37signals vs Zappos

Recently 37signals opened their new office. It’s beautiful and functional, with public spaces so you can chat and hang out, and private spaces when you really need some peace and quiet – all beautifully designed. Looks like the perfect office. The perfect culture. But is it really?

I just finished reading Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh and I now believe Zappos’ chaotic and messy offices are much more effective at promoting happiness and innovation. Please keep reading to find out why. At the end, I’d love to hear your opinion.

First, let’s compare the offices of Zappos and 37signals visually …

Zappos Headquarters in Las Vegas

Photo of Tony Hsieh's desk

An expanse of desks, with tons of ribbons hanging from the ceiling. Messy but fun.

A crazy wall of fabric put up around a cubicle at Zappos

37signals Headquarters in Chicago

Photo of 37signals office with one person talking to another at a desk, with a lot of open space around them

Photo of a conference room with glass walls in the 37signals office

Photo of a hallway at 37signals with a lot of open space

Two different approaches?

Jason Fried (President of 37signals) and Tony Hsieh (CEO of Zappos) both have similar views on business. A quick read of 37signals’ book Rework or the Zappos Culture Doc will reveal that.

So what’s going on? How can two tremendously successful and passionate businesses manifest themselves in such dramatically different ways? And which one is better?

Giving control away

The primary thing that I took away from Delivering Happiness was this: If you want to have an amazing company culture, you have to give your team control of three things:

  1. Their career
  2. Their work
  3. Their surroundings

Happy employees need to be able to positively affect these things.

I’m focusing on ‘surroundings’ in this post, so let’s dive into that.

Zappos let their team do whatever the hell they want with their desks and environment. The goofier and weirder, the better. They actively encourage mischief and fun.

Something tells me that if someone at 37signals put up a huge green and blue tent around their desk, they wouldn’t get a high-five in the hallway. The unspoken message to 37signals employees is this: “Don’t touch. Don’t put your stamp on this office.”

The trouble with a perfectly designed office is that there’s little room for individuality or fun. Yes, they have blackboards at 37signals’ office, but that’s not enough. People need the freedom to customize their environment and express their personality on a permanent basis.

I’m with Jason when it comes to aesthetic, I value clean lines, gorgeous textures and tidiness. But that’s just me and I shouldn’t force that on my team.

Your office ≠ your product

We all need to break the myth that your company’s culture and office needs to match your end product.

Everyone knows that zappos.com provides insanely awesome customer service. Their site is also very usable and functional. Their product is amazing and well designed, but their office is a wreck. They’re a billion dollar company and their CEO’s office is a small cubicle with fake vines hanging from the ceiling and a blowup monkey hanging on the wall.

This is proof that you can promote weirdness and fun at your office, without compromising the integrity of your product or sacrificing profits.

Every founder dreams of designing and creating an office like 37signals have done, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for their Team.

Love to hear your thoughts!

Free Workshops

Watch one of our expert, full-length teaching videos. Choose from either HTML, CSS or Wordpress.

Start learning

Treehouse

Our mission is to bring affordable Technology education to people everywhere, in order to help them achieve their dreams and change the world.

Comments

152 comments on “37signals vs Zappos

  1. I liked your choice of topic. The right balance of those two different cultures is hard to find… but totally worth it.

      • I will say, I love 37signals stuff: but those offices look barren… almost clinical. The Zappos offices remind me of the PopCap Games offices in Seattle, so decorated that you wonder when they actually work. But PopCap consistently creates products that sell.

        • I thought the post of the Rework was that the office should be designed to minimize interruptions. I know from my own work that you need to have laser-sharp concentration to get anything done in a cubicle. I’d much rather work for home and go into the office only for meetings or some project that requires intense collaboration.
          Paul Graham talks a bit about this:
          http://www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html
          Basically if you want to try to do something difficult, you need to be able to work without interruptions.

  2. The Zappos office looks like my house at the minute. The 37 Signals one looks like how I want it to look. From this I conclude that Zappos is staffed entirely by 3 year olds :)

  3. Just looking at those photos of the Zappos office made me start twitching; I think I’d probably go insane if I had to work in an environment that cluttered for any length of time. On the other hand, I think the 37signals office takes things too far the other way.

    Of all the workspaces I’ve seen – and I’ll happily waste hours looking at photos of people’s offices on sites like The Setup (http://usesthis.com/) and Lifehacker’s Flickr group (http://www.flickr.com/groups/lifehacker-workspace-showandtell/) – the Campaign Monitor offices in Sydney are my favourite by far: http://www.campaignmonitor.com/blog/post/3242/the-new-campaign-monitor-office/

    • Wow! Campaign Monitor’s office is really cool. I love that it’s got a good mix of fun and clean, minimal design. It’s good to know that the two can mix.

  4. I dont think you can say that either is right or wrong but of the two I’d much rather work in the 37signals office, I dont see how I could possibly concentrate in the Zappos office.

  5. Great post Ryan, I’ve just received ‘Delivering Happiness’ but am yet to read it. Heard nothing but things about it though.

