What Schools Can Learn From Google, IDEO, and Pixar

The country's strongest innovators embrace creativity, play, and collaboration — values that also inform their physical spaces.

A community about to build or rehab a school often creates checklists of best practices, looks for furniture that matches its mascot, and orders shiny new lockers to line its corridors. These are all fine steps, but the process of planning and designing a new school requires both looking outward (to the future, to the community, to innovative corporate powerhouses) as well as inward (to the playfulness and creativity that are at the core of learning).

In many ways, what makes the Googles of the world exceptional begins in the childhood classroom — an embrace of creativity, play, and collaboration. It was just one year ago that 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the number-one leadership competency in our complex global marketplace. We can no longer afford to teach our kids or design their schoolhouses the way we used to if we’re to maintain a competitive edge. In looking at various exemplary workplaces such as IDEO, Google, and Pixar, we can glean valuable lessons about effective educational approaches and the spaces that support them.

Learning from IDEO: A transparent space where projects take the spotlight
The design and innovation firm IDEO tacitly understands how office environments help or hinder the creative process. Every decision made in its Chicago design office reveals and nurtures its culture, with an open layout that spurs collaboration. Here, team project rooms frame an open studio for the interdisciplinary work of designers, business strategists, and programmers. A café/forum area, prototyping workshop, Chicago-gazing roof deck, and community garden support the studio’s evolving life, without being too prescriptive.

[Photos by Steve Hall]

What would it mean for schools to have a culture centered on design thinking and interdisciplinary projects instead of siloed subjects? What if the process of education were as intentionally crafted as the products of education (i.e., we always think about the book report or the final project, but not the path to get there). What if teachers were treated as designers?

There are some schools out there that are doing just that, including High Tech High, an innovative collection of charter schools in Southern California led by lawyer-cum-carpenter-cum-education innovator Larry Rosenstock and a diverse team of adult learners. The model is deeply rooted in project-based learning (PBL), whereby students learn academic knowledge while picking up real-life skills such as collaboration and critical thinking. With this pedagogical foundation and supportive spaces, students can produce meaningful and integrated projects — from a conservation book series on the San Diego Bay to a bilingual cookbook. Such interdisciplinary work is supported by a thoughtful facility design that displays flexibility, ownership, transparency, and originality. On its website, High Tech High notes that guests "remark that it looks and feels more like a high-performance workplace than a school."

The Blue Valley Schools Center for Advanced Professional Studies (BVCAPS) takes a similar approach. This district-wide program for 11th- and 12th-graders is an example of what happens when educational curricula and spaces are designed in tandem by a powerful team of community and business partners. A 2011 Edison Award winner, BVCAPS structures real-world training around four high-growth industries in Overland Park, Kansas. With lessons devised by partners such as Garmin and Cisco, BVCAPS is anything but a typical school. Its instructors are more like program managers and its curriculum is created through a patented rapid-prototyping process. Next year, it will even launch a business accelerator, prompted by four patent-seeking students.

[Photo by James Steinkamp]

BVCAPS left some space raw in their new building, with the notion that its purpose would be determined by the activity and interest of its students. The poise, enthusiasm, and maturity of the students testify to the benefits of an environment where students take ownership over projects and spaces.

Playing with Pixar: The art and science of spontaneity and story
Pixar, arguably the greatest digital storyteller of our time, is an easy source of school-environment inspiration: Its studio is a place where magic results from a potent blend of art and science, work and play, digital and analog. In Melena Ryzik’s tour of Pixar Studios for The New York Times, one catches a glimpse of the whimsy, transparency, recreation, and technology on campus. But listening to Steve Jobs’s philosophy behind the design reveals something deeper — that its layout was designed to foster "forced collisions of people," because "the best meetings were meetings that happened spontaneously in the hallway."

Imagine what could happen if the advanced physics student and the photography student had meaningful collisions in the average American high school. What if they did by design — if their classwork wove together diverse content and skills intentionally and elegantly? What would young people see as possible? They might come to understand that the lines between music, math, physics, and art are much blurrier than textbooks make them appear. Schools could be the breeding ground for a new millennium of Renaissance young men and women where creating something trumps memorizing it.

