In the 1950s, a large part of America’s labor force transitioned from factories to offices. This new generation of “pencil pushers” was doomed to work in offices where desks were laid out in a grid formation, closely packed together like soldiers in a formation. There was no privacy and no aesthetic — the arrangement was purely pragmatic. Pack ’em in and let ’em work.
When a man named Bob Propst signed on with furniture maker Herman Miller, Inc. in 1958, his goal was to change this sad state of affairs. Propst had spent time among these mind-numbing rows of desks while working at an aviation company, and he wanted to turn his expertise toward creating a better workplace.
“Here were large numbers of intelligent people working on complex tasks, acres of them hunched over their desks trying to create.”
- Bob Propst, describing the typical workplace of the 1950s
Propst began his quest by interviewing hundreds of workers and managers from different industries to better understand their needs and wants. He consulted with psychologists, doctors, architects, and mathematicians to make sure he was on the right track with his designs. In other words, he wanted to make sure his answer to the modernized workplace was the right answer.
The ultimate result of this effort was launched in 1968: the complete Action Office. A modular, easily-customized solution, the Action Office system was called “the world’s first open-plan office of reconfigurable components.”
One of the complete units looked almost like a corner desk with sides extending out at angles. Backed with dividers, the units allowed for both privacy and open collaboration. There was plenty of space, and room for both sitting and standing desks. Propst’s reinvention of the workplace was more about furniture, though. There was an entire methodology that went along with his designs.
The intent was for many of these units to be spread throughout the workplace in varied configurations. Some would allow for more privacy, some would be grouped together to facilitate teamwork. Workers could move around the office throughout the day depending on the task at hand and their mood. Employees were also encouraged to personalize their own workspaces, while potted plants and colorful accent walls broke up the monotony of the office.
If all of this sounds remarkably like the “modern, cool offices” that you’d find at a company like Google, you’re right on the money — but keep reading.
Propst’s Action Office took off throughout the 60s and 70s. It was a huge hit, bringing in over $25 million within the first two years of its debut.
Then in the 1980s, something terrible happened.
The Digital Boom was in full swing, and office space was at a premium. Bean counters decided that they needed to fit more people into less space, and so the “highly-configurable” Action Office was reconfigured into that awful thing now known as a cubicle.
Workers were once again crammed into grids of desks, this time with dividers between them and their nearest neighbor. The only good things to come from this were, of course, the movie “Office Space” and countless Dilbert cartoons.
The Action Office was amazing, but when it was stripped of its humanity and its fate dictated by a spreadsheet, it became a terrible, lifeless shell of what it was intended to be. The workers suffered. Their productivity suffered.
This is often referred to as “optimizing”.
An Interesting Pattern Emerges...
When Victor Gruen set out to design the world’s first shopping mall, he wanted it to have an idealized, downtown shopping feel. His early designs incorporated ample public space, gardens, outdoor cafes, apartments, townhouses, and even hiking trails.
Shortly after the opening of the world’s first enclosed shopping mall, Southdale Center, Gruen very loudly and very publicly turned against his own creation.
Why the change of heart? It was largely due to optimization. Again, the bean counters stepped in and decided that every square foot of the mall’s property should generate revenue. Public spaces were all but removed entirely, and aesthetics were sacrificed to pack as many tenants as possible into the centers.
Mall builders like Melvin Simon and Edward J. DeBartolo stripped the humanity from Gruen’s concept and turned them into unsightly, crowded commerce machines.
Now, one could easily argue that in this case, optimization worked, but the current state of affairs would disagree. Those big, ugly malls did move a lot of merchandise, but their hold over us was toppled within roughly 50 years of their first arrival. Their short lifespan is a testament to their lack of actual efficacy — they began as a novelty, then existed for a few more decades as a grudging convenience for holiday shopping.
As soon as better options came along, we were all happy to let the shopping mall die. That’s not what I would call “optimal”.
These Things Come Full Circle
Both Propst’s Action Office and Gruen’s shopping mall serve as examples of an interesting pattern that I see any time something with a human element (which is nearly everything) is “optimized”:
- Brilliant Idea
- Optimize Brilliant Idea
- Ruin It
- Go Back to Original Brilliant Idea
Just take a look at how the above examples played out (and a few others):
The Action Office
The concept of open, pleasing work spaces like those at Google isn’t new. It just seems new because people came along and “optimized” the humanity out of Propst’s original designs. Optimization set the American workplace back fifty years.
The Shopping Mall
You see all those awesome town center developments popping up around you? Nice town houses, upscale restaurants, parks, lakes, and shops all in one place? That’s not a new idea. Gruen designed it in the 50s, and the powers that be “optimized” it into that horrendous, ten-acre pile of concrete that’s decaying down the block. Optimization set American retail development back fifty years.
Search engines were meant to connect people with information that they needed on the internet, but people figured out that they could optimize their websites to trick the search engines into giving them better placement. The result was thousands of websites that looked like trash and had keywords blasted (or cloaked) all over the page because they were “optimized” for a search engine, not for you and me. Take out the human element, and the humans suffer.
Thankfully, Google got wise to this and changed the game, forcing web developers to create actual content and provide value to users — what websites were supposed to do in the first place.
In an effort to optimize our understanding of the way humans manage resources, researchers have long perceived the economy through a lens of mathematics and logic — two decidedly non-human things.
Recently though, more economists are starting to realize that when you strip away the human element of an entirely human-driven system, the data kind of sucks. This is why behavioral economics — which is more interested in the flawed, non-mathematical ways that people act — is gaining popularity.
I have to chuckle whenever I see a modern marketing guru lay the smack talk on old-school advertising pros (like the fictional Don Draper).
“Haha! All you did was come up with taglines! I have metrics and graphs! Look at all this MATH I have! Hundreds of people opened my last email!”
Optimization is killing the discipline of marketing because optimizing doesn’t make it better, it just makes it easier to create, faster to deploy, and more widespread. This is why you see so much of it — and most of it is absolutely terrible.
The Double-Edged Sword of Optimization
Let me go ahead and say that not all optimization is bad. We all want to be our best selves, and that requires a bit of tuning and tweaking.
The danger comes when we try to optimize something the wrong way. I often describe this as “dehumanizing”, because in many cases the wrong way means leaving out the human factors in the equation.
Human beings are bigger than formulae. We are better (and far more complicated) than math. As such, we should always think twice before trying to fit ourselves into spreadsheets.