I was interviewed the other day by Metropolis magazine about the new Grey Advertising headquarters in Manhattan. It’s a beautiful space, with interior graphics designed by Paula Scher (see lots of photos here at the Pentagram site). But what may be most noteworthy about the space is its openness: Since there are only a few enclosed offices, most of the agency’s work will now be done out in the great wide-open. While this is a departure for Grey—the old headquarters had lots of private offices—the fact is, many ad and design firms have been moving toward open floor plans for quite some time. This raises the question (which the Metropolis reporter asked me): Does creativity thrive in a more open work environment?
The current conventional wisdom, I think, is that open floor plans = more creativity. And that makes sense on one level: In an open environment, it’s easier for people to collaborate and to bounce ideas off one another. There’s a sense of energy and movement and flow in an open office. And of course, it’s harder for people to hide. But that last part may not be entirely good: Isn’t it the case that creative thinkers sometimes actually need a place to hide? In advertising, historically, some of the best ideas have been conceived by two people sitting in a small room together. So what happens when there is no “room” anymore? Is it possible that without the help of those old-fashioned walls and doors, we’ll have a harder time corralling and capturing ideas?
The key issue here involves focus. No one would dispute that being surrounded by buzz and human interaction can be stimulating—but there’s a fine line between stimulation and distraction. Likewise, we can all agree that “collaboration” is important (by the way, has anyone else noticed that the C-word is rapidly becoming the most overworked buzzword of the moment?), but sometimes collaboration can be a euphemism for kibitzing. When I interviewed Stefan Sagmeister, he made a great observation: Most of us today tend to spend a lot more time reacting than creating, and we do that because it’s easier. We’ll always be inclined to check our email one more time or engage in another chat with somebody if it means we can delay facing the blank page or screen. So I wonder, does an open office provide more of these handy distractions and excuses?
I don’t know what the answer is regarding open versus closed floor plans and the effect on creativity: I suspect that what may be needed is a well-designed balance between open and closed. I do know this—if you take away people’s offices and even their cubicles, you’d better at least give them a place where they can hang a picture of their dog. Because if you don’t, you’ll end up with a full-scale revolt on your hands, as I discovered when I wrote this Wired piece about California ad agency Chiat/Day and their early attempts to go to a virtual office.
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