Searching for Value in Ludicrous Ideas

The wonderful work-life world of designer/inventor Steven M. Johnson. From his days at Honda, to his musings on office life, we look at a career of daydream creation. [Republished from Design Mind magazine.]

Squirrel Cage Cubicle
click on the image for more of Steven M. Johnson's designs

A major furniture manufacturer once invited me to preview a new office system it claimed would "revolutionize" the workplace. This sneak peek entailed taking a two-leg flight to the corporate headquarters, being assigned two escorts once I arrived, and signing a stack of non-disclosure agreements. With all the Is dotted and Ts crossed, I was led into a secured room where the revolution was to be unveiled. It was ... a cubicle. It was a very nice cubicle, constructed of elegant yet durable materials, and designed to improve its user's privacy and organizational skills. But I was struck by how little it rethought‚ let alone revolutionized‚ the office paradigm.

A few years later, I found myself in another office that proclaimed to be the workplace of the future. This time, there were no cubicles or even permanent desks. Spaces and resources were assigned on an as-needed basis. I had a file cabinet in which to store my belongings overnight, and each day I had to log in at home in order to "check-in" to a desk space at the office. Here, so-called "hoteling" had become the new cubicle.

Both office solutions were functional but far from revolutionary. The basic needs of employees were considered‚ but only in a lowest-common-denominator sort of way. This made me wonder: What might be the truly revolutionary result of a more open-ended exploration of workspaces? I knew the perfect person to enlighten me--inventor and artist Steven M. Johnson.

How I first came to discover Johnson's work is a long story, but I was instantly enamored with it. His Nod Office, for example, is an ingenious piece of furniture that integrates a bed into a desk. Who among us has not wished for such a thing? He takes the idea of integration further--much further--with concepts such as Road Office ("for those wishing to catch up on work at the roadside ... or [in a] traffic tie-up," he says), the Treadmill Workstation (now that's productivity!), and any number of mobile workspaces, such as the chauffeur-driven executive suite or the Real Life Vehicle, an SUV that features rotating seats, pull-out computer stations, file cabinets, and laundry facilities.

nod office
click on the image for more of Steven M. Johnson's designs

Johnson riffs easily on workspace concepts but, as he explains, doesn't "actually think there are solutions to the present-day work-life dilemma! Not easy ones at least. It is too easy for me to satirize and lampoon the situations that might occur, and so I have provided methods for adopting a frantic compromise, a kind of Quick Office, built into walls or in the form of a cart that you move from room to room, pull down the shades, and become off-limits to the family."

Johnson, whose only art training consisted of a few classes at Yale in the 1950s, claims to have discovered his "ability" only after Roger Olmsted, editor of the Sierra Club Bulletin, asked him, in 1974, to invent recreational vehicles (RVs) that by design would satirize those that were tearing up the nation's delicate ecosystems. Olmsted asked for 16; Johnson gave him more than 100. Those RV sketches, Johnson recalls, allowed him to discover that, "The method of turning and churning and imagining new shapes and humorous contexts for those shapes--and never-before-considered combinations of those shapes--is akin to a pleasurable activity and can go on for hours. I stop only because I tire of drawing up so many ideas--my hand becomes fatigued--and not because I run out of ideas!"

For the most part, Johnson's seemingly infinite imaginings exist only on paper, save for a single pair of double-decker slippers with "headlights," which were demonstrated by Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson during a Christmas products special in the 1980s. (A product with flashlights in the shoes was later produced.)

Johnson spent most of his career as an urban planner, and then was an artist and cartoonist for myriad publications, from Road & Track to Harper's. In the 1990s, he switched gears a bit. His last full-time gig was as a senior analyst in the future trends department at Honda Research & Development, North America. He also did, for a time, try to earn money from his ideas, many of which were serialized by magazines in design-progressive countries such as Japan and Sweden, as well as by his local newspaper. But he gave up the pursuit after he found he was only making a little more than $100 a month for the effort. "Assuming [that] an idea took me three hours to think up, rough out, and draw, I was taking in around $8 per hour," he recalls. "I did not want to spend my best energies earning $8 per hour." Now retired in Southern California, he invents for the sheer pleasure of it.

He's shared some of his insights in two books. The first, What the World Needs Now: A Resource Book for Daydreamers, Frustrated Inventors, Cranks, Efficiency Experts, Utopians, Gadgeteers, Tinkerers‚ and Just About Everybody Else (1984), doubles as a sort of autobiography. The second, Public Therapy Buses, Information Specialty Bums, Solar Cook-A-Mats and Other Visions of the 21st Century (1991), explores needed innovations around environmentalism, transportation, and the human psyche. The slim volumes offer a treasure trove of imaginings that are at times fantastical and at times stunningly prescient.

