Just an idea

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We expect to come across a lot of trends forecasting at this time of year, Mark Eltringham muses, but are things really changing as much as we commonly assume?

At this time of the year, the media tends to constipate itself with retrospectives and forecasts. These days most of them tend to be shaped into lists, because that’s how the Internet likes these things. That is all perfectly natural and we are free to make our own mind up which of these features are meaningful and which are the cookie cutter products of the permanently unimaginative. No football pundit was ever fired for stringing together clichés rather than talking and no marketing person has ever lost their job for publishing a list of Ten Trends.

One thing all of these lists seem to share is an assumption that many of the ideas they reflect are new. That’s understandable. Nobody wants to think that what they consider to be ‘on trend’ has all been seen before. The young people roaming around with wedge haircuts and ripped jeans won’t thank you for telling them they are 80’s throwbacks.

So it is for many of the office design trends that underpin these features. 20 years ago, office design really was undergoing a complete rethink and much of this was captured in a series of books that attempted to make sense of what was unfolding. One of the best of these was undoubtedly Frank Duffy’s The New Office which is replete with ideas and language that could be transposed into 2016 with no trouble at all.

‘The young people roaming around with wedge haircuts and ripped jeans won’t thank you for telling them they are 80s throwbacks.’

The reason the book works so well is firstly that Duffy understood that the major tension that drives changes in the way we design offices is that which exists between the building, human beings and technology. The second reason is that he provides a snapshot of how this tension is being resolved with case studies, rather than theorising. Firms often find themselves unknowingly innovating in the way they use their offices because they are addressing the tensions that exist in their business in a purely practical way.

Of course, the major change in the relationship between the three key elements that make up a workplace when Duffy was writing was technological. The mid-1990’s was the point at which the world was tipping from analogue to digital, from fixed to mobile and this is clearly reflected in the examples used in the book.

What is intriguing is just how many of the underlying ideas would still now be presented as a ‘trend’. So here we have Chiat Day’s vivid and playful New York offices designed by Gaetano Pesce, the progenitor of all the TMT offices that clog up those Cool Offices lists. Here we have a firm called Michaelides and Bednash working around a single shared long table that clearly announced the arrival of the bench desk that was to become the de facto default desk solution in the years
that followed.

Here too is the urbanisation of space in the work of Niels Torp for SAS in Stockholm and BA in London. We have informality and collaborative working at Sun Micro in California and Digital Equipment in Sweden. We even have an early form of co-working in the form of the aWarehouse in California in which a group of young designers came together to share space in a converted warehouse.

These ideas remain constant and universal because, for all the change driven by technology, there is always one element of the workplace that remains largely unchanged and that is the people inside it. They are the reason why our forecasts of trends don’t differ that much from year to year as we may suppose.