Vital signs: Space for creativity

Vital signs: Space for creativity - In the BBC's recent Guns and Roses series about lady soldiers, one telling passage showed Sandhurst girls in their quarters. What was telling wasn't just what some of those officer cadets had done to their rooms - prett

by PETER YORK
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In the BBC's recent Guns and Roses series about lady soldiers, one telling passage showed Sandhurst girls in their quarters. What was telling wasn't just what some of those officer cadets had done to their rooms - prettied them up and personalised them - but also how their superiors viewed it. They thought 'interesting rooms' showed initiative - showed interesting people. The implication was that the Army would reward interesting decoration. The Army! Even just 20 years ago an interesting room wouldn't have got you that far; indeed for men, I suspect it would've been considered a bit girl's blousey, or worse.

It's really changed. How offices and workplaces look and feel is a big issue. The woman thing is a major factor, of course. With as many women as men in the workforce, caring about your space is immediately legitimised.

Then there's the design thing. Over the past 20 years design standards and expectations have shot up. Houses are nicer looking, more comfortable and better equipped. Shops are designed to the hilt. Everything is themed and schemed and design is part of the success-class vocabulary.

And then there's HR. HR-think and HR-speak is the very epicentre of business culture now and the working world's learning it, as it learnt marketing-speak in the '80s. And the core of the HR remit is the question of attracting and retaining the brightest and the best, the difficult, interesting, deeply empowered, fickle cohorts that, according to the mantra, are our future.

Radical initiatives in your personal space used to be a problem. They symbolised stepping out of line, getting above your station when every business expressed the class system in miniature. So battles over workspaces were profound, private and bitter, and the concerns desperately hierarchical and conventional.

Like how much space you got and how defensible it was, the floor-finishes, the size and quality of your desk - all these were finely graded rewards to status and title.

A generation of managers - men - working in large companies that operated on the Bristow system personalised their offices in the only ways they knew - with class, affinity and virility symbols that their younger peers now see as hilarious giveaways.

They displayed themselves as Big Swinging Dicks of the sporting world with big talking-point photographs of my yacht or, more modestly, a Sundridge Park golfing cup. They showed their fecundity and regular-guy status with family pictures, lovely wife, lovely children.

And they showed themselves photographed with people of high degree, from world leaders or, more parochially, me and Princess Anne at the topping-out ceremony in 1986, or me with a celebrity. Some of this stuff also served to show a bit of posh; public school or Oxbridge references as the sub-text of pictures and objects.

Another straight-arrow sort of symbolism simply showed how distinguished you were in your calling - all those certificates and memberships of guilds. And then there are cartoons. Cartoons say, ostensibly, that you can take a joke and roll with the punches. More covertly they say you're famous, a personal brand up there in the Great and Good stratosphere.

But women - and the next generation generally - have a wider design repertoire and want more than symbols. They want good design for its own sake, they want chill-out corners and sofa culture rather than Edwardian Chippendale partners' desks. It's the new world of the quick informal meeting where things get agreed and actioned in an hour.

Magazine-land pioneered a lot of this. The senior-girl count was always high, the men weren't exactly jocks and editors' offices combined chic with domestic with the title's brand positioning. Alexandra Shulman, editor of Vogue, has an office that says all those Voguey things, but subtly. Clive Aslet, at Country Life, defines the magazine's values in a capsule office built inside one of South London's most brutal '60s office towers imaginable.

There's a lot to play for now. What do you want your office space to say? How d'you want it to feel? If your atmosphere stands out, so will you. It's worth thinking through because Legend ('She was always different - you even felt better in her office') and Laughing Stock ('Those fishing pictures, you just knew he wouldn't hack it past the Millennium') are uncomfortably close.

Peter York, in his persona as Peter Wallis, is managing director of consultants SRU, e-mail: peter@sru.co.uk.

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