Ogling Google: Holistic environments and a playful culture
This $30 billion game-changing technological company realizes that valuable innovations are born from serious play, deep teamwork, and a holistically engaged (and cared for) staff. A tour of Google’s Chicago office we took with a group of educators and educational architects revealed many things, such as the power of allowing employees to control their spaces and expressing local character in a global company.

A playful strain runs through Google’s office culture. In particular, we remember "Bloxes," a type of giant interlocking cardboard boxes used to stimulate brainstorms and create ad hoc work spaces. The solo software engineer holed up in a cubicle has been replaced by an affable crew of makers of digital software and physical sculpture. In fact, Bloxes were the product of an art project by the Apple innovator Jef Raskin.

Imagine what might happen if students had this same power to edit and make their own spaces within the school environment. A tree fort in younger years might be the precursor to a dorm room venture, entrepreneurial hub, or Bloxes project room.

The work of play and the play of work
There is much to learn from our innovative corporate giants, and some schools are already taking note. But ironically, the true genius of these work spaces is how they’ve been inspired by lessons from children. (The ability of top executives to incorporate playfulness and internal strategy has even become a topic of discussion for major corporations.) Yes, school designers and leaders should make learning environments that reflect dynamic workplaces. But school leaders would be remiss if they didn’t critically re-examine (and support) the power of play and creative arts that these leaders have gleaned from them.

As we’ve learned from some of our most innovative companies, the creation of new spaces is truly an exploration of culture. What are the school environments in your community telling you? Telling your young people? It is time to re-imagine and invest in schools and spaces ripe for creativity and cross-pollination.

Steven Turckes leads Perkins+Will's global K–12 practice and is the director of the K–12 Education Group for the Chicago office. In Steven's 24-year career, he has focused on the programming, master planning, and implementation of nearly $1 billion of K–12 projects across the nation and abroad. An avid reader and strategic thinker about the evolving nature of our global society and economy, Steven often assists schools in navigating change to create flexible environments that help to prepare students for success.

Melanie Kahl is an educational design researcher in Perkins+Will's global K–12 Practice with a background in social policy and organizational development.

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  • Moa

    Smile, that is all i can do right now. Smile. Not only because i want one to those big armchairs when i finally get my own place, I'm very curious to see what sort of reaction that would bring out of young and old. Hopefully they would climb in as soon as they had a chance.

    The other reason for me smiling right now (and most of the other minutes of the day) is because this article is working well when it comes to supporting the theories  that underlies the studies that my colleague and i are conducting for our master in architecture. We are working on a project where we involve the students of schools as co-creators and have them as experts in their field (being kids and students). This semester ,9, we are using for doing research and process tests with students from different school, and working with a entire class on designing new spaces for them. (if you are curious, check out our little project blog at  Most say that the response  that we have receive from the danish community is more then we could ever hope for. Politicians, students, teachers, headmasters and everyday man are asking questions and wondering how they can help. People are wonderful, but as when it comes to so many other projects, the problem is always money. Many are afraid to put money into the project since we can't show that it works yet. It's all about result, and when it comes to education it is hard to show it in a short amount of time. We hope that the money issue is a problem that we can solve with founds and grants from different parts of society, so please wish us luck. When it comes to results, we hope that articles such as this, and schools such as Project H Design, High Tech High, Valencia 826 and the Riverside School in India, will help us prove our point until one of our projects can be added to the list of productive creative schools.

    I'm curious to know how the ones designing these spaces talked and collaborated with the users.  And I'm really curious to find out how many architects and designers out there who are working with the users, and on what levels they work with them, and at what stages. (I just finished Allison Druins article "The Role of Children in the Design of New Technology.", and can't help but being influenced by it)

    If anyone have any suggestions of interesting architects, schools or articles, please mail me at info(at)

  • Markmarshall6

    Loved this article. This is exactly what I have been envisioning for creating my own school that relies on a lot of these principles. 

  • Rayala

    This is an excellent article. Educational facilities planners have justified downright ugly and dis-functional school designs by hiding behind false constraints of costs, safety, maintenance, and square footage. Better school design requires beginning with a sound understanding of the teaching and learning that takes place in the school. The design of schools must enhance learning and can actually cost less, require less maintenance and be safer if the learning needs of students and teachers are met in the design. http://andDESIGNmagazine.blogs... 

