What is it about this piece of furniture that bodes so ill for workplace productivity?
It seems implausible, but your conference room table—and those your firm has very likely designed for clients—could very well be bad for business. Especially, if the business in question is creativity-driven, which design firms are by definition, and which most knowledge-based organizations today are as well.
Now, don’t confuse my admonition with the general nature of meetings. I am not referring to the problems commonly associated with unsuccessful or unproductive meetings, such as their excessive length, frequency, or lack of focus. I am speaking specifically of the negative impact that one particular type of conference room table can have on the work product of those compelled to sit at them in group situations.
So what is it about this piece of furniture that bodes so ill for workplace productivity? I can best answer the question by sharing a story told by Ed Catmull, head of Pixar Animation Studios and famed computer animator, in his book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration:
For thirteen years we had a table in the large conference room at Pixar. Though it was beautiful, I grew to hate this table. It was long and skinny, like one of those things you’d see in a comedy sketch about an old wealthy couple that sits down for dinner—one person at either end, a candelabra in the middle—and has to shout to make conversation. The table had been chosen by a designer Steve Jobs liked, and it was elegant, all right—but it impeded our work.
There you have it: beautiful, long, and skinny. In other words, a rectangular table.
To the design professional, Catmull’s ire might seem initially a bit overwrought, and at odds with certain facts of life. For one thing, very few business confabs involve two people sitting at polar ends of a conference room, let alone with a candelabra in their midst. For another, a cursory survey of major players in the office furnishings industry—Herman Miller, Steelcase, Knoll, Vitra—as well as most custom design shops, shows that rectangular tables are by far and away the predominant product offering. A Google image search for conference room tables confirms the skew, with over 95 percent of the photographs containing pieces that are either pure rectangles, ellipses, or elongated forms with rounded sides or ends. Is Mr. Catmull telling us that the entire design industry has it terribly wrong?
Time to hear the rest of the story.
We’d hold regular meetings about our movies around that table— thirty of us facing off in two long lines, often with more people seated along the walls— and everyone was so spread out that it was difficult to communicate. For those unlucky enough to be seated at the far ends, ideas didn’t flow because it was nearly impossible to make eye contact without craning your neck.
It wasn’t until we happened to have a meeting in a smaller room with a square table that John [Lasseter, former Pixar Chief Creative Officer] and I realized what was wrong. Sitting around that table, the interplay was better, the exchange of ideas more free-flowing, the eye contact automatic. Every person there, no matter their job title, felt free to speak up. This was not only what we wanted, it was a fundamental Pixar belief: Unhindered communication was key, no matter what your position. At our long, skinny table, comfortable in our middle seats, we had utterly failed to recognize that we were behaving contrary to that basic tenet.
Emboldened by this new insight, I went to our facilities department. “Please,” I said, “I don’t care how you do it, but get that table out of there.”
And out it went.
Humphry Osmond and the Psychosocial Impact of Seating Arrangements
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of Catmull’s tale of woe is that he and his fellow Pixalytes could have avoided thirteen years of meeting misery had Jobs or his designer been familiar with the work of a British psychiatrist named Humphry Osmond before choosing the table of tears.
Osmond’s biography is colorful and accomplished. Back in the 1950’s, he conducted extensive research on the effects of LSD on alcoholics and schizophrenics, convinced that narcotics could ease their conditions. His investigations purportedly brought him into contact with the CIA and MI6, who were probably salivating at the thought of a truth drug capable of prying open the minds and mouths of insufficiently talkative enemy agents. Among pop culturalists, he’s most remembered for having coined the term “psychedelic” and for supplying Aldous Huxley with the mescaline hit that led to the book The Doors of Perception (and the name of a legendary ‘60s rock band).
A lesser known side of the man was his interest in the social dimension of architectural design. Osmond was drawn to the subject after seeing firsthand how poorly the architects and designers of his day appreciated the emotional needs of mental patients when building facilities for their care. Out of this experience came a conviction that the environment has the power to segregate people or bring them together