Designed to Work

Resolve, a radical new office environment from Herman Miller Inc., frees knowledge workers from their isolated cubicles. The spaces, designed by Ayse Birsel and her colleagues, are eye-opening. But what makes them important are their design principles.

Kitty Corbin Teora spent a year and a half searching for office furniture as progressive as the company that she works for. When potential clients walk through the door, she wants them to realize immediately that Sempra Energy Information Solutions is different — an energy company that’s truly energetic. The young, fast-growing company manages utility bills for organizations that have hundreds or thousands of locations, looking for errors, better rates, and other savings.


“Clients are hiring us to do critical business operations, and they need to have confidence in us,” says Teora, 41, director of energy-information services. “It’s important for them to see how we work, to see our processes, and to see the people who deliver the solutions. You can’t do that in rows and rows of little boxes.”

Early last year, Teora found a way to think (and work) outside the box. Herman Miller Inc., one of the world’s largest office-furniture manufacturers, showed her a 3-D computer model of an entirely new approach to office environments that it was developing. The offices were open, but they weren’t too open. They typically cost less than traditional cubicles, but they were designed to give individuals many opportunities to express their creativity and personal identity. And everything about them said “futuristic.” In short, the new system, though radical, was everything that Teora wanted in an office. So last November, she received one of the first installations, and Sempra became a gamma site (read: guinea pig) to test colleagues’ and customers’ reactions. The first time that Teora took a potential customer on a tour, he said exactly what Teora had hoped: “Wow, this doesn’t look like any energy company we’ve ever seen.”

The folks at Herman Miller don’t call their new environment the anticubicle. (They were, after all, the ones who invented what later became the cubicle, a system dubbed the Action Office when it was introduced in the 1960s.) Instead, they call it Resolve — as in a system that’s designed to re-solve some of the most pressing challenges of work at the beginning of a new century. Forget cubicles — a once-interesting idea that went disastrously wrong. Herman Miller understands that too many cubicle-based offices resemble — and feel about as warm as — an ice tray. The uniform layout makes it virtually impossible to distinguish one business from another, one team from another. It’s all “squaresville.”


Resolve is designed to be different, to support the way more and more people now work — or how they’d like to work. Instead of muted-gray walls and severe right angles, it features lightweight, translucent screens and generous 120-degree angles. Instead of drab earth tones and an implicit culture of uniformity, it revels in bright colors and personal touches — from small flower vases attached to each workstation to “porch lights” for groups of colleagues. Those are the touches that make Resolve interesting. What makes it important are the design principles from which it was created — and what they suggest about the future of all workplaces. The Resolve environment is inspired by a manifesto of sorts: Be connected, be open, be flexible, be economical, be sustainable, be inspired, be yourself. And its design wrestles explicitly with some of the defining trade-offs of the new world of work: privacy versus community, order versus freedom, group identity versus personal expression.

Resolve won’t be widely available until June. But the reaction from test customers like Sempra, plus generous praise from the architecture and design communities, suggests that the new office system may become part of the solution to the problem with work environments today. When Herman Miller unveiled Resolve last year at NeoCon, the contract-furniture industry’s largest trade show in North America, it received the prestigious Best of Competition award, among other honors. “It’s time to set a new reference point,” says Don Goeman, 42, VP of advance projects. “We don’t want to get rid of Dilbert. We want to liberate him.”

Designed for Difference

One way to get a fresh take on an intractable problem is to call in an expert who has unimpeachable talent and credentials — but who has little or no experience in the field in question. That’s why Herman Miller called on Ayse (pronounced “eye-shay”) Birsel, 35, a highly regarded industrial designer in New York City. She had never worked in a conventional office — much less designed office furniture. Back in 1997, when the Resolve team took shape, Birsel’s modest studio in Soho was outfitted with assorted pieces from IKEA. Nothing was systematic about it. But Birsel, who heads the design firm Olive 1:1 Inc., relishes the challenge of immersing herself in new industries and rewriting old solutions: Just before working on Resolve, she designed a state-of-the-art toilet seat, complete with remote-control bidet, for a Japanese company.


How do you look at a design challenge with fresh eyes? The first step is simply to look around. Every few months, Birsel and the Resolve project team would gather in a different city to visit several companies, survey their workplaces, and develop a common view of what Resolve should become. They studied the creative space of a California-based Internet company and the endless rows of cubicles at the office of a major airline based in Minnesota.