    I’m not sure how many employees 37Signals has, but I understand that most of them ‘telecommute’ (to use a 90’s buzzword). It’d be interesting to know, of those that regularly use their new office as their primary working environment, whether they had a significant say in the design and development process of the new office, or whether it was driven mainly top-down by 37Signal’s founders.

    Still a beautiful office though…

  6. Our office is kind of a mix of the two, so it’s interesting to see two such extremes contrasted like this. Thanks for highlighting it!

  7. Why do we exclude the possibility of employees at 37signals playing a dramatic role to the design of the new office?
    From what we read on their book, it seems impossible for 37signals to have an “unspoken message” about..anything!
    I want to believe that this design choice was not based on one opinion.
    Personally, i’m a Zappos geek :)

  8. As you said, I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to go about it, it depends on what you are trying to convey both internally and externally.

    For us, we have clients visit us all the time to talk strategy and stuff which requires clear thinking. That’s why we try and keep things clean and tidy. I guess this could also be 37 signals reasons, thier products are clean, tidy and stripped back to the bare essentials – no clutter to detract from the job at hand.

    Finally, would a developer using a 5 year old PC in a fantastic environment produce better results than the latest iMac in a shabby environment?

    P.s. Ryan – where do we find pictures of your new office?

  9. I love the look of the 37signals office, it would be a very cool office to work in, but you are right, seems that everyone has to conform to the minimal vibe. Zappos just looks like every other office except that they let people throw up their own stuff – fun but still doesn’t really look like an optimal working environment. 37 signals would probably be the office where you could more easily get in the zone and get stuff done.

    Can’t really imagine the average “normal” business doing either of these things. For them (and me) it’s the usual horrible lighting, closely-packed desks, low dividers, loud phonecalls, aging computers, etc.

    • I definitely prefer 37signals office aesthetically, but I believe it would be significantly less fun than Zappos. In the end, you’re more effective if you’re having fun IMHO.

  10. I think this is part of the reason that working from home is such an attractive option for so many people. In you’re own home, you can choose to design your office in any way you want – from the weird of Zappos to the clean of 37signals AND the design choices of your coworkers doesn’t impact your own.

    • Right on! I just started working from home and I’m really into my home office. I love that I have total control over it – well except the part where my wife has veto power.

  11. Neither one is better from the other. They simply have different cultures. A culture is the people that are part of it. The environment they work in is an expression of that culture.

  12. Neither one is better from the other. They simply have different cultures. A culture is the people that are part of it. The environment they work in is an expression of that culture.

    • I don’t think either set of employees had a lot of sway over what kind of office environment they get. It was determined by the management and then affects them accordingly.

      • Sure, management cultivated it but the employees joined those companies because they fit the culture. Culture is essentially the personality of a business and the environment surrounding that business reflects its personality. Culture it something which evolves over time organically. I don’t think you choose a culture, it’s born from the personalities of the founding team and evolves with each an every person you add to it.

      • Ryan, your point in the comment above is spot on therefor makes neither 37signals nor Zappos approach better and certyainly doesnt make Zappos more “free”. They are both overpowering spaces and its just a matter of which is a better fit. Anyone who enjoys a tidy and minimilst workspace would obviosly prefer 37signals and they likely have more design focused employees there.

        I dont think Zappos is more free than the other, they are just opposites. If I worked at Zappos would i be free to have a sleek minimalist space? Maybe, but id likley get bothered by other about why i dobt join in the fun.

        • “I dont think Zappos is more free than the other, they are just opposites. If I worked at Zappos would i be free to have a sleek minimalist space? Maybe, but id likley get bothered by other about why i dobt join in the fun.”

          That was precisely my first thought. Granted, the photos are a small sampling, but I can’t make out a single cubicle at Zappos that isn’t decked out like a 3 year-old works in it. Nothing about those photos says to me that, “Zappos let their team do whatever the hell they want with their desks and environment.” That they put special emphasis on goofy and weird and “actively encourage mischief and fun,” sends up big old warning signs. I can just picture working there and choosing to have a nice, tidy workspace and subsequently having a “conversation” with a supervisor about my lack of flair, à la Office Space. “Look, we want you to express yourself, ok? If you think the bare minimum is enough, then ok. But some people choose to wear more and we encourage that, ok? You do want to express yourself, don’t you?”

  13. I used to work in the type of environment as Zappos and it was cool to be able to decorate. However, I prefer 37Signals because it feels more Zen. There’s less clutter so it feels like I can get more done without distractions.

    Then again, are the Zappos pictures of the web development team? If it’s for their customer service, that environment makes sense since dealing with customers can be stressful.

    Either way, I think designers and developers are able to work in either environments. I know as a developer, I’ve trained myself to put on headphones and tone out the world. I know for freelancers, they’re used to working in coffee shops, work spaces and home.

    • Actually, a detail that nobody seems to have mentioned in this (fascinating) thread is that the desk in the foreground belongs to Tony Hsieh himself.

