Archive for Sunday, September 2, 2001

Dilbert’ creator unveils dream cubicle

September 2, 2001


The lament of the cubicle dweller is among the most familiar sad songs in the corporate jukebox. You know the refrain: No privacy, no comfort, no secure place to stash your lunch. And no way to know when the boss is coming around with that critical assignment at 4:45 p.m.

Now, along comes Scott Adams, creator of the "Dilbert" comic strip and one of America's most perceptive commentators on office culture. He recently enlisted the high-concept design firm IDEO to help him develop a dream cubicle scenic, safe, womb-like.

In short, a cubicle even Wally could love.

At IDEO's San Francisco offices last week, Adams and IDEO officials introduced "Dilbert's Ultimate Cubicle," furnished with simple modular compartments and a handful of technological innovations that will, among other things, alert employees to approaching bosses and even rid the cubicle of guests who overstay their welcomes.

But consider the 8-by-8-by-8 foot fortress-like enclosure to be somewhere between a prototype and a piece of conceptual art. There are no plans to rush the Dilbert model into production.

"We couched it in terms of basic human needs," said Adams, a soft-spoken 43-year-old, as he gleefully made himself at home in the new space.

"For sleep, there's the hammock. For eating, there's the storage cooler, so people don't steal your food. And for your need to be loved, there is the cubicle that is glad to see you."

That would be the electronically wired "wilting" pink Gerber daisy that perks up whenever Adams or the actual cubicle dweller enters the area. The digitally enabled daisy returns to its wilting state when the occupant leaves.

Said Fred Dust, IDEO project manager: "Clients are always telling us: 'We don't want Dilbertville.' Well, if we can solve the problem for Scott, we can solve it for anyone. It's exactly the kind of project we love here."

A fresh look

It's exactly the kind of environmental design project the Palo Alto, Calif. firm has been developing alongside its more celebrated line of eye-catching gadgets, which includes the Apple Computer mouse, the Palm V handheld computer and Nike sunglasses.

While other groups within IDEO have branched out to designing environments ranging from hospital triage centers to Amtrak cars, Dilbert's work space is the most whimsical project, by far.

Adams said the original concept was inspired by legions of Dilbert fans who have offered suggestions for such a space since 1989. The project addresses a number of long-standing design challenges, both serious and semi-serious:

How do you sleep inside your cubicle overnight without being discovered? Solution: a snap-on hammock.

How do you obey the company's "clean desk" policy, and still find a place to stash your knick-knacks and other belongings? Solution: modular storage space built into the walls and floors, including an underground lunch cooler.

Designers thought ahead.

"One of the most important things we do is put ourselves in the shoes of the user," said Roshi Givechi, the project's interactions designer.

Office-visit limits

Among Adams' hot-button issues: avoidance behavior, disempowerment, privacy and vulnerability, and a desire for control over one's environment.

The design highlight of Dilbert's lair is the floral patterned "guest" chair. Sitting in the chair sets off a timer that activates the worker's phone 30 seconds after his or her "guest" has sat down for a chat.

"That's plenty of time for someone to visit," said Adams, who answered the ringing phone with this gracious exit-line to his imaginary visitor: "Hey, I better take this call."

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