For creators, by creators: Inside Nickelodeon’s new Burbank HQ design

The main floor at Nickelodeon's new Burbank HQ

The home of current kids' hits SpongeBob SquarePants, Paw Patrol, The Loud House and classics including Doug, Rugrats and Ren & Stimpy, Viacom-owned Nickelodeon is being brought together in the unveiling of a 200,000-plus square-foot, state-of-the-art, sustainable complex, which opened yesterday in Burbank, California.

“The opening of our new offices in Burbank is a significant moment for Nickelodeon,” said Cyma Zarghami, president, Nickelodeon Group. “We are ushering in a new era of creative excellence and increased collaboration for everyone who works here.”

For years, the LA-based operation was spread from Santa Monica to Hollywood to Burbank. The animation studio was the first, original building opened on the Burbank space in 1998 and is still a fixture of the new campus, across a courtyard (another story in its own right) from the new five-story HQ. When driving up towards Nickelodeon’s new campus, it’s hard to miss how much it stands out – in a good way. Beautiful new construction is a counterweight to this still somewhat gritty, evolving part of Burbank. It’s not so much flashy — in fact, far from it — but even from the outside, one can’t help but think that there is something special happening inside. That energy is obvious from Nickelodeon’s heritage and cultural impact but, even more interestingly, it comes from what is not happening inside the campus.

Finding a balance between fun and function

Though it is a dynamic company with highly talented people who live on creativity’s vanguard, the new Nick space in Burbank manages to engender creativity without going too over the top. Dole out serious helpings of animation or brand, in their current forms, it could be too much and feel like a theme park. Go the polar opposite, and it could become a stale environment. Simply put, it’s not over-designed and sticks the right balance.

Much of the responsibility in designing the space fell on Salt Lake City-based integrated branding agency Struck and Studios Architecture in San Francisco. The former was charged with ensuring that the Nick brand was felt and experienced throughout the new building and complex and the latter, a highly respected global firm, designed the new building, exterior courtyard and interior spaces.

“It’s for creators, by creators,” said Brent Watts, founder and executive creative director at Struck.

There is great truth to the statement that it feels like empathy and thoughtfulness have been built in to all aspects of the design. Rather than putting its singular mark on the project, or just creating a “structure,” it is a living, breathing template.

“It’s about creating an infrastructure that reflects the culture of the client,” said Enrique Sanchez, associate principal at Studios Architecture, and senior designer for the campus interior design. “It [also] allows them to grow and, in this instance, we allowed for some open-ended features and is what makes it theirs.”

Building on the story of Nickelodeon

The courtyard and main floor of the new building are the gateways to the brand. To be sure, the brand is ever-present (including a huge “zen Stimpy” statue that welcomes visitors in the courtyard), but it never crosses the Rubicon into chaos. Most everything on the campus gives serious nods to the brand’s heritage while being tasteful and fun at the same time.

“It was really allowing for different spaces where people could meet and gather, making the courtyard really the heart of the new campus and allowing the old building and the rich history that it has to inspire the new spaces and really reflect the whimsy and the fun that the brand has,” said Sanchez.

Hoek and Stimpson, the cafe in the lobby, for example, serves its function but tells a fabulous Ren & Stimpy story. The screening room is a fresh nod to “old Hollywood.” The 23,000-square-foot courtyard, one of the jewels of this particular crown, includes stone benches etched with live-action and animation creators’ artwork and quotes, wire sculptures of some of the company’s shows and banners representing the current live-action and animation roster.

The tendency to design for a specific place in time is tricky (see: Toon Town at Disneyland — it very much feels like 1994, or Michael Graves), but avoiding design fatigue has a strong bedfellow in simplicity.

“Classic forms help us not come across as trendy,” said Watts, noting the clean lines and the familiar, yet classy Nick color palette. “Colors do become dated, so you have to be cautious of how far you go. [You have to know] how much to edit, how clever you can be and how much you simply let be on its own. You can change and let the walls be playful, but the elements around it stay fairly classic in form.”

Added Sanchez: “One of the directives we got from the beginning was that this should be a space for artists. It’s a space that shouldn’t be overly done, overly designed or overly themed.”

Additionally, leaning on just one aspect of the Nick brand could be troubling. Having a somewhat compact footprint, the messaging and design vocabulary needed to follow suit. Nick’s iconic “slime,” from various game shows, for example, provides an additional hint of where the line actually is.

“We have abstraction of the slime lines here [in the building] but if you did slime everywhere, you’d think ‘OK, I get the joke,’” noted Watts. “How do you have a sense of irreverence without having it defined by slime?”