    • Not knowing when those photos were actually taken, I can’t say for sure, but I believe some of the marketing group, design group, the Zappos leaders, including Tony, and some other groups are the ones in those photos. Groups like Development, Finance, and CLT (Customer Service), are in a different areas.

      One of the cool things about the way Zappos lets you control your space is that some areas and desks have some craziness going on, while others are quite minimal and clean, it all just depends on the person. So there is pretty good flexibility in letting you set up an environment that works best for you. Every time I visit Zappos, people working there,regardless of the department, all seem to be enjoying it.

      One additional reason I think this works for Zappos though is that a big part of their hiring process is to make sure that the people there are going to be a culture fit and really fit into the giant family.

      (Disclosure, I am close to some people that work there, so I may be a bit biased :) )

  14. I had never seen photos of Zappos’ office. My first reaction was “Yuck. Messy and corporate.” But after watching one of the pranks on YouTube I understand. Very interesting. Thanks for the article. Now time to go buy 37Signals and Zappos books.

  15. Zappos office might work in the business they are in as even the clients that visit “get it”….its fun – its software…
    But you are wrong – the space is the brand….their space is their brand.
    You cant take a business like banking for example and have an office like Zappos – especially if clients will be visiting, attending meetings etc….the brand of a bank is trust…trust with your money…and thus the interior would absolutely need to reflect that.
    Lets take an industry between banking and software…..say graphic design. If I was thinking of hiring an agency to do my marketing campaign and I walked into the chaos that is Zappos….even if they did great work…I would hesitate. It looks disorganized and I would question things like whether they would lose my file in all of that clutter.

    You cant separate brand and space………

    • I think you’re right that companies have to think about what vibe they put off with their office, but I don’t know that I agree that companies are forced to put off a particular vibe because of the industry they’re in. I’d bank somewhere more fun in a heartbeat. Banks are boring, and that’s why I go to the ATM. They’re really missing out on a great chance to give amazing customer service and a wonderful experience in the office. Even with graphic design I think I’d prefer someone who values fun and connecting to the people they’re designing for over someone who lives in a marble palace. We all love Southwest because they’re a little goofy, and they’re certainly a serious business.

      Serious business and fun aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s taken me a long time to learn that lesson, but it’s one that I hold pretty close to my heart. Just look at Zappos. It’s hard to say that they’re not a serious business, with over a billion in revenue in 2008, but they’re also not afraid to connect with their customers by proving that they’re normal people, just like their customers. They know how we want to be treated because they’re like us, and we feel it in our interactions.

      I love 37signals too, and have really been inspired by them as a company. Who hasn’t been? I’d stretch to saying that they’ve probably had one of the biggest impacts on how we think about starting businesses in our field. If I’m honest, though, I don’t get the feeling that they try to connect to me as a person. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just a different way to work.

    • I have to agree, out of the offices I’ve seen, none have every quite fit the aesthetic I like, and the Etsy offices are about as close as it’s come. It looks like a big living room, but one that you’re meant to work in, not just lounge around in.

  16. Interesting article Ryan, thanks for sharing your thoughts. You mentioned that you shouldn’t force your aesthetics on your team—that might well be the case in a bigger, more diverse company like Zappos. 37signals proud themselves with their minimalistic and pragmatic approach, and being selective in their recruitment process they only hire people who share those views, thus making their office style perfect for everyone who works there.

    As for office not being your product—for 37signals to some extent it is considering they also offer training in the so-called 37signals Theatre.

  17. Very interesting. I’ve read delivering happiness, but I didn’t know that the offices were looking like this. (I blame it on you that I haven’t done the Zappos tour this week as part of my FOWA Vegas trip ;-))
    Anyway, I kinda like them both.. Back in germany, my office is probably more Zappos like, but I too like the aesthetics of 37s a lot and would probably always trying to make it look like this, only to end up like zappos a few weeks later again.. In case of 37s, I’m not really surprised, because minimalistic and efficient, that’s who they are, right?

  18. I’ve met Ryan Singer, DHH, and Jason Fried on separate occasions, and they’re all very nice guys individually. However, their collective voice and company culture feels very factual, rigid, and unfun. Sure, they pepper their blog with posts that aren’t work related, but they always seem forced and scheduled.

    Do they work to live, or live to work? I don’t think it has to be one or the other, and in fact, I like to keep that line fuzzy. While I agree with 37signals that there is no mojito island, that also doesn’t mean you have to work yourself to death. Plenty of people bring laptops to the beach.

  19. Ryan: Next time you are in Chicago come by and say hi. Spend a few days working in our space. Get a feel for how we use it, what it means, how it all works. Judging an office by a few pictures is like judging a website by just looking at the graphics.

    Over time the space will take on more personality. It already has. Time takes care of those things. We prefer to start with a blanker slate and see where what develops instead of forcing decoration or a specific atmosphere on people. A different mix of personalities will change the space in different ways over time.

    Our space works well for us, Zappos space works well for them. Different companies, different cultures, different focus on what’s important to get a specific type of work done. I’m sure we can both learn from each other’s decisions. Tony has been to our office. I’m looking forward to visiting his.

