Right Design Gone Wrong

While studying in Taiwan several years ago, I was struck by the workspaces there — large open rooms filled with row upon row people hunched over ’50s styled desks. I wondered how anyone was able to work with folks talking in your ears from all sides.

If it weren’t for the amazing speed and efficiency of the Taiwanese people, I suspect nothing would have been accomplished in this type of environment. So, when I returned to the States and entered the working world, I was pretty happy to receive my plot of desk on the cubicle farm. But over the years I increasingly sensed that my once lovely cubicle was nothing more than a rat hole in a giant corporate maze. No matter what I or my coworkers did to rearrange them and make them personable, cubicles came to symbolize our feeling of being a cog in someone’s profit making machine.

Not long ago I stumbled across this fascinating article on the cubicle’s history and an interview with the original designer. It seems the problems I saw in Taiwan’s office environment were common in the post-industrialized US until the early 1960s. Then along came former University of Colorado fine arts professor Bob Propst, who designed the first modular office furniture (ironically dubbed the “Action Office”) that would serve as a “vehicle to carry other expressions of identity.” Just think, Propst originally created the cubicle as a blank slate for people to humanize and individualize (When was the last time management asked you to standardize your cube space and remove personal items?). Cubes were supposed to be mobile and easy to reconfigure (Could have fooled me. Took us three months and countless hours to place new systems furniture for 150 folks). They were meant to encourage the flow of ideas between employees through communal open spaces and the removal of boxes and corridors (Right…ever had a conversation over a 6 foot cube wall? Or got lost in another corporation’s cubicle maze?). They were designed to create a new type of office environment. Boy did they.

What actually happened to Propst’s cubicle design over the last 30 years is something quite different. Managers saw the cubicle as a way to pack more employees in a smaller workspace and lower overhead costs (Sit in the middle of your cube and see if you can touch all your cube walls without leaving or moving your chair. You’ll spend a good part of your waking hours in an area small than a prison cell). Cubicle walls got higher and higher as more people were stuffed in tighter spaces and needed more sound privacy. These high walls became barriers to communication and slowed the exchange of ideas to a trickle (Over the next hour, listen to how many folks have to talk around or over their cubicles to communicate. If you hear nothing, you’re probably in an organization that just emails folks sitting two feet away but separated by a cube wall. That’s worse. Seek help immediately). Communal spaces became conference rooms reserved for formal, planned meetings rather than informal, spontaneous exchanges (If your communal space has a calendar or a schedule for use, you know what I mean). Cubicle design became more complicated and reconfiguration took weeks of planning and execution rather than days. In just a matter of three decades, cubicles symbolized the very things Propst wanted to correct in the post-industrial work environment. Right design gone wrong.

I think that there are several things worth noting about the story of the cubicle as it relates to the heart and soul of design. First, people didn’t understand the heart of Propst’s design—to restore humanity to our workplace, and to remind people they have an identity inside of and beyond the corporation that makes us unique and valuable. How novel. Second, Propst’s cubicles undermined the existing power structures and paradigms in the workplace. His design was dangerous and counter-cultural. The original cubicles encouraged a free flow of ideas and information between workers, thus threatening the top-down, command and control style management that form the basis of power in most companies. Ideas no longer resided at the top of the management chain. Workers could develop and share their own knowledge at a faster pace than management could control. You could almost conclude Propst’s cubicle design was intended to create an Internet type networking environment with office furniture. I think Propst was way ahead of his time.

What’s interesting is that Propst said he feels no guilt or remorse that his design has evolved into the opposite of what he originally intended. And why should he? Propst’s noble cubicle design is a classic example of right design gone wrong. What do you do as a designer to help people understand what’s at the heart of your design? At what point do you feel released from your responsibility as a designer to either ensure that your client actually understands the heart of the work or uses it as intended? Is there any obligation at all, or can we wash our hands once the design is turned over to the client?

4 Responses to “Right Design Gone Wrong”

  1. Anonymous

    Your article is missing a key piece of information. The open plan workstations Propst designed were changed because some workers using them began having bizarre or psychotic episodes. The problem was peripheral vision reflexes, Vision Startle Reflex.

    Herman Miller Inc added walls to the Action Office One by 1968.

    The problem is caused by a conflict of physiology. That conflict is that although humans can learn to ignore vision reflexes that break our concentration we can’t “stop seeing” the movement that triggers the reflexes. We can’t tell our brain to stop attempting to break our concentration.

    The subliminal stimulation eventually causes a mental break.

    L K Tucker

  2. Frank McClung

    L K,

    Thanks for this tibit. I can just see a Dilbert cartoon now with the open plan workspace and workers exhibiting Vision Startle Reflex.

    Honestly, I think we overdo it a bit as Americans on the physiology side. Asia and most of the rest of the world has been on the open plan for quite some time. Do they have bizarre episodes too? I wonder.

  3. Sharron Mattison

    Another tidbit that you might find ironically interesting is that the first commerical cubicle installation was in 1969 — the same year of Apollo 11 (first moonwalk) and the #1 song was “Aquarius — Let the Sunshine In” — cubicles were born in the middle of the Let Freedom Ring era.

  4. L K Tucker

    Do other countries have startle reflex problems? Yes they do.

    Exposure to Subliminal Distraction, the name for the problem outside the United States, is silent, invisible, and painless. The outcomes are not necessarily tied to office activities. Remember the problem is one of human physiology not office space.

    Culture Bound Syndromes are a group of odd mental events that happen around the world. Each culture names and describes the outcomes in their own terms. In Malaysia sudden violence is called Amok. Going Postal is the name for this sudden violence here.

    These mental events sometimes include hearing voices and dissociative events.

    The phenomenon is connected to offices when the worker has a “nervous breakdown” at work. In Japan the event is blamed on stress from too much work.

    The mental events have even happened on Russian space missions, Soyuz21.

    Look on the Herman Miller site under Robert Propst’s biography for the basic dates. They do not refer to the mental problems as the reason for the creation of the Cubicle.

    See the Astronauts & Insanity page


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