Callahan Creek was a community of thinkers and makers. But from an experiential perspective, that wasn’t immediately apparent. In many ways, the office looked like any other: Hives of desktops, loud conversations that echoed across the open room and most of the staff wearing headphones. The native limestone walls were barren, and desks were connected by modular walls lowered several years ago in the spirit (and fad) of collaboration. Everyone knew the floorplan wasn’t working.
The project began with a mandate to improve the space generally, specifically an area that had been dormant for nearly two years. It had been slated for a collaborative making/hacking space, but the cost of filling it with tools and furniture was prohibitive.
There also was agreement that something was needed on the walls. There had been discussions of opening the doors to local artists as many downtown businesses did. There is a monthly gallery walk called Final Friday that also was an attractive way to be more engaged with downtown neighbors.
Lastly, I added a personal challenge to remedy the problem of office noise and distraction. I had struggled mightily with getting work done in my work area—to the point that I was working off-site several days a week in quiet solitude. Others were grappling for a way to focus, too.
The catalyst proved to be Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work,” which inspired me and led to a conversation with Jan-Eric Anderson, one of our VPs. Jan-Eric immediately connected because he had the same daily battle with concentration in a noisy open office.
This project seemed like the right opportunity to try something new, and Jan-Eric’s openness led to permission from the rest of the executive team.
I broke the project into three parts: Photography for a section of cubicle walls at the top of the stairs in our primary space; a gallery on the walls surrounding the stairs with thematic art made by Callahan Creek staff; and creation of a “thinker space,” called The Deep End, in the previously dormant back room.
The wall photographs were images I had made of downtown Lawrence during the years. Also included was an image by Jon Hardesty, our agency photographer, of a tree in Topeka at the moment it was struck by lightning. These images were a way for us to bring the outside community into our agency community. Because Callahan Creek was founded in Topeka, Jon’s image was an ideal addition.
The idea of a gallery space made sense because the office is in the heart of Lawrence’s cultural district. But I wondered what would happen if we challenged ourselves to create the artwork. I set a theme based on how we generate ideas and worked with staff to represent that process with found materials at the office that would fit in a 16” x 20” shadowbox frame. The response was enthusiastic, and the finished work was outstanding.
The Deep End, however, proved to be the jewel. Because budget was less than $2,000, I worked with Callahan Creek's dedicated contractor to dream up ways to repurpose old furniture parts held in storage. He turned desktops on end, screwed them together and created “thinker pods” for people to brainstorm in. He built a bar from scrap that allowed for stand-up use. We cannibalized other areas of the office for couches and chairs, and we created stand-alone desks with second monitors for designers to plug into.
The success was immediate. Staff immediately took to the idea and used the room at all hours of the day. I wrote a set of rules and posted outside the entry, but people policed themselves—and others—without prompting.
Jan-Eric even developed the story into a presentation that he delivered at Gas Can 2017, a creative conference in Kansas City.
This was one of the most memorable experiences in my tenure at Callahan Creek because it affected the staff in a positive, lasting way. It stimulated our thinking and making in the years ahead.

Concepts & art direction // Chris Ralston    Construction // Jon Hudson

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