    • It’d be great to stop by and see you guys.

      I wrote the post because I was surprised by my change of perspective on this. In the past, I strongly believed a crafted and well-designed office space was important. However, my views are shifting now to exerting less control over the aesthetics and simply letting the Team be themselves.

      I’m going to get a tour of Zappos when we’re out there for FOWA Vegas, so it’ll be interesting to see if it matches my perceptions and appears to work as I think it does.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by. Hope to see you all soon.

      • I enjoy randomness and surprise as well, but I don’t like it when it’s everywhere (then it’s not random nor surprising). Personally, I believe clutter is a form of stress, but some clutter can be beautiful. I’m a big fan of things that come together naturally over time.

        But there’s no one right way – it all depends on culture, people, personalities, and the degrees at which all these things come together.

        • It often appears that you and DHH are iron-fisted leaders at 37s, in a similar fashion to Steve Jobs at Apple. You have a strong opinions and you’re not afraid to exercise your authority.

          This leads to clean, amazing products, but gives the appearance, to outsiders, that your employees don’t have any real control.

          Not saying this is true, but it’s the perception. Your new office was another example of this.

      • I’d have to agree with Jason about judging a place by pictures you’ve seen online. At Zappos, it’s not as crazy as those pictures look across the entire company. We span three buildings right next to each other and they tend to be quite different.

        Our main 2280 building that has the call center is very crazy. That is the area that you see in the pictures. But those employees aren’t there to concentrate and solve intricate problems like we do in development. They are there to make sure that our customers are “WOW”-ed when they call in. Turning an unhappy customer that lost a package or got the wrong item around and making them happy is what it’s all about. They feel that having colorful “stuff” to decorate with contributes to keeping positive energy in their area.

        In development we’re a little more calmed down about how we decorate. But to be honest, for us, it’s really not a huge deal. We have A LOT of inside jokes in development and that usually dictates decorations and themes to our office area. To us it’s all about being comfortable, so we make the place feel “homey”.

        Ryan and Jason, I can’t wait for you guys to tour Zappos! Be sure to tour the 2290 building. That’s where all the website work is done, and the tours rarely come though our area. :( Just because we’re introverted geeks doesn’t mean we don’t want to see all the people touring! :)

    • I could never work in that mess that is depicted at Zappos. How distracting! I couldn’t concentrate and I would always feel like I should be cleaning up instead of focusing on my project. But your offices, Jason, look so calming, like everything in my surroundings will just fade away and I could become completely absorbed by the task at hand and really get some quality work done. But, I do know people who actually cannot work unless they are surrounded by chaos and clutter. Minds can work so differently!

      People who think you “force” a work environment on your employees might be forgetting that no one is required to work there. I would assume that only those who feel comfortable working in such an environment would a) take the job in the first place, and b) remain working in such an environment. I for example, would never work at Zappos after getting a company tour (assuming that is, that my area looked like that).

      Thanks to you and Ryan for this interesting discussion on work environment. I believe the environment employees work in has a huge impact on their performance, stress levels, happiness and productivity.

  20. Interesting. Zappos feels like MySpace and 37signals like Facebook. I’d prefer something like Squarespace :)

    I agree the team should have some amount of freedom on office personalization. How do you balance it? I would be miserable working in a space like Zappos’, but other people obviously thrive on it, so how do you bring both together?

  21. All though I admire them as a business and really buy into their core values in all honesty there is no way I could work in the Zappos office. I’m completely OCD about my working environment and I find it ties directly to my levels of concentration.

  22. All though I admire them as a business and really buy into their core values in all honesty there is no way I could work in the Zappos office. I’m completely OCD about my working environment and I find it ties directly to my levels of concentration.

  23. Despite the fact that my desk looks more like something you’d see at Zappos (but not in a good way), I have a fondness for the 37 Signals office. Those big open spaces would make me feel like every line of code I wrote needed to be epic.

  24. You assume that the 37signals team had no input into the office. We set the motif for our office to be an art gallery, and run events for the whole team to come in and realize that (paint, assemble, rearrange, contribute art). 37signals fights hard for a clean, fun, minimalist product. They have good taste. Their office reflects this.

  25. Personally, I’d rather work at 37signals. To me, the Zappos environment is distracting and visually overwhelming. But, that’s me – and I’m sure Zappos love’s their environment. If the shoe fits, wear it?

  26. I really like the 37Signals office, but… would one be allowed to rollerskate around it? I mean, look at all that space! :D

  27. Interesting post. I’d much prefer to work in 37signals office over Zappos.
    I’d find Zappos to distracting for a web company, if we’re talking Pixar then it’s different.
    Personally I don’t need teddy bears and streamers everywhere to say ‘I’m fun or wacky’!

    • Ah there’s always someone who creates their own choice. But given the option of ONLY choosing the Zappos environment or 37Signals environment, which one would it be?

      • Ok, Zappos then. Looks like I could do what I want in my cube there without throwing off the aesthetic. I’m kind of tired of the simple clean modern stuff. Give me a nice rug, a lamp and a plant.

