Is that a razor in your pocket? (or are you going to design the same old stuff as last time)

Neil Usher, author of the new book The Elemental Workplace, explains what an elemental workplace means to the A&D community

Workspace is empty – it is what our industry strategises, designs, constructs and furnishes. It is what we photograph, gloriously free of unsightly monitors and cables and the assorted detritus of work and of getting there and back.

In many respects workspace is not an unsolved problem, it is just that there are an almost infinite number of valid permutations of the solution. It is all form, clean lines and considered arrangement, potential, opportunity; it is neutral, agnostic, waiting for something to happen.

Workplace is occupied – space in use. In the forming tangle of excitement, anxiety, anticipation and dread before occupation, we are primed, readied. It is what we don’t do as well, because unlike the creation of the physical, which we have mastered, we are bereft of models, structures, the means of understanding how amazing space becomes an amazing place.

It is almost impossible to say ‘placemaking’ without donning a polo-necked jumper and muttering ‘juxtaposition’ in the same breath, with an air of abstract detachment.

One day we will ditch ‘adoption’ for ‘adaptation’, but not while the workshops and training sessions of adoption remain a sidewalk revenue stream for the architecture and design (A&D) industry. There are vested interests in over-complication, when most of the outcomes are predictable, common and simple.

Were that a challenge enough we are working in various dimensions – location, each country with its regulations, codes, standards, practices formal and informal; industry sector, each with its norms and institutionalised behaviours; culture with its unwritten and often impenetrable patterns and whims; and budget, sums, flow and returns, given and taken away. Our landscape is a multidimensional game of chess. There are complex forces at play too: geopolitics, regulation, demographics, technological innovation and imbalance. Yet we misinterpret these as the need for a complex response.

While the availability of envy-inducing workspace case studies is growing, the vast majority of people still work in drab and uninspiring environments. When we escape the metro centres and the HQs, we handbrake-turn into mediocrity. The schemes we see online are the puffin on the tip of the iceberg. Even including those that have been attended to, surveys such as Leesman usually tell us that somewhere in the region of half or more of office occupants do not feel their workplace enables them to work productively. That’s the subjective productivity – no-one is measuring it, we are perceiving it. We should remember that those electing to take a survey are already well underway in thinking about change – most don’t bother with a survey, believing they have no pressing need to ask.

There is much work to do.

We are left wondering if it is possible to crack workspace across the matrix and provide some means of helping turn inanimate space into a vibrant place. That means working from an understanding of why we need a fantastic workplace, how we go about creating it and turning space into place, and what it comprises – across any sector, any location and culture, and most importantly any budget, using an approach that is simple, universal and attainable.

The Elemental Workplace, published in March of this year, seeks to do just that. Written from 25 years of occupier-side experience, managing the creation of workspace and its transformation into workplace, it creates an entirely transferable sequence of thought, and a practical structure of twelve core elements a focus on which can lead to a fantastic workplace – daylight, connectivity, space, choice, influence, control, refresh, sense, comfort, inclusion, wash and storage. It surgically removes the BS, and makes workplace accessible and understandable to the widest audience. Strangely, it is the only time it has been done.

The Elemental Workplace by Neil Usher is published in the UK and USA by LIDThe Elemental Workplace by Neil Usher is published in the UK and USA by LID

So, if workplace can be that simple, what does it mean for the A&D community? There are a number of things:

  • Ditch the fear of simplicity. There is a technique inspired by the 14th-century Franciscan Friar William of Ockham that has become known as ‘Occam’s Razor’ (no typo) which runs: when faced with a problem with multiple possible solutions, choose the one with the fewest assumptions. Simple does not mean simplistic – your design skills will be as admired for cutting through the guff as they will for making a camel out of a horse. Which is a segue to a super thought about simplicity – ‘when we hear hooves, think horse, not zebra’. Pinterest is all about zebras.
  • Embrace structure. Structure is useful. It is not an enemy of creativity, but a quiet (we might, in the language of workplace, say ‘introvert’) friend. While we like to think of the organic and iterative nature of design as the mystique we alone can navigate, the structure of the elemental workplace can ensure an essential balance, that the story can be told. Which brings us on to…….
  • Be great storytellers. Designers are often reluctant presenters – yet telling the story is as important as creating it. If it can’t be communicated, it may never be built. A&D must get much, much better at articulating design to a (usually paying) audience. The structure alluded to can help.
  • Be practical. However painful, ‘form ever follows function, and that is the law.’ It has been so since the general idea was first written about by the Roman, Vitruvius. That rules out using a host of installations and furniture that have seen far too great a presence in recent years, usually because others have used them. There may be a place for something beautiful in a scheme, but that should be its function – just that. There can never be a place for a filament lightbulb, naturally, the modern icon of lazy design.
  • Insist on a vision, and a brief. To clarify, the vision has to come before the brief, without a vision there can be no brief. To be expected to start designing without it is nuts. The industry should collectively refuse. If the vision and brief are not there, step in and start working on creating one. The Elemental Workplace offers a structure that can help direct the thinking around the vision – Frank Duffy’s effectiveness, efficiency, expression plus environment, ether and energy, that a friend kindly called ‘Neil’s Diamond’.
  • Design from the inside out. We see an increasing use of comical pictures showing ‘desire lines’ – natural pathways created irrespective of what has been built. Right-angled pathways ignored in favour of the hypotenuse across the grass, wearing a bald footway that then gives everyone permission to follow. Yet we still see design being steered by the architecture, not the flow of people and work. The dictate is people. That includes designing workspace from the inside out – starting in the locker and moving outward from there. If we design outside-in we create cages – if we design inside-out we create movement and freedom.
  • Stop filling space, just because it fits. Space planning is often an inherently sluggish discipline, the tiresome transition from sparky, bold concept to a much less interesting reality. It’s like taking a concept car painting and turning into something can ultimately be built, which means it looks like the rest. All components of workspace have conditions in relation to the others in which they will perform and conditions in which they won’t. They have to be thought through. Settings that negate one another when adjacent are a waste of at least one, probably both. Very often the most challenging parts of a design are the least interesting, yet have to be done properly. If a workplace design falls down, it’s usually to do with the arrangement.
  • Use Occam’s Razor. Cut out the jargon, the BS, the flannel, stop speaking to ourselves, the industry, and start speaking to the occupants of the spaces we create. You are not letting yourself down by taking the simple route. Simple words, because simple works.

Far from reducing the need for – or role of – A&D, an elemental workplace makes it all the more necessary and important. It’s a restatement of the importance of design excellence. It’s not a gift horse performing dressage on a silver platter though, A&D has to change too. Just like the workplace, in perpetual beta, so is the design industry. Sometimes it forgets that, and gets very cosy. Now is a perfect time to lose the slippers.

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