By default, by design – the case against

After another forehead-rubbingly interesting discussion at the Centre for Creative Collaboration (#c4cc) on Friday – a space with which my fascination never ceases – I was again considering what makes somewhere that would probably fail to satisfy any design guidelines, would have the safety auditors dribbling into their checklists, and wouldn’t even make the longest list of end-product case studies so perpetually appealing.

Unlike almost everywhere these days, it is simply a space I want to work in.  Knackered armchairs, peeling paint, trailing cables – whatever, can I just have a corner, please?

Brian Condon described the Centre as being a permanent beta trial. Instant lightbulb moment. That’s why corporate spaces can’t create the same endearing appeal, because they can never be beta trials. They are established, they have to “comply”. Not just with regulations, but with established expectations in the broadest sense of what “work” and the “workplace” are. The space has a spiritual and emergent dimension, one that no amount of manufactured and inherently contrived design can provide. Which then led me to consider that design itself may be at the heart of the problem for the corporate workplace.

So this led to me thinking that – with all due respect to the many people in the profession I admire – there is a case against workplace design.  I am not sure yet whether I believe it, as these things take time to settle and be challenged, but its worth setting out.

Workplace design:

  • Forces an outcome that is inherently constrained – the process is entirely reliant upon the inputs and their interpretation
  • Is unable to facilitate the participation at the outset or over time of the occupants , due to constraints of time and process , on-going management and compliance – and therefore the outcome will inevitably be a tyranny of the minority
  • Is unduly reliant upon script – codes of practice, regulations, all “for our own good” – when to genuinely complement and act in harmony with the activity taking place with it, space requires freedom to grow in any direction required at ant any time
  • Is case-study or precedent developed, building on and incrementally changing what has been done before – and so with each outcome, how can we be sure we have taken the right path?
  • Produces manufactured, branded environments that are counter to human nature – we crave what is natural, malleable, able to be influenced by ourselves
  • Offers no surprises – the key ingredient in any story is the unexpected, yet a designed environment is and remains fixed and predictable – the most damaging and eventually de-humanising being those most richly endowed with gimmicks and novelties, the “sugar-rush” palaces
  • Is guarded and protected by its sponsors who have invested significantly in design and production – when observed behaviour within the new space does not fit, it is evaluated for why and made to fit
  • Prescribes rather than invites – telling us what to do and how to do it, often even with a sign to remind us, directing our thinking and culture – “this is the way we want you to be”
  • Is ultimately governed by aesthetics (which help win the designer the next job) and not enough by behaviour – and on this basis, usage of the space must respect the aesthetic and investment, rather than daring to change it
  • Is self-serving at the expense of the individual, a means to its own end – design begets design

We rush to break out of the beta trial, as this signifies success. We may just be in too much of a hurry.


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