The Office Cubicle

Walk into any office the past 30 years or so and suddenly you find yourself in the hedge maze from The Shining, only it’s a maze of cubes stuffed with people and hopefully, depending on where you work, there are no axe wielding men anywhere.

Office cubicles were created by Robert Propst as a way to increase productivity for employees who worked in the traditional open-bullpen style office. Propst’s thinking was that people would get more done if they had more space to spread their work out in front of them rather than stacked in an in-box. This new system was called The Action Office and it was far from the cubicle that exists today. The Action Office consisted of abundant work surfaces, display shelves and partitions which were intended to provide privacy as well as places to display works in progress. The Action Office even included varying desk levels to give employees the option of working part of the time standing up. This would help with blood flow and would give workers a chance to stretch. Imagine, a design that increased productivity and perhaps helped with morale as well? This can never come to fruition, and of course it didn’t. When it was discovered that The Action Office could be modified to cram as many workers into one space as possible, in the name of economics, Propst’s design was shrunk, and shrunk some more, until it became what we know today as a cubicle. The Action Office morphed into a terrifying cube farm.

Cubicle is a word that has become synonymous with glum. The employees that work in them, the designers who are given the unenviable task of trying to infuse some personality into a space that is devoid of any, and even the designer himself, all despise cubicles. In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, cubicles have become a part of our pop culture. The 1999 movie Office Space shows cubicle workers as disgruntled, bored, and fed up with management. When the main character of the movie is under hypnosis and proclaims that he is going to start living his lifelong dream of ‘doing nothing,’ he removes one partition from his cubicle, so that he has a view. He is eventually promoted because of his directness about the problems in the office.

One person who might be pleased about the course The Action Office took is Scott Adams. Adams is the writer and creator of the comic strip Dilbert. First published in 1989, Dilbert was originally centered around the title character and his dog, Dogbert, and took place in his home. When Adams moved Dilbert to his workplace and the world of cubicles, the cartoon became wildly popular. The cartoon has spawned several books, a computer game, and hundreds of Dilbert themed merchandise items. Doesn’t everybody know somebody who owns a Dilbert mug or someone who has a Dilbert comic about cubicles tacked up in their cubicle? Blows your mind doesn’t it?

In 2001, Scott Adams teamed up with design team IDEO to create ‘Dilbert’s Ultimate Cubicle,’ which had a lot of the same design elements that the original Action Office had, but also included details like a change in light orientation to avoid the ‘Las Vegas effect’ of not knowing what time it is, modular walls with white boards and cork boards built in, and many opportunities for customization.

Wouldn’t it be delicious irony if Dilbert, a comic that was spawned because of cubicles, actually helped eliminate them? Dilbert’s Ultimate Cubicle has been designed but it is not being mass produced. Not yet anyway.