Work Design NOW Winner IdeaPaint: Video and Case Study

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Natalie Grasso Cockrell
Natalie Grasso Cockrell
Natalie is a Workplace Consultant at Herman Miller and the former Editor of Work Design Magazine. She’s currently based in Pittsburgh.

See how  walls become tools at the IdeaPaint HQ in the final installment of our three-part Work Design NOW research series, sponsored by Haworth.

This is the final post in a series of three reports showcasing the winners of the Work Design NOW 2014 competition, which was sponsored by Haworth. Check out the video above, then settle in to 25+ pages of images, floor plans, and inside scoop in the full case study.

Case study

Click here to download the full PDF version of the IdeaPaint case study Erasable Space: Walls Become Tools at IdeaPaint Headquarters

The case study is chock full of images, floor plans, and interviews with IdeaPaint employees, the Fusion design team, a Haworth workplace strategist, and our very own Bob Fox. The text of the case study, along with select images, is copied below.



In February 2014, IdeaPaint moved into a new 7,600 square foot headquarters in downtown Boston. The space, designed by Fusion Design Consultants, is both a working showroom and an open and flexible office environment for the inventors and purveyors of dry erase paint.

With the new office, IdeaPaint has:
  • Seamlessly blended brand elements in a working showroom and a collaborative office environment
  • Increased its ability to attract and retain talent by moving the headquarters to downtown Boston from suburban Ashland, Mass.
  • Left room for growth both physically and culturally by emphasizing flexibility in the new space
  • Struck a balance between private and collaborative space in a vibrant and open environment
IdeaPaint’s new HQ is open and interactive, with plenty of writing surfaces for idea-building. Photo by Neil Alexander.


Every wall in IdeaPaint’s new HQ—except for, at the moment, one in the lobby—is coated with the simple, revolutionary dry erase paint that the company invented and sells.

“We’ve structured the office so its an open environment, with plenty of writing surfaces for our team to build ideas on,” said John Stephans, president of IdeaPaint. “Given that idea generation isn’t a scheduled activity, we wanted to design a space that provided opportunities for serendipitous brainstorms.”

On top of serving as a super-collaborative corporate HQ, the 7,600 square foot space is also a showroom, and they chose the new location with that in mind.

The walls interact with the people and become another tool just like the desk.

“What we really found spectacular is that it’s street level,” said Stephans. “It shows off what we can do as a brand.”

Stephans added that it’s not rare for them to draw unexpected visitors from the street. A few weeks ago, the CEO of one of the nation’s largest banks stopped and asked to come into the space. “He shared that he was really looking to drive cultural change in his organization around more unplanned, natural collaboration,” said Stephans. “He had heard about IdeaPaint and saw us writing on the walls—he asked us if we were using IdeaPaint before he realized that this was our headquarters.”

Photo by Neil Alexander.
The main entrance to the space. Photo by Neil Alexander.

They also regularly host design industry events, and recently launched a series of bi-monthly “Studio Sessions”, where they feature work of a local artist or designer on their wide swaths of dry erase paint and invite Boston’s creative community to check out the space. At the time of our visit, the illustrator Derek Cascio’s work was on the walls.

“It’s an unfussy and beautiful space,” said Bob Fox, founder of Work Design Magazine. “The way they’ve integrated their brand and their product, and how the walls interact with the people and become another tool just like the desk—it’s so exciting.”

Walls as tools

If the success of the modern business relies on the ability to communicate and iterate ideas, then finishes like IdeaPaint may be our simple key to the future. IdeaPaint does the work of turning walls into tools, just like a desk is a tool, or a computer is a tool.

“The walls in here are a communication tool,” said Fox. “It allows the space to really come alive, become very interactive, and record the evolution of ideas.”

“On the one hand, we’re living in this very disruptive, rapidly changing world,” he added. “But here’s a tool that is in some ways very primitive, that helps us to capture ideas and build upon them and really sustain our businesses.”

Stephans said that they often use the analogy of a sports arena—a space where every inch has been maximized for revenue. In offices, just like sports arena, companies are paying for all the walls, but where some businesses use them only for aesthetic effect, IdeaPaint has activated them.

IdeaPaint's walls are a communication tool for their employees. Photo by Neil Alexander.
IdeaPaint’s walls are a communication tool for their employees. Photo by Neil Alexander.

