Sam Stubblefield: Why Designers Must Think Like Contrarians

Amid a corporate arms race to attract talent, companies are building some pretty tricked-out offices these days. NBBJ architect Sam Stubblefield knows this well. He has helped design the headquarters for Google and Amazon. But as companies have added more OMG! amenities to their campuses, Stubblefield has developed into a bit of a contrarian. When someone asks him what is the next cool thing they can do to expand their office footprint, Stubblefield replies with, What is the last thing you can do to avoid building?

“It’s so hard to go to Google and say, ‘You’ve got all of this land, but I wouldn’t build a building. I’d turn it into a nature preserve,” says Stubblefield. His recommendation to sprawling companies is to figure out how to get people working in shifts and largely from home. “That is basically talking our company out of projects, but, if that is the right choice, you have to do that,” he says. 

The Seattle-based Stubblefield’s antithetical way of thinking extends to other topics as well, whether it’s establishing a killer design team with people from outside the field, turning city streets into public parks, or taking months off every year to focus on making art. We recently spoke with him about the need for creatives to look at the world from a different perspective than most.

When you’re conceptualizing a building, where does your creative process begin?

It goes way beyond architecture. I’m interested in how employees feel when they turn off their alarm clock every morning. What sort of head space are they in? What headspace are they in on their commute to work? I want to know what their entire day is like, every detail of it. How they feel when they walk out of their office building? Everything they associate with it. We need to think at that level. If we relegate it to space, I think we will be disappointed.

Stubblefield had a hand in designing Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle.

Your design teams are typically composed of people from diverse backgrounds, not just superstar architects. Why?

We have a lot of doctors and nurses on staff here at NBBJ and it dramatically impacts our work. I love the idea of walking into a room where I have a badass technical architect, a nurse, and me and my background in fine art, and we’re going to go tackle an urban design problem for a civic project. You get outcomes that will be really different than if you had three people who studied similar architecture and graduated from similar schools. You have little or no chance of getting something really wild out of that group. It will get done, probably faster, probably easier, but it’s rare that you get something that is phenomenally different.

If you have three people who studied similar architecture and graduated from similar schools, you have little chance of getting something wild out of that group.

How does this approach impact how you hire?

When we hire, we are looking for people who have two deep practices. Deep is admittedly a subjective term, but we think of it like Pi – have two good legs to stand on. For example, a former student of mine got a degree in both music and architecture at UC Berkeley, and then she decided to create music/sounds specifically for places. She has two deep practices, but she also has a squiggle across the top – the wavy symbol which says to me that that person can figure it out because they’re entrepreneurial, creative, and not too rigid. You can put any of those people against a problem, and you’ll often get a useful solution out of it. 

If you don’t currently want to create buildings, where do you see the biggest opportunity for new work? 

The biggest influencer to architecture right now will be human transportation. If you start to do the math, self-driving cars are going to happen. As we’re seeing people migrate to the cities, self-driving cars can reshape streets as we know them. What if pushing cars off the road gave our cities 20 percent of their streets back? How does that reshape a city? What if we turned it all into green space for a public park? It can be just trees. I walk around everywhere and my favorite thing to do is think, What if that was a strip of forest? It’s a fun thing to imagine.

As we’re seeing people migrate to the cities, self-driving cars can reshape streets as we know them.

Encouraging companies to use potential building space for green space and rethinking city streets as parks – how does it help a creative to look at the world from a different perspective?

A creative cannot but look at the world differently. It is part of the job. But it is more than naturally having a different point of view. I think it is about actively searching for other ways, combining ideas, trying challenging approaches, generating visions, and finding other curious people to play with. I am fairly sure that it is a little bit of “bored kid” syndrome, too.

The Seattle City Light, the world’s best-looking electrical substation.

Tell us about your yearly work cycle, where you take several months off to make art. 

I started taking a few months off every year because I had stuff that I wanted to do, but found that paying projects got in the way of more pure ideas. Nothing clever! It stayed fairly relaxed until a friend turned me onto Situationist International, a small group of artists and thinkers from Europe that emerged in the late 1950’s. This got me a little more serious about breaking patterns in work-life.

The Situationists are a little extreme for my taste, but there is certainly something to learn. Alongside politics and economics, they get into architecture, film, wayfinding, graphic design, and urban design. I admire their ability to be influential without having any apparent linearity or framework. It encourages me to take time to explore the intersection of some of the things that I’m interested in, which requires time.

A creative cannot but look at the world differently. It is part of the job.

How do you make it work financially?

The time is specifically set aside to do things that don’t need to make money, yet it is often my most productive (and sometimes most profitable) time of the year. It is normally spent planning, learning, teaching, and making. As the studio grows, it is becoming difficult to find the time.

I’m just coming off a six-month artist residency here in Seattle. I was hoping to work two to three days per week in the studio, then be at the residency for the rest of the week. It ended up being five to six studio days and five to six residency days. It was 80-hour weeks for six months. Total disaster in terms of taking time to focus, but insanely productive. I know a lot more about robotics now. Really looking forward to finding more applications for that!

As for how, I live fairly minimally, don’t own a car, and manage to keep things to a minimum. In lieu of higher education I decided to get some  great mentors and supplement that with the occasional class, so no school debt and an additional few years of earning. I’ve never had a credit card! Most of my money goes to travel and art projects. I don’t skimp on food. Good food is important.