“We don't want it to be a theme park. That's the key,” said Watts. “People work in this space, so it needs to be a little more sophisticated. Sure, everyone’s a kid here, but some of them have been working [for Nick] for 30 years, so it can't feel too theme-parky. Just the right amount enough of wrong is an important part of it. We're just right about a bit of irreverence, but it’s not disrespectful — and I think is what Nickelodeon’s has always stood for.”

Collaboration and hard work can still be fun

Malleability in the space is vitally important and light takes a prime design position. Offices, meeting and creative rooms occupy the external parts of the building — and are awash in natural light. Inside the building, up-lighting provides a softer touch (as opposed to down-lighting which can be abrasive, fatiguing and creativity-squashing), especially for animators and designers who are in front of screens a good part of the day.

“Natural light had to be controlled due to how artists work here — it was very specific,” said Sanchez. “That led us to develop this playful feeling element in each of the floors that helped not only animate the space but also really controls the feel of light which was important for them.”

Additionally, each floor has a specific Nick-inspired color palette and a trellised “working gallery,” providing an open space for collaboration and display for work in progress. Those galleries run the length of the building and create a visual connection between the courtyard and views of the mountains in the distance.

“There's this internal trellis element that's kind of like an informal gallery, so the idea is that people can hang their SpongeBob piñata from there if they want or really make it their own. So, it's creating an infrastructure for the artist to dress,” said Sanchez.

Full-height chalkboards, dry-erase boards and magnetic walls also allow for expression. Individual workspaces, with standing desks, are also ripe for the creative treatment.

“I think part of that desire was to create areas that could be transformed by the people who live there or who are occupying it, like expanses of chalkboard wall where people could actually draw…they’re artists,” said Sanchez.

“You can draw on these walls. If I have an idea, I want to sketch it out. It's these fluid ideas that always need to be a part of the process,” said Watts.

Collaboration and the collision of ideas is important — and though Nickelodeon had its own ideas on which direction to go for the new campus, some initial, key research a couple of years ago gleaned inspiration from some of Hollywood’s top studios like Pixar and George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM).

“When we talked to the architects at Pixar, they said that Steve Jobs loved the train stations in Europe. When you're in a train station, you enter in and you see everyone collaborating together. Where am I going? What direction? It's the same thing with ideas. Where is my idea going?” said Watts.

“ILM was probably more on the other end — a lot of guys working on a computer, so [it’s more about] private space, and not being disrupted.”

The coffee shop vibe of Google (Google New York was started in a Starbucks on 86th Street) also played a role. Private spaces, with the swirl of activity all around, and public spaces to collaborate.

Sanchez’s firm, having worked with many tech companies and higher education, understood the importance of each.

“It was really creating a new way for people to experience Nick both internally as an employee but also as a visitor as well.”

To be sure, this is work environment — but when it all comes together, it becomes more than just a work “space.”

“Last week I was there and was talking with someone who worked there and they said that they felt really much at home there,” said Sanchez. “That was just the best compliment one can get.”

Design for the public good

One part of this project that is interesting and unexpected is related to the local public good. When building a new building in Burbank, 1% of the project needs to become art for the community. For their part, Watts and company saw a grand opportunity to have consistent living, breathing art.

In fact, artists at Nickelodeon can create work that animates on the building itself, using smart strips that project whatever is created. In lieu of a static sculpture, for example — and definitely not out-of-home advertising — this approach will create a more interesting and representative, as Watts puts it, “expression of the company.”

Other touches include moving towards LEED gold certification by integrating sustainable strategies and resources into the design and operations of the building. To help optimize energy-efficient performance, lighting power is reduced by over 50% through efficient LED fixtures, lighting controls and use of daylighting. Priority was also placed on use of healthy and environmental building materials, such as low-emitting flooring and paint, and use of products with high recycled and regional content.

“It's a very fluid, organic space for people to express themselves, done in a tasteful way,” said Watts.

Overall, from the courtyard, to the buildings and their interiors, there is a consistent and cohesive collision of interesting, thoughtful and compelling design that should help generate the next wave of SpongeBobs and Stimpys.

As it relates to Struck, Studios Architecture and the other companies involved, it is the realization of a collective vision that allowed everyone to participate in meaningful ways.

“There was strong leadership from Nickelodeon,” said Sanchez. “Struck are ambassadors of the Nick brand, and it became a very symbiotic relationship where we were able to inspire each other and create spaces that really reflected Nick.”

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