March 2, 2021
At the 1983 International Design Conference in Aspen, Steve Jobs delivered a speech addressing the theme of the conference; The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be. In it he set out his thoughts on new technology, intuitive design, personal computing as well as the need for a constantly evolving idea of what the future will look like, including the future of work.
This was a few months before the launch of the first Apple Macintosh but the philosophy and intent are all there. Describing the new user interface on this new generation of desktop computers, Jobs said: “The main thing in our design is that we have to make things intuitively obvious. People know how to deal with a desktop intuitively. If you walk into an office, there are papers on the desk. The one on the top is the most important. People know how to switch priority. Part of the reason we model our computers on metaphors like the desktop is that we can leverage this experience people already have.”
What Jobs was addressing in his talk was how the adoption of new tools and new ways of doing things depends as much on aesthetic and interface design as it did technology. Apple products had to be familiar to people from their past interactions with the physical world and other tools, even if that consisted of just a pen and paper. The technical term for this, and one that has become synonymous with Apple is skeuomorphic design.
Skeuomorphic is a term most often used to describe the design of interfaces that draw on a cultural association or the experiences of users. Some of the most well-known examples include the recycle bin icon on desktops, the floppy disk icon to save Word documents and the envelope symbol for email. The principle draws on these experiences to indicate functionality and endure long after the original tool has become obsolete. People who have never used or seen a floppy disk know that its image stands for the save function.
Jobs believed computers should be so simple to use that a complete novice could master them based on instinct and familiarity alone. Over time, Apple has gradually discarded its original reliance on such ideas as users have grown accustomed to the new interfaces. Like technology, skeuomorphic design feeds on itself as it evolves.
Digital publications may mimic the page turning and gestures from printed publications but this can invert over time, as anybody who has ever seen that old footage of a toddler trying to get a magazine to behave like an iPad knows. The child’s idea of what is intuitive is not shared by her parents.
Job’s insight is backed by the science. In his seminal 1988 book The Design of Everyday Things, the cognitive scientist Donald Norman suggests that the way we interact with objects and our surroundings is determined primarily by their design. He bases this conclusion on the fact that people are a constant and it is the design of the things they use that determines how well those things work.
People can learn how to use things differently and better, but without an underlying intuitive approach to design, the product will fail to some degree or other. Norman concludes therefore that the designer should focus their attention on the interaction between people and the design of objects and surroundings, just as Jobs argued.
This principle becomes more relevant with each passing day, as the number of interactions we have with designed objects increases. This is most obvious with regard to our interactions with technology, but it is also apparent across our entire lives, including in the office, its layout and the products with which it is furnished.
We have neither the time nor inclination to learn how to use something, when a better design would make it immediately obvious
So, we should find our interactions with design to be immediate and coherent. This expectation has now extended to our surroundings as well as discreet objects and technology. We have neither the time nor inclination to learn how to use something, when a better design would make it immediately obvious.
In terms of workplace design, the greater use of shared and public space means this not only includes the design of specific items of furniture but also the overall design of the workplace. If we want people to move to the space best suited to their needs, then the workplace must make the purpose and functioning of its elements obvious to them. In other words, it must behave more like one of their favourite devices, and its individual spaces more like an app.
Perhaps the most striking development in the world of work in recent years is the expectation of choice. An idea that has been developing for a quarter of a century is crystallising around the principle that people should be free to choose where, when and how to work and with whom. The return to work following lockdown makes this more important than ever.
Since 2014, all employees in the UK have had a legal right to request flexible working. Even before the pandemic the majority of employers offered some form of flexible working. Those numbers will inevitably increase and a lot more people will be taking up the opportunity.
One of the commonly held narratives about this development is that these people will work from home permanently and full time instead of a traditional office in the wake of the pandemic. This is the future of work, we are told. The reality is that rather than a switch from one fixed place of work to another, the majority of people will have some degree of choice and many still opt to work from an office for a significant part of the week and a number of reasons, far from the least of which are a sense of belonging the ability to interact with colleagues.
This is driving a fundamental change in the way people use the physical workplace. When they see it as one of a number of options of where to work, it must compete with many of the characteristics of its alternatives. The intuitive design of the workplace must reflect the same skeuomorphic principles that define the design of so much technology by tapping into the cultural and learned experiences and expectations of the individual.
Image: A depiction of the year 2000 created by French artist Jean Marc Cote as one of a series of postcards in the late 19th Century and curated by Isaac Asimov in his 1986 book Futuredays.
Mark is the publisher of Workplace Insight and IN Magazine. He has worked in the office design and management sector for over twenty five years as a journalist, marketing professional, editor and consultant.