Super Special Magic Pixie Dust

JohnMcNeece-AlistairFletcherWay back in 1979 when I was a mere 14 years old, my father (On the left) an Interior Designer urged me to gain early experience of the real world, by working in his commercial studio during the school summer holidays. For two months in ‘79 I worked a five-day week as an apprentice Interior Designer (More a tea boy initially). I did the same thing in the summer of 1980 and 1981. In 1982 at 17 following completion of my ‘Ordinary’ and ‘Higher’ grade exams (Glasgow, Scotland). I was ushered into working full time as a junior Interior Designer in my fathers rapidly growing studio.

I worked a 40-hour week as a junior and attended day release classes at the ‘Glasgow School of Art’ Interior Design department, where both my father and mother studied in the 1950’s. During this period through ‘82- ‘83 I was released every Thursday to study Design with the 2nd year students. Also during the winter of ‘82 I attended evening classes in life drawing at ‘The Glasgow School of Art’. So by 1984 when I began four years full time study of Interior Design at ‘The Glasgow College of Building & Printing’ I had in a very real sense already been working commercially over a five-year period. It’s staggering when I think back on it. I was only 19. Whilst still at college I even worked in my fathers Glasgow studio in the summer of ’85 and his London studio in the summer of ’86.

Adrian-Watercolour-1982-cropI mustn’t omit one other aspect to my early work experience. In 1979 my father had a professionally specified darkroom built in the attic of our house for his business. So as a hobby I took up photography, and discovered an aptitude and life-long love. It wasn’t long before my old man would bring me three or four rolls of processed film home from the office two or three times a week. I would work from around 6pm to midnight in the darkroom and develop shots of surveys, drawings and completed interiors. I got £3 per film processed and 10p for every 10 x 8 print produced. I have great memories of listening to the John Peel show on Radio 1, in the dark save for an amber safelight. Ah… ‘The Cocteau Twins’, and ‘Song to the Siren’, he sighs… I digress. I was required to keep hourly time sheets as my time was being charged out to clients. I clocked up over 3,500 hours of lab processing time in the evenings and weekends between ‘79 – ‘82. A hobby that paid for the many great gigs I saw at the Glasgow Apollo and Edinburgh Playhouse. I still haven’t outdone 1982 for sheer number of concert attendances.

My four years full time study included drawing & painting, graphics, photography, colour theory, materials, perspective drawing, design history, construction, detailing, project programming, scheduling and specification. I began practicing in 1988, initially at my fathers’ studio at Oxford Circus in London and then with the likes of HOK Architects, Swanke Hayden Connell Architects, Pringle Brandon, Morgan Lovell and Geyer Design in Melbourne. In the early nineties I even worked for a couple of years in the design department of two furniture manufacturers, where I collaborated in the development of a new range of systems furniture.

During all my years of experience I have been privileged to work with some great people on some fascinating, and award winning office interior projects. There have been millions of square feet of offices over the years, and thousands of occupier/stakeholders in every conceivable market sector both in the UK and internationally.

Not withstanding my creative background, and training, my growing specialism was revealing itself in brief development and in working closely with office occupiers to determine their occupancy strategy. It seems like a small and arguably tedious aspect of the whole design process, as it was neither creative per se nor part of the design/drawing package production process. Although I have produced my fair share of plans, elevations, sections, and details over the years, and put together very effective design schemes.

Coincidentally It’s been 25 years since I mastered the use of Autocad for drawing. Self taught as a necessity over many late nights, when all the other designers in the studio had downed pens and gone home. My colleagues didn’t believe it would ever take off, and that drawings would always be produced with a clutch pencil on a drawing board. I believe it was ‘Release 9’ and it required two computer screens to operate, and a working knowledge of MS DOS. This was in the days before the use of the ‘mouse’ with ‘Windows 3.0’. Tempest Fugit.