“People in those little rectangles looked so boxed in,” Birsel says. “You couldn’t distinguish one area from another.” But she realized that there was some higher method to this drab madness. “You can work virtually anywhere, and yet you still come to the office. Why does that happen? You come to belong, to be a part of a group, to exchange ideas and information — to connect in person.”

To be connected is one of the core design principles behind Resolve, because so much of work revolves around connections — to technology, to colleagues, to customers, and to information. But connections are a tricky business. Birsel knew that she couldn’t simply design a hipper system of panels. Aside from being expensive, panels hinder more than they help. If they’re tall, they allow employees to hide. “That’s part of the cube mentality: ‘I can do what I want; no one will see me,’ ” says Teora. “Cubicles separate people and prevent them from working together. They promote isolation. You can sit next to someone who’s working on the same project as you are and never even talk to that person.”


Cubicles that have low walls are supposedly designed to encourage collaboration, but they often go too far, says Rick Duffy, 42, director of design at Herman Miller. Yes, people need to work in teams, but they also need to work on their own. Without boundaries, people lack the visual privacy that they need in order to focus; they’re constantly distracted and interrupted. “A company that has such an environment is saying that it values community space more than individual space,” Duffy says. “But people need to have a space of their own. The challenge is to create boundaries without building walls.”

Resolve’s solution? Use screens rather than walls, with narrow slits between the fabric and the poles. The openings act as portholes to adjacent workstations, offering access to colleagues as well as the benefit of privacy. It’s an intriguing effort to get beyond old either-or distinctions. “My metaphor is a screen door,” says Jim Long, 48, Herman Miller’s lead researcher on Resolve. “It offers openness but not complete openness, not total visibility.”

The idea is to manage distractions at work, yet to allow for what Long calls the “benefits of distraction.” For many of us, “distraction” has pejorative connotations, harking back to teachers who warned that distractions would inhibit good study habits. But some distractions can be positive, Long says, if they connect to something of value. “To create new value, companies today have to solve more and more complex problems,” he says. “One person working alone has to be really, really smart to solve such problems, and most people aren’t that smart. It takes people working together to arrive at solutions, and you can’t wait for a meeting to make that happen. You’ve got to do it in real time, when problems arise. And an environment shouldn’t inhibit the process. People need to be able to come together in a friendly and spirited way, so that they can feed off of that energy.”


To be sure, that’s a compelling argument for a workplace that fosters collaboration, but it also tends to trigger other questions: What about all the noise? Doesn’t “more open” really mean “more decibels”? Surprisingly, no, says Herman Miller. Test customers have actually reported that Resolve offices are quieter than traditional cubicle settings. Duffy believes that that’s because people in cubicles can’t see their colleagues. They have the illusion of privacy, so they talk freely and loudly, as if no one else were around. The open stations in Resolve, and the openings in the screens, make people more aware of their surroundings — and of their neighbors. “People modify their behavior,” says Duffy. “They lower their voices because they can see that other people are trying to work.”

The Office as Theater

The tension between the individual and the group — perhaps the central tension in offices today — has to do with noise and privacy. But there are issues of identity as well. You may be in a “group,” and the office that you work in may be a “system,” but does that mean that you must lose your identity the moment you go to work? That’s the assumption that Birsel and Duffy wanted to challenge with Resolve.

“Think about your personal computer,” says Birsel. “You control what appears on the screen: colors, backgrounds, fonts. You can help design the computer’s environment. So I wondered, ‘How can an office work more like a computer?’ ” Duffy offers a different spin on the same idea: “You shouldn’t have to give up who you are in order to get your work done.”


That’s why Resolve is filled with little touches that are meant to help different people work in different ways. Employees can raise or lower a table so that they can work seated or standing. If they use a flat-screen monitor, they can raise or lower the apparatus that holds it. The table isn’t just a place to put a keyboard; it has wheels so that employees can roll it around to complete other tasks. Work is mobile, so the office should be too: The Resolve “saddlebag” hooks right onto the table, hanging open like a mini-file cabinet; when employees leave the office, they can take it with them.

Some workstations have a curved screen that extends from the floor over the desk and connects to the center pole, sort of like a giant leaf. The screen’s wheels let workers reposition it to reduce glare on their terminal, to block an air-conditioning vent, or simply to cover their backs for privacy — all solutions to routine complaints. These adjustments may seem minor, Birsel says, but for someone who works all day at a terminal, they represent major control over the environment. And Herman Miller knows that a little more control leads to a lot less stress.

