All those workplace trends lists that crop up at this time of year? We’ve been there before

At this time of every year, the media is just getting over its predictable annual fixation with with retrospectives and forecasts. The last few of these workplace trends pieces are now dribbling out, many of them indistinguishable and based on some very familiar tropes and assumptions. These days such things tend to be shaped into lists, because that’s how the Internet likes these things. That is all perfectly natural and we are free to make our own mind up which of these features are meaningful and which are the cookie cutter products of the permanently unimaginative. No football  pundit was ever fired for stringing together clichés rather than thinking and talking, and no marketing person has ever lost their  job for publishing a list of Ten Trends. One thing all of these lists seem to share is an assumption that many of the ideas they reflect are new. That’s understandable. Nobody wants to think that what they consider to be on trend has all been seen before. The young people currently roaming around with wedge haircuts and ripped jeans won’t thank you for telling them they are 80s throwbacks.

So it is for many of the office design trends that underpin these features. Twenty and more years ago, office design really was undergoing a complete rethink and much of this was captured in a series of books that attempted to make sense of what was unfolding. One of the best of these was undoubtedly Frank Duffy’s The New Office which is replete with ideas and language that could be transposed into 2017 with almost no trouble at all.

The reason the book works so well is firstly that Duffy understood that the major tension that drives changes in the  way we design offices is that which exists between the building, human beings and technology. The second reason is that he provides a snapshot of how this tension is being resolved with case studies, rather than theorising. Firms often find themselves unknowingly innovating in the way they use their offices because they are addressing the tensions that exist in their business in a purely practical way.

Of course, the major change in the relationship between the three key elements that make up a workplace when Duffy was writing was technological. The mid 1990s was the point at which the world was tipping from analogue to digital, from fixed to mobile and this is clearly reflected in the examples used in the book.

Michaelides and Bednash deskWhat is intriguing is just how many of the underlying ideas would still now be presented as a ‘trend’. So here we have Chiat Day’s vivid and playful New York offices from 1994 designed by Gaetano Pesce, the progenitor of all those TMT creative offices that clog up those Cool Offices lists (and possibly a lesson in what can go wrong). Here we have a firm called Michaelides and Bednash working around a single shared long table (right) that clearly announced the arrival of the bench desk that was to become the de facto default desk solution in the years that followed.

Here too is the urbanisation of space and the creation of work campuses evident in the work of Niels Torp for SAS in Stockholm (main image) and British Airways at the Waterside Building near London. We have informality and collaborative working at Sun Micro in California and Digital Equipment in Sweden. We even have an early form of coworking in the form of the aWarehouse in California in which a group of young designers came together to share space in a converted derelict warehouse.

These ideas remain constant and universal because, for all the change driven by technology, there is always one element of the workplace that remains largely unchanged and that is the people inside it. They are the reason why our forecasts of trends don’t differ as much from year to year as we may suppose.

b6fa898db0df71fde31c9407e409809a9c46f2d7This goes both for the people who occupy buildings and those who make decisions about their design. For some, such as Michaelides and Bednash, there are practical considerations such as making the most of a specific space and the creation of a collaborative shared working environment. For Chiat Day, the thinking was about the imposition of  a working culture and the rejection of a corporate aesthetic, hence why the desks (right) look more crafted than manufactured.

The underlying thinking about what makes people happy and productive and the firm look ‘cool’ remains largely unchanged and is often based on a straightforward rejection of drab corporate life. What we should have learned by now, and haven’t for the most part, is that it is possible to seek a different path to the lowest common denominators of office design, without resorting to faddism. The best informed commentators of the 1990s knew it at the time and their message still resonates today.

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