GlaxoSmithKline-1Perhaps brief development is tedious by comparison to drawing and materials specification, but not to me. I loved the engagement with clients, the teasing out of salient data, the revealing anecdotes and office politics. The development of my design vocabulary by engaging with so many people on a daily basis. Whether one on one interviews or managing workshops for larger groups. Being gregarious and inquisitive helped. Gaining access to every corner of a business from the below stairs support staff hidden in the utilitarian basements, to the light bathed executives in quiet seclusion on the top floor. It seemed like a microcosm of society itself. It was an object lesson in the historical inequality in the workplace. The proverbial Taylorist vision of managed efficiency permeated every single office I came into contact with through the late eighties and early nineties. Accountants, Bankers, Engineers, Lawyers or Civil Servants, the list is long. Staff grades determined space allocation and proximity to daylight. It was all mapped out in the company hierarchy chart pinned to the walls in executive offices. Grim, but that’s how it was. Them were the rules, so to speak. Sharing, networking and creativity were like another language, and not a practical one at that.

During the nineties the big occupancy question for many businesses was whether to go open plan or remain in cellular offices. Inevitably a compromise was reached and typically about 70-80% of what were lovingly called ‘End Users’ were given an open plan ‘L’ shaped desk and clustered uniformly for space efficiency. The ‘L’ shaped desking configuration accommodated their unfeasibly huge cathode ray ‘VDU’ (Visual Display Units). Computer screens to you and I.

Most of the larger projects at this time were as a result of long leases coming to an end after 20 – 25 years (Halcyon days for landlords & developers). So these occupiers had sometimes been working in the same antiquated way in cellular offices since the late 60’s and early 70’s. As an aside, in 1982 I had attended one of the UK’s first training courses at Herman Miller in Tottenham Court Road on how to plan with ‘Action Office’ (AO). It involved a 0.35 ‘Rotring’ pen and an orange plastic 1:20 scale stencil, and a steady hand. ‘AO’ was the first reconfigurable modular desking system for creating open plan cubicles. Its forerunner was designed in the USA as far back as 1964. Although in the early nineties Herman Miller were promoting ‘Ethospace’. Open plan working in the UK was still a radical idea during the whole of the eighties and early nineties. It’s still a radical concept if you’re a law firm in 2013. Cough cough!

By way of context, we mustn’t forget that networked computing was still in its infancy in 1993/4 and even the mobile phone was a novelty to which many just aspired. The electric interweb was still dismissed as a nerdy fad for techie geeks, who salivated at the next release of ‘Netscape’ or ‘Mosaic’. Microsoft finally came to the Internet party very late with ‘Explorer’, their first web browser packaged into ‘Windows 95’. By the late nineties most office workers in medium and large businesses were now universally operating with networked computers and those who needed them were issued with mobile phones. Very few individuals had personal Internet access in the workplace until around 1997. Also a good flat screen monitor was around £1,000+ so were not generally available on most desktops until the early noughties. Consequently individual workspaces were still typically composed of a deep corner ‘VDU’ desk in open plan.

Merrill Lynch-1There were a number of factors that drove the exponential increase in open plan working in the late nineties, and none of them involved making life more comfortable or humanising, and lets not forget the telling language here, for the ‘End User’. Deep open plan floorplates were cheaper to build and fitout, and it was increasingly important to incorporate raised flooring and structured cabling. The more modular the space planning the easier it was to plug into power, data and comms. Equally as the ‘churn’ of the workforce increased to meet the rapidly changing needs of the business it was far easier and cheaper for FM’s to move people rather than their workstations. The age of the universal planning module was upon us.

If only the workspaces allocated for individuals tied in with the modularity of the building architecture and infrastructure? Tada! A sea of desks uninterrupted by walls or even columns. It was relatively cheap, efficient and easy to manage from a facilities perspective. One size fits all too. Factory farming in the modern workplace. What’s that I hear you say? What about the people? Oh! Well let’s throw in a few proverbial ‘Breakout Spaces’. The name says it all. Not very imaginative.

By the year 2001 (A Space Oddity) we have an occupancy model for offices that incorporates rectilinear wave form or bench desks in open plan, networked flat screens and desk clusters of 4, 6 or 8 with ancillary accommodation for ‘Breakout spaces’ with coffee and soft seating. Mmm comfy!

Asset-MgmtHowever, their remain six critical strategic drivers of design and planning in the modern office which plug into long term real estate strategy:

  • Growth
  • Flexibility
  • Costs
  • Sustainability
  • Productivity
  • Wellbeing

These drivers have contributed to the bubbling undercurrent of debate in the design and occupier community since the late nineties. Not least perhaps a recognition that people are not machines, and function far more effectively when given autonomy and freedom, as well as space and light. It’s undeniable that high speed connectivity and instant communications, as well as the insidious influence of the 2008 banking crisis have changed our view of work and permanence.

