A post about school design thanks to having the pants charmed off of me when I visited the Printing For Less corporate headquarters in Livingston, Montana several weeks ago. Seeing a commecial e-printing business show first hand what a true 'learning organization' can look like from the design/layout side and the underlying principles that it celebrates. But first a story about being 8.
Note: the dog to the right was one of at least 12 that I saw, roaming happily around the Printing For Less offices/halls. Talk about a perk for employees! And an atmosphere that lends itself to health/passion for all involved. This dog was inside the firm's training room where 20 or so bright professionals (most of them moving from major cities around the US to join the PTL) were undergoing an amazing training program as client evalgelists and technical wizards all in one fell swoop. Everyone looked happy and thrilled to be there; many of which left really nice jobs and leadership positions to come to Montana. Maybe the dogs had something to do with that. Maybe.
At the age of 8, while growing up in Scarborough, Maine, I spent an unusual amout of time at a printer's office -- old school printing, moving metal blocks around and lots of ink and frankly very hard physical labor if memory serves me correctly -- thanks to the father of my then best friend, Billy Curry. It meant almost nothing to me at the time other than while spending the night at Billy's house, we'd often go pick up his father at the small printing company he ran. I used to wonder what he did. I was too young to 'get it', but the images I collected were burned in my brain. Been thinking of this much lately after my recent Web2.0-meets-the-Wildnerness trip to Montana with Robert Scoble and crew, thanks to the opportunity to spend some time with Andrew Field (when he first came to meet us at Scoble's place, when Andrew and I had dinner together later that night at a local dive bar, and the next day when we had the opportunity to tour his commercial e-printing business). Been wondering about a man like Billy Curry's father slaving away in difficult physical conditions at a traditional printing company for pennies on the dollar with little social status in return vs. the passionate/charming men and women who have often moved across the country to work with Andrew on the front edge of e-printing. [Note: image above left is of Scoble with camera and Andrew being interviewed as he toured us around the PFL offices]
And also about what Andrew's commercial e-printing business has to say to school designers everywhere. Here's what I mean.
Andrew is the President & CEO of Printing For Less, the largest commercial e-printing business in the US, a company that was started in 96 at the front end of the curve in such an industry, a company that has done $24 million in revenues this past year, a company that has been featured by Inc. Magazine, Wall Street Journal, Fortune Magazine, the White House and President Bush, and endless others who are noticing something truly special happening in Livingston, Montana in the printing business of all places. Andrew's raison d'etre for starting PFL grew out of his roots running a more traditional printing company years ago, but have far more to do with a friend of his throwing out a challenge one day and Andrew being an entreprenuer at heart. He had been 'snake oil salesman' before that (his own description for selling to auto mechanics); he even ran an auto repair business (and had worked on Robert Scoble's mom's Subaru years before; hence the connection when Scoble introduced us to Andrew).
When Andrew and I had dinner -- sitting at The Old Saloon, a saloon with the typical authentic western charm that only happens in places like small town Montana still -- we talked about the new offices he and his team had just built and moved into. Growth and success had clearly challenged Andrew to get into something larger, but what was particularly fascinating was the approach that Andrew took to working with his architects...and why it impressed me when I toured the facility the next day. He was extremely humble ("It's probably not as nice as some of the other buildings/designs you've seen, Christian" was how he phrased it over burgers)...and truth be told I didn't expect much except 'new' when I imagined going there the next day.
What I found after stepping foot on the Printing For Less 'campus' was one of the most enticing 'school designs' I'd ever seen, and something I wish I could give to kids/teachers around the world. Why? I want to explore this further with Andrew in a future interview, hopefully, but here's the short answers that came to my mind while I was there:
- Day Care and 'family' is built in; there are no other options! The first thing you see when you come walk the parking lot to the front door are little kiddos playing under the Montana sky. All employees pay a pitance to have their young kids on site with them. It's a fundamental. Andrew made it a key design driver. And the # of Baby Bjorns in the office was an indicator that for many of the employees, a family 'quality of life' decision was made without compromising their careers. And its a spectacular daycare. Small adult/kid ratio. Healthy environment. Kids loved. And obviously very happy teachers and parents on site. It wins all visitors over the second they come into the building.
- The main floor is designed for humans, not executives or administrators. Andrew had been told by the design team at first that a 'traditional' executive/client floor was needed. Sends the right message. Fits the design. Tradition. Andrew felt that didn't match the company's feel. Instead, the upper floor does have all of those elements -- like a typical 'entry' to a school -- but for any visitor, the real sense is that it's an open series of collaborative spaces that are designed for all team members (regardless of rank) to relax, create, rest, and connect.
- Every space is a learning space. Man, there just weren't any spaces in the building that didn't suggest learning, collaboration, experiment, and team. Sure, business had to be done and things were divided up by tasks and teams, but the real take-away had to do with energy and collaboration. I'd have given anything for teachers/administrators and school designers alike to have spent time on the bottom floor (ground level, due to the slope that building sits on) where the teams were moving at full speed, serving clients around the nation, and providing rigorous real-time design/printing solutions. Spaces were vibrant. Team members were free to work in a variety of settings. And the place had a learning buzz about it.
- All workers are humans, learners and team members first. I was struck by one programmer/service expert that had forgone the chair entirely. He used a yoga/exercise ball as his chair -- not only did it help create a different dynamic, but it also had a huge impact on his back problems. I also liked that it allowed him to move. To bounce. To fidget. To shift. Mmmm....imagine if kids were given the same option. Imagine. We talked about this a bit, but what really struck me was that the 'trappings' of professionalism were tossed out the window with a grand investment being made instead to support 'how' people worked, created, succeeded, and collaborated. Every team member looked happy/healthy. And the spaces reflected that -- not choosing expensive design but instead being creative and letting the teams be able to gravitate towards what worked best for them. Solo. Small groups. Large groups. Formal. Informal. Inside. Outside. In other words, every space a learning space. Even hallways. Very little wasted...and a far more vibrant learning organization because of it!
What I took away from meeting with Andrew is that he was passionate about a business that is often seen as 'behind-the-scenes' (less like Kinkos, and more like warehouse typically. And that he was even more passionate about technology and the ability for all businesses (no matter how small) to succeed in terms of their public 'presence' (business cards, brochures, posters, etc.). And that he was even, even, even more passionate about his team and how to create an enviroment that supported their full existence as professionals, as family members, as community leaders, and as lifelong learners.
I said this was about school design. And it is. About school design in the sense that each of our students and teachers should be seen as all of the above. And that those of us in a position of leadership who control the environments they come to each day must think about how we 'design' programs and spaces. We can either empower or we can limit. The choice is ours. And, in my humble opinion, if a commercial e-printing business in Montana can create a stunning example of innovation and collaboration for every member of his team...and still be the leading firm in its industry...then what is keeping the rest of us back when it comes to providing rich/dynamic spaces that allow learners of all ages/backgrounds to achieve similar outcomes?
Frankly, he spent a heck of a lot less $/SF than the majority of schools do. Every member of the community is expected to succeed and thrive. And learning happens everywhere.
Maybe I'm digging too deep. Maybe not. But for one morning in Montana, I saw the future of school design and business. And I liked what I saw!