      • Ok, Zappos then. Looks like I could do what I want in my cube there without throwing off the aesthetic. I’m kind of tired of the simple clean modern stuff. Give me a nice rug, a lamp and a plant.

  28. zappos.com’s offices remind me of EA’s offices in the 90’s— do occasional nerf wars get in the way of coding? Nope, not in the least; particularly if you have a handy bin of nerf objects by your side :)

  29. zappos.com’s offices remind me of EA’s offices in the 90’s— do occasional nerf wars get in the way of coding? Nope, not in the least; particularly if you have a handy bin of nerf objects by your side :)

  30. zappos.com’s offices remind me of EA’s offices in the 90’s— do occasional nerf wars get in the way of coding? Nope, not in the least; particularly if you have a handy bin of nerf objects by your side :)

  31. Yikes! Perhaps a happy medium? Zappos offices look claustrophobic but fun, while 37signals is WAY too empty and stark. Both would hamper my creativity.

  32. There is a big difference in giving your team the freedom to make their area’s comfortable and fun, and your team going to the unnecessary extreme to turn the office into a garbage dump. I’m willing to bet these employee’s wouldn’t take the same steps in their own environment outside of work to make it “comfortable”.

  33. There is a big difference in giving your team the freedom to make their area’s comfortable and fun, and your team going to the unnecessary extreme to turn the office into a garbage dump. I’m willing to bet these employee’s wouldn’t take the same steps in their own environment outside of work to make it “comfortable”.

  34. For me, I love clean minimalist look (but not look like a museum though) where 37signals has that. I also think that the look may not be for everyone. I agree with the points you have stated and I think that there must be some type of compromise with your employees so that they are comfortable where they work at.

    If you let your employee give feedback and find a compromise, maybe that would be enough for them to be happy and not be a problem.

  35. For me, I love clean minimalist look (but not look like a museum though) where 37signals has that. I also think that the look may not be for everyone. I agree with the points you have stated and I think that there must be some type of compromise with your employees so that they are comfortable where they work at.

    If you let your employee give feedback and find a compromise, maybe that would be enough for them to be happy and not be a problem.

  36. Really interesting to look at how extremely similar and extremely different two companies can be. I agree with giving people choices, but Zappos might actually be making themselves stressed out by cluttering their work space with fun decorations and not even knowing it. I bet if you gave Zappos employees the choice between their super fun cluttered environment, and a new shiny beautiful 37signals office they’d choose signal over noise (air high fives).

  37. Agreed. I like to have my workspace clean but i can see the benefits of employees having some creative freedom with their own area.

    Personally I like the 37signals office, but if you dropped a crumb would you get the axe?

  38. Agreed. I like to have my workspace clean but i can see the benefits of employees having some creative freedom with their own area.

    Personally I like the 37signals office, but if you dropped a crumb would you get the axe?

  39. Perhaps it depends on your company culture more than a ‘one size fits all’ approach. I mean Zappos and 37Signals are different companies, is it surprising that while both successful they may take different approaches and both may work well in their overall culture?

  40. I think you’re judging the 37Signals guys pretty harshly based on a couple of shots of a brand-new office that hasn’t been lived and worked in for years the way Zappos has. Even if that’s not the case and they do try to keep their offices clean, I still prefer the 37Signals approach. Frankly the Zappos shots look like a place I’d never want to work.

  41. To understand this better, you would need to identify the use of each part of their spaces. Zappos has a HUGE customer service department, and sells tons of physical product, and with what can be assumed to be unpredictable/variable customer responses based on sales, web, inventory and delivery. Zappos employees should feel confident in their ability to creatively solves problems for their customers, and that their company backs them up all the way.

    37Signals, on the other hand, has a much smaller environment of more mixed use, and have a greater need to manufacture steady, trusted cycles to push great software. And for that, the space suits them well. From my visit, I thought it was a ton of thoughtful space (you don’t see a lot of the artwork from these photos, and there’s music in the kitchen). It was a bit large for the amount of people there, and a tad too quiet for me–but they seem to work well there, will obviously grow and the space will get it’s personality and flair over time.

  42. I remember reading an article about agile process back in 2005-6 and Basecamp was used as an example. From what I remember was they had one remote programmer who worked in Europe…..so I wonder if their developers have to use the office?

  43. All I know is I’d much rather work in the 37Signals offices. The Zappos offices give me a headache just looking at pictures. I’d probably ‘go postal’ if I had to work in them.

  44. All I know is I’d much rather work in the 37Signals offices. The Zappos offices give me a headache just looking at pictures. I’d probably ‘go postal’ if I had to work in them.

  45. All I know is I’d much rather work in the 37Signals offices. The Zappos offices give me a headache just looking at pictures. I’d probably ‘go postal’ if I had to work in them.

  46. All I know is I’d much rather work in the 37Signals offices. The Zappos offices give me a headache just looking at pictures. I’d probably ‘go postal’ if I had to work in them.

