Photo by Rachel Hulin

In 2018, co-working doesn’t stand for collaboratively working or even collectively working. Today, it’s a sign-on-the-dotted-line arrangement where one warm body happens to be banging away on a keyboard next to another doing the same.

Blame a certain rent-a-space franchise that’s as ubiquitous as Starbucks, or blame the economy, but the commodification and dilution of co-working is real and has left a sour taste in the mouth of smaller collective workplaces that have been around for years. “I don’t like to call what we do co-working, but that’s essentially what it is,” says John Caserta.

Caserta is an associate professor in RISD’s graphic design department and the founder of The Design Office, a small “co-working” space in Providence, Rhode Island. For more than a decade, Caserta and a rotating cast of a dozen or so other like-minded designers have been working out of the 3,000 square foot office that overlooks downtown Providence.

For Caserta, The Design Office is more than a place where people can rent dedicated desk space and use shared office supplies—it’s a community bound by shared principles. Namely, that good design is the result of having time, space, and the right people around. “Being a room full of people is really exciting when it’s working,” he says.

Photo by Rachel Hulin

The idea behind The Design Office was seeded back in the early 2000s during the first dot com boom, when Caserta, like so many others, had been laid off from his job as a web designer. He and a group of friends in San Francisco were mulling what to do next—they wanted co-workers but not an office job; stability but flexibility. They decided the best option was to rent a shared space where all of them could work together without working together.

Before Caserta could sign a lease, he left San Francisco for grad school at Yale and then a Fulbright scholarship in Italy, where he spent a year studying the ins and outs of a small village. The village’s egalitarian approach to governing was appealing to Caserta, who had never himself been the kind to want to run a studio. When he returned to the United States and settled in Providence, Caserta spent a couple years devising a plan for opening a space where he could put his principles to practice.

The first space that Caserta rented in 2007 was large enough for just four people. Over the years, Caserta has grown The Design Office into a side businesses that now takes up 3,000 square feet in the same building he started out in. The Design Office functions like an idealistic WeWork. Designers of all stripes (graphic designers, architects, UX designers) can pay for monthly or part time membership, which grants them access to a desk and shared office amenities like a large drafting table and 36-inch printer.

Anyone who joins The Design Office goes through a very casual application process that includes sharing their portfolio and having a conversation with Caserta and other members. The point of the application process is less about screening for style and quality; it’s about finding members who are there for the right reasons. “We really want to understand who you are on the way in, so you’re able to run free and do zany things once you’re in the room,” he says.

That ethos, combined with the fact that Caserta himself is an educator, gives The Design Office a vaguely academic ambiance. Experimentation is valued over commerciality. Its branding is no branding. And Caserta encourages members to work together to think critically about their practice, even if it’s in pursuit of a commissioned project. “There’s a real interest in the idea that the arts and humanities, and more generally the kind of non-commercial side of graphic design, is really worth fighting for,” he says.

Photo by Rachel Hulin

Though the ambition of The Design Office is to be a place where designers can push themselves on self-initiated projects and use the built-in community for feedback, Caserta acknowledges it’s a luxury to be able to rent a space for pure experimentation. “I still understand the very real phenomenon of needing to make money,” he says. Plenty of designers use The Design Office as their de-facto office space, but it’s intentionally designed to feel less transactional than a WeWork or other big coworking businesses.

Caserta admits that small, grass-roots spaces like The Design Office are always vulnerable to a larger, better-funded operation coming in, but it’s not something he actively worries about. Ultimately, the people who are interested in something like The Design Office are looking to join a long-term community, not a hot desk crash pad with free beer on tap. It’s an inherently different mindset, and one that lays the foundation for what he believes is better, more thoughtful work. “If you can carve out a space that allows you and other to focus on the things you really want to do, then unexpected things emerge from that,” he says.