When Cubism Meets The Cubicle

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted August 01, 2001
by Chris Sandlund

Last spring the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a curious exhibition. The museum did not showcase the masterworks of Picasso, Jackson Pollack, Kandinsky or one of the other modern greats that regularly graces its halls. Instead, it focused on such names as IBM, Steelcase, Apple, and Herman Miller. The museum's Workspheres show explored the everyday design of the way businesses work today.

Local art wags scoffed that the show was a "flea market" for major manufacturers. Yet there's little doubt that the big names are striving to design products that have both substance and style, due in large part to Apple's August 1998 introduction of the iMac. After the curvy, colored computers started rolling into stores, matching peripherals and accessories began appearing overnight. Epson came out with a line of printers to match iMac's blueberry tinge.

Suddenly, design is paramount in the workplace. After shaping corporate offices for half a century, stylish looks are now in demand at law offices and small retail outlets alike. You don't have to go far either; it's as close as the neighborhood CompUSA.

IBM, Compaq, and Sony are just some of the other firms overthrowing the tyranny of the beige box. The IBM NetVista X40 even crunches the box altogether, integrating the computer into a flat-panel display's base. Sony's Vaio line has shown that Apple's luminescent computers aren't the only ones winning converts with color.

Still, when it comes time to shell out hard-earned cash, are businesses really going to pay for something just because it's pretty? They might. Two factors drive a move to high style: The desire to extend brands and retain employees.

Put On Your Best Face
Adding attractive computers to desktops is one thing, but many businesses are going even further. According to Rob Swartz, a principal in the Seattle office of the architecture firm NBBJ, many firms are now placing greater emphasis on creating workplaces that are well-designed from floor to ceiling -- and not just in terms of the hardware on display.

Part of the reason is economics. Until recently, tenants were able to insist that a landlord shoulder a significant portion of any office reconfiguration. How many businesses really cared to challenge a landlord's aesthetics when they weren't footing the bill? Low vacancy rates have put the landlord back in control, and tenants now pick up more of the tab. Swartz says they are being very careful about how they spend their money.

"Landlords are trying to get more return on their real-estate investment," he says. One way to do that is to make sure they create an outstanding workspace. PC manufacturers are betting that, if businesses are willing to spring for a whole new workplace, they'll deck the cubicles with new hardware, too.

"Branding is applicable to every face that you present to the public," says Jay Philomena, the outgoing vice president of the International Interior Design Association and a senior vice president in the Boston office of design firm GHK. "Organizations are spending more energy, time, and resources on permeating that branding concept even deeper into their spaces."

Big companies have known this for years; that's why their corporate headquarters are so impressive. Now, small businesses are getting in on the act. Greystone Communications Inc., in North Hollywood, Calif., is a 75-employee video production firm that has created more than 350 hours of programming for cable stalwarts A&E and the History Channel in the past six years. Greystone hired the Los Angeles office of HLW International LLP to design its new 21,000-square-foot space.

"We wanted to avoid a receptionist area that looked like a dentist's office and a main working area like a DMV," says Rick Brookwell, Greystone's chief financial officer and a partner of the firm. HLW didn't disappoint its client.

"When you walk through the space, you'll see screens and keyboards," says Brookwell. The cabling for the network runs through tracks in the ceiling. The architects created an open space with 14.5-foot ceilings and 12- by 12-foot carrels for the employees. Dramatic canvas sails hang over each carrel, dampening sound to give employees some privacy in an open work environment that encourages cooperation. HLW tucked the computers into the design.

"It's probably the most extravagant thing that we've done," he says, "but it helps sell. It helps create enthusiasm among the employees. It's a great working space, and it looks cool."

New Slaves To Fashion
Still, the computer remains a stumbling block to a well-integrated office design. The main problem is that form ranks a distinct second to function, even at those companies that value a stylish space.

"You can carry things a little too far," says Gerry Byrne, who oversaw a move to a newly designed office when he took over as CEO of the 70-employee Stagebill LLC a year ago. Functionality is the most important thing. After all, Byrne says, "We're not in the showroom business."

Postworks Inc., a 17-employee Grand Rapids, Mich., video post-production firm, usually uses all Apple computers to edit its corporate training films, but co-owner Ralph Vankuiken didn't scrap his older Power Macs for a uniform look of G3s and G4s when the company designed its new office space. The old machines still managed to do the work, and that was what mattered most.

Part of the difficulty is that computer technology changes insistently. Every few years, you're buying new machines for your employees and shuffling the old boxes around. At least beige boxes are uniformly ugly; with the recent advent of high style among PC manufacturers, the old machines will rarely look anything like the newer ones.

Contrast that with furniture manufacturers that continue a line of fabric for 20 years to satisfy customers that have standardized on a particular look. Computer manufacturers have changed their look as frequently as Madonna has changed her dye job. The hardware folks say they're working on it.

"We've been trying to consolidate the product line to a cohesive appearance across an entire range," says Randall Martin, director of Compaq's corporate access design center. "New products now look like those from one to two years ago."

So, a few years from now, you'll be able to look out over the cubicles in a Compaq-only office and see a cohesive vision of PCs. In the interim, designers of new PCs and office space design experts are trying to make computers look less ugly. The problem, as David Hill, director of design for the personal computing division of IBM, puts it: "The typical back of a computer looks like the bowels of a battleship."

"You don't want to see the backs of all those monitors," agrees Louise Harpman, a partner at Specht Harpman, a New York architecture practice that has created custom space for small businesses. The firm's designs tend to control the placement of monitors so they don't clash with the rest of the office's look. More troublesome than a monitor is the cable clutter, a problem exacerbated by combining a network with an open office floorplan. Ethernet wires can run every which way. Many companies take Greystone's approach of leaving their employees' monitors on the desks while shoving the minitowers under the desks. The network cables run in specially designed tracks between the carrels, hiding their identity.

