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Redesigning: Cubicles

Let's upgrade the corporate killjoy.

"IT JUST SUCKED the life force out of my body," says Scott Adams of his old cubicle at Pacific Bell. Luckily for him, that ennui inspired the megahit Dilbert comic strip. But for the rest of America's 40 million cube dwellers, there's little to love about the walled-in work space, whose average size has plummeted to just 75 square feet. Big-name design firms such as Knoll and Herman Miller are already working to modernize the '60s classic, adding features that emphasize comfort and collaboration. So we tapped their top minds—and chose a few of our own—to imagine a better one. After all, says James Ludwig, head of design at Steelcase, "my work space should reflect the way I work."

Plant life
Those who work near plants—and, by proxy, fresh oxygen—are more productive than those who don't, according to recent data from Washington State University. To that end, IDSA—award-winning student designers Jinsun Park and Seonkeun Park envision a cube wall with a built-in irrigation system [1], so flora can thrive without much attention.

Foldout chair
As cubicles shrink, companies like Intel are tossing out extra chairs, which inhibits collaboration. To save space—and sanity—Adams suggests adding a foldout seat [2]. As soon as it's down, he says, "a timer starts that makes your phone ring after a few minutes, so you can excuse an unwelcome guest."

Shorter walls
Shorter walls [3] make it easier to interact with colleagues, reflecting the fact that "people don't go and hide in the cubicle like they used to," says Lisa Bottom, a principal at the architecture and design firm Gensler. They also allow for more natural light, which cuts energy costs.

Noise-canceling speakers
"On days when coworkers are shouting ideas across the floor, I definitely long for an office," says Heidi Overbeck, a cube dweller at the communications firm Fenton. To create quiet, these low-profile speakers [4] automatically detect bothersome noise and emit sound waves that cancel it out.

Adjustable desk
At the touch of a button, the desk gets taller or shorter [5] to accommodate different employee heights and those who'd rather work standing up. "That saves us money," says Neil Tunmore, director of corporate services at Intel, where similar desks eliminate "the need to have people coming in and adjusting."

Media screen
Even in small spaces, "it's important to be able to interact around data and information," says Ludwig. One solution: a multipurpose media screen [6] that can connect to several laptops at once. During downtime, says Adams, it could display "a webcam of the beach, so I can feel like I'm on vacation."

Webcam lighting
To streamline digital meetings, this switch [7] instantly adjusts cubicle lighting to offset the brightness of the computer screen. That way, during Skype or WebEx calls, "I won't look like I've been out partying all night," says Ludwig.

Privacy shield
Overhead screens [8] offer "a sense of personal space" without returning to the high, stifling walls of a traditional cube, says Mark Schurman of Herman Miller, which makes a similar product. They're also instrumental in blocking sunlight that causes glare on computer screens.

Illustration by Jason Lee

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  • Halo

    Knoll and Herman Miller are not design firms. They are commercial furniture manufactrurer's. They do design the furniture they manufacturer but the are not design firms. Beautiful furniture though.

  • Richard Simpson

    Has a striking resemblance to Resolve from Herman Miller – which is not a bad thing! 
    What this article does not reflect is the need for visual and aural communication in the office - and panels inhibit this.  The question needs to be why have a cubicle in the first place?  They are space hungry and as its well stated 'suck the life out of people'!
    Macquarie Bank Shelly Street Campus, Facebook Campus and some of Microsoft site challenge the need for a dedicated desk for those who can roam.  Best part here is roaming is good for your health where cubicles support sedentary work practices.

  • Billy Barou

    The media screen and fold up seating are a nice ideas!  As for the privacy screen I already have one of those.  It's called a CubeShield.  With the speakers is there a way to block certain conversations, but amplify others (especially if my name is mentioned)?


  • Eric Brown

    You've pretty much sketched the cubicle I work in, minus the folding seat, speakers, media screen, and plants along the top of the walls (ours are in pots).  You have it even down to the shape of the cubicles and desk, the privacy shield and the small filing cabinet under the desk.  Oh, and my regular position while I talk to someone who is leaning over my wall.