Minimal Workspace in a Former School Building in Pennsylvania, USA

Mike’s Minimal Workspace in an Old School Building in Philadelphia, US

“Just because you’re not at your desk, doesn’t mean you’re not working”

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Name: Mike Smith

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the US

Occupation: Designer

Social media: Instagram, Twitter

Hello! Tell us a bit about yourself

Hey, I’m Mike Smith. I run a design studio called Smith & Diction in Philadelphia, PA (USA).

I started my studio seven years ago because I really wanted to make things.

I was a little disenchanted with the whole agency life of making a bunch of fake work and selling PDFs for $100K.

A minimal workspace in a former classroom
Figma is a go-to design tool for Mike Smith. He used it to create a new identity for the visual storytelling platform Exposure

I just wanted to make REAL stuff and not worry about the weird designer-to-creative-director career pipeline where you’re no longer making stuff.

I get to work with my wife as my business partner (and copywriter) every day, and that to me is all that matters.

The bonus is that we get to work with really cool people, too!

Take us through your setup

Item Model
Laptop MacBook Pro 16″ 2021
Speakers Bowers & Wilkins MM-1
Headphones AirPods Pro
Keyboard Magic Keyboard
Mouse Magic Mouse
Chair SOHO Ribbed Management Chair

I keep my workspace pretty sparse, honestly.

Just a monitor, my computer, keyboard, mouse, and external hard drive.

Sometimes, I’ll have my notebook nearby to doodle in the beginning stages of a project or something but mostly that’s it.

A minimal workspace in a former school building
This workspace is filled with greenery and natural light

At my first job, we all had iMacs. I think something settled into my head that I only need one monitor to handle everything I need to.

My studio space, on the other hand, is much more “me”.

Lots of colour, lots of reference books, and some random things that I’ve made over the years that I’m super proud of.

My favourite thing — that is a bit weird — is the fact that my bookshelves are just from IKEA, and they no longer make the legs with the little crossbar. They were super cheap but seem really cool and also now are rare, haha.

Our natural light is also unbelievable.

My studio is in an old school building and my windows face directly north, so we get an even flat bright light all day long.

My plants love it, and my natural light photo setups love it too.

Working in an old school is really, really amazing.

It’s like you’re walking into the coolest classroom you’ve ever been in.

It feels like you’re getting away with something by getting paid to be there. Or that you’re in a cool secret club.

It’s been such a tremendous experience, and I’m endlessly grateful for my studio.

What’s your favourite item on your desk?

My favourite item on my desk is a candle called Marie Louis No. 4. It was $36 at Zara.

I’m a candle guy.

I like my studio to smell nice.

It caused some guff a few years ago because Outdoor Voices [an American clothing company, focused on the design and sale of athletic apparel — editor’s note] had like a $22K budget for candles.

I read the article and I was like… I need to know what this smells like.

Turns out, I love it.

A custom-made Apollo 11 Lander poster by Mike Smith
“I made this Apollo 11 Lander design for my buddies at Elixr Coffee, and in my old studio, I had a cut-out in my wall that I needed to fill. So I just made this poster to fill that space, haha”

What apps or tools do you use to get things done?

I use Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, Lightroom, Pinterest, Figma, and FontBase on the daily basis.

I absolutely love using Figma for nearly everything.

Invoices, Moodboards, Brand Presentations, Style Guides, Web Design, you name it — I’m putting it in Figma.

If they introduce a CMYK/print product, it will be lights out for Adobe for sure.

What books, blogs or podcasts recently caught your attention?

It’s not really a recent thing but the book I crack open the most is that massive Logo Modernism book that covers a huge range of logos from the 1940s – 1980s.

It’s a great jumping-off point for anyone working on an identity project. It also cements in your head that literally everything has been done before.

But that’s also freeing in a way because you get to think of how you can reference some of these techniques, but then put a little unique spin on it.

Other books of note:

Any tips for other makers who want to improve their workspaces?

I started Smith & Diction out of my one-bedroom apartment, so it kind of had to blend in with the rest of the living room.

I like to think that my office now also feels like a very big living room, which is quite warm and inviting.

Feels kinda like your dad’s den.

I get to be unapologetic about being overly design-y, which in a normal house would be a little over the top.

Just make your space feel fun and inspiring. That can be a super chaotic collage of awesome stuff you’ve found over the years, or it could just be a nice piece of wood that you like the texture of.

Inspiration comes in all kinds of flavours.

What does your typical day look like?

I usually wake up around 5:30 am most days. I’m cursed.

It’s been this way nearly my whole life and now I have a four-year-old so she’s up and at ‘em not too long after me.

I usually do a daily sudoku puzzle on my phone and then go make breakfast for my daughter. I take some anti-anxiety meds and then head out the door.

14 productivity-boosting scents for a home office
They can also lessen your anxiety.

I’ll usually get into the office around 8 am and plough through some emails first thing.

My best working hours are between 7:30 am and 11:30 am, so I try to focus as much as I possibly can to create stuff with my brain between those times.

Everything after that is mush – answering more emails, going to meetings, looking at Pinterest, eating lunch, etc.

I leave at 4 pm every day to pick up my kid from school, then I don’t open my computer again until the next day at 8.

Having a kid has helped me create a division between work life and home life. When my desk was in my house, I just worked all day every day.

It wasn’t a bad thing.

I put in a lot of hours when I had that time to give. Now, I’d just rather be with my family during that time.

Your tips for working from home?

My number one tip for working-from-homers would be to remember to get out of the house at least once a day.

Your brain needs to step away from the computer every once in a while.

Some of my best logo concepts have come to me while sitting in a park or riding my bike.

Just because you’re not at your desk, doesn’t mean you’re not working.

The design workspace in the BOK building in Philadelphia, US
The BOK building in Philadelphia was built in 1936 to accommodate 3,000 students, studying everything from wallpapering and cosmetology to bricklaying and auto mechanics. In 2015, this former school turned into a modern workspace for makers, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and artists

I think it lets the idea live and grow a little more because if you’re at your desk you’ll just start trying to find if that concept has been done before and you’ll spiral down the hole of comparison and “it’s been done before”.

Number two, I’d always recommend making or finding a “get shit done playlist”. Just a bunch of songs that get you in the zone without having to think about the next song that comes on.

There have been days when my pop punk playlist has saved me from scary deadlines.

13 Background Noises and Ambient Sounds To Stay Focused
No Spotify or YouTube Involved.

Number three, the best thing you can do for yourself is to stay organised however you choose to do that.

I write a list on a whiteboard of my things to do that day and I erase them one by one.

Something about the physical erasing provides me with a feeling of accomplishment.

It’s dumb but it keeps me on track.

We’re a reader-supported publication. This article might contain affiliate links. It means we may receive a commission if you click a link and buy a product that our maker has recommended. The interview was done independently.

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