  47. All I know is I’d much rather work in the 37Signals offices. The Zappos offices give me a headache just looking at pictures. I’d probably ‘go postal’ if I had to work in them.

  48. I love the look of the 37signals office and would much rather work there. I think the office environment has to suit the people in it and the work being done – which for these two companies is very different.

  49. Eh, I like the idea of being allowed to do what I want in my space but I’d rather work in 37Signals – I don’t have to try as hard to make it feel awesome as I like clean modern lines too. A few personalization on the desk like framed photos and little toys would suffice.

  50. Humans are remarkably adaptable – and while the culture can impact teamwork and individual productivity, it does not create them – good people create good products – if you can attract good people (some good people like chaos, some good people demand order) you will succeed. So I would say that the key corollary between the two (if you look closely) is good people.

  51. I totally belive in what I call “auto self expression”.
    Great point you brought to us.

    Life is not about buy a Ferrari, is abou how many people you can make happier.

    Keep writting interesting things

  52. Looking over the comments makes it clear that opinion is divided on which aesthetic is better. Zappo’s has made a choice to let the zany aesthetic rule – but it probably is imposing the will of the kooky half on the minimalist half of the company by default. “Do your own thing, the kookier the better” sounds like the 2010 version of “10 items of flair” to me…

    • Ha! As a former librarian, I can say that every library I’ve ever worked in has looked more like the Zappos’ office than the 37signals office! The 37signals office is also much quieter than my former libraries.

  53. While I’m not particularly fond of either office I’m sure I could adapt. In saying that, I think it’s important to be able to stamp your own personality on your area so if I had to make a choice I’d go with the Zappos office – 37signals just looks too fancy and unadaptive.

  54. While I’m not particularly fond of either office I’m sure I could adapt. In saying that, I think it’s important to be able to stamp your own personality on your area so if I had to make a choice I’d go with the Zappos office – 37signals just looks too fancy and unadaptive.

  55. I think the difference is just about creative output. The Zappos offices are full of customer service people. Now, I know that Zappos encourages their customer service people to be creative with their job, but that job is just not one where you produce a lot of creative output. On the other hand, someone working at 37s (aside from /their/ customer service folks) is producing code and design as their job. At the end of the day they’ve produced something that was creatively fulfilling (if not every single day, then at least once in a while). When a customer service rep gets done with their day at Zappos they might feel great about delivering happiness, but their creative soul is still yearning to leave a tangible mark on the world. So they put up colorful streamers and whatnot.

    When a Zappos customer service rep is on her way to the office, she’s thinking about how to dress up her cube. When a 37s programmer is headed to the office, he’s thinking about how to implement a new feature. For that employee, it’s a good thing the office is taken care of for them.

    And there is personal preference, of course. Personally, I’d be stressed as hell working at the Zappos office. Too much clutter and visual loudness. It’s like a jungle vs. a zen garden. Both are beautiful and inspiring, but if I’m going to get down to doing some great work I’d personally rather do it in a zen garden than a jungle.

    One other message that is clear and consistent from Tony, Jason, and David is that they hire people that are like-minded. Zappos is quite proud of turning people away that aren’t a /perfect/ fit for the culture. I expect the same is true for 37s. If you’re a potential employee and you walk into either of these offices are don’t react with “I’m home!” then you aren’t going to work out. If your office ends up compromising in the middle (as many other posters have suggested), then you’ve probably compromised too much in the hiring process.

    • Agreed. All the crazy crap on the walls of the Zappos office would drive me nuts. It’s great to say that you can control what you do with your space, but it’s a bit facile to think that a big blue tent doesn’t affect the environment of the whole office. Those two office environments are going to be appealing to different sorts of people, which is probably appropriate for the given businesses.

    • Agreed. All the crazy crap on the walls of the Zappos office would drive me nuts. It’s great to say that you can control what you do with your space, but it’s a bit facile to think that a big blue tent doesn’t affect the environment of the whole office. Those two office environments are going to be appealing to different sorts of people, which is probably appropriate for the given businesses.

  56. Wow. Do Zappos developers actually work in offices like that? If you’re doing telephone support for sales I can understand the need to make your office environment extra zany but for writing code…? I suspect you may be comparing two very different types of work here. Also two very different ways of working. How many 37S employees actually go into the office every day?

    The other thing that strikes me about the Zappos pictures is that if you take down the christmas/nursery decorations you’re left with the standard American Cubicle Farm. I think I’d find that even more depressing.

  57. My first thought was how a mixture of the two would be best, professional clean middle areas and crazy personal offices (though ones in personal space so as not to create visual chaos for everybody).

    But that brought back an internal struggle I have with the personal office in general. I very much enjoy that quiet space, but the seclusion and seeming arrogance of being shut off from peers ruins the niceties. Have not found that balance yet.

    Excellent article, great thoughts.

  58. One of the more surprising office spaces I’ve visited lately is the TOMS Shoes office in Santa Monica, CA. They’ve literally converted a back alley warehouse into an office for over 100 people. Desks and half-walls are constructed with recycled particle board.

