper is a winner of the British Council’s Young Creative Entrepreneur Awards and features in the Blurring the Lines exhibition at the British Council’s Spring Gardens headquarters, open until 19 December 2014.

Watch a film on why Istanbul is one of the most exciting places to be a creative entrepreneur.

You might also be interested in