on the night after i visited microsoft's envisioning center in redmond, washington, i couldn't sleep. lying awake after a long day, i was acutely aware ofmy hotel room as a room. i could feel its shape, feel its character, feel every decision its anonymous EXPERIENCES every room, but the envisioning center had heightened those tendencies. it was as if the room was full of subliminal information. i could have sworn a dripping faucet in the bathroom was trying totell me something?
The Envisioning Center is a space on Microsoft’s corporate campus reserved for prototyping technologies before they go into widespread release. You might say it’s a rehearsal space for tomorrow’s environments, a chance to see how the wizardry being cooked up elsewhere on the Redmond campus will play in actual homes and offices. Microsoft had engaged my company, Studio O+A, to design the latest iteration of the Center and as they were showing me some of the wonders they were working on, I realized that going forward, my profession was about to get a lot more complicated. If work environments were going to be this sophisticated, this responsive to their users’ needs, designing those environments would require thinking less like an interior designer and more like a science fiction writer.
If Microsoft’s Envisioning Center has it right, the office of the future will be in more or less constant communication with the people working in it. Interactive screens and lights that know when to turn on and off are already here—but what if a wall became a desk as soon as you needed a surface to write on? What if anything you wrote on that wall appeared simultaneously on satellite walls around the globe? What if a room could read your stress level and offer you tea, offer you music, lower the lights, suggest a nap? We may or may not want such things, but the capability for them is probably coming. What that means for designers is that interiors will have not just physical properties and technological properties, but moral and social components as well. If a room can predict your behavioral intentions the way algorithms now predict your movie preferences or the word you’re trying to type, designing that room will be an exercise in social engineering.
It used to be simpler. When Verda Alexander and I started O+A in the early 1990s a designer was basically a space planner. You tallied your headcounts, calculated floor space, specified furniture, drew up your plans. Flows and hierarchies were predetermined by a hundred years of business practice. Conference rooms came in two sizes and one shape (small, large, square). Windows went to those with the biggest paychecks. Executives got the comfortable chairs. “Interior Decorator” was an active term back then, and that was the fun part—picking carpets and paint, trying different finishes on the same old surfaces.
O+A entered this field just as it was changing. I like to think we had a hand in making interior design something more than “decorating”—but it was the clients who really changed the profession. Because we were building work environments in Silicon Valley we were working with people used to questioning fundamentals. It made sense that someone neck deep in rethinking how basic communications worked or banking or media or urban transportation would take a look at his own office and ask, “Is there a way to do this better?”
Over a series of projects tailoring environments to the specific needs of specific companies, O+A developed a philosophy based on principles that seemed to apply to all these innovators. Among them were: Give people a variety of space types to work in. Let shifting moods and shifting needs find a home. Make room for leisure. Make room for serendipity. Shed as much light on the situation as possible. Give the office a story people can be part of. If you look at work environments designed over the last ten years, the best will share those qualities.
Offices designed over the next ten years will likely continue these trends toward individual empowerment and add to them the force multiplier of predictive technology. The give and-take we all know in the virtual world—Google anticipating what we’re looking for, Amazon suggesting products we might want (based on products we’ve already bought), news alerts tailored to our definition of news—all that will be moving soon into the built environment. Rooms equipped with this kind of technology, much of it “invisible,” are going to be enclaves of wish fulfillment like nothing civilization has yet offered.
It’s a huge advance in labor relations that companies now build their offices with the happiness of the employee in mind—based on the calculation that a happy employee is more productive than an unhappy one. And it’s a huge advance in interior design that the design development process now includes an extensive programming phase that encompasses not just traditional headcounts and adjacencies, but the personal preferences and work habits of the people who will use the spaces. When we get to a point where technology will make interior design a process of tailoring spaces to the personal rhythms of individual users, we will all need to activate our inner Ray Bradbury.
Up to now designers have worked with solid forms. Walls and floors, concrete, wood, stone and steel, furniture that has one shape, fabrics in fixed patterns. One consequence of the advanced technologies that are heading toward the work environment is that forms are going to become less solid, more changeable. We see it already in the enthusiasm for modular furniture systems that can be configured in different ways and for moveable walls that can change the shape and scale of a room. When the room is able to anticipate a need and change itself we will have entered a new era of design.
What are the moral ramifications? From HAL’s breakdown in 2001: A Space Odyssey almost 50 years ago to the robot rebellions in Westworld, Ex Machina and a dozen less thoughtful movies today, the potential for Artificial Intelligence to unleash a storm of unintended consequences has not been lost on sci-fi storytellers. Those movies dealt with A.I. as individual beings. The work environments being hatched at Microsoft and elsewhere today are going to be A.I. spaces. That will make every space designer the steward of an ecosystem he or she may not fully comprehend.
For the 26 years O+A has been in business I have emphasized to our designers that design inspiration comes from everywhere. I have tried to impress upon them the importance of keeping up with all corners of culture: fine art, street art, fashion, movies, music, architecture of course, politics of course, sports, advertising, product design. The modern designer must include science in that list. And maybe philosophy. And maybe ethics.
We are entering an era in space design when rooms are going to “know” who is in them. That’s going to be a challenge not just for those of us who design those rooms, but for those of us—all of us, really—who use them. Stepping into such a room is going to take some getting used to. It’s going to be a new experience for all of us to know that the walls await our command, that the furniture is primed to take new shapes as we require, that the whole space is listening… and waiting.
By the way, I finally figured out what that dripping faucet in Redmond, Washington was trying to tell me: Go to sleep!