Where do you work?
Maybe it's a brick and mortar address or a multi-state region; a weekday 9 to 5, or a part time job that pays the rent. There are nearly as many unique workplaces in the world as there are workers, but that doesn't mean they're designed to work.
A better question may be, where do you get work done?
For creative professionals, and freelancers in general, the answer is closely tied to the design process. Form follows function, and a workspace that inhibits those functions can pose a serious obstacle to getting things done. Rarely tied to a single screen or sheet of paper, creative work can expand into other media and methods just as often as it relies on other individuals for support.
Josh Stoneburner works in a quiet corner.
The Little Space Studio, founded by Alysha Lach White, is designed to serve the needs of creative professionals who need a little more room to work, a little more access to technology and resources, and perhaps, a little more involvement with other local creatives. Oh, and coffee.
"As a creative person, I need to get out of my basement," White says. "I need to be around other creatives."
White has been running her own business in illustrative development for eight years now, and the breadth of her work is a testament to how versatile and modern creative professionals need to be. From sketch noting the themes of a Latino Community Coalition meeting as Assistant to the City Manager Stacy Stout engages the audience, to illustrating work for commercial clients, to designing characters for board games, White has her hands and iPad full of creative ideas.
She uses an app called Procreate to sketch out storyboards, and during an event like the Grand Rapids Neighborhood Summit, might finish an illustrated outline of the meeting a short while after it finishes up. For other, more intensive work, she spends her time at Little Space Studio, possibly adding finishing touches to some work by drawing on a large screen called a Cintiq, or getting more hands-on at a craft table.
Little Space Studio is White's work and event space. Currently inside the large building at 401 Hall St., it's a place where many different creative professionals have found themselves working for a time, only to ask White, "Can I just work here every day?"
Alysha Lach White, left, speaks to Naomi Silas, right, about a shared project.
The redesigned and expanded Little Space Studio represents a year and a half of research and experimentation. White has looked at different ways of monetizing the space, different resources to include, and consulted her five-member board of advisors on everything from user experience to branding to location, location, location, and what emerges from this process is going to be useful because it's been tested.
The Little Space Studio is designed professionally for professional designers.
"I love The Factory; it's one of my favorite places," White says. "I participate in a lot of their events and I was a member for about a year. That was part of what pushed me in this direction; I loved working there but as a creative, once I started working on client specific material that had to get a little messy, I had to leave. I should be able to just go somewhere where that work is welcome."
White does a lot of her work on an iPad, but switches to analog media every now and then, too. She often relies on watercolor to add subtle hue and tone to a design, but not every office environment is equipped with a cup of water and brushes to load with paint, nor are coworkers prepared when those brushed need the devil beaten out of them.
Different jobs place a different footprint on the workplace, and White’s studio is where those footprints can comfortably fit.
A space designed for work
White has leveraged the various skills of her hand-picked advisory board to fill in the gaps where her knowledge doesn't reach. A graphic designer, strategic planner, branding and experience designer, UX designer, and media expert have guided her through the implementation of her business plan, to collecting the most useful tools and resources, and to the layout of the physical space.
The entire project is focused on meeting the needs of creative professionals. According to advisory board member and White's husband Kevin White, that could mean the space changes shape throughout the day.
Project management teams may need meeting space during the day, he says, while creative commercial work may prevail in the afternoons, podcasts being recorded at night, and coffee served 24/7. There will be a professional space and a place to drop in and use for coworking. Along with that, a conference room, call booths, and yes, a small space to hang out.
The hope is that individuals will be able to experiment and elevate their own businesses "to the point beyond surviving," says White.
"You want your business to survive, you want it to be sustainable, and you want to be able to grow as a creative person, so what kind of coworking space would you want to work in?" she asks. "Having a resource library with Pantone books and materials and things that you can just be able to look at 10 feet away from your desk is really helpful."
A space designed for people
All work—and all workers—are welcome to use the Little Space Studio, White confirms. Through a partnership with DisArt, a group that offers local and international platforms for disabled artists, the space is designed to offer completely barrier-free access to all necessary resources a creative professional of any ability may need.
At most, only 60 percent of all public entrances are designed with disabled individuals in mind, but adjustable desks and tables will provide all Little Space Studio members easy access to the same resources. And, supported by a social contract, members may offer and request help of others in the studio up to their own comfort level.
"In our social contract, if someone with a wheelchair is trying to get to something they may not be able to reach, someone else who is mindful enough may assist them with that," White says. "The community manager or staff manager will chip in, too. We're kind of looking out for each other."