I’ll not go into any detail in this particular post about ‘Flexible Working’, or it’s numerous bizarre name changes over the last 15+ years. Consultants and occupiers have attempted to reinvent the same idea by giving it their own name. By all means call it ‘Agile Working’ if it makes you feel better, but pay attention because mark my words it’ll be called something else next year. Whatever it’s called, when the dust settles it’ll eventually just be called working. It first appeared in the mid nineties. I started conducting client workshops for major occupiers to examine ‘Flexible Working’ using my own interactive graphical tools as far back as 1998. The difficulty then as it is now, is to identify suitable candidates and then determine the ratio of specific accommodation needs to actual employees. However the largest hurdle is gaining trust and ‘Buy-In’ to the idea. It’s no wonder!

I still find it shocking that an occupancy concept that was first created to engender cross working, creativity and empowered autonomy, is normally examined by project sponsors as a real estate cost reduction strategy. Either because of a lack of space or to minimize space requirements in new builds or relocations. There is a considered balance to be struck between ‘Flexible Working’ and benefit to the organisation. The benefit ought to be measured in improvements to productivity and wellbeing due to changes in working processes, but it is all too often measured in net space savings. Reason being it’s easier, and more straightforward to put a figure to property than it is to improvements in morale and consequently productivity or creativity. The ‘measurement’ of wellbeing remains a challenge. As does the use of the word ‘measurement’ where people are concerned. However, we need starting points or benchmarks and we need to recognise variations and changes in order to say something has happened. Dare I say it’s a scientific necessity in order to arrive at a non scientific aesthetic. Effective workplace design needs data as well as emotive anecdotes.

Whats next? Global social networking came out of nowhere in 2003 with ‘Myspace’ and more significantly in 2004 with ‘Facebook’. ‘Twitter’ followed in 2006 and Apple provided the tipping point access device with the release of the first iPhone in 2007, and the first iPad in 2010. Then notably the first high speed 4G wireless network in 2012. Everything you were required to do at your desk or at the office, was now able to be done anywhere at anytime on a device in the palm of your hand. Oops! What does that mean for office design and the much-maligned cynicism I read about the ‘Workplace Consultant’?

Some would have you believe that connectivity and social networking through sexy tech devices marks the end of the office. Some would say it will radically change how the office looks and functions. Insert mental image of beanbags and orgasmatron cubicle. Many of you will have heard of the hilarious review by Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times of Googles new offices in London. It’s a hoot! Some say a notable differentiator in the workplace is behavioural psychology and whether you are a particular personality type, an introvert or extrovert. Carl Jung would maybe disapprove of his words being used to be so definitive in this context. They were after all merely pointers and language to communicate concepts in a psychoanalysis setting. Maybe the office is just a place for collaboration and face-to-face socialising. Perhaps future work will be done in so called ‘3rd Spaces’. Give me strength! Seriously, ‘3rd Spaces’? What is that anyway? A bus stop, a launderette, the local park?

The office is the place where you will always enjoy work with your colleagues. Whether you’re a ‘Gen X’, ‘Gen Y’ or ‘Millennial’, or perhaps one of 20+ so called personality types of various ages. The office is a resource, and it has a cost and a corresponding benefit. We will all still be subject to market forces and we’ll do whatever we have to do to keep our businesses functioning profitably. There is no buzzword defined panacea or miracle technology to make it future proof.

As long as we remain a sociable species we will do our best work together. In a business context, I would contend that social networking is no more than a distraction, and does not connect us, it separates us. It’s currently a broadcast marketing tool that benefits the few not the many. Not withstanding how you may have linked to this blog. The irony of my point is not lost on me. Once in a while we should also come down to earth and remember, that at the end of the day we’re all just monkeys in suits. (Excluding Fridays)

Super Special Magic Pixie Dust is the only alternative to hard earned experience in this business and we all know there is a range of seminars you can attend to pick up your supply. Equally you’ll find a great deal of the stuff in 140 character snippets on Twitter. It may seem like half baked marketing bullshit, but it’s not, it’s actually Super Special Magic Pixie Dust and without a lifetimes experience in workplace design you’ll need loads of it to make yourself look like you know what your talking about. Especially if your in Design & Build, IT, or Furniture marketing.

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