Seeing and Being Seen

Whether it’s home-based or a third place, it’s all about being visible in your workspace.

julia lupton

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
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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