Johnson's eclectic resume feels far more aligned with the working world today than the "company man" paradigm more typical of his generation. But his experience bolsters his distinctive methodology. Forget workshops, group brainstorming, Post-Its, and guiding principles: Johnson seems to have a knack for inventing stuff. His explanation for this is as eccentric as he is. For starters, he shares a birthday with a trio of‚ as he describes them‚ "creative and impish historic personalities"--satirist George Carlin‚ surrealist Salvador Dali‚ and 19th-century artist‚ illustrator, and poet Edward Lear. "Some like to attribute an unusual ability to a person's past lives, with the example that is often given being Mozart, who composed and performed music at age five‚" says Johnson. "What is unusual about my life is that there had been almost no evidence during my early years that I possessed an unusually prolific imagination."

"Unusually prolific" is an understatement. When I asked Johnson to develop some new ideas for the Work-Life issue of design mind, he responded via email: "From 6:30 to 9:30 this morning, I turned on my idea faucet (which I usually keep somewhat tightly turned off) and have 55-60 rough notes as a result. Of course, just like Blackberry's push email, my ideas keep coming out even after I have stopped generating them."

When's the last time you came up with 55 ideas ... about anything? I had to know, so I picked up the phone and asked him how he does it.

Steven M. JohnsonSteven M. Johnson: Since I have had no budget constraints (and after the mid-1990s‚ when I was paid for doing this kind of thinking, no budget at all), I have it easy. I can get stuck at the "ideate" stage and spin my tires all day. I have the luxury of never having to go from ideation to choosing. Even for me, choosing which idea to draw in finished form is somewhat random, and for every finished drawing I must have around a dozen rough ideas that simply were filed away in a folder, forgotten.

Do real designers have such a luxury to forever wallow in the ideate stage? Of course not. But someone once described to me that there was a tendency among employees to cut short the idea process‚ be content with a few ideas, and then quit thinking. But I think, "Is it the employee's fault?" The need for practicality is always implied in any work project: "My boss will get angry if I spend all day doodling."

Really, I have a native gift of drawing, which‚ when coupled with some skills in thinking imaginatively, gives me the ability to depict possible outcomes.

Allison Arieff: Clearly, you enjoy designing things, so I'm curious: Why would you not like to be recognized as a designer?

Johnson: My son Alex, a community college professor, has suggested that I am interested neither in designing products nor in making predictions. Rather, he feels I simply use my talent as a means for thinking up new, physical objects and scenes in order to accomplish what I really want to do: be a social satirist. He has a point. My admiration for designers in the "real" world is considerable, but I prefer to stay stuck trying to reinvent the entire world in my own silly way. I fear I would get bored having to design particular products for a particular niche of the buying public.

To some degree, I consider any unusual expression in a person to be the result of the wedding of strong desire, willful effort, and prolonged practice. For me, the habit of thinking up invention concepts or future scenarios came as the result of prolonged practice. It has some characteristics of an addiction. I do not necessarily wish the world was "designed" better, nor do I wish that I would be recognized as a designer. I simply developed the habit of thinking up fake or plausible or silly products after repeated practice.

Arieff: Can you tell me a bit about the R&D work you did at Honda earlier in your career?

Johnson: I joined Honda R&D in Southern California in 1995 and spent the last nine years of my salaried work life before retirement working there. I was a senior analyst in a small, four-person department whose function was to track and report on future trends. We were not studying auto industry trends, but rather social, environmental, technical, and political trends outside of, and potentially impinging on, the auto industry. We examined alternate scenarios. We sat in our cubicles and spent much of our time online and read newspapers and magazines‚ which annoyed the engineers working in nearby cubicles who felt they were doing "real" work. We were "futurists." Most car companies had a small group like ours, at least until budget cutbacks beginning in the early 2000s caused some of these departments to be closed.

As a member of Honda's trend-tracking research group, I was not tasked with thinking up car concepts, nor with designing or creating drawings of future vehicles. For that work, there was the ultra-secret design studio. It is not meant as a criticism of Honda Motors when I say that this Japan-based company had no place for, nor use for, my talent as a generalist who likes to think up new ideas. Auto companies are compartmentalized and lack a job description for Generator of Unusual Ideas.

Arieff: I wish there was an official job title of "Generator of Unusual Ideas!" You've come up with so many. Which one would you most like to see come to fruition?

Johnson: I prefer to divide my answer into two answers.

Arieff: Of course. I wouldn't have expected you to pick just one.

Johnson: For my first answer, the idea I would most like to see come to fruition is an Intercontinental Solar-Electric Highway. Designing a narrow, smooth, and gracefully rolling highway stretching from coast to coast, dedicated solely to ultralight vehicles, is for me an obvious idea, a no-brainer. I regard the current situation‚ where semi-trucks and large SUVs mix with small, ultralight and aerodynamically sleek vehicles‚ as both dangerous and foolishly counterproductive. They are an incompatible mix, analogous to incompatible land uses that I researched while working as an urban planner. There are already proposals for an intercontinental trail that could be hiked from the Atlantic to the Pacific, so there should similarly be an intercontinental highway for solar, electric, and ultralight vehicles, one that also provides a lane for bicycles. It would be a beautiful road, and very quiet ... lined with solar-powered underground buildings. Billboards would be illegal. There would be hikers' huts, youth hostels, cafes, and battery-swap services. Highway lighting would be powered by solar panels. The highway itself would take up far less space than a freeway, cost comparatively little, and foster the design and production of new, efficient electric- and solar-powered vehicles, the kind that are now in danger of being blown off the road by 18-wheel semi-trailer trucks.

