Design at work

How to make the workplace more creative and fun.

Cutting-edge thinking on how to make the workplace more creative and fun

To what extent does an office environment nurture productivity? Judging from the 50,000 international participants who swarmed to Chicago last June for NeoCon, North America's largest commercial interior design show, a considerable extent. For most exhibitors ? more than 1,200 companies in 2006 ? the show is an opportunity to unveil their latest creations, and a few clear themes emerged. Despite nods to privacy, designers are still focused on concepts that encourage teamwork. Bonus points if the product has multiple uses. And Canada has a real niche in office furnishings; many of our companies and designers won Best of NeoCon awards. Canada's version of NeoCon is IIDEX/NeoCon, which ran Sept. 28-29 at Toronto's Exhibition Place. And judging from both shows, those stuck in the cube farm can take heart: there are plenty of innovative ideas out there to help rethink how we work. Here are a few of the best.

Chairs that work out

Canadian office furniture manufacturer Keilhauer's Sguig task chair definitely rose above the competition ? it won innovation awards at both NeoCon and IIDEX. This task chair doesn't just move back and forth ? it also moves sideways, and bounces. All the movement encourages the sitter to find the natural stacking of the spine, increasing blood flow and improving stability.

The Sguig is the result of seven years of research. In 1999, Keilhauer vice-president of sales and marketing Jackie Maze visited design firm EOOS in Vienna with an exercise ball. The brief? To design a chair that recreated the movement and health benefits of sitting on an exercise ball, but with the stability of a regular task chair.

According to designer Gernot Bohmann of EOOS, a group of 10 students sat in the chair for three days to test the mechanism. “Each person generated a digital profile of how they lean, recline and bounce on the chair so that we could see how far the chair could be made to move before someone fell out of it.” From that study, EOOS devised a control.

The back is a rigid spine encased in a flexible upholstered pad. “When you sit for a long period of time, you tend to become hunched over,” explains Bohmann. “Leaning back on this chair opens up your spine, so you can breathe easier. It also encourages better posture.” The chair hits the market in January 2007.

Cubicle as Cockpit

The office cubicle is clearly far from dead. Coolest cubicle idea on show: Herman Miller's My Studio Environments, designed by Douglas Ball, a Canadian industrial designer based in Montreal. My Studio won NeoCon's best of competition prize, one of its most prestigious awards. Ball was brought on in 2002 by Herman Miller. They were looking for a low-cost open-concept office cubicle product, but Ball convinced the company to opt for a cockpit-like enclosed space instead.

The design is a tight wall arrangement in wood, metal and translucent glass. It maintains the footprint of a cubicle ? six feet by eight feet ? while giving the cubicle denizen the perks of a private office. These include a door, a closet, a vertical display shelf and bookcase.

In championing the cubicle over the open office, Ball has not abandoned notions of collaboration, communication and random encounters. All of My Studio's panels are actually sliding windows. In seconds, this private office can become a very open workstation, then revert to an impenetrable cockpit when it's time to focus on individual projects. One other change Ball introduced: turning the worker to face the doorway, as opposed to burying him or her in the corner. This reduces the sense of confinement, and that sinking feeling that someone might sneak up on you.

Daylight Savings

Five years ago, the designers at Lightolier had an epiphany. Why not create ambient lighting for offices that could be made motion-sensitive to each cubicle? When employees were not at their desks, lights would snap off. Their solution was the Agili-T line of intelligent lighting systems.

According to Howard Yaphe, vice-president of engineering and manufacturing at Canlyte in Montreal, studies showed these “intelligent” systems, which can be personalized to each individual's workstation through the Internet, save up to 70% in energy costs off regular lighting systems. “It's a difference of going from needing 1.5 watts per square foot of lit space to needing 0.7 watts per square foot,” he explains.

The most recent version, Agili-T Neo, adds a new twist ? the fixtures are sensitive to daylight, adding a further energy saving of 10%. The fixture, designed and manufactured in Canada by Canlyte, won gold at IIDEX's Innovation Awards.

Form and Function

Herman Miller's LED-based light was probably the most visually striking exhibit at the Chicago show, winning the gold award for lighting. Designed by Yves Béhar, a young Swiss designer, it is a perfect example of design entirely determined by function. The shape of the funky-looking light ? sleek and curvy, like a cobra swaying to music ? is actually Béhar's method of cooling the LED (light-emitting diode) sapphire chips that emit the light. LED chips, which have long powered the displays on our cellphones and PDAs, are now hitting the home and office lighting market.

The advantage of using LED is that it is incredibly energy efficient. This light fixture will last up to 10 years, running 24 hours a day, before it begins to dim. It's 75% more efficient than an incandescent light and 40% more efficient than a compact 60-watt fluorescent bulb.

The Flexible boardroom

Nienkämper's Vox FlipTop conference table is a minimalist, storable affair that won silver at both Chicago and at IIDEX/NeoCon. According to Canadian designer Mark Müller, conference table design is changing in response to new cost considerations. As real estate expenses climb, “boardroom settings are no longer static,” he explains. Because companies can't afford to have a boardroom empty 80% of the time, they are creating multi-purpose rooms that can quickly adjust from a board meeting to a training session to a social function. Müller's challenge was to design a multi-purpose conference table that can be quickly dismantled, yet when put together, offers a “corporate and executive” look. The tabletop can be quickly and effortlessly unlocked and swivelled into position, thanks to pneumatic cylinders that create a neutral balance.