The Art of Looking Busy

Seeing just enough of your coworkers is the key to effective collaboration.

walker art center

Design studio offices, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2006. Photo by Greg Beckel.


Can chiffon drapes be a productivity tool? At the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, private offices for curators and administrators are shielded by glass and shrouded behind translucent curtains in cupcake colors such as lavender, periwinkle, goldenrod, and red. “The drapes are made from inexpensive chiffon–like a prom dress,” says Andrew Blauvelt, who is a curator at the Walker as well as the museum’s director of design. Blauvelt designed the curtain scheme and chose the open plan furnishings, working with architects HGA and Herzog & de Meuron, who designed the interiors.

“In another part of the building, we tried installing bands of frosted film,” explains Blauvelt, “The problem was, people would bend down to look under the bands to see if anyone was in the office.” Not cool–like peering under the door of a toilet stall to see if it’s occupied. The chiffon curtains allow visibility, but not too much (again, like a prom dress). The office interior is visible through the chiffon when it’s viewed head on. Viewed from an angle, the ripple-fold curtains become opaque.

I recently toured the offices at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, a place legendary for its people-friendly facilities. The Google complex provides workers with many places to gather informally. Designers and engineers could meet, say, in a space-age couch shaped like a giant donut, or in a playroom equipped with Legos and homemade building toys. As at the Walker, some Google offices have glass walls, but instead of curtains, they are tinted deep yellow. Perhaps this design provides too much visibility–some workers have taped up large pieces of paper, shielding from view expanses of yellow glass.


Research conducted by Herman Miller, Inc., the modern furniture company based in Zeeland, Michigan, has shown that workers have more social interactions when their workspaces are visible to each other and linked along a central path rather than organized as a maze of small enclosures. Although collaboration is a key to innovation, not all social exchanges are useful or creative. In Japan, most white-collar workers share office space with supervisors and colleagues, an arrangement said to encourage conformity. On the hit comedy The Office, workers endlessly interact but rarely get anything done, spending most of their time teasing and tormenting each other to distraction. A pink chiffon curtain between Jim and Dwight might be just what the doctor ordered.

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
Browse blogs by other Expert Designers


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.


About the author

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 (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist.


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