And second, I would love to invent, design, and manufacture my own line of multiuse furniture. There would be a line of chairs that become desks, sofas that become showers, and sofas that become sturdy dining tables. These kinds of products intrigue and amuse me. They would fit in perfectly with the increasingly pressing issue of reduced incomes and the recent reversal of an earlier trend toward absurdly excessive residential square footage. I would love this kind of business because it would combine my interest in utility with my softness for humor and whimsy.

Arieff: So, what does innovation mean to you?

Johnson: Innovation seems to be a modern habit that cannot be halted; the entire world is on an innovation binge. It is almost a part of the modern belief system that innovation is a positive good. And in a world economic system where imitation, theft, and first-to-market are a reality, the drumbeat of innovation for purposes of beating the competition beats ever more loudly. Yet in some older traditions, for example within religious cultures, there was a negative stigma attached to innovation for innovation's sake. We see that the watchword for companies now is to "innovate." This refers not only to product design, but also to corporate management structure, supply-chain matters, and so forth. The banking industry has been innovative in creating new financial tools like hedge funds.

The U.S. population, in general, wishes bankers had been less innovative!

Arieff: I can't let you slip away without asking, What kind of "revolution" might we see if we truly enacted some of your more open-ended exploration of workspaces?

Johnson: The present "bad economy" has forced many "workspaces" to be "open-ended." The job expectations of millions of Americans have been upended, so the economic crisis can be expected to spur the design of new work environments.

Science fiction writers can readily extrapolate from the present economic earthquake that has led to the creation of a band of rootless, mobile, uneasy, ambivalent, distressed workers, to a future when the concept of "going" to work will be increasingly meaningless, and having a work "place" will seem like an old idea. There will be lots of folks "working" while they are walking, sitting, reading, or playing. They will be accustomed to interruptions and imperfect or nonexistent "working conditions" and will not think twice of answering a message or participating in a videoconference while at the gym or on the toilet. They will be unsure if they have a job--or will be between jobs‚ working part-time‚ or working freelance--and will no longer be able to define themselves as "employed" or not.

It's fun to imagine and design new workspaces [for such scenarios], including new office cubicles, but as a viable part of the office environment, the office cubicle might slowly die off. Or rather, it might begin to evolve into something else where accomplishing "work" is fitful and occasional and not the entire purpose of the cubicle.

In the future, companies might form that no longer offer their workers a paycheck. In return for their labor, workers will be offered a space with heating, air conditioning, and electricity that is enclosed by cubicle-style walls. It would include a minimally soundproofed roof, a bed, and a small refrigerator. Or restaurants might offer private, professional office suites that replace outdated dining booths. The suites would feature a slot or window in the door for receiving meals and drinks and for returning dirty meal trays. Socializing with fellow unemployed- or occasionally employed friends-of-the-moment would take place outside the enclosed office-booth, within a noisy public space.

Current companies that manufacture cubicle walls might find they need to find new uses for their product. At present, many companies that are downsizing stack and store these walls after they have fired most of their employees. The panels are useful to no one. Why not redesign them for outdoor use by the talented knowledge workers who have become homeless? At some companies that are in the midst of downsizing‚ distraught workers cling to their cubicle as if it were their home. A sturdy outdoors cubicle-style wall system, one that can be anchored in the ground and secured with a fitted roof that withstands mild rain and windstorms, might become a popular rental product. A tent city could be refashioned in a way that made residents feel like they had a job and were at the office. If their office floor were mere dirt, a specially designed office chair would be needed that had soft, oversized, off-road-style wheels.

Allison Arieff is the By Design columnist for The New York Times and a contributor to GOOD. She is the former editor of Dwell magazine. Follow her on Twitter at Twitter.com/aarieff.

Steven M. Johnson's illustrations are collected in the forthcoming book, What The World Needs Next: The Inventions and Predictions of Steven M. Johnson. See more of his work at PatentDepending.com

This article was originally published in Design Mind from frog design.

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1 Comments

  • Chris Reich

    I love this story on every level.

    First, it shows that someone who is not formally educated can do great work. Amen.

    Second, I wish that more managers would consider and then glean value from ideas rather than look for microscopic cracks. So many great ideas are missed because somebody's ego didn't want a fair idea to blossom into a good idea.

    There is a whole technique being missed with this. Slay the Devil's advocate and consider everything.

    The key word is consider. As in evaluate. As in considerate.

    Chris Reich
    www.BizPhyz.com