Decoding Design

Hip offices: creative centers or 'corporate kindergartens'?

Hip offices: creative centers or 'corporate kindergartens'?

Posting in Architecture

With open-plan seating, brightly hued walls, slides, and bean bag chairs, today's "cool" workplaces symbolize innovation. Or are they generic and manipulative, and belittling of creativity?

In a clever commentary published by Architectural Record, the magazine's web editor, William Hanley, pokes fun at hip, contemporary offices--and raises some important cultural and even philosophical questions related to workplace design.

Invoking TV shows as varied as Portlandia and Mad Men, in which office style is as much a character as the protagonists, Hanley writes

"While contemporary workers may regularly watch Mad Men episodes, in which professionals of another era wear dresses and flannel suits to Miesian glass towers, they are likely to be viewing them while wearing hooded sweatshirts at offices that owe more to playgrounds and dorm rooms than boardrooms."

Hanley cites the offices of tech giant Google, with its slides and game rooms, or ad agency Wieden + Kennedy and its bleachers, as well as more generic design cues of the 2000s and even into the early 2010s: beanbag chairs, brightly hued walls, and places to park bicycles and skateboards ostentatiously to signify eternal youth.

But these details aren't listed by Hanley in the typical context of awe, of admiration for their "coolness." Instead, he argues, they can be read as signs of a sense of childishness with a dash of sinister-ness, as if these once iconoclastic offices, meant to convey that they are bastions of "creativity," are becoming quite generic and even exploitative. That's in terms of seducing workers to work all the time by disguising work as play. From banks to real estate developers, this style of workplace, once the domain of the creative industries, is quickly becoming the norm. Even worse, as Hanley writes, such childish environments might "belittle" creativity by infantilizing it.

Yes, it is somewhat funny that kooky, playroom-like offices are just plain unoriginal these days. But I'm not sure that the lifestyle (or is it workstyle?) they inspire, characterized by days that are somehow both all-work and all-play, is such a dangerous concept. Sure, the lack of imagination is bothersome. But having a goal of integrating comfort and humor into the workplace, whether by using bright, eye-catching colors or installing recreational equipment is certainly a wise one. If you're expected to be productive all the time, as we are expected to be in our ultra-competitive, always-on era, wouldn't you rather feel like you're having fun, too, even if all you're doing is clocking in more time at the office? (Especially in a field that isn't traditionally "creative," such as banking.)

Still, it would be refreshing to see some truly creative companies, no matter what the industry, move beyond the "corporate kindergarten" design, as Hanley calls it, that has come to symbolize early 21st-century office structure and decor. After a full decade of playroom-like corporate settings, isn't it time that we grow up? Or at least graduate to elementary school? Shouldn't the truly adventurous, innovative companies of the world, along with their workplace designers, be writing the next chapter in office design by now?

Image: ekai/Flickr

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure