A couple of years ago, I watched a Ted talk by Dr. Ernesto Sirolli entitled “Shut Up and Listen.” Sirolli is an entrepreneurship coach and non-profit founder with decades of experience in the African region. In his talk, Sirolli, an Italian, describes the incompetence of Western “savior” organizations that come into Africa with an idea or a plan on how they can help the locals.
Specifically, Sirolli mentions a failed project he was involved with as a young man on the Zambezi River in Zambia. Coming in as a representative from Italy, he was tasked with teaching the Zambian people how to grow food. The valley around the Zambezi was fertile, and so the Italians thought it would be a great site to plant tomatoes and zucchinis. So that’s what they did. They planted a bunch of tomatoes and zucchinis. And they thought they’d figured out Zambia’s hunger problem when those tomatoes and zucchinis grew large and luscious. How could the Zambian people have been so blind to simple agriculture? The Italians asked themselves.
Not too long after the tomatoes and zucchinis grew, however, a group of hippos came storming through the valley and proceeded to devour every last bit of the prized produce. So this was why they weren't doing agriculture! The Italians realized. “Why didn’t you tell us about the hippo problem?” the Italians screamed at the Zambian locals, looking around at the crop wreckage. “You never asked,” the Zambians replied.
Sirolli’s story serves to highlight how very important it is that outsiders glean knowledge from insiders. Shutting up and listening is a crucial part to serving others in any kind of sustainable or meaningful way.
And this listening is exactly one of the ways in which Sherry Hoffman and Todd Erlandson have found success through their architectural firm March Studio.
March Studio, started by husband and wife Todd and Sherry in 1998 is a design studio located in Santa Monica, California. They’ve done work for the likes of Vice, HBO, and Fred Segal, but what makes March Studio special is “branded architecture with purpose” at the center of its operations. In this way, the studio is very much a reflection of its founders. Todd, a trained architect and Sherry, a brand strategist, have actively married their individual skills and training to bring about an incredibly conscious, unique, and effective five-step business model I’m currently digging. Really digging.
The first step of March Studio’s model relates to design research or listening. Clients come to March Studio looking for a new building, a renovation, and/or a branding refreshment to go along with their new digs. In helping the client to get to that point, Todd and Sherry, along with their small team of designers, devote themselves to listening to clients’ needs before ever mocking up a design.
Sherry specifically mentions one of their earliest projects, a pre-school studio space for The Children’s Center at Caltech, as illustrative of the process. Wanting to understand the school before embarking on the project, the studio closely collaborated with teachers and children. “We probably listened to them for a year before any concrete was laid on the ground,” Sherry says.
This ultimately allowed March Studio to create a space that reflected the ideas, values, attitudes, and cultures of the people who work, study, and interact there.
Evidence of the success of the project came in the form of an American Institute of Architects/LA Design Award (AIA) for it, but Todd and Sherry agree it’s not about the accolades for them, rather, just about the act of fulfilling client needs.
Fulfilling those needs takes willingness on the part of the client to engage in this unique style of branded architecture. Todd tells me, “The clients have to be brave to do that. If they go to some other renowned architects, they know what they’re gonna get. Depending on the architect, they might even know it’s gonna be successful. But it’s gonna be what that architect tells them it’s gonna be. With us, I think that our work is different with every client. We have kind of a modern sensibility, an interest in materials, and the way things go together but in general, the form and the finished product comes from a relationship with the client. And that takes time.”
In addition to being active listeners, March Studio also uses the magic of ethnography to gather insight about client needs. In fact, insight is the second step of the March Studio model.
Let’s talk for a moment about ethnography. It holds a special place in my heart as an anthropologist-turned-designer. One thing that I’ve learned over the years in my cultural anthropology work is that there is no substitute for placing yourself smack dab in the middle of a community, any community, in order to understand it. Whether that’s living amongst indigenous society in Taiwan, amongst Latin dancers in Tokyo, or amongst Romani inhabitants of Spain, insider knowledge comes from, well, being an insider… or as close to one as we can become.
March Studio has also found that to be the case. They actively supplement client meetings with ethnographic activities or “swimming with fish” in order to engage in a layered information-gathering process. A recent example comes from a co-working space project Sherry and Todd recently led. Sherry describes how her team read up as much as possible about co-working spaces on the internet, but there was no replacement for going to an actual co-working site, examining it, participating in activities in it, and asking important questions. “We knew we wanted to bring in nature through biophilic design,” Sherry tells me. “But we wanted to do a full study first. So we rode our bikes around the location. We sat and went into the coffee area. We worked there. We noticed how people passed us by. And then we asked how the people are in relationship to the space, how the space supports them, what their needs are, and what their pain points are. It’s very much human-centered design. We’re looking at that user journey.”
