Two Takes on Office Design: WSJ and NYT Face Off

Recently two major media sources each published an opinion piece on the topic of office design.

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal pieces differ in focus. Unsurprisingly the NYT article takes a design angle –“Design itself is the problem because it is being used to solve the wrong ones” — while the WSJ approaches the subject by considering the implications for productivity — “spaces can also help us to become more creative and attentive”.

But both lead to the conclusion:

office design matters.

The articles are excerpted below along with links to full text.

Which article’s view point do you identify with?

Let us know through email ( or Twitter (Office_Envy).

Excerpted from the New York Times. Full Text Here:

Beyond the Cubicle

By Allison Arieff

“….At the end of his life, Robert Propst, creator of the cubicle system, called his invention ‘monolithic insanity,’ yet we seem unable to tread down any other path. Longstanding calls for the Redesign of the Cubicle continue, in recent articles like “Designs to Make You Work Harder,” a roundup of “new” approaches to office design in The Wall Street Journal, and, in Fast Company, “Redesigning: Cubicles,” the goal of which was to “upgrade the corporate killjoy.” The topics seemed disconcertingly out of touch. Apart from maybe generating a little business for the contract furniture industry, what was the point? A bigger re-think of the world of work seems to be in order.

Just about any story on this subject in the last decade has featured pleasant if not wholly original ideas like bringing more natural light into spaces, playing with organic, softer forms and incorporating homey elements like Oriental rugs, plants and personal photographs. But every idea has remained firmly entrenched in existing workspace typologies — the cubicle, the corner office — and ignored entirely the growing legions who work in different ways or in different settings (if they’re able to find work at all).

In 2009, the entrepreneur/designer Nathan Shedroff published a book called “Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must Be Sustainable.” His provocative title was meant to inspire conversation about sustainability, but I’ll borrow it here as a means of generating some more creative thinking about work — how and where (and why) we do it.

Adjustable desks, foldout benches and louvered shades have their place but, to paraphrase Shedroff, furniture is not the problem. Just as with climate change, there is an overwhelming tendency to tackle serious challenges with consumer goods. But in the same way that bamboo floors, hybrid SUVs and eco-couture haven’t done much to curb carbon emissions, designing (and buying) more stuff for offices, no matter how sleek or sustainable it is, likely won’t help reset the culture of work.

Eamon O’Kane

Design itself is the problem because it is being used to solve the wrong ones — despite its best intentions. The designer’s “toolkit,” to throw in a term much overused in the industry, has to expand beyond noodling with the cubicle. I’m willing to bet that almost any office worker would happily swap Webcam lighting that won’t make you look, when you’re on Skype, like you’ve “been out partying all night” (as Steelcase’s head of design explained in Fast Company), for solutions to more pressing work issues like, I don’t know, burnout or fear of losing health coverage.”

Excerpted from the Wall Street Journal. Full Text Here:

Building a Thinking Room

By Jonah Lehrer

“…Recently, scientists have begun to focus on how architecture and design can influence our moods, thoughts and health. They’ve discovered that everything—from the quality of a view to the height of a ceiling, from the wall color to the furniture—shapes how we think.

Recently, for example, researchers at Ohio State University and the National Institute of Mental Health tracked 60 white-collar workers at a government facility in the central U.S. Some had been randomly assigned to an old office building, with low ceilings and loud air-conditioners. The rest got to work in a recently renovated space filled with skylights and open cubicles.

For the next 17 months, the scientists tracked various metrics of emotional well-being, such as heart-rate variability and levels of stress hormone. They discovered that people working in the older building were significantly more stressed, even when they weren’t at work. The scientists said the effect was big enough to be a potential risk factor for heart disease.

But spaces can also help us to become more creative and attentive. In 2009, psychologists at the University of British Columbia studied how the color of a background—say, the shade of an interior wall—affects performance on a variety of mental tasks. They tested 600 subjects when surrounded by red, blue or neutral colors—in both real and virtual environments.

The differences were striking. Test-takers in the red environments, were much better at skills that required accuracy and attention to detail, such as catching spelling mistakes or keeping random numbers in short-term memory.


Millenium Images

Though people in the blue group performed worse on short-term memory tasks, they did far better on tasks requiring some imagination, such as coming up with creative uses for a brick or designing a children’s toy. In fact, subjects in the blue environment generated twice as many “creative outputs” as subjects in the red one.

Why? According to the scientists, the color blue automatically triggers associations with openness and sky, while red makes us think of danger and stop signs. (Such associations are culturally mediated, of course; Chinese, for instance, tend to associate red with prosperity and good luck.)

It’s not just color. A similar effect seems to hold for any light, airy space. In 2006, Joan Meyers-Levy, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota’s school of management, studied the relationship between ceiling height and thinking style. She demonstrated that, when people are in a high-ceilinged room, they’re significantly better at seeing the connections between seemingly unrelated subjects. In one experiment, undergraduates came up with nearly 25% more connections between different sports, such as chess and basketball, when sitting in a loft-like space than in a room with an 8-foot ceiling. Instead of focusing on particulars, they were better able to zoom out and see what various things had in common.”


  1. flutura says:

    I love our high ceilings and big windows in our office and I have noticed that since I moved from an interior office with little light and no windows to an outside office with a large window I am happier in general, but sometimes more distracted.

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