Although some people envision wireless networking cutting down on the clutter, Swartz sees a more practical problem when he designs around technology. "You still need power," he says. "Electricity isn't wireless yet."

Brand New
When Byrne took over Stagebill, he and its investors wanted to position the New York publishing firm for growth. Top of his list was a more efficient and attractive space. "It's all about the people with whom we do business," he says. "When you're selling and marketing, [you want to] create a positive impression in the market." With its mix of flat-panel displays and traditional monitors in a smartly laid-out office, Stagebill has a space that woos customers.

It's an approach that Postworks Inc., understands. Vankuiken oversaw a committee of employees that helped create a new office space. They took a standard suburban office and ripped out the drywall and drop ceilings. Now the company's animators and graphic artists can scoot on their chairs through the open office to collaborate with one another.

"It's suburban renewal, rather than urban renewal," Vankuiken says. The office's aesthetics have had the desired effect on clients, who frequently visit Postworks' offices to work on projects. "It's a space where the minute you come in the door, you know that you are someplace different," he says. "You know where you are."

Not surprisingly, firms that are involved with design, marketing, or entertainment aren't the only ones who recognize style's power. "Clearly, if you go into a small architecture firm or design-related firm, the meter on design will be pegged," says IBM's Hill, "but you're starting to see that spill over into businesses where you wouldn't have in the past."

People Powered
A major reason that non-design-related small businesses are sprucing up their workspaces is the ongoing war to retain employees. That caused a major rethinking of Potemkin Village Designs, where a glamorous waiting area fronts a squalid cube-ville.

"Employees want to know that just as much attention is paid to their immediate workspace," says Lynn Foster, a principal at CSO Architects, Engineers, and Interiors in Indianapolis. "A well-designed office environment can have both inspiring public areas and an inspiring work area. Many firms are developing office environments to attract and retain good employees in a tight labor market," she says.

A well-designed space also has an ancillary benefit. "People work better in a space that looks better," says Lorrie Mack, author of Calm Working Spaces (HarperCollins, 2000). She notes that this is becoming increasingly important. "With more open plan offices, more care needs to be taken," she says. "It's harder for people to work in it." Lighting can also be a problem. In creating a dynamic design for a Manhattan animation firm, Harpman spent a lot of time making sure that the lighting didn't create glare on the monitors that her clients used daily.

Fortunately, many small firms are finding ways to work around these issues. Swartz notes that more firms are adding a space to blow off steam or relax, say, a lounge where employees can decompress while a computer chugs along re-rendering an image or re-sorting a database. At Postworks, employees can escape from prying ears by taking private calls in a "phone booth": a small office with a door, desk, phone, and chair.

Ultimately, you want to know how to measure payback for this effort. Bernd Schmitt, the director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership at the Columbia Business School and author of Experiential Marketing (The Free Press, 1999), cites increased creativity. Furniture manufacturer Haworth's director of design Ken Krayer suggests employee retention. Greystone's Brookwell points to an equally important result. "We've had an increase in productivity," he says.

That may be the ultimate payoff. As GHK's Philomena says, "No matter how beautiful a space is, it's not beautiful if it doesn't work for the people who work in it."

The Cost Of Beauty
Stylish computers that complement your nicely designed office? Here are some representative prices for some of the most attractive computers out there.

NetVista X40
IBM Corp.
888-746-7426
www.ibm.com
$1,770

1GHz Pentium III
64MB SDRAM
20GB Ultra ATA drive
10/100BASE-T Ethernet
Microsoft Windows Millennium Edition
Graphite, Flower Power, or Blue Dalmatian iMac

Apple Computer Inc.
800-692-7753
www.apple.com
$1,500

600MHz PowerPC G3
128MB SDRAM
40GB Ultra ATA drive
10/100BASE-T Ethernet
Mac OS 9.1

iPAQ Desktop
Compaq Computer Corp.
800-282-6672www.cmpaq.com
$900

866MHz Pentium III
128MB SDRAM
10GB Ultra ATA drive
Microsoft Windows 2000 or NT

VAIO R505 SuperSlim Pro
Sony Corp.
800-595-8246www.sonystyle.com
$2,900

850 MHz Pentium III
128MB SDRAM
Microsoft Windows 2000

Titanium PowerBook G4
Apple Computer Inc.
$2,600

400 MHz PowerPC G4
128 MB SDRAM
MAC OS X
portable

Michael White about the presence of flat-screen technology in stylish offices and the senior partner of HLW International's Los Angeles office will tell you more than half of his clients have them -- on their notebooks.

Companies today often provide their employees with notebooks so they can work from home or on the road as easily as in their offices. That's having a tremendous impact on workspace design.

"It used to be assumed that people put their heads down and did their work," says GHK's Jay Philomena. "But today's workforces are much more involved with the need to get together throughout the project. We have to design teaming areas of all sizes so people can get together and share information."

Notebooks usually tag along to these meetings, which is why they may also increase the desire for wireless networks, says IBM's David Hill. Wireless, in turn, will affect office design. "You'll see the furniture become simpler," he says. "You don't need a cable raceway if you don't have any cables."

New York architect Louise Harpman says the move to notebooks is turning certain laptops into status symbols. "What's changing that is the Sony Vaio and the Apple notebooks," she says. "People are tooling around with their notebooks."

But then again, would you expect designers to forgo fashion when they adopt notebooks?

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