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Creatives and cubicles do not mix well. We tend to have a negative view of the cube and how it affects our collaboration and creative thinking. Yet, this type of office setting was the norm for decades until the 1990s. How did the office embrace the cubicle as the standard for so long? If we examine the history of the cube, we will actually see an example of a design for collaborative and creative workspaces.

Inventing the cubicle

Robert Propst, a designer for Herman Miller, wanted to liberate how people worked. The cubicle was actually a response to the hierarchical layout of open offices in the 1960s. Imagine rows and rows of desks for the works and a few offices for the executives.

Propst studied offices from around the country and reflected on how he worked to develop the concept called the “Action Office.” The prototype had a huge desk, space for making phone calls, vertical filing system, and dividers for privacy. Workers could also adjust the height of the desk to increase blood flow. He believed that productivity would rise if people could see their work spread out in front of them.

Work as the new family

Why was productivity so important? The number of people working in offices had been rising for decades. People were moving from the farm and other family owned business to larger companies. The prevailing belief among corporations was that they wanted their employees to be totally devoted to their work. The key would be for the company to transfer the feeling of a family run business to the office.

Large corporations like IBM started marketing their culture to be more like a family than the traditional office hierarchy. They were eager to transform the space into something that communicated a flatter, close-knit hierarchy in a family-run business. Concepts like the “Action Office” would encourage productivity as well as collaboration in a socially fluid atmosphere.

Creative spaces and rising above cubicles

What happened to this design? After its release in 1968, only a few firms ordered the “Action Office.” According to Herman Miller’s chief marketing officer at the time, Joe Schwartz, “nothing happened,” and it flopped.

Most companies in the United States saw it as too expensive, and corporate leadership did not see the value in sacrificing expensive office space for the high concepts that the “Action Office” proposed.

As a result, most companies did not use the “Action Office” as Robert Propst intended. It was successful in spawning multiple imitations. Eventually, the copies of Propst’s design became a tool to divide the office and maximize the number of workers in one space. The decades that followed showed that adopters of the cubicle ignored Propst’s vision of a flexible workspace. The office became more cramped and impersonal.

The cubicle was not originally designed to oppress its occupants. Over time, the demands of budgetary constraints and the mindset of conservative leadership ignored Propst’s vision. They used the concept to create cube farms that creatives rebelled against for more flexible space.

Read about how the history of cubicles and open offices.

Interested in more posts on bringing creativity into work? Check these posts.

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Matt Eng

Matt Eng

DesignOps Manager. Based in Austin,TX. Worked with clients such as Alcatel-Lucent, Ogilvy, RBC, Deloitte, Whirlpool, Polycom, Symantec, and Pebble. Matt teaches, mentors, and speaks about design, creativity, and fostering stronger connections within teams.