Cool is dead

It could be considered that for a couple of hundred attendees of Workplace Trends (#wtrends14) on Wednesday in London, it was the day we killed“Cool”.

How did we ever fall in love with the zeitgeist that is “Cool”? It is smothered in the tyranny of white, the compulsory daub of the age. It is slick, smooth, inexpressive. It is attached to its very own facial expression – the slightly muted smile, the narrowing of the eyes, the slow and controlled nodding of the head…. and then the stretch of the vowels into a term of admiration. In this manner, of what we behold we are saying we are unworthy.

The dominance of Cool has drowned out warmth, inclusion, adaptability, sensitivity, and our sensory perception (all seven of them – including balance and position). Its parrot-squawk has become a snowblind self-parody. We are bombarded with sprezzatura – effortless nonchalance, a grand deception. Hipstermedia has pumped us full of envy of desolately Cool workspaces where people are nothing but shadows and outlines.

Because in this germ-free world that’s how people are seen – interruptions, spoilers of the aesthetic. In the world of Cool, the environment is everything and people are nothing. The workplace is the star, it has its own ego, it’s vanity has to be fed with coverage.

Steve Maslin took the first shot at the hegemony of Cool with humility and quiet calm. He made us see the folly of so many modern workplaces through the perspective of human conditions we rarely consider, and implored we design as much for the psychological as the physical. I had considered that “activity” alone may be too shallow and we might consider emotional-based working but here we also had sensory-based working. Steve asked what our buildings might say if they could talk to us: I suspect they might be silent, offering merely a gesture of the hand.

As if to emphasise the point, Richard Baldwin of Derwent London showed with pride their Tea building with a smorgasboard of a Reception, immediately flanked by a staircase to the lesser gods. He also offered the garbled myth of the “TMT Sector”, that fairytale clique of stripped-down workplace Cool that allows developers to offer less, or worse still create to create “white collar factories” that conjour all the victorian gloom of a hipster workhouse.

In the post-lunch debate, no-one showed their hand for the one size fits all approach – not even the official advocate – but many in the room had designed, delivered or justified just that. Through the fragile confidfence of the vote against, it’s possible we don’t believe in what we are doing or are asked to do. Strangely at no point in the debate that was so one-sided that it dwindled into introspective lethargy did anyone point ou that size has nothing to do with it. As Gareth Jones had shown earler in the renders of four modern offices, whataver their size, they look identical in over-reaching their desire for Cool – like teenagers at Monday night’s “two for one” at the Top Rank.

If not Cool then what? Certainly not Penson’s ephemeral, edible, pick ‘n’ mix offerings crerated for “names” dropped like buttered snakes. There was something far more endearing about Franciso Vazquez’s “before shot” Lima office that spoke of vulnerable Bolivarian charm than the garish restatements that followed. Anne Marie McEwan implored us to remember what we had forgotten about rich our working relationships used to be, and how our workplace was defind by them. Brian Condon’s “curatorial, not janitorial” Centre for Creative Collaboration and Lloyd Davis’s sporadically-conceived workplaces like the Mayfar squat beautifuly christened the Temporary School of Thought illustrated far more of what “start-up” means – “small pieces, loosely joined” – than the over-designed, de-energised, airbrushed halls of the post-industrial leviathan that ape the Gaultier-clad middle-class rebellion derided by Perry Timms.

The Workstock presentations showed that we need the perspectives and input from those outside the normal world of workplace. In our own silos we don’t seem capable of working it out for ourselves and probably can’t be trusted to do so alone. Richard Martin’s peloton metaphor and Andy Swann’s tales of John the unwilling production manager illustrated this with wonderful lyrics – as did Cara Long’s mesmerising stories that illuminated the power of subtle changes at the margins of the everyday. Doug Shaw’s incredible mashing of song, performance art and wisdom, and Janet Parkinson’s pin-drop poetry silencing the social cacophony showed there are other means of expression and connection.

Somehow though the “big conversation” proposed in the final session to draw us from our silos feels too much like a onesie. Mass movements, banners and membership have done little for workplace in the past, and there is no evidence to suggest this may change soon. As Lloyd Davis suggested, “just enough structure – but not too much” might be all we need to stimulate the myriad of conversations that Euan Semple advocated.

We may not have proposed a viable solution to Cool but we started to point the way. If there was one message from the day, it is that we need an honest, human relationship with our space and our technology, be it in a workplace or in the wider urban sprawl. As Jon Husband pointed out, we are “in” the system now, not “of” the system. What we know is, we no longer want to be shadows. Cool is dead.


3 thoughts on “Cool is dead

  1. First of all I enjoyed the day, I was able to learn a lot and I’m even more resolved to spend more time with Andy Swann now. With regards to ‘the big conversation’ I think it is more about having a home for lots of little conversations and helping amplify people’s voices. It’s still forming, no reason it shouldn’t be that – also no reason everyone has to be keen on it. I had a really good chat to Lloyd about it afterwards and it is difficult not to think of what has gone before, but I hate the sound of ‘we tried it before you came and it didn’t work’ as much outside of orgs as I hate it in it.

    It’s not a onesie (or it doesn’t have to be). It is a collection of people getting together going ‘hey, cool onesie, haven’t seen that before. I think we all agree, it’s ok to like onesies but they don’t all have to be the same’. Or something similar. Also, just to be clear, the onesie isn’t a one size fits all piece of clothing. My daughter has just grown out of hers. It doesn’t mean she has a banner. Or something.

  2. +1 for Steve Maslin – I was fascinated by what he shared, I hope that he resonated with others too – particularly those with an angle on the design – both of the workplace and the journey to and from. An excellent, challenging choice.

    Lee Penson for me represented the ultimate lesson in how not to give a talk at a conference. For me, arrogance and swagger oozed from every slide and every comment, and yet for all these wonderful pictures and glossy name drops – there were almost no real people in his glorious ‘look at us’ slides. When a presenter pitches so blatantly, I feel compelled to ask something in the Q&A, to see if they can deliver anything beyond their schtick. I asked my question, he ducked admirably. It takes all sorts.

    I enjoyed listening to Alenka and Alenka, primarily because they gently and encouragingly reinforced the importance of KPI. Not key performance indicators, but rather Keep People Informed. Their session pivoted on the importance of sharing and communication. I also enjoyed listening to Francisco – seeing how Latin America looks at flexible working – what some of the similarities and differences are – I enjoy seeing other perspectives.

    The session at the end felt too rushed for me, and too prescribed. Maybe it was the pressure of time but I felt coerced into a very narrow band of conversation. As someone who facilitates big conversations for a living I know how easy and often I get this wrong and right: I’m not criticising, just observing. Beyond that – I am not yet convinced that that which needs energy, enthusiasm, and something a little different, is best fostered between two well intended, established institutions. I share David’s frustration about ‘we tried it before you came and it didn’t work’. And from my perspective – there are camp fires, signals, beacons, networks and more – already doing this stuff, and doing it well. Gently subverting, openly encouraging, coming and going. Just…join in.

    Getting a conference ‘right’ is about being open to ups and downs, peaks and troughs. I pity the conference organiser who tries to please everyone, as that is the path to the bright white of which Neil writes. I admire the way Workplace Trends looks to engage differently – accepting that there will be highers and lowers, different shades, colours and textures. I hope that continues.

    Neil – thank you for pulling Workstock 2014 together under the Workplace Trends banner. Well done and what a scary blast it was to take part!

    Cheers – Doug

  3. Pingback: #Untrends for 2016 – stuff that just isn’t happening | workessence

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