The screens enable employees to control their visual environment even further. With a digital printer, they can print images, such as names, photos, slogans, or inspirational quotes, directly onto the screen’s material. “We wanted to create something that people could feel that they owned, because when people have pride of ownership, they tend to treat things better, and they might even look forward to coming to work,” says Duffy.


By providing a blank canvas, Resolve offers a culturally transparent environment; instead of imposing a particular style, it allows the culture of an office to be reflected in the surroundings. One of the first companies to try Resolve has offices in Chicago and in Bombay, India. By using different screens, including Indian tapestries, each location can maintain its own distinct identity within the larger organization. Because the screens can be changed, the environment is flexible. The surroundings can change as quickly as the work does — with new screens for new project teams, new products, or new customers. Instead of being drab or static, the workplace becomes vibrant and dynamic.

Birsel thinks of the screens as backdrops on a stage — an appropriate metaphor for the office. “Theater has been an inspiration for me, because, like work, the theater is about performance,” she says. “In the theater, lights and sets and other ephemeral effects are used to create a certain atmosphere. You can make the same thing happen at work. The question is ‘How do you provide the set for performance in the workplace?’ ” These days, says Duffy, a lot of companies are trying to work in new ways but within the same old environment: “It’s as if they’re trying to perform ‘Rent’ on the set of ‘The Music Man.'”

The New Geometry of Work

The Resolve studio is located at Herman Miller’s Design Yard in Holland, Michigan. Inside, there are several well-appointed Resolve workstations, but the first thing that customers notice is a row of five iMacs, which are lined up near the entrance. The computers display Resolve’s different configurations. They also suggest that you’re entering the iMac of offices — an office that’s not afraid of color, new materials, or a sense of fun. It’s an environment in which people are free to sample things. They can roll up the screens, touch the fabrics, raise and lower the tables, and turn on and off the small lamps that sit atop five-foot-tall poles. What Duffy says of the iMac is equally true of Resolve: “It isn’t serious looking, but it does inspire serious work.”


“At minimum,” says Birsel, “an office should provide you with a place to plug in your equipment and to access cables. From there, you can make the space your own, to meet other needs.” So from the beginning of Resolve, Birsel was thinking outside the cubicle. Rather than starting with a line or a wall to divide space, she started with a single point — a different approach to the geometry of systems planning. That point in space became a pole used to house cables. The best way to get a pole to stand up, she determined, was to buttress it with horizontal “arms” and vertical poles that connect at 120-degree angles. The cables run overhead in troughs, making them more accessible than when they’re hidden inside conventional panels.

The 120-degree angle is critical because it replaces the boxed-in feeling of traditional systems with a sense of openness. Most cubicles, which are built at 90-degree angles, fail to accommodate computers in their design. So workers end up moving their terminals into a corner in order to create enough of a work surface. Besides forcing people into corners like disobedient children, that geometry also discourages collaboration, because two or more people can’t work comfortably at the same screen. The wider 120-degree angle opens up the workstation, says Birsel, as though someone were welcoming you with outstretched arms. The desk mirrors that angle, so the work surface follows the natural sweep of your hands to the side.

In conventional systems, the architecture of the interior often mimics the architecture of the overall space; cubicles are boxes within the larger box of the building. Resolve has no right angles, so squares or rectangles are impossible to create. The 120-degree angle feels more organic — because it is. “It’s nature’s favorite angle,” Birsel explains. The workstations are even configured in organic patterns, called “constellations,” that are named to describe each shape: full honey (as in honeycomb), robot, delta, zigzag, snowflake, lobster, grapevine.


Unlike traditional grids, Resolve’s numerous configurations provide more flexibility in floor plans, and Duffy estimates that they create about 20% more space. But he insists that the various arrangements don’t encourage greater density but instead create workstations that feel more spacious. “Our biggest challenge is probably to teach the world not to plan on a grid,” says Duffy. “Even though that’s what everybody is comfortable doing.”

Resolve also reclaims wasted space, such as the area above the four-foot-high cubicles. The overhead cable troughs connect a cluster of workstations and define small groups. A rail beneath the trough can be used to display a clock, a banner, or an electronic billboard showing company announcements, headlines, or stock prices. These landmarks help employees get oriented in a large space, in much the same way that signs do in airports, on the highway, and in grocery stores. Above individual workstations are wing-shaped canopies that further define the space and filter fluorescent light. The canopies also provide another reference point. “Think about being on a crowded beach,” says Duffy. “How can you possibly find someone unless you know that you need to look for a blue umbrella? It’s a visual cue. That’s what the canopy does.”

