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Beware of Efficiency

March 2, 2017

Open bull-pen office common in the 1960s


In the 1957, the Denver-based product inventor and sculptor, Robert Propst, contacted the Herman Miller company to discuss his latest idea: a fishbone connection system for furniture components. [1] [2] The conversation led to Propst becoming a consultant for Herman Miller, and over the next decade he led a series of studies into how people think and interact in work settings.

When in Propst become the president of Herman Miller Research Corp in 1960, he lamented over the sorry state of the modern workplace. “Today’s office is a wasteland,” he said. “It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment.” He most despised the open-bullpen offices filled with rows of desks—think “Mad Men.” They were loud with the clatter of typewriters, offered no privacy, and discouraged movement and interaction. The lucky managers, meanwhile, were sequestered away from noise and hubbub in their closed-door offices along the hallways. [3]

In 1964, Propst, in partnership with the designer George Nelson, offered his answer to the wasteland of the modern workplace: The Action Office.  Where present offices were designed to keep workers seated at their desks, Action Office was all about movement. Propst—who suffered from a bad back—felt that people should be active throughout the day. To this effect, Action Office included both a seated and standing desk. The design was colorful—think Andy Warhol painting—and unabashedly modern, featuring chrome accents and aluminum legs. [4]
 

Action Office I, 1964


Upon its release, Action Office was met with rave reviews. “Seeing these designs,” said Industrial Design magazine, “one wonders why office workers have put up with their incompatible, unproductive, uncomfortable environment for so long.” [5] The problem was that managers hated it. Action Office was felt to be too plush, too modern, and far too expensive for the common worker. Orders were few, and it was a commercial flop. Undeterred, Propst returned to the drawing board, except this time without the assistance of Nelson (and his high-minded aesthetics).

In 1967, Action Office II was born. Like its predecessor, Action Office II emphasized flexibility and movement, but with a more neutral design and cheaper materials. It featured an adjustable three-panel partition system that made it easy for workers to configure the space to their needs. Like its predecessor, Action Office II was met with critical acclaim. More importantly, it was a commercial hit. To date there have been over $5 Billion in sales, and more than 40 million employees in America alone work in one of 42 different versions of Action Office. [6]
 

Action Office II, 1968


This might all sound like a happy tale, except for one crucial twist. Propts’ original vision for Action Office II was for the three partition panels to be joined at an obtuse angle—like half of a honeycomb—providing individual privacy while promoting openness and collaboration. But at some fated moment, building planners around the world made a discovery: if they changed the partition angle from 120 to 90 degrees to make the space into a box, they could squeeze the maximum number of bodies into the smallest space. And thus was born the cubicle, the most despised and maligned feature of the modern workspace.[7]
 

 


Robert Propts set out with the noble goal of freeing the worker, but with one small change his creation became a soul-crushing trap. As was commented in an article by the essayist David Franz, the cubicle was intended to create an egalitarian and human work place, but become the most apt representation of the soullessness of modern office life. [8]

Here is the cautionary moral to the story: beware of efficiency. As a craftsman in a capitalistic world, you’ll be pressured to increase your productivity—to tweak this, optimize that, cut out unnecessary steps, whittle away at the touchy-feely—all so that you can push out a bit more work. But be careful. One day, some seemingly minor change in the pursuit of efficiency may sap all the charm and meaning from your work.

I’m not one of those purists who equates craft with SLOW hand production, nor do I see virtue in doing things in the most painful and time consuming way (thank goodness for power tools!) Still, I believe that the road to efficiency is treacherous. Somewhere along the way—and you can’t really say where for sure—you can lose the very essence to your work. On Monday you’re a craftsman, passionately engaged in building stuff your proud of, and on Tuesday you’re a zombie manning an assembly line.

So when you’re thinking of improving inefficient practices, proceed with caution. The 1913 Stanley Sweetheart block plane you use for shaving boards may provide the patience to see a plank’s grain; that cranky fixed-type printing press you fuss over may inspire your sense of words in space; your ridiculously detailed project notes may drive the evolution of your creative vision.

If you study the lives of famous craftsman, you’ll find that even the most ferociously disciplined workers employ less-than-optimal practices. The iconic furniture maker George Nakashima preferred to use fine-toothed Japanese carpentry saws (instead of the more expedient European cross-cut saws), because they resonated with his vision of working harmoniously with wood. [9] David Hockney, a painter, stage designer and photographer, who is considered to be one of the most influential British artists of the twentieth century, spent years making experimental portraits using antiquated cameras and optical tools, because it helped inform his sense of perspective. [10] And the famed director and screenplay writer Quinton Tarantino follows the superstitious ritual of writing his screenplays out in long-hand using felt-tipped pens. [11]

Whether your less-than-optimal practices connect with your vision, philosophy, instincts, or superstitions (or you just flat-out enjoy them), they’re part of what makes your work abundantly yours. Don’t be in rush to abandon them.

Six Essential Inefficiencies

As a creator striving to do important work, you should always be on the lookout for ways to be more productive. But proceed with caution if you are thinking of cutting out on any of the following:

  • Slow tasks: Automating slow manual practices can take a way the moments of mindful presence that are essential for innovation.
  • Tradition: Upgrading tools and equipment connected with your craft tradition can leave you feeling directionless and ungrounded.
  • Daydreaming: Structuring your schedule to remove idle moments (zoning out, playing ping-pong, doodling) can remove the mental down-time critical for creative problem solving.
  • Chitchat: Curtailing social interactions can result in a loss of empathy, humor, and warmth.
  • Aesthetic appreciation: Reducing the time spent observing beautiful work (industry magazines, art books, wildflowers, museums exhibits) may deplete the aesthetic sensibility that fuels your designs.
  • Flights of Fancy: If you clamp down on tangential ideas and far-flung projects, it may block the happenstance leading to your most important work.

 

References

[1] Robert Propst. D.J. De Pree: The Extraordinary Man. Herman Miller, 1978. http://www.hermanmiller.com/why/the-extraordinary-man.html

[2] Robert Propst. Herman Miller, viewed November 18, 2017. http://www.hermanmiller.com/designers/propst.html

[3] Nikil Saval. “A Brief History of the Dreaded Office Cubicle.” Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2014. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304885404579549800874319342

[4] Nikil Saval. Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Apr 22, 2014

[5] Nikil Saval. “The Cubicle You Call Hell Was Designed to Set You Free”. Wired magazine, April 23, 2014. https://www.wired.com/2014/04/how-offices-accidentally-became-hellish-cubicle-farms/

[6] Nikil Saval. “The Cubicle You Call Hell Was Designed to Set You Free”. Wired magazine, April 23, 2014. https://www.wired.com/2014/04/how-offices-accidentally-became-hellish-cubicle-farms/

[7] Ann Sloan Devlin. What Americans Build and Why: Psychological Perspectives. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

[8] Franz, D. (2008).”The moral life of cubicles: The utopian originals of Dilbert’s workspace.” The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society, winter,132–139, p.133.

[9] “The Craftsman: Fulfilling our need and nostalgia for wood.” Life Magazine, June 12, 1970.

[10] Frank Van Riper. Hockney's 'Lucid' Bomb At the Art Establishment. The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/photo/essays/vanRiper/030220.htm

[11] Iain Blair. “Tarantino says horror movies are fun.” Reuters, April 5 2007. http://www.reuters.com/article/film-tarantino-dc-idUSN2638212720070408

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