People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Exercise: Exploring function

Brief

This exercise will help teach, first, a way of approaching a space and thinking about it that focuses on how it was intended to be used and whether or not its design was successful, and second, translating this thought process into an image. Choose any interior space, either domestic or public, and consider it from the point of view of its function. Who uses it or will use it? What is it intended to be used for? And how many different aspects are there to that activity? You are analysing the purpose of the room/space, and the process of doing this is the same for a dining room as for a more complex large area such as a public library.

First note what you think the space ought to be doing — a short list. Then consider how well you think it succeeds. This is all before attempting photography, and it hinges on your own, personal point of view. Forming a point of view is important, because it will influence how you decide to photograph the space.

Having made your analysis, make a carefully considered photograph of the space in order to put across the way it works — or should work — for the people who use it.

Results

The space:

After much head-scratching I landed on a subject for the exercise: an area of the open-plan office that I’m currently working in that is known as “The Library”. It’s not an actual library, rather a space that people can use if they need a bit of peace and quiet. It’s just one type (albeit the most quirky one) of working space in a very modern office environment that has, in addition to the more traditional desks and meeting rooms, a variety of ‘breakout spaces’ of various sizes – single-person ‘phone boxes’ for conference calls, sofas for informal chats, and acoustically cushioned booths for more intimate conversations.

Overall purpose:

The stated purpose of “The Library” is to provide individuals (not groups) with a space to work quietly and without distraction, for example to read something, to concentrate on a particular task, or to think through a problem. It is available to anyone in the office, without prior booking; you just turn up and use it. It is laid out as a mock library, with fake bookshelves and other library paraphernalia to ‘dress’ the space in such a way that heavily emphasises its purpose.

Layout:

Its layout is dominated by a central table with 6-8 chairs around it – note however that this is specifically NOT a meeting table; there are desk-mounted dividers about 6” tall to delineate the space of each table setting. The objective here is to emulate the experience of a real library, where individuals will sit in silence and focus on their own work, even if they are elbow-to-elbow with another person – it is specifically a shared space for multiple individual use… you are NOT supposed to use The Library for meetings!

There are also two armchairs in the corners, high-backed and with exaggerated ‘wings’ to help with soundproofing. These are where one would sit to peruse a document, for example, rather than work on a laptop.

Finally, the other distinguishing feature of The Library is that, although open to the rest of the office, it has a full-width floor-length curtain, heavy and lined, to allow occupants to really cut themselves off from the rest of the office and get some proper quiet time.

Requirements shortlist:

  • Quiet (acoustically)
  • Calming (ambience)
  • Detached from main office environment (physically, visually)
  • Soft lighting
  • Clear identification of personal space
  • Comfortable

Is it successful?

An interesting question; yes, it is functionally successful for those that use it for its intended purpose. It is quiet and calm, softly lit, identifiably different to the surrounding area and promotes individual concentration with its use of furniture. The mock library stylings are an excellent visual cue to signify its intended use, so bravo to the interior designer.

However, I don’t see it being used for its intended purpose very much. It’s probably the least-used non-desk space in the office. I see what the workspace designer intended, but I fear that they over-estimated the need for such quiet contemplation. It’s almost as if people are embarrassed about being seen to be sitting quietly thinking or reading rather than *doing stuff*. I think this is an example where the real culture of the workplace is slightly at odds with the assumptions by HR of how they should work.

So in summary it is unsuccessful in as much as it under-used (rather than misused or unfit for purpose). It’s a bit of a white elephant. It wouldn’t surprise me if at some point they ripped it out and stuck in another meeting room or a few normal desks instead…

Photograph:

I took pictures of the space in use by one person, and of it empty. I thought for a while about which was a ‘truer’ description of whether the space is successful at its intended purpose. In the end I landed on depicting it empty. It’s clear from this picture what it should be used for – the layout and décor do that – but the fact that it is unoccupied tells the true story.

Library

If you really want to analyse it, there is evidence that someone has used it recently – the chair pulled out – so it’s clearly not wholly unused, just under-utilised. This is exactly the intention of my capture.

What I’ve learned

Wow, that’s the most time I’ve ever spent analysing a section of an office! Very useful though – it’s an insightful exercise to really think properly about what a space is supposed to do (or what people are supposed to do with it) as making a judgement on whether it ‘works’ or not makes a difference to how you then try to capture it in a photograph.

I found myself trying to work out how you compose a picture to make a point about the usage. I hadn’t really thought about this kind of thing before!