The Forward-Looking Cycle of Design

September 12, 2018 by

There’s something to be said about the old phrase, “They’ve been around the block a time or two.” Our industry is one that’s inundated with change – we change the way we get work done, the workplace designs we gravitate toward, and even the very work we do (it’s safe to say the job title, Social Media Strategist, didn’t exist a generation ago). Yet, with the ebbs and flows of change, there are undeniable constants that ground us to the core principles of design. Neil Usher, Executive Consultant for Property, Workplace, Facilities and Change Management, reminds us of this unwavering need to reflect on the defining principles of design in his recent book, The Elemental Workplace, where he considers the workplace journey, pulling upon his more than 25 years of industry experience.

One of Usher’s biggest recommendations? The notion that some things never change. “In many respects, design never changes,” reflects Usher. “What is around us today doesn’t differ too radically from when I started work in 1985. Sure, some of the gadgets and technology have changed, but the activity we do hasn’t changed.” To that point, Usher explains workplace design in three steps – looking back, moving sideways, and looking forward.


Looking Back

Usher explains that there are several elements of the workplace that remain constant, and we can reflect on their presence throughout history. “We have this desperate need to think everything is new, when actually a lot of things have been done for years.” He adds that many of the “classics” are making a comeback – tactile tools like notebooks and pens, and the good old fashioned idea of taking a lunch break to destress – these ideas have been done for years.

Today, we are looking back on the classics and reinventing the way in which we “do” them. Lunch breaks used to be scheduled on the calendar – a half hour break when you leave the office, get a breath of fresh air, and pick up a sandwich. Today, a relaxing lunch break can be taken in the office, with spaces that facilitate a calm, tranquil escape. Plant-filled cafes with loads of natural light and seating arrangements that encourage community make the office an escape, rather than a place from which we must escape.

“We often desire to pronounce the ‘death’ of something,” shares Usher. “The death of the desk is a prime example. Sure, the desk has changed over the years, but in many ways, it is the great survivor. It has been with us for millennia, and remains a useful device today. It often reminds me of this beautiful creature, the Tardigrade,  more commonly known as the water bear, that can survive everything short of armageddon. In many ways, the desk is the same. It always will have a purpose. It will evolve as society demands, but its core presence endures.”


Moving Sideways

As we look back on the useful inventions of the workplace, there are many “moving sideways” examples today. Usher uses this term to further explain the evolution of things we look back on, yet still use today. “Many workplace elements have slowly evolved throughout time,” he explains. “Take, for example, the task chair. It’s gained some noticeable technological advancements – self-adjusting support mechanisms, for instance, but the small technical evolutions of the device aren’t particularly different over the past 30 or 40 years. We still use a chair to sit. We use it to get work done. We use it when communicating with others.”

Another example is seen in storage. We always will have a need for storage in the workplace, but today, storage is used differently. “The need for storage has remained constant throughout the changing times, but the way in which it is used has evolved. We no longer have a need for rows and rows of manilla files – electronic storage largely has replaced the need for paper storage – but in its place, we find the need for personal storage – cycling helmets, gym bags, backpacks, and other personal items we never used to see in the workplace.”


Looking Forward

When we look at the future of workplace design, Usher cautions us to heed a steady balance. “A decade ago, there was this big movement to create collaboration spaces, but, the pendulum moved too far. We need to strike a balance between collaboration and heads-down work, and in my opinion, we favored collaboration at the peril of individual workspaces. The industry now is playing a bit of catch-up to redefine spaces that not only support collaboration, but also offer a healthy dose of individual work time – what we might call ‘focus on demand.’”

While Usher suggests that the furniture industry is at a bit of a disadvantage in predicting future trends, due largely to the lengthy cycle time of development, he believes we are in a strong position to drive productive change. “I think the workplace, in general, is in the best place it’s ever been. So many of us are trying to direct attention to the value of workplace design and its role in the health and success of not only our business, but also our society. That makes for a really exciting time. We still have a lot of room for growth, but if you look at wellbeing and the contribution that the workplace can make to it, it’s phenomenal to see how quickly we’ve advanced and the importance people finally are placing on great design.”


This article was originally published in The Business of Furniture, a division of Bellow Press, on September 5, 2018. It is reprinted here with permission.

About the author: Amanda Schneider, LEED AP is a researcher, blogger for the Huffington Post, and the founder of ThinkLab, a research led strategy firm serving the contract interiors market.