Along with being inclusive, the Little Space Studio is empowering. White is catering to other business owners and already has several queued up for membership
"Maybe they can't have an engaging work environment anywhere else, but when they come here, the big hope is that it fosters intentional collaboration," she says. "There's a better chance there will be someone you can seek advice from. Or, you can just bitch about your work."
Chris Fredricks, of OPEN co., is one of those on the list of workshop facilitators. A designer and printmaker, Fredricks has created a line of matching adult and child outfits called Grow Up Awesome. He will offering branding workshops at Little Space Studio, as well as working on his own material.
Fredricks has dabbled with online teaching through Skillshare, but working from a dimly lit home office with kids running around isn't always conducive to recording compelling tutorials. He says he is looking forward to using the podcasting equipment at Little Space, among other resources.
"Workshops in my studio are limited to about 20 people," he says. "I would use Little Space in the future to host events like that once it can accommodate more people just to offer workshops in a variety of spaces."
With a bachelor's in film and video and an MFA in integrated design, Fredricks began his career as a design and art director at Sun Bum, a skin care products company. He left there in 2014 and has been working freelance ever since. Partly out of choice, and partly out of necessity, Fredricks says what he values most about freelancing is the flexibility it affords.
In West Michigan, that flexibility is paired with a close-knit community, for better or worse.
"What I like about it being a smaller community is you can get to know people pretty quickly just by showing up," Fredricks says. "I go to events hosted by AIGA, IXDA, KCAD, Creative Mornings, etc, and my network has grown pretty big just by being there. The downside of a small community is lack of diversity and resources. Which could also be seen as less opportunity for work, when compared to a larger city."
At least through workshops, creative professionals at Little Space Studio will be able to expand and hone their skill set.
"Workshops are not only accessible and easy to jump into, but it's something that is affordable, and everything you need in the workshop is in the workshop space," White says.
"You can basically just come in and plug in and add your workshop to the schedule. You can use the network of Little Space to promote it as well."
A space designed for community
Little Space Studio an exciting place that fosters creativity and nurtures personal growth over competition. But make no mistake, it's not just a hangout for colorful people. It's a professional workplace, and even the most masterful messes are expected to be tidied up by the end of the day.
It is, after all, a reflection of the needs of creative professionals, those inside and out of West Michigan. And White expects the Little Space Studio to be very important to those from out of town.
"I think a lot of creatives who are born and raised in Grand Rapids know how to navigate the social networks," White says. "People from out of town don't. There may be a lecture here or there, through AIGA or IxDA or something but it's all local, and all in these bubbles."
She says the Grand Rapids Freelancers meetup, facilitated by Factory member Stuart Pearman, is a good example of how technology can be used to provide free access to educational opportunities. For a city that's growing as fast as Grand Rapids, the faster someone can embed themselves into the right professional network, the better chance they have of landing work.
"Freelancers need to be able to operate just like a very small business," Pearman says. "They need to know how to find work, manage their time, keep track of their finances, and run their work life in accordance with the laws and regulations in their area. This is a lot to learn and keep track of when you’re just starting out, so having people to go to for guidance helps immensely."
“The network Little Space Studio will allow other creative professionals to plug into will link them to specialized knowledge and mentors that traditional co-working environments may lack,” Pearman says.
That said, where co-working spaces excel is in the gathering of varied disciplines. It makes freelance work exciting and arguably more human than its corporate counterpart.
"Everyone has a skill set that makes them valuable in their own unique way, and it may not fit into one particular job description," Pearman says. "Freelancing gives people the flexibility to grow their skills based on their own values and interests, rather than serving the interests of one specific organization."
Pearman will also be leading workshops at Little Space Studio, and adding to the inclusivity of the creative community.
"I like the friendly nature of West Michigan," he says. "I feel like people generally want to help each other and are open to collaboration. It doesn’t feel like people are super competitive or overworked. It doesn’t pay as well to work for local companies as it does to work remote, and I think we have some catching up to do in the tech/startup scene, but I love it here, and hope to stay and watch where things go."
White and her team hope they go far, and already have a plan to expand once the studio takes shape.
"This is something that has a long-term growth model that is pretty significant, that is scalable," she says. "We're going to start the first space, and once we see how it works there, we're going to duplicate it."
For more information on Little Space Studio, visit http://www.littlespacestudio.com/
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio