Work | Space

Work | Space

YOU GET THINKING about things, and you start to notice, Wait a minute. This is all about spacemaking.

Allowing people plenty of room to come into a framed, bounded box. One that’s handled with care. Is safe. Where you can let yourself relax, and get to know others. And talk. Like, really talk. Engagement starts from this. We open doors to teambuilding, shared visions, open space dialogues and true collaborations. Win-win-win-win… You see how it works.

But I should tell you about me. So you know me, a little. Before we go into the philosophy of work and space and ‘N+1.’

I co-founded Design Kompany LLC in 2004 in Seattle.

To be really honest, much of the early days were spent noodling about, uselessly. Work was hard because we were young, and new. We got burned a few times, and we handled other projects less-than-ideally. Met many dead ends, things falling through, the usual. This is par for the course for the experienced, of course, but we had to learn through doing. That’s a philosophy we haven’t lost… design isn’t theorizing. Design is doing. Talking, mostly. Really, that’s what people were always surprised about. How much time we spent on the first part of the design process: the creative brief questionnaire. Work that out with us, and we will deliver something extraordinary. Guaranteed, because, it’s a given that if you make that space and share the trust, both sides will put forward their double efforts.

But before, we just played like everyone else. Business was about money, deals. We didn’t know. We learned, though. That it’s about being good at learning about people, what they are telling you, what they are not telling you but want to tell you and will if you allow the space to let them. Flow. Play. Space. Work.

Prior to our move to Asia in 2013, people knew us as brand designers. We did concepts, made logotypes and brand identities, and wrote brand usage manuals for architects, software developers, and many other  process-oriented people. They liked our method. We liked their smarts. We grew, and we learned, and we changed. Then we went on the road, for a year. That was longer than anyone had imagined. And we found Phnom Penh in 2013, whilst on that journey. It had a certain quality, to me. It felt like anything could happen. That by simply being here, by simply observing and studying the Khmer aesthetics closely by living near them, we could really learn. Grow. And it fit. We’ve been here ever since. Changing, learning.

PHNOM PENH. Meeting people. Discovering styles, engaging across new cultural lines, appreciating the approaches of new and very different others. Their initiatives. Their hospitality. I feel lucky. This is fun. It’s exciting.

SOME OF THE WANDERINGS THESE LAST 20 years (literally and metaphorically), have certainly helped me come this far into this thing called entrepreneurship, however trifling and bare-bones our agile approaches are, in the world of business. These insights from doing rather than just theorizing about how to create value for people who desire your services have helped me. A lot. Real-life experiences, brute-forth trial-and-prototyping-and-testing  have sustained me through self doubt, criticism, financial and other hardship, and nourished my sense of purpose. I suppose that’s another reason for which I want to share this with you… I believe in practicing thinking for its own sake, and for the sake of clarity. Now that I’m where I am, there’s this. Our consulting work is now very much about meeting you where you are. From there, we’ll do the spacemaking, to set the stage, so you can do the big work. The thing of ‘N+1.’ Take it to the next stage, yes?


‘I work… to earn money… which I use… to consume stuff… which makes me happy,’ Lynda Gratton in The Shift, on “the traditional deal at work”

THE ABOVE OBSERVATION is a particularly harsh way, perhaps, to look at generations of people’s values and decisions around work, but I think is pretty accurate. My dad had another take: ‘work is supposed to be difficult—to suffer through it is the work.’ Paraphrased, of course, since this was Japan, and a lot was implied rather than stated explicitly or  repeatedly.

I remember growing up associating work with suffering this way, and for me, the work I was to suffer through was my studies. Fast forward to the 90s, and I was a college student in the US. Then, work and job was about how much we’d make in the first year.

Being in engineering, friends around me were throwing around the numbers like 50, 60, 70K per annum, counting them long before graduation and planning the neighborhood where they’d buy their first house. On the other hand, we were the gen X: many of us were openly skeptical, quoting from Reality Bites and the Wall, and daydreaming about vagabonding in Europe or Asia. I was stuck in the middle.