As Sherry told me this, I shivered with excitement. Why? Because human-centered design happens to be one of my favorite styles of design. Thoughts, feelings, impressions, emotions -- these are fundamental to the human experience, positive or negative, and so I believe we must make them crucial to our design process.
I remember watching the Ilse Crawford episode of Netflix’s “Abstract” and having human-centered design explained to me by interior designer Ilse. I was still at the beginning of my own design career. That there would be an interior design studio out there so very attentive and so very sensitive to human needs thrilled me. Design, as I’d always hoped, didn’t have to be just about superficial beauty. Sure, beauty would matter. But it wouldn’t be everything. It could be about so much more than that. And the best designers, I concluded, would make “user journey” their focus.
Sherry’s clearly doing that, but she’s humble. She claims she’s not technically a designer or architect. Her background is in business, marketing, and brand perspective. But from my point of view, Sherry’s as effective, if not even more so than the top architects and designers. When you combine her sensitive attunement to the business and design aspects of her clients with her decades of creative experience, you get a visionary woman. And that, to a fellow woman like me, is damn inspirational.
This leads to the third step of the March Studio model, highly connected to the fourth and fifth step -- in order -- brand, strategy, and architecture. Once the studio has their research and ethnography intel, they can then begin to shape a design for the client.
“The architecture and experience that we design and create needs to be in line with that brand. It can’t be offbrand. That’s our specialty,” Sherry and Todd tell me. I laugh when Sherry notes that in her earlier days as an instructor, “talking about marketing around architecture was a sin.” And I can imagine it too. Architecture was a strict and insular craft. Marketing was of the business world. Combining the two would seem to the most purist of types, I’m sure, to be sacrilege. But it’s 2017. And everybody, artist, intellectual, or otherwise, better know about the business hustle.
The beauty of March Studio is that they understood this idea from their conception. “It’s in our DNA. It’s not just something where we’re responding to some market force. It’s who we are, and we’ve always done it this way.”
There’s a palpable authenticity here, and it’s super refreshing to find in an altogether-too-contrived-and-quickly-adopted-as-we-Instagram-our-way-through-life kind of culture. Todd and Sherry are kind of the OGs of branded architecture. I like that. A lot.
The culture that they put forth doesn’t just extend to clients, it includes their own office culture. Much like the company Patagonia, the partners have consciously set up an office that promotes openness, collaboration, and an overall happy environment. Aside from living a block and a half from their office and having raised two kids through it, Todd and Sherry highly prioritize their team’s experience.
“The team we work with is really brilliant. We share each other’s interests. We promote each other’s interests. We do things together. We really try to keep an open culture at the forefront. It’s a big part of our everyday life. We spend eight hours a day here, so we wanna make it as open and collaborative and enjoyable as possible. Ultimately, we want people to have a life. People aren’t here all night. We try to be flexible. We all like to travel. We try to do things like identify what our superpowers are to understand each other better. We’re not interested in churning people through.”
Work-life balance is talked about. A Joshua Tree retreat is mentioned, which I genuinely feel I wanna attend even though I’m not technically invited. Promoting everyone’s teaching interests is also discussed. In fact, two-thirds of the March Studio office teaches, so new insights are constantly flowing into the studio.
Some of those new insights come from timely and current social impact projects, like “the Future of the Barbie Dream House," a transdisciplinary studio that Sherry is engaged in at Art Center, where she teaches a course in the Designmatters department on how “brand matters.” Building on March Studio’s background of completing community projects like a medical ministry in Vietnam or a medical clinic in Haiti, Todd and Sherry want their work to take an even more holistic socio-cultural impact direction in the future.
“How does brand affect community?” Sherry asks. “Brands like Mattel and other culturally iconic brands are the ones that have the opportunity to change the world.”
And I think she’s right about that. Her words also happen to resonate with those I heard at the “What Design Can Do” Conference in Amsterdam over the summer. There, global designers, architects, thinkers, and innovators got together and brainstormed ideas for global climate change action. Graphic designer-turned-philosophical force Bruce Mau said something that really stuck with me there.
“We don’t have the luxury of cynicism!” he exclaimed in reference to current political events and climate change. He was making a call to action. He urged for informed optimism. He stated that massive change is not about the world of design but about the design of the world. This fresh breath of optimism seems contrary to the popular pulse, but Sherry echoes it in my time at March Studio and in doing so, sings straight to my optimistic heart. “I still am extremely optimistic,” she tells me. “Maybe it’s because of design. But I believe that change is possible. We can make a difference.”
Indeed, I’ve found through much life experience that those who want to make a difference do. And so with that, I feel blessed to be in the room with other creatives/designers/thinkers/movers and shakers who believe wholeheartedly in what they do, who carry a torch of light and hope into the future, who see the big picture, who take the time to sit and listen, and in so doing meaningfully impact those around them. That’s March Studio.