Rethinking the Cubicle: Connecting the Past and Present of Workplace Design

August 28, 2018 | | View Comments

by Joe Rondinelli, Design Think — Interior Design Consulting

It’s an understatement to acknowledge that the workplace has evolved in the last five years. As designers, we are either constantly addressing that change or introducing more of it. While it can sometimes be disorientating, nothing could be more satisfying than furthering workplace innovation.

For over two decades my focus as an interior designer has been in higher education, but in 2013 I began to notice signs that the workplace was undergoing similar changes experienced earlier in my practice. This realization sparked a renewed interest in workplace design.  After additional research, I concluded that the overlap was not coincidental. The spaces that supported the changing teaching pedagogy had similar characteristics to workplace spaces; namely, they both facilitate collaboration.

Old Truths

With a new interest in workplace design, earlier this year I reread Robert Propst’s 1968 book,  The Office: A Facility Based on Change. It is an easy and fascinating read; I highly recommend it.

Why does this study matter? It is famous for being an early advocate for the cubical as a viable workplace solution.  In fact, Propst was the designer of the groundbreaking line of workplace furniture, collectively known as Herman Miller’s Action Office 2.

With the current changes in today’s workplace and the rethinking of the cubical I was curious to understand, what research led him to that solution and would any of it be relevant today?

As it turns out, quite a bit.

For example, here are a few points from Propst’s book that still ring true today:

  • Healthy workplaces are environments that have energy and are vibrant.
  • Constant sedentary work is unhealthy.
  • Employees should have control over their environments so that workplaces can be more responsive to change that otherwise might be difficult to regulate at the company-wide level.
  • Workplaces should be designed for ease of communication and collaboration. Furthermore, there should be a variety of settings for conversation.
  • Visual information should be presented vertically, so it has a greater impact on our memory recall.
  • Enclosures (such as cubicles or offices) are necessary for privacy, but they should never exclude us from our shared work environment.

Past Meets Present

Having this historical reference was also something I wanted to do before attending NeoCon this year. For those of you outside the design community, I should explain: NeoCon is a design and business convention that takes place annually at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago and this year it celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Propst’s Action Office 2 would have been introduced at the first NeoCon. As I walked through the show this year, I couldn’t help but wonder what Propst would have thought about all these remarkable new products and innovations for workplace design.  

NeoCon often reflects trends or introduces them to the broader design community. This year, something felt different. I noticed a clear tendency towards experimentation with new color palettes to new technologies and thinking, applied to a diverse range of product introductions.

The pace of change is extraordinary. I’m hoping that there are now enough products and projects focusing on the changes in workplace design that we all have the opportunity to learn from each other.  If so, we will be more informed and better design thinkers as we move forward.

The Future of Workplace Design

Every day, designers venture beyond their own specializations to understand how current cultural and social issues are impacting our world. Design educators have begun to define changes needed to prepare the designers of tomorrow to participate in the debate over the future of our built environmenta debate in which design will take center stage.

It’s safe to say: the industry is beginning to question the entire paradigm that emerged with the introduction of the cubicle in 1968.

It seems only appropriate that the upcoming Workplace Innovation Summit on November 9th will bring together a diverse group of industry leaders to ask questions of each other and have thoughtful discussions to explore the exciting opportunities ahead for all of us.

About the Author

Joe Rondinelli is a national design leader with a deep and diverse portfolio of environments supporting change. His work in higher education has been benchmarks for transformative learning spaces that include the award-winning Innovation Lab at Harvard University and Duke University’s experimental teaching and learning space known as the Link.

Joe’s in-depth understanding of emerging teaching pedagogies over the past 15 years informs his focus on today’s changing workplace. Current projects include collaborations with the Research and Development Group at Herman Miller to evolve their workspace into a Living Laboratory, and the Corporate Headquarters for Snap Chat in association with Lake Flato Architects. This experience is combined with research advancing academic and workplace design to better support the way we learn and work.