Culture is an iceberg

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An office must perform functionally, like a new kitchen or a car, but it can also have personality, M Moser’s Steve Gale muses.

We all recognise the functional and the aesthetic drivers in any design exercise. So if we can agree that an office must perform functionally, can it also have personality? If personality is like the culture in the organisation, how does design reflect a culture?

The designer’s raw material is an empty shell, a vanilla box to be transformed into a home for a business with its own unique identity, a neutral canvas waiting for meaning to be added.

Organisations usually take their culture very seriously and recognise its power, producing ‘core values’ compressed into cringingly gawky slogans, and spelt out on a prominent wall in a jaunty font. Despite the clumsy efforts, you can bet the CEO knows how important the culture is, like Louis Gerstner of IBM who said ‘Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game’.

But still we struggle to express culture in the workplace. Its influence gets crowded out by the many functional demands. Designers are asked to concentrate on the practical problems rather than the abstract ones, creating space as functional as a factory, but as charismatic as a boiled egg.

This is not a trivial point, buildings can express their personality like people, or keep it to themselves – it is a matter of choice. Either way you broadcast a message, and the effect is immediate and recognisable.

If the organisation’s values are interpreted in the design, it’s called congruence. But if a building says one thing and the culture says another, that’s presumably what psychologists would call incongruence. Better to remain silent than make a false declaration.

Just as we try to capture a corporate culture in words, we can attempt to express it in physical form.

Culture as a sort of collective psychology can be the glue which holds people together. It gives unwritten direction to employees, and demonstrates to customers what an organisation stands for. ‘It’s how we do things around here’ was the way Marvin Bower of McKinsey described it when he was in charge.

Bower nailed one critical fact – culture, being intangible, is only revealed by what people do and say. Actions are visible and we can recognise them from 20 paces, unlike the thoughts that create them, which are invisible.

…creating space as functional as a factory, but as charismatic as a boiled egg

So actions are as close as we can get to values and beliefs. This loose connection between behaviour and motivation is one of the reasons that there really isn’t a common vocabulary to describe culture. Fortunately there is a nice simple model called the ‘iceberg of culture’ that links behaviour and beliefs.

It proposes that if a culture is thought of as an iceberg then the behavioural part is above a notional water line and therefore on show to the world, while the emotional and psychological drivers reside below, where they are obscured, or at least less visible.

Although I’ve never seen an iceberg, I get it – 90% of it is out of sight.


It makes the point that we can easily see and hear what people do in fresh air and plain sight (above the water line), but it’s much harder to detect and identify the motivations driving them in the dark murky depths of the psyche (below the water line) – and they are all part of the same mechanism.

Architecture, as a type of language, should try to reflect the values and beliefs held in the watery deep. In this way design, when sympathetically executed, can attempt to represent an organisation’s culture.

In the corporate world the workplace is often deliberately anonymous, and the culture is obscured by dreary ‘office’ furniture, lighting, carpets and meeting spaces. Few people love it, but it has been studiously refined to be inoffensive.

In the constant battle to recruit and retain talent, how many organisations want their culture to be summarised as ‘inoffensive’?