I wrote this earlier this year, and thought I’d resurrect it here to open the conversation a bit more.
Why does everything look the same?
This time is now the end of one year and the beginning of the next. In these times, we tend to look back to assess what has happened and speculate on what may be coming. Some, realizing that things didn’t go the way they thought they world or should, make resolutions to shape new behaviors or habits. I’m in that middle space right now, trying to anticipate the future and design for it.
My interest is the design of the workplace. For at least a couple of decades, there has been a lot changing in society, technology, and the nature and future of work, and so I’d been expecting that the design of workplace would look a lot different, even radically new, by now.
So in this shearing layer between years, I thought I’d do a quick survey of the state of the art. I looked for the “top projects of 2018” in known online workplace publications and I googled, “best,” and “most popular” and other terms seeking insights from other places.
All of us practicing in the domains of workplace design profess a set of principles that sound very similar, yet should generate a surprising amount of creative differentiation. We say we design for the unique cultural DNA of our client organizations and, since every organization is different, so too should their workplace. We say we design to support the work of the organization and, since each organization’s work is what shapes its competitive position, so will the components of the workspace that support that work. We say we design responding to the local context of our projects, so each region, building and workforce will shape the workspace in different and enlightening ways.
But once I’d assembled photos from about 50 projects from the past year, I was worried that I’d wasted my time. I scanned across the collected images and could no longer tell which firm had designed the projects and, unless there was a logo in the image, I could not tell what company, or even what kind of company was in the image.
What I found was unsettling. Very little changed since the dot-com days, and everything that was celebrated looked the same.
In almost every project I found the same components – polished concrete floors, exposed infrastructure, thinline LED light fixtures, and furniture; polished concrete floors, exposed infrastructure, thinline LED light fixtures, and furniture; polished concrete floors, exposed infrastructure, thinline LED light fixtures, and furniture.
That is, I could not find brand, culture, context, company or community. I could not find finance company different from creative firm, different from manufacturer. Instead I found a vast portfolio of projects in which the modern workplace was stripped of architecture, void of craft, and absent of critical thinking and design. The buildings had become simply containers for furniture and equipment. The designs were simply curations of mass-produced components. There was only a single aesthetic.
What has led us to this state? If we point away from ourselves, we can find a lot to blame.
The scale of the workspace has been defined by benchmarked data; everybody collects and compares the same data, so everybody is in the same spiral of diminishing space, and there’s only so much you can do with so little.
All of the conversation about the workplace has been defined by the suppliers of the things in the workplace; you know what that means.
Every company feels the threat of generational preference, the promises of whatever collaboration is, the potentials in personal technology; that is, every company gives the same mission to every designer and every workplace then becomes an expression of mass trend.
Is there a way out of this condition? Is there a way to actually deliver the promises we make to clients?
I think so, but it first takes a bit of a resistance movement.
We may have to resist counting square feet and cubicles. We may have to resist repeating the same benchmarks. We may have to resist using the same workplace lexicon. We may have to stop looking at what others have done.
Then, we may have to design new processes. We may have to design processes that help our teams and our clients think more critically about work and the design of the workplace.
There’s a clue in this paraphrased quote from one of our designers in a conversation about the status of his project –
“We, of course had the ‘program’ and its list of space types, area allocations and technical requirements, and shaped workplace concepts with that data. But it wasn’t until we heard about the interactions between people in our client’s organization and started to design around them that their team engaged in the process and, with us, developed our innovative concepts.”
Most people come to work to do things together that they cannot do alone.
That is, most people come to work to interact with others. Those interactions generate value, build wealth, transfer know-how, inspire and motivate, and otherwise advance the purpose of the enterprise and deliver positive impact to customers and communities.
Maybe we should program and design for those interactions.