The Incredible Shrinking Cubicle Companies across the country are shrinking office cubicles, as concepts of workplace design are influenced by the economy and technology. Guest host Audie Cornish talks with award-winning industrial designer Douglas Ball.

The Incredible Shrinking Cubicle

The Incredible Shrinking Cubicle

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Companies across the country are shrinking office cubicles, as concepts of workplace design are influenced by the economy and technology. Guest host Audie Cornish talks with award-winning industrial designer Douglas Ball.


Now to real estate in the workplace. Our attention was drawn this past week to a report which affirmed something that many cubicle dwellers know to be true: The average office work space is shrinking. From 1994 to 2010, the average office worker lost 15 square feet of elbow room, that's according to the International Facility Management Association.

Douglas Ball is an award-winning industrial designer, and he joins us on the line from his office in Montreal to talk more about this.

Welcome, Mr. Ball.

Mr. DOUGLAS BALL (Industrial Designer, Douglas Ball Inc.): Good morning.

CORNISH: No, I understand you designed one of the first office cubicle systems back in the early 1970s. Im not sure if I should thank you or not for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: But I read that you called the experience depressing.

Mr. BALL: Well, yes. I thought we were doing the right thing. You know, we were responding to change and we were creating great flexibility. But it wasnt until I saw the very first, the very large installation of this that I started to have second doubts.

It was a very large floor. The ceiling was very low and the panels were very high. The panels were all about 72 inches high, so you couldnt look over the top and see anything.

CORNISH: What was the idea behind the cubicle in the first place? I mean was it just about saving company money or space? Or was the...

Mr. BALL: No.

CORNISH: ...employee in mind there?

Mr. BALL: You'd have to really know what was coming before this. What was before was an office environment where you had the management all sitting in nice offices around the perimeter of a building. And in the center of the space you had people working at desks, sitting in the open. They were the secretaries and clerks.

The intent of the system was to create something more democratic so that the people in the offices would possibly lose their space. And the people in the open area would gain more privacy.

CORNISH: Now, if you look at some of the more high-end offices for big companies, it seems like we're in a away going back to that - these sort of open rooms, open space floor plans.

Mr. BALL: Yeah, exactly. You're absolutely right. They are losing now everything that we were trying to give them in the early days - which was, you know, visual control over their space. They're now in an environment where there's going to be more distraction. It's going to be more difficult to get their heads down and focus on what they're doing.

CORNISH: And you're still very much on the kind of cutting-edge of office and space design. And I'd love to get your take on why you believe cubicles are getting a little smaller now. How are workplace habits changing?

Mr. BALL: Well, there's a number of reasons. The computers have been a lot smaller. For a number of years, the computer was quite a deep, very heavy, big awkward thing and computers had to be connected to each other. And you also had telephone lines that were sort of lacing everything together.

But once we started to see wireless, then there's less need to tie everything together with cables and wires, and with the advent of the flat screen and the laptop, the whole game changes. And...

CORNISH: So do you have any tips for how we, the employees, can make the most of, I guess, our dwindling space?

Mr. BALL: Ooh. Well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALL: ...a lot of employees are choosing to work from home or going to Starbucks and work there because they crave freedom to not have somebody at their elbow.

CORNISH: So essentially, if you want to deal with your lack of space, youve got to just leave the office?

Mr. BALL: Well, it's more realistic to do that.

CORNISH: Industrial designer Douglas Ball on the line from Montreal.

Douglas Ball, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BALL: I've enjoyed it very much. Thank you for having me.

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