    When AT&T came to install their phone system there was nothing (i.e., no walls) to line the cable through, so they literally had to nail 2×4 structures together between desks to run wires. There is a feeling of energy and urgency, as if the mission they’re on was too important to stop and worry about decorating the space. “Let’s just grab some boards and make it work!”

    Got a few photos of it posted here:
    http://gowalla.com/spots/692768/photos

  59. I would rather work in the 37 signals office. I’d actually be able to think and be inspired there.

  60. How your office looks sometimes isn’t that important. How you think and whether you’re happy at being in that surrounding is the crucial part. I mean who would be able to think if you’re not happy and free.

    I think both of them are just similar as they both have the same business objective.

  61. i could not work in an office like i see in the pics from zappos… it feels like a carnival.
    it really comes down to the people you have on your team and the type of job they do.

  62. As a freelancer I spend three days of the week working from my home office and two days a week working at my desk at a company.

    My home office is more in the zappos vein, the walls are full of pictures and photos and my desk is usually hovering on the right side of being messy. It’s cluttered and a little disorganised but it’s comfortable.

    My desk at the workplace is immaculately clean and tidy. Most desks there are more like Zappos, even the director. The whole office in fact is so busy that it just never stays tidy for long, but not my desk. My desk is a haven away from the mess.

    I can see the advantage in both :)

  63. i likes to work in offices loke the same in the pictures because working in office will keep us away from other problems of life we faced at home

  64. I’m all for creative expression but without some basic design guidelines (or constraints), the results can be random and tacky, sorta like myspace profile pages. Looks like this is exactly what happened at the zappos offices. I vote hands down for 37 Signals.

  65. I spent the first half of my career setting up contact centres in numerous countries, the latter half working in something more like start-up environments. So hopefully I’ve got some perspective on the reason for the differences between both.

    Firstly Zappos. It’s no doubt a great company to work for, the contact centres I’d setup were regularly voted the best places to work which is highly usual for that sector. They’re usually drab and lifeless places, where people are essentially chained to their desk by a headset. Toilet breaks often need to be cleared with a manager first, you need to literally clock in and out each day, and to top it all off most of your time is spent trying to calm down angry people who are calling to complain about something. The staff really are fighting on the front line and they have a hell of a task to stay happy and motivated about what they do because at the end of the day, it’s a pretty sucky job. The solution to that? Make everything else fun. The workplace and the surroundings have to work as a distraction from the other negative impacts on their job. Some autonomy to decorate their environment creates an outlet for expression in a role that is otherwise heavily regimented and scripted.

    Compare that to the average life of a developer, most of us actively love the work we do. Writing code, producing something people get to use, and the sense of accomplishment that comes with it. Jason is on record as saying (paraphrasing here) that interruptions are rude, you’re basically saying whatever I want is more important than whatever you’re doing. Mental state and flow is important to a developer, distractions are preferable kept to a minimum, and that includes the environmental ones. It’s no surprise that their office reflects that, and I think it does so for good reason.

    I think it’s just two companies servicing everyones innate desire to be just a little bit creative in the best way they can. For one it’s in the environment they create, the other it’s the work they produce.

  66. I see both sides of the spectrum. I think it depends on the person. I for me, I tend to be borderline neurotic about my desk and how it should be organized, but I also appreciate the fact that I’m not trapped into it being like that. It’s a personal choice for me and may not be the right thing for my fellow employee. So I think we should have the right to choose and offices should be a blank canvas where employees can authentically express themselves. I think this definitely makes for better output of work. cheers!

  67. One of your best posts, Ryan. I can see both sides on this, but I’m squarely in the Zappos camp with you. Anyone who loved building “forts” as a kid would likely feel the same.

  68. I agree that these offices are drastically different but I would definitely prefer a 37 signals style office. Especially because the work is so much different.

    When I was working in a call center 10-12 hours a day I needed fun and goofiness to break the tension between calls and keep me upbeat. Zappos’ office is obviously perfect for that.

    Now that I code 10-12 hours a day I definitely prefer starker surroundings. They still reflect my needs but what I need now is to focus in an area with fewer distractions. Also, please remember that all 37signals employees are free to work remotely any time they choose to.

    • Let me assure you, developer areas look just as crazy as the call center areas. And actually, the cubicle with the “Tony” licence plate above it is where the CEO sits.

  69. Ryan, I agree with you 100%. My personal desk looks like Jason’s office, clean, as little paper as possible. But that’s just me. When I look around the office at other folks (non-designers), they work better with teddy bears, toys, etc. I think this definitely keeps people happy and loose compared to the clean (stiff) appearance of the 37 signals office. I like both approaches but totally get what Zappos is doing. Especially when your company is built on customer service (first).

    • I can assure you there’s no ban on teddy bears or toys at 37signals. Someone landed a remote control helicopter on my desk a few weeks back.

    • As a software developer at Zappos, I resemble both remarks. We’re pretty serious about our software, but the developer office area is just as goofy as in the call center parts of the office.