Another way to make people feel more comfortable at work is to make the office feel less like an office and more like home. So every Resolve workstation has a small flower vase attached to a pole. “It’s a tiny symbol of the things that we enjoy,” Birsel says. On top of some poles are porch lights, which create a residential ambience and conveniently communicate whether someone is “home.” These small details are all designed to create familiarity; the mechanism for raising the table, for example, operates the same way that the brake on a bike does.


“We created things that are similar to what you might use day in and day out because we wanted to soften the divide between work and home,” says Duffy. “You shouldn’t be jarred into feeling one way at work and another way at home. What’s going to be fun is watching people live in Resolve. They’re going to say, ‘I think I’ll hang my bike from that railing up there.’ “

What Knowledge Workers Don’t Need

Inviting people to work in new ways means that they have to be willing to stop working in the old ways. One of the major challenges for Resolve was to design spaces that reflect how people actually work, rather than how they think they work. “If you look closely at what’s happening in offices now, you see a new set of needs that the workers themselves can’t articulate,” says Long. “For years, knowledge work — the kind of work that we’re talking about — was done horizontally. It’s a tradition that dates back to monks sitting at desks, copying scripture. But that’s not how work is done now. We don’t work by looking down and writing. We work vertically, by looking up at a computer terminal.”

Yet when Long asks workers what they need, the answer is the same — more horizontal surface space. He insists that people need less of this kind of space than they might think. In his research, he constantly observed workers making piles that they rarely used. They invariably attached the most important reminders to their computer terminals using Post-it Notes. That’s why Resolve is designed to encourage vertical work. Several inches above the desk is a long tray that looks like a transparent music stand. On the other side of the desk is a screen on which employees can pin or Velcro items (another innovation: material that’s tackable, translucent, and Velcro-friendly) . There’s also a vertical file tray, a vertical storage cabinet, and a whiteboard attached to a pole.


Like the screens featuring project names or customer logos, these elements are intended for displaying work, not hiding it. “They honor the work that you do,” says Duffy. “It used to be that you hid all of your work at the end of the day and showed off all of your personal stuff — pictures and trophies. Now your work has become the thing that you want to see, a way to remember your last project.”

Resolve has eliminated another supposed “need.” Although workers often say that they need more storage, Long says that they actually don’t. “Storage is very complicated,” he says. “Why do you hang on to books that you never consult? So that you can remember that you’ve read them. When you forget that you’ve read something, you might believe that you’ve lost what you learned. It’s a cue to memory. But for all of the books that you’ve read but no longer have, how bad do you feel? These contradictions are built into us — built into our lives. Sometimes you can create products that take advantage of them, and sometimes you can’t.”

Which is why most of the people at Herman Miller don’t expect Resolve to enter the mainstream anytime soon. Early in Resolve’s development process, Long showed a prototype to 200 facility managers, it managers, architects, and designers. Most of them didn’t like it — and Long could not have been more pleased. If the feedback had been too positive, he says, that would have meant that the ideas were too ordinary. “We’re confident that we’re solving problems that people are going to face in the future,” he says. “When that becomes evident, they’ll start to understand and like Resolve.”


At Sempra, the initial reaction to Resolve was “culture shock,” says Teora. For employees accustomed to cubicles, the openness was scary. But the benefits were obvious. Because 100 Resolve workstations fit inside a space that once held 80 cubicles, several team rooms are now available for meetings. The office is quieter, yet the communication flow has improved. “People have already told me that they didn’t know half of the people who were working around them before,” she says. And the office has never been more popular with companies in the area. CitySearch Inc., Fox Kids Network, Hewlett-Packard, and Sony have all contacted Teora about taking tours.

The folks at Herman Miller shy away from pronouncing Resolve “the office of the future” — but they feel confident that the design principles on which it is based reflect the direction in which work is headed. After all, as part of his research for Resolve and other products, Long watched the future at work. He visited high schools and colleges, where he observed students sharing terminals in labs, toting laptops around campus, looking up to watch a television mounted in the corner of the classroom. Whether they’re aware of it or not, by the time these kids are ready to report for work, they’ll expect a job that has the sort of openness, collaboration, flexibility, and verticality that went into the design of Resolve.

But will they want to work there? Rick Duffy can only speak for one future worker: “The first time my 18-year-old son saw Resolve, he said, ‘Hey, I could probably work in an office like that.’ Ayse and I took that as a huge compliment.”

Chuck Salter ( , a Fast Company senior writer, is based in Baltimore. Learn more about Resolve and Herman Miller on the Web ( , or contact Rick Duffy by email
( .


About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug