The effect of IT development on workplace design

Monthly Column By

To workplace Millennials – and even to some Gen Xers – the sheer scope and pace of change in this field must be a complete mystery. I on the other hand can clearly remember a much slower-paced world of manual typewriters, mechanical calculating machines and the solitary telex machine; behind which you dutifully queued to send your brief text message to a remote colleague, customer or supplier.

Drawings were produced on tracing paper or film with pencil and pen – and revisions were laboriously undertaken with eraser or blade. Copies were produced by specialist shops, which reeked of the ammonia that was used to develop dyeline prints. Over time these were replaced by large format photocopiers, which then tumbled in price to the point where they became affordable to individual companies and the print shops disappeared. Then came the era of large format printers and broadband internet; allowing drawings to be printed direct from CAD files – or for these files to be emailed directly to remote recipients.

PC-based CAD only became a reality in the 80s and truly affordable in the 90s. Fax was the mass communication medium through the 80s, being partially supplanted by dial-up connection email through the 90s – and completely superseded by it with the advent of broadband in the 00s.

All the time this was going on the hardware was becoming ever more powerful, cheaper and smaller; desktops to laptops … to tablets … to smart phones. The advent of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth completed the cycle of unfettered interconnectivity – and suddenly office staff of all disciplines could work from pretty much any location.

As I have remarked in previous articles in this series, I am far from convinced that this has resulted in better places to work. While workstation, seating and storage design has improved immeasurably, its mainstream application has lacked creativity and imagination – leading to cramped, noisy and boringly uniform spaces.

That fast-paced IT development has been hugely beneficial to the business world in terms of productivity is indisputable. It has also however hastened the transition to globalised and centralised manufacture and supply, which has brought with it a new and unique set of challenges: Over-consumption, wage deflation, trade imbalances and disputes and potentially damaging interrupted supply chain when natural disaster – such as the Corona virus – strikes.

Futurologists tell us to expect more of the same and suggest that we should, in name of ever greater efficiency, be celebrating the prospect of being entirely replaced by a bot.

In the last of this series to be published next month I will be summarising the development cycle discussed in the previous articles and perhaps offering a personal take on what I believe to be the major pitfalls that lie ahead.


About John Fogarty

John Fogarty is a recently retired Design Director in the Office Furniture sector. In a 45-year career he worked in and ran in-house design departments for a total of 6 manufacturers; the last 26 years with global storage solutions leader Bisley. As such he has been responsible for steering the design direction of furniture sold in over 50 countries worldwide. He is thus almost uniquely placed to comment on the long-term past, present and future developments of product in this sector.
View all posts by John Fogarty →