  70. I’m guessing the tight team at 37S created a common vision and followed that. These guys, in my estimation are very tight knit.. that type of space is required for intense concentration it takes to fold software frameworks and UI work around in your mind that’s going to affect millions of people.

    At Zappos, those people are simply making people happy by providing excellent customer service. They need happy stuff around them to remind them that their life / job is not that last customer ordering the wrong size shoe with the last $75 on their maxed out Visa.

    Also 37S crew aren’t constantly attracting new talent and growing – they’re staying as small as possible.

    Definitely different requirements it seems.

  71. very thoguth provoking post and I think there’s plenty of arguments to go both ways, but it does appear that the 37 signals team are way more invested as individuals in their company than the “employees” at Zappos which probably outnumber the 37 signals guys 1 – 100.

    At the end of the day, both of these approaches could provide similar results depending on how the people in those respective spaces react or settle in those environments. Different strokes for different folks. personally I’d go for a mix of the 2, super cool & minimal with a hint of individualism.

    Just looking at that pic of the Zappos office made me feel anxious, I doubt I could work in a space like that, but then I work from home and don’t have top share my space with someone who loves stuffed animals :)

  72. Wow what a stark comparison. In one set of photos, it’s the people who matter; in the other it’s the place. One made me feel happy, the other made me feel small. Even though I love the architecture. Game, set, and match to Zappos.

  73. zappos is a GIF animation in 1996
    37signals is a free template in 2004

    I didnt like both of them

  74. Very interesting how different each approach is to office design. Ordinarily i would have said i wouldn’t mind working for 37signals but with an office so empty like a void how can one be inspired or creative in such a stark environment?

  75. I’m with you that the 37signals office is aesthetically beautiful. I’m frankly quite in love with it, haha. However it’s clear that there is going to be a million times less tension in an office like Zappos.

  76. When I’m doing real mental work, I can’t focus with clutter around. I need clean space and clean surfaces to allow my brain to concentrate on solving the problem at hand, writing, or doing my version of creativity. Smooth textures, natural colors and finishes are relaxing and supportive of creative work. Bright colors and stuff everywhere occupy part of my attention, even if somewhat subconsciously, preventing me from my optimal output. However, between work sessions, mental breaks, distractions and relaxation are good.

    Of course, everyone has their own ideal environment. Due to perhaps, at least partially, 37Signals’ smaller size (and hiring choices) they all may feel more comfortable in the environment they have. Zappos may theirs just right for them too.

  77. Think forward 12 months when the Zappos junk is dust covered and faded and generally yuck.
    Think forward 12 months when 37signals has softened with use.
    Where do you want to be now?

    For me the tiny Zappos desks and general contempt for any sort of grown-up set of behaviours would make me sick all day every day. Crowded into what strikes as a kindergarten for those who find nothing worthwhile in the work and find the need to hide from it in mess tells me it would be hell on earth for me.

    But each to their own.

  78. Not really that keen on the 37 Singals office. A bit to bare for me. But David Hansson makes up for his not so great looking office by having an azaming looking car instead. If i worked for 37 Signals i’d rather have my desk in the office car park so i could look at David’s Pagani Zonda all day. Much nicer.

  79. from the zappos offices it looks so cramped and you need room to breathe. the 37signals ones to me are perfect, large open spaces with little about. it all depends on the person, i hate crowded spaces. but like below it’s hard to judge off a couple of pictures without experiencing it.

  80. The problem with these two comparisons is that they are two completely opposite ends of the spectrum. One is WAY too busy… the other WAY to sparse. If someone walked into my office and it looked like Zappos, I would NOT be taken seriously as a professional… on the other hand if someone walked into my office and it looked like 37 Signals… not only does it tend to make clients very uncomfortable, they wonder… “ok… wheres the work?” Also… we’re comparing apples and oranges here regarding the type of business each of these companies represents… You can’t really say one is better than the other because neither would work for everybody.

  81. In a home, you have different rooms with different levels of comfort, and for good reason. I think an office should have similarly designated spaces.

    The ideal situation:
    -An area that is serene, zen and clutter-free for thinking and meeting with clients
    -A space where it’s okay to experiment with finger-paint and cut paper
    -Your workspace, which likely falls somewhere in-between.(Forcing your coworkers to look at the eyesore of your “personalized desk space” isn’t exactly considerate. If everyone is working in one room, there should be some compromise.)

    If I had to choose, I’d pick 37signals, because at least I could make a mess if I cleaned up after myself. I don’t think I could handle all the visual stimuli of the Zappos office every day! It would constantly distract me.

  82. I really like what Aviva Maltin said about trying to have it all … but the thing is that when you allow all ppl to play around with the surrounding you wont have a theme anymore and sometimes you’ll have to deal with conflict of interest of different employees different views different teams … so you’ll draw this out loud to make them different … but if you do it with minimum affect as you do it on your office space I think it is cool and enough

    Actually I’ll do it Goolge way I think it is better to have a room for innovation so this room can be messy and the offices can be less messy and the meeting rooms can be clean and well designed ;)