One of the publishers with whom my company works regularly and I were discussing a feature idea for a new building recently and he rattled off a checklist of things that he didn’t want to see if at all possible – clusters of desks with low screens, open plan in a speculative business park, blue-grey carpets and so on.
The problem is, of course, that this is precisely How Most People Work and they do so because that is Just How It Is.
But why should it? We have seen a proliferation in the number of workplace design models over the past twenty years yet still the majority of people apparently work in bog-standard offices. The reason I think is habit; and habit is a powerful thing. Why else would people bother with Blackpool?
Each year some 11 million people visit this shoddy, dirty, tired, cold, outdated and depressing town. Annually, over six million people visit the planet’s most inappropriately named place and the most popular tourist attraction in Britain, Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Many of them come from the industrial Midlands, North and Scotland, as they have done since the times when factories would shut en masse so that whole regions would flock together in migratory holidays. People still do this even though the factories in have shut and many of them now work in Tesco or a call centre with 24 days holiday a year and enough money to take when they like. They do this even when they know that it’s almost certainly cheaper, warmer and nicer to go abroad. It’s not even an age thing. Blackpool swarms with young people, hen and stag parties, keeping the 3,500 hotels and guest houses (more than the whole of Portugal) in business.
So how does workplace design overcome the Blackpool Principle? How do we break the habits and raise the lowest common denominators? How do we get people to think and feel differently?
It may be important for us to make the business case, but it is also important to build the emotive case for design. Domestic design and public architecture are sold to the world as something to which we should aspire, inviting a gut instinct of dislike or one of pleasure coupled with a sense that what you have now is not enough, whatever it is. Yet how many times do you see a workplace that makes you respond at an emotional level? When was the last time you saw something that changed the way you thought and felt about the way you work?
It happens, but it doesn’t happen often enough. And until we can conjure the same sense that people get from looking at other people’s homes, the business case will be the only cold weapon we have to make our point. And numbers don’t tell the whole story, when emotion can.