Seeing and Being Seen

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Office in the kitchen, Julia Lupton, Irvine, California

When working at home, would you rather set up camp in the quiet retreat of your bedroom or in the busy, high-traffic zone of the kitchen? It turns out that women are more likely than men to put their laptops in the kitchen. Julia Lupton (my twin sister and co-author of our book Design Your Life) is a university professor who has an active workstation in her open-plan kitchen/family room. Although it may sound counterintuitive to work in a space where four children are buzzing about, Julia's kids demand less from her when they can see where she is than when she shuts herself off behind a closed door. "It's a question of visibility," she says. "They like being able to see me and they like knowing that an adult is around. If they need quick help opening a jar of peanut butter or snapping the head off a Barbie doll, it's no big deal. If I were walled up in a private room, the distractions would be more irritating."

In the lingo of office etiquette, "prairie dogs" are people who pop up over their cubicles to see what's happening on the other side. Prairie dogging is considered bad manners over at the cubicle farm, but here at home it works well for some families. Julia likes knowing that she can peer over her computer station to see what her own prairie pups are doing. (Meanwhile, her husband, who is also a college professor, prefers the protective silence of his upstairs study. Please, leave Dad alone.)

Illustration by Ellen Lupton from Design Your Life, (St. Martin's Griffin, 2009)

Some people who work at home would rather get out of the house altogether. Writing a business plan in your pj's has its charms, but the hum of the fridge can get oppressive. The Regus Group rents temporary office space to telecommuters and business travelers. The Brooklyn Writers Space provides members with a quiet spot (but not too quiet) to work alongside other writers. For a more informal approach, just try Starbucks, which has become a temporary office for work-at-home moms, mobile executives, and self-employed bohemians alike. Libraries are another option, and some will even sell you coffee. Sociologists call these sorts of environments "third places." They are neither home nor work but someplace other. Third places are public—you can go there to see and be seen and yet maintain some level of personal autonomy.

mobile workstation
Karen Chekerdjian, temporary hotel workstation, Jordan

Autonomy is just what Karen Chekerdjian was craving when she created a mobile workstation out of wicker. This designer from Lebanon found herself living for an extended time in a hotel in Jordan. Her simple desk and chair unit—equipped with a high back and a place to stash books and papers—gave her a measure of symbolic privacy while she worked amidst the public life of the hotel lobby.

Today's most popular third places may be Facebook and Twitter. Social media offer the promise—and risk—of constant visibility. Skillfully used, social media let you share what you're thinking and doing in a relaxed, non-pushy way. Used poorly, social media are a huge open pit for killing time and an embarrassing outlet for T.M.I. Diarrhea of the keyboard, anyone?

While a growing number of workers have official telecommuting relationships with their employers, nearly everyone is doing some kind of "work" at home, whether it's bringing extra tasks back from the office or doing homework, paying bills, or pursuing freelance gigs. In tomorrow's post I'll look at how the Visibility Principle can help you keep track of what's happening on your desk.

This week, Ellen Lupton is exploring the Visibility Principle. Whether you manage a big office or run your own show from home, you can use it to enhance your productivity.

Read more of Ellen Lupton's Design Your Life blog
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Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore (MICA). An author and illustrator of numerous books, articles, and blogs on design, she is populist critic, frequent lecturer, and 2007 AIGA Gold Medalist. Now working on Cooper-Hewitt's 2010 National Design Triennial, Lupton also co-curated the museum's current sustainability exhibition, Design for a Living World. Ellen Lupton's latest book, Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things (2009), is co-authored with her twin sister, Julia; and her books Indie Publishing: How to Design and Produce Your Own Book (2008) and D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself (2006) are co-authored with her MFA students. Baltimore-based Lupton and husband Abbott Miller, a partner in the design firm Pentagram, met as students at The Cooper Union and collaborate on books, exhibitions, and their kids Jay and Ruby.

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  • Jason

    Virtual offices are not only a great alternative to working from home but they are also a great resource for the traveling worker. Working from home can be tough with all of the distractions that can occur, if you struggle with these or if you are a mobile worker looking for somewhere to get some work done other than a crowded coffee shop then check into Servcorp, They are a great company offering virtual office space in 13 cities across the U.S. and 21 cities worldwide. Check them out!

  • Manjit Syven Birk

    In 1999 I had my toddlers at home with me:

    The principle lesson I learned over the last decade, especially in terms of my kids was "grow as they grow". In these dire economic times when many people are silently and honourably struggling to make ends meet, ten years on, the strength of those relationship is summed up by being open to my kids teaching me as much about life as I am able to tell them.

    Working from home did not mean I lived in a perfect universe and present global troubles do testify that even if we got close to perfection life has its curve balls.

    Home in this form does become a vehicle to view growth in the way we engage our work, but also the growth of the people around us, who I find are best viewed as unique individuals, not potted plants that we water as parents.

    What I write here isn't a segment from some time management system or culled from observable principle, it is as spontaneous as life affords given all the constraints of systems and worldly matters that bring in challenges interlaced with the cultivation of our blessings.

    This is a personal choice and a personal responsibility and this becomes a freedom to discover, maybe there is a visibility principle contained in that but I guess that it is a good tool to trace backwards, how it is we have reached a certain way or point of existence.


  • Freddy Nager

    Ellen, I love the illustration! Do you have more like that?

    Here in Los Angeles, some friends of mine run a third place/short term office space that attracts screenwriters, designers and startups who can't afford a full lease. It's called Blankspaces (, and a community has formed around it, with great events after hours.

    As for Starbucks, I use it frequently, since it also helps feed my caffeine addiction. But as a business person, I am increasingly annoyed by the number of freeloaders who use it without buying anything (http://coolrulespronto.wordpre.... It shows there's a real need for the third place in our society, but whether it's economically viable for private enterprise remains to be seen.