Is an open space office the best for designers? No.

“On the topic of new office spaces, is it better for creative designers, animators, motion designers etc, to sit together in open space or rather in their own separated spaces?”
Anonymous (via Quora)

Different individuals have different tolerances for different environments. Individual desires change how workspaces impact creative output. Some studies show the trends. An open office has the disadvantage of being a one size fits all solution. The premise is that managers place employees into a space of a certain design. Once they figure out the building design, won’t workers collaborate and create naturally?

Collaboration issues may perhaps be solved with new required steps and goal-setting. Everyone in the company has to have a clear expectation for the cause and effect of certain actions. How is thought rewarded and encouraged? How can we make decisions about new ideas? How do we make working together the least scary?

I have worked in a variety of shared spaces. I’ve worked in a community newspaper newsroom, a mixed-used open office, smaller 2-3 person shared spaces, and in a completely private office. The newsroom was surprisingly easy to work in. Everyone was very focused and professional, and with our tasks being very interconnected this made speaking aloud fairly easy.

The mixed-use space was the most difficult for me. I could overhear most conversations. These had little to do with my work, so I had very little reason to collaborate. It’s like being invited to a 5-day, 8-hour meeting each week. Almost all of this has little to do with my projects.

Privacy in open office plans

Some artists and designers don’t mind or even enjoy working while being connected to others. Think of the plein air, street, and caricature artists who frequently create with others watching in awe. Others work in private studios, only to reveal their work only when ready.

“Are you a concealer or a revealer?” Author Gretchen Rubin asks this question to highlight this distinction in her podcast, Happier.

Does the work of artists require more or less privacy than other types of workers? Having separated office spaces is dubbed “Architectural privacy” by psychologists. It is connected to “psychological privacy”, the feeling of control over ourselves and social interactions. This is according to a study released in 1980, before the current boom of more open spaces.

A lack of privacy is connected to decreased productivity. Employees are aware that they can be overheard. They may feel judged for their interactions. This decreases the amount of risk many will take during conversations. In a more traditional office, my personal experience was that there amount of serendipity in hallways, and running into familiar faces was casual and enjoyable.

Do we build relationships as one group or as individuals? When I had either a single-person office or a two- to three-person shared office, collaborating with members in other areas wasn’t an issue. It was easy enough to email, call, walk, or arrange meetings when they were necessary.

Employees who move from a traditional private office to an open office desk tend to be less satisfied. That’s what a detailed 2002 case study of a Canadian oil company found. They measured feelings, relationships, and performance. These employees were significantly less satisfied in all tested areas.

We all have different needs. Extroverts will be less impacted than introverts, who are more easily distracted by noise. In this experiment, reading comprehension was most significantly difficult with background distractions for introverts. Creative productivity is impacted by positive social and group contexts. Introverts are generally more sensitive to external stimulation.

Health risk with an open plan

“Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure.”
Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Noise is a factor. With five experiments, scientists demonstrated that moderate ambient noise such as a crowded coffee shop enhances creative productivity and performance. A higher level of noise reduces participants’ ability to complete creative tasks. Even at moderate noise levels, productivity decreased on tasks that required more detail-oriented work.

What about physical health? If mental health wasn’t enough of a factor, sickness was also found to be more common in open office spaces. The study compared seven office configurations and found the open office and shared desks to be the riskiest.

Case Study: Pixar

Pixar made huge efforts to balance these factors when building its office spaces. Pixar President Ed Catmull described the details in the opening section of his book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Encouraging employees to take ownership of their private spaces was one of Steve Jobs’ goals. As the company is filled with passionate artists and programmers, each decorated their workspace with their style.

“In overseeing both Disney and Pixar Animation, each studio has a unique culture.”
John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer of Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and DisneyToon Studios

The layout encourages community by having multiple lunch areas and paths that all meet in the center. Various spaces accommodate the idea of projects and require work best with different team sizes. By filling the space with large whiteboards and different furniture layouts, the entire space becomes more interactive. Large Pixar character models help break up the space and make it feel less formal.

A table provides an interesting example of the thought of each detail relating Pixar’s culture worked with their space. Again, from the book Creativity, Inc. A more traditional and good-looking table within one conference room emphasized an artificial hierarchy. With leaders sitting at the head of the table, employees were noticeably intimidated. The solution was a round table, modeled in the concept after King Arthur. This way all who attended meetings were equals.

A more blended situation combining the best of traditional and open spaces seems to be the solution. Consider embracing the company culture and individual needs. Find ways for artists to experience the privacy and avoid noise. At the same time, they found ways to encourage teamwork when needed. A review system allowed for regular discussion and health constructive criticism. Pixar built systems that have opportunities for collaborating rather than relying on the pure serendipity of a seating chart.

Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.

1 Comment

  1. Fantastic read! I was especially impressed by the depth provided on the topic, offering a perspective I hadn’t considered. Your insight adds significant value to the conversation. For future articles, it would be fascinating to explore more to dive deeper into this subject. Could you also clarify more about the topic? It caught my interest, and I’d love to understand more about it. Keep up the excellent work!

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