  • Sodhim

    Thinking inside outside is what I am getting from this article. We must change  for the future and create a 21st century school.

  • TJ Wolfe

    The idea that students could build or manipulate something while brainstorming a project is great! As a teacher I would hear stories from colleagues of students breaking pencils, tearing up binders, or destroying their chair while listening to teacher lectures. These students weren't problems, they just needed something to do, physically, while processing information.

    We need company leaders to work with school administrators so schools can change to reflect the CENTURY we live in! One room school house style learning where the teacher is the only source of knowledge needs to change! We need facilitators of learning and information bottlenecks! :)

  • Mary Barkley

    This article is on point! The sad reality is some good companies who claim that want change but are afraid of what they believe to be the unknown can never get to great.

    Embracing change can be one of the scariest and exciting moments in a company's history. The rest are dinosaurs.

  • Carol

    When I was a full-time ESL instructor, I always made sure my students had time to play. For many of them from Asia and Africa,  the simple card game of Go Fish was a learning experience that they found hilarious and enjoyable. They practiced saying "Go Fish!" in as many different voice tones as they could, and laughed the whole time, whether they won or lost.  Now as a private tutor, I helped one of my students construct a beautiful mobile from the 3D regular polygons she had assembled from free online patterns. She will never have any trouble telling the difference between a cuboid and a rectangular pyramid as long as she lives.

  • Ccarlson3

    My classroom looks and feels like this! Students built the forum structure where community meetings are held daily and led by students. Large surface table areas are used for seminar discussions. There are three white boards for student use, and an interactive board for presentations. We have a file server for storage and access to group project elements and software. The day includes both individual and group work time. Students choose where they work for success.

  • Melanie Kahl

    Great study from 2010, right? I like to read that IBM CEO study on creativity alongside the the Knight Foundation report for the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities – Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools. Some how it got unlinked from our article above. Check it out – it is a good call to action.

  • David Kaiser

    Wow, creativity is the number one leadrship skill. That's great! I love it. The sad thing is our culture and our educational system still reward obedience and compliance. Also, creativity requires failure, and many of our best tech firms and design shops embrace the mantra "Fail Fast." In contrast, so much of our culture, and especially our educational system, abhors failure, even failure in support of learning. The student who gets consistent As without making waves is prized more than the kid who takes a risk and fails.

    David Kaiser, PhD

    Time Coach

    "Time to be Extraordinary!"

  • Teachdavid

    This is a great article. I am a public high school science teacher in New York City. Many schools in NYC do project based learning. I work at one of the public International schools for recent immigrants. We do innovative project-based learning. Here is a link to the network: http://www.internationalsnps.o...

    I love teaching because I treat it like an on-going experiment. It stays interesting and exciting to me and the students.

  • David

    Maria Montessori, founder of a very successful, worldwide, educational movement, had many of these same thoughts over 100 years ago.  Montessori schools around this country and the world are very successful.  We should spend some quality time studying what works well, as well as finding new methods with 21st century tools!

  • Clay Forsberg

    It takes only one teacher, or maybe one spark to ignite a child. If we choose to temper all creativity amongst most brilliant youth ... through standardized requirements? Then we can only hope that we can keep pace with (i.e. China) ... on their terms.

  • wesroberts

    Mentoring some leaders in major world-impacting non-profits, this could also apply to them.  Though their missions are life-impacting serious, I can't help but imagine that environments like this that would lift them out of their "cubicle jungles" would only enhance their work.  After is about education, no matter the scale or environment...even in our homes.  This has been enlightening...and I'm sending it on.  Thank you...........!!!

  • Andrew

    Have a look at this in proof where we went into schools to ask how creative kids were. Does school kill creativity? Do people lose creative ability over time, and is our education system the culprit? Find out for yourself in this fascinating video... as children get older, they often see themselves as less creative. Andrew & Gaia Grant went back to school to find out if children have any ideas on how adults can become more creative. They were not surprised to discover that their findings correlated with the latest research from Harvard.

    Hands Up Part 1: How Creative are You?
    Hands Up Part 2: Creativity secrets from the kids
    Tirian look at YouTube tiros info for the video