“It’s very intuitive,” said Ike Cheung, a senior workplace design strategist at Haworth. “This is what everyone should be doing on the wall. It’s such a natural way of capturing ideas.”

Stephans agreed: “It’s an innate action. And we’re enabling that innate action to happen in a work environment and people are actually using the wall meaningfully.”

IdeaPaint employees report that they’ll use the walls to collaborate on ideas and to communicate and track leads. When they come to work the next day—or when a coworker walks by, perhaps with more information—they can build on those thoughts.

“It’s such a unique way of using the wall,” said Cheung. “I think what we’re seeing is that people want both analog and digital tools. And I still think that analog is the more intuitive way of expressing and getting ideas across.”

“From a design perspective—being creative, doing things organically on the wall versus finalizing them in a print out or a drawing or a typed out memo, there’s more organic feel to it and it’s less final so it can continue to change and move,” said Veronica Emig, a project manager at Fusion.

Jennifer Peters, a director at Fusion, agreed: “If technology is the driver to collaboration, and technology is changing so quickly, clients have got to be prepared to change it up. They’ve got to be ready to make a change as technology changes. But with a product like IdeaPaint, you install it once and you’re good to go. It will grow and change with you by not changing.”

Flexibility as key driver

Flexibility was a key driver behind the design of the new space. Stephans worked with the designers to create an open and vibrant environment; one where employees could balance personal and communal needs in a collaborative environment with designated private spaces for focused work.

When they first moved in, everyone had an assigned desk, but now, especially as new hires arrive, the employees move around.

Where there is a difference in work, a natural divide has emerged: the finance and operations team occupy one side of the office, and the sales, marketing, and customer experience teams—an altogether rowdier bunch—sit together on the other. They’re joined in the middle by what they’ve dubbed “the hive”—an open kitchen and gathering space where the employees interact throughout the day, regardless of job title. There is a long table where employees can sit and work individually or collectively. They call it the hive because of the “buzz” that occurs there throughout the day.

The common kitchen area has been dubbed the "hive" because of all the buzz that occurs there during the day. Photo by Neil Alexander.
The common kitchen area has been dubbed the “hive” because of all the buzz that occurs there. Photo by Neil Alexander.

“We even emphasized this through the finishes, where the carpets are darker deeper within the office and they pull together towards [the hive],” said Peters. They mirrored this in the ceiling, too, leaving it open within the work area but then lowering it with a built-in a soffit, painted in IdeaPaint’s recognizable bright blue, to highlight the hive.

All of this contributes to the amount of traffic the hive sees each day. And on top space for eating, meeting, and events, it also serves as a casual conference room, one that reflects current workplace thinking. “Clients don’t want to be forced to meet in a boardroom; the days of meeting in conference room with an attached reception area are over,” said Peters. “Especially where questions of square footage are important. So [the hive] does double duty.”

“For our organization, the issue with the old space was that it didn’t really represent the brand,” said Stephans. “The floor space was completely chopped up. I sat in the middle of the office and could not see any of my teammates; everyone was in an office. It could have been any brand’s space.”

Giving employees the freedom to do work anywhere within a space is a valuable strategy.

On top of that, the old office was 35 miles outside the city. The majority of IdeaPaint’s employee base was already living in downtown Boston, so the move to the city was a no brainer.

“They did take a bit of a leap of faith in the design process because it was such a cultural change, different from the way they used to work,” said Peters. “We had a lot of discussions about whether people required offices to do their jobs.”

The leap of faith was to have a completely open, team-oriented, and collaborative workspace but to provide closed rooms and flexibility for those times that you need them for a phone call or a private meeting. This was one of the biggest cultural shifts in physical space for IdeaPaint.

“The big question was how do you balance the ‘we’ and the ‘me’ time that’s required to really get work done,” said Stephans. “I think the design of the office with some closed private areas allows that to happen.”

A peek into the side of the space where the sales, marketing, and customer experience teams sit. Photo by Neil Alexander.

Cheung emphasized that giving employees the “freedom to work anywhere” within the office is a valuable strategy. He said that IdeaPaint “has understood its work style and given employees the tools and spaces they need, on top of the hive.”

“That’s something we’re seeing more and more on an organizational level,” he added. “Not just personal and individual workstations, but the entire space as a system, including the walls.”

“We talked a lot about how large individual workspace should be,” said Peters. “It used to be everyone thought they needed the traditional workstation in a 6’x8’ cube. What we have found is that if you outfit a smaller space well you can reduce the footprint of individual spaces and, in doing so, give back something else that does help with that corporate culture.”

She cited the hive at IdeaPaint, and great amenity spaces, generally, as a constructive way to assuage any negative feelings employees feel about shedding personal workspace. “When you come in here, there’s a buzz because of how everyone’s working in closer proximity with lower panels. There’s no hiding in a corner, and the natural light fills the space. It’s a really positive thing. But still: there’s always that leap of faith when you leave a closed space.”

Fostering connection between and among employees, brand, and the community

The heart of IdeaPaint’s new space is the aforementioned hive that integrates the whole office—the axis of interaction in an environment that forges connection at every level. First and foremost, there’s the connection between and among IdeaPaint employees, then there’s the connection and interaction with the walls, and finally, connection between IdeaPaint employees and walls with the outside.

“What we really found spectacular about this space was the street level location, and the way we really looked at it was, how do we not only provide a space that has lots of light and provides a great working environment for the people who are in here, but also, can show off what we do as a brand,” said Stephans.

There’s a constant stream of people who walk by, stop on the sidewalk, peer in, and snap photos. “We have these glorious windows, and we didn’t want to be shy about our product,” said Stephans. “We wanted people to look here to stop and be amazed that we’re writing on the walls, and then to see our branding in very conspicuous spaces.”

It’s all about the energy. The new office fosters this creative energy and buzz that really gets everyone engaged in the space and excited about what they do.

He added that the interaction with the outside is “something that is second nature to us in here because of the seamlessness by which we’ve designed the space.”

On top of that, the conspicuous branding helps the A&D community, end users, and other influencers who come into the space to connect with the brand by immediately understanding how the product works. “The better we represent the brand, the better our potential and current customers can see the possibilities in their own spaces,” said Stephans.

“In our old offices, people were really segregated into their own groups and really didn’t interact as naturally as they could,” he added. “Now, [the hive] is a natural destination point for everyone in the office, whether it’s lunch, whether it’s grabbing a cup of coffee or water, whether it’s after work and you’re hanging out. It just provides a real natural flow point where all sides of the office come in and interact.”

“It’s unifying,” said Cheung. “It’s great for the whole organization.”

The view from the finance and operations side into the hive. Photo by Neil Alexander.
The view from the finance and operations side into the hive. Photo by Neil Alexander.

Stephans went on to say that this organic interaction has been the biggest benefit of the new space. “Now, there isn’t such a forced effort to schedule communication,” he said. “And the energy in the office is much higher. There was always energy in the organization, but you couldn’t feel it.”

This was the central theme that Stephans emphasized during the design process from the get-go. “Even before we put a pen to paper, John gave us a bubble diagram that was kind of based on the Starbucks model [showing how he] wanted to walk into the space and have it feel like a cool place to hang out,” said Peters. “For the customers coming through the door it should have that warm inviting feel.”

“It’s all about the energy,” she added. “The new office fosters this creative energy and buzz that really gets everyone engaged in the space and excited about what they do.”

“Brand is internal and external,” said Cheung. “And they’ve showcased it here in a very brilliant way. Externally: opening up the windows, and letting the outside in. And internally, they’re using their brand to attract really talented folks. And it’s been integrated in a genuine way. Immediately, you see how people are casual, there’s a good energy, it’s seamless. It’s very intuitive.”


The walls say it all: IdeaPaint’s headquarters allows them to practice what they preach.

“Our new space is not only in a great location,” said Stephans, “but it is fully representative of our brand and conducive to driving greater collaboration and results.”

They’ve seamlessly blended the brand into both a working showroom and an office environment that suits their company culture; the move to Boston has given them an edge in attracting and retaining talent; they’ve struck a balance between private and open, collaborative spaces; and they’ve left room for growth by emphasizing flexibility in the new space.

“A lot of spaces I’ve been to are either really forced or are overdesigned,” said Cheung. “But this is a very simple, beautiful space. And they have room to grow and to expand, both physically and culturally. It’s a home run.”

A special thank you to Jillian Erhardt for her graphics work on the case study PDF, and to Lost Note Productions‘ Jason Cheung for his work on the video.

Work Design NOW 2014 was sponsored by Haworth.

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