Fatal Design Flaw of the Workspaces

Gizmodo has a fascinating video on Vimeo showing a space that is only 350 square feet, but still a full living space. Most of these spaces have severe compromises — often no bathroom — but not this one. Every amenity is there, and the entire thing is amazingly well done.

There’s a lot of these types of spaces out there and they always interest me — to see what can be achieved in a fraction of the space of my own home. In some cases they achieve more than I have been able to in my home.

But these types of domiciles always make me think about my desk, and the surrounding work space. I like to keep the desk’s surface completely clear of anything unnecessary. That means: laptop, iPhone, iPad, pen (no paper: the pen is for signing things if people stop by my desk) and a drink.

For me this affords the clearest workspace and helps to ease my mind — not from being distracted, but from being overwhelmed with the sheer amount of stuff.

There is one constant annoyance though, and I suspect it’s the same annoyance that people in these tiny homes feel: sometimes it’s just easier and more productive to have everything out and ready to use.

I was reminded of this when watching the video and seeing him pull out the keyboard and mouse on a very nice surface for his iMac. The cleaner I keep my workstations, the more time I spend taking things out and putting them away — and I can’t be alone.

I often dream of my ideal workspace:

  • 10,000 square foot space of nothing.
  • Four foot by ten foot desk in the center, made of wood.
  • Herman Miller Embody chair.
  • Concrete floors.
  • No windows.
  • Thirty foot ceiling.
  • Spot light illuminating only my desk.
  • Just the laptop on the desk.
  • No cables in sight.

It’s a pipe dream, obviously, but I like the idea of feeling no walls near me, nor seeing the walls. The blackness surrounding me, working as a green screen for my imagination. The spot light, placed high above, giving a sense that there is no roof over me, just sky. Alone, dark, big space, oversized desk, comfortable chair. Perfect.

And then reality sets in. Where does the wifi, iPhone, iPad, backpack, TV, fridge, Scotch, bathroom, printer, cables, backup hard drives — all those things — go? If we’re creating the ideal space I shouldn’t have to go hunting for them on the other side of the room.

My desk at my office is standing height and small (24″x54”). It’s a comfortable workstation if I’m just using my Mac, but every item I add to it makes the area feel cramped. I’ve tried everything:

  • Workstation with everything out and connected, neatly in its place.
  • Only what I use out that day, neat, connected.
  • Nothing out, all tucked away, but easily connected.

The problem with each configuration is that they conflict with each other. Perhaps that’s why something like the Milk desk or the StudioDesk has always intrigued me. The storage is built in. The desk is meant to be kept clean, but the items you need are stored right there: No opening drawers under the desk to get at the one cable you use every day.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the problem isn’t stowing things away. The problem is that peripherals are only designed to be used on the desk, plugged in, ready to go.

That, I think, is why so many people love to replace everything with just an iPad. The iPad is designed to be stashed away, pulled out, and at a moment’s notice ready to work or play. Printers, labelers, microphones are not made that way. Nor are laptops. If the flaw isn’t the way my office is designed, or how I prefer my desk, maybe the flaw turns out to be the design of the products I’m using.

As I look at that small living space I notice the thought behind the design: Yes, everything has a place, but what makes the space functional — and not annoying — is that everything has been specifically designed, or chosen, for that space.

The dining room table is specifically chosen for where it’s stored and used. I wonder if this kind of design thinking is what’s missing from my workspaces. If I spent more time specifically designing the space to house my tools, would it be less of an annoyance to access and use them? Perhaps, however, I think to fully remove the annoyances requires a meeting of a specifically designed workspace with specifically designed tools.

I wonder if my perfect office really involves a laptop, or if it would be perfect with only an iPad and keyboard.

Originally posted for members on: January 21, 2013
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