From Mad Men to Futurama – how office design trends have changed in the last 60 years

By 20th December 2017 July 20th, 2020 Office design trends
From Mad Men to Futurama - how office design trends have changed in the last 60 years

Ever wondered what your grandmother’s office looked like? Take a look at the fascinating evolution of the workplace (we bet you’ll be surprised).

The office space is an ever evolving environment.

Back in 1917, an office would have a room full of 20 to 30 desks, with staff tapping away on typewriters. 30 years later, that same room could probably only hold 10 to 15 people. Why? Because the nature of the workspace changed. Private offices became larger, and there was a very definite hierarchical structure to be seen… the higher your rank in the company, the larger your office.

Today, we’ve come full circle, due to the cost of office spaces, and businesses are opting for flexible, open office spaces that can accommodate as many desks as possible. You’ll find staff on all levels (from CEO to admin) seated together, with private offices fast becoming a thing of the past.

There are three main factors which drove the evolution of modern office design:

1. Advances in technology

The implementation of the “everyman” computer meant workspaces had to accommodate cables, keyboards, a mouse as well as a bulky tower and monitor. This meant that desks needed to be made larger, rooms needed to be fitted with sufficient plug points and ultimately, space needed to be cleverly designed to maximise its use.

Fast forward to the present, and we’re moving back towards the smaller desk spaces of our grandparents – as technology becomes slimmer, wireless and more advanced.

2. The cost of office space

Office space is expensive, and erecting cubicles for privacy creates an added cost (as well as wasted space). Eliminating cubicles, and opting for a more open plan, flexible workspace minimises costs and maximises the usage of space, fitting more workstations into a smaller area.

3. The impact of Millennials

Millennials entering the workforce caused a fundamental shift in office space design.

Millennials, unlike their predecessors, place importance on the look and feel of their workspace. The interview process has become a two-way process, with Millennials being highly selective about who they’d like to work for, based on a brand’s corporate culture.

They’re an extremely collaborative generation, and don’t want to work in an overly structured, corporate space. In order to attract the right talent in a very competitive market, businesses are making their offices more attractive in order to build a strong culture and identity. In modern office spaces you’ll find communal areas like gyms and games areas – which were completely unheard of in the 1940’s.

”The future workplaces are about flexibility, slides, craft beer, ping pong tables, and we’ve even seen go-karts in offices. But happy workforces are more productive too,” Ken Shuttleworth (President of the British Council for Offices) says in an interview with Commercial Real Estate, an Australian property portal.

Let’s take a trip into the past and see how office design trends have evolved over the last 100 years.

Welcome to 1917. . .

The next four decades would be spent trying to fit as many desks into an office as possible. There wasn’t much technology available at the time, so each employee only needed space for their paperwork and typewriter. From a design perspective, very little effort went into the planning of spacial flow, ergonomics, acoustics and decor. In fact, the general office seating arrangement mimicked that of a classroom, with an open plan space for all except management.

Image source: Early Office Museum (1917)

Image source: Jonathan W Strong (1927)

Image source: Morgan Lovell (1957)

1960’s to 00’s: behold, the rise of the personal computer (and cubicles)

The personal computer brought about the first major change in office design. Suddenly every single desk needed space for a computer tower, monitor, mouse and keyboard, not to mention a telephone, printer and access to plug points. During this era we also saw cubicles grow in popularity, and a movement away from the completely open plan office space.

Image source: Wall street Journal (1967)

And those walls just kept getting higher. . . During the next few decades, each staff member was placed in their own “office” with complete privacy. The size of your office or cubicle correlated to your position in the business. The C-suite were seated in enormous offices, filled with luxuries like mini-bars, libraries and private lounges, while the staff at the bottom end of the chain found themselves boxed into tiny cubicles.

Image source: Criterion Industries (1997)

2000’s to present

As we entered the 21st century, office design started breaking down the cubicle walls which were so popular during the 80’s and 90’s. Offices in the early 2000’s began opting for sleek, minimalist designs.

Spaces were moving back towards a more open plan, less private look and feel. Businesses also began placing more value on the aesthetics of the office as a whole, with more care being taken in choosing furniture and colour schemes. Technology got slimmer, more advanced and less invasive.

Image source: Retail Design Blog (2007)

Now that Millennials are rapidly becoming the largest cohort in the workplace, we’ve moved back to completely open plan office spaces. Just like our grandparents in 1917, desks are small, and take up minimal space in the office. The biggest difference is that management are joining their teams in the open plan areas. Gone are the days of the CEO being locked away in a massive private office. More and more, the leadership team (including the C-suite) is opting to sit with their staff, where they can mentor them and partake in the day to day goings on of the business.

There’s also a major focus on the interior design and aesthetics of the areas around our desks. The modern office has “chill zones” and breakaway areas where staff can work on projects privately or with small groups, as a trade-off for smaller workstations. This encourages collaboration, movement and communication.

Image source: Design Trends (2017)

Image source: Pinterest (2017)

Where is office design headed in the next 50 years?

Image source: Business Insider

We think office design will continue to become more and more open and collaborative, perhaps even saying goodbye to dedicated desks entirely. As artificial intelligence joins us in the workforce, humans will be handing over a lot of the boring day-to-day admin tasks to robots. Humans will be occupying predominantly creative and client service roles, which will require more casual, social spaces and fewer single, one man desks.

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Derek Stedman

Author Derek Stedman

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