Working outside the box

Working outside the box

URBANA — Inside the doors of a downtown Urbana storefront, you'll find a design firm, a graphic artist, video and social media consultants, a health and wellness communications specialist and a freelance copy editor all sharing a common workspace.

Occasionally, you'll find a pop-up doughnut shop or home decor shop there too.

It's an experiment — called [co][lab] — that's been under way for about 18 months.

The idea for the collaborative work space came from Matt Cho, who grew up in Urbana before going off to get a bioengineering degree at Johns Hopkins University.

Cho then worked for the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm in the Washington, D.C. area, often on projects for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

But a fascination with real estate and architecture brought him back to Urbana, where he received master's degrees in architecture, urban planning and civil engineering from the University of Illinois.

Cho said the open nature of architects' studios helped shape his concept of [co][lab].

"There's a quality to the space that influences collaboration," he said.

It's an open space where you can see what others are working on. If you're stuck on a project, you can ask a neighbor for feedback.

In conventional companies, meetings and discussions can seem forced.

"Here we want to tap in naturally," Cho said. "If there's work you're not able to complete, someone else might be able to help out. It's almost like sharing work."

The long, narrow [co][lab] building at 206 W. Main St., U, is divided into several areas. The front portion is available for pop-up shops, such as those operated occasionally by Pandamonium Doughnuts.

Just behind that is the walled-off workspace of Norden, the design studio of Anna Gutsch and Johann Rischau, who have crafted such diverse items as custom furniture, greeting cards and serving platters.

They are also introducing their own product line, which includes cherry pit bags that can be warmed up in microwave ovens to provide moist heat for sore bodies. Norden also provides color design, industrial design and product design services, as well as prototype building.

Situated a little farther back is a small conference room. Try to fit more than three people in it, and it gets stuffy, Cho said.

Most of the back part of the building is an open layout of work stations and conference tables. That space is shared by:

— Jarvis Kim and Carl Catedral of the Adjacency social media and video production firm.

— Maria Ludeke and Esteban Gast of Creative Health, which designs health and wellness information products.

— David Michael Moore, a graphic designer who not only designs T-shirts and does illustrations but also has carved out a niche as a graphic facilitator for meetings.

— Heidi Loomis, a freelance copy editor.

"There's definitely a lot of life at [co][lab]," Gutsch said. "It's like a little heartbeat, with so many different amazing visions."

Citing one example of cooperation, Gutsch said Norden got help with video and social media from Adjacency's Catedral.

Ludeke of Creative Health said she initially worked from her apartment, but it was difficult to focus in that environment. She needed a few distractions.

At [co][lab], she was able to borrow a camera and lights from Adjacency and get helpful design tips from Moore.

Kim and Catedral initially had separate ventures, but found their talents meshed well.

"We saw that we could serve more people together than separately," Catedral said. "We cover each other's blind spots."

Moore, the graphic artist, said collaboration is fundamental to his work. When he serves as a graphic facilitator for meetings, he records relevant points, along with whimsical illustrations, on a whiteboard. The result is a colorful montage of topics discussed, often useful in taking ideas from a brainstorming session.

"People don't hire me to shake things up, but it brings a different energy to the room," he said. "It's a way of getting information down quickly, giving a broader picture, in a way that's fun and not so overwhelming."

Cho said [co][lab] members pay $270 a month for workspace there, with the fee entitling them to keys, a desk and lockable storage. There's also a workshop downstairs, called [co][lab] underground, for projects that require more space.

Vendors who operate pop-up stores at [co][lab] are charged $100 per week, he said.

Cho, who has taken an equity interest in some of the businesses there, said sharing a workspace lowers the financial costs of starting a business. He credited the city of Urbana for a grant program that helps underwrite start-up expenses.

On Saturdays through February, [co][lab] is hosting "Ask Me Anything" open houses from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., where visitors can find out more about work that's done there. Norden is also having a "work in progress" exhibitions during those hours.

Collaborative work spaces are becoming more popular, but Cho said too often it's become a buzzword that falls short of what it once meant. Sometimes spaces are touted that way, but the property owners are more interested in cash flow than in collaboration, he said.

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