Majoring in Parks and Recreation, I had no fantasy about making six figures any time soon, and my Japanese lineage and studiousness didn’t make me fit in the granolas-and-Birkenstocks club either. Lucky for me, I enjoyed doing what I was getting into at the time, running student clubs and organizing events, and knew what I wanted to be, however vaguely, when I grew up. It was just figuring out how to get there, wherever ‘there’ might be. Trusting the process. I was fortunate to have brilliant mentors early who showed me there’s no such thing as a predetermined flight course.

I was to flap my wings.

Aimlessly, frantically… until I learned to fly.

So… yeah… 25 years into flapping, I have a better idea of where I’m going, work-wise, but I try not to fool myself in thinking that I’ve figured it all out.

Work is to find meaning in life, and truly meaningful work will consume all life that there is.

This isn’t to say that work is more important than other areas of life.

It is that work contains life, in its ultimate form.

Not that any of us will ever achieve this fully, but to me, that ultimate integration of work with life is what I’m after.


Our societies have too long (but this is shorter than we assume!) defined work as a separate activity that’s dedicated to earn our living. And thus, to many of us earning has become the meaning of our lives. I was lucky to reject this early because I didn’t have the privilege nor smarts to obtain membership to the elite class that can define themselves through their annual income and job titles. Everywhere I look around, these days, though, I see many more that have either opted out in their own accord or never had such privilege. The new generation is opting, rather, for meaning. But we carry much baggage from our legacy and its biases: towards money, towards prestige, towards long hours, towards competition, towards disregard to ourselves and others. To integrate work back into our lives we need to be awake to these biases in ourselves and work to overcome them.

Our new work should be oriented towards collaboration, sustainability, creativity and problem solving.

Coworking spaces, “innovation” labs, peer-to-peer economy, “crowd-” everything—these are but some ways this shift is manifesting. But that isn’t enough; the skills I grew up with is awefully inadequate to this new orientation, and I fear that our kids are afforded no better education today. This is where I intend to focus my next decades on.


IF OUR NEW WORK is to collaboratively create solutions to problems—to join the words I used above together—then we need a place where people can gather, to do that work. Space, to me, isn’t just about the physical container, the term encompasses what we create together first, when more than one person come together: holding space.

How we come together, work together and grow into a community; how the communities grow, relate to each other and shift as a whole system: this is a question of space—creating, holding, and nurturing of it—to me. To explore this concept I gathered a few people together in a small gallery space in Phnom Penh, where new spaces for entrepreneurs, artists, and social change makers are on the rise. Some were physical space holders, some were event organizers, some ran organizations, some came because they were curious.

Here’s a few things I learned from our 11-person conversation then:

    • Details are important, and how you can ‘design’ or ‘control’ can be too abrupt, sometimes, and get things veering off to the opposite direction. ‘We tried to make it not too loud,’ said the co-owner of the gallery that hosted us.
    • Experience was a theme of the occasion, as most of us gathered were designers of events, temporal spaces rather than the physical. Why do we need to gather? Sometimes, it’s to educate one another about something important. Sometimes, it’s about the loneliness, the void we feel. We talked about suicide rates in Korea, and how otherwise disengaged kids would come together to create flashmob—a temporal, physical \space\. Controlling space is a tricky business, and it’s akin to steering a boat in open water. Small adjustments can mean a lot down the road, and the less control you can use in getting to the destination, the faster you get there. But how do we know the destination, in open water? Sometimes you start with one intention and you get to another, and it could be a beautiful thing. And what about productivity?
    • How we define productivity decides what we do to optimize it. Someone said: ‘The education system is a productive space for one metric. But we have become good at the wrong thing, perhaps.’
    • We talked about Nerd Night [Phnom Penh] and how it is a place where newbies and incumbents can interact. And how it was meant to solve the problem of silos in the incumbents. And how the space affects the quality of the experience. Trying to accommodate different crowds and breaking the ice requires conscious, intentional small steps rather than a sweeping, big stroke.

…Small steps, in other words.

As I head into the Coworking Unconference, itself a space that has been created intentionally, I keep this one thought in mind, turning it over this way and that way.

What’s the small step that I can take, a little adjustment I can make? That’s the thing. That’s it. That’s the work of making space, and spacemaking to do the work, that we here at DK call, ‘N+1.’


ONE STEP AT A TIME. We are learning and changing and growing all the time. Will you be interested to hear more about how things continue to develop? Ideas, resources, articles and more are all available to you when you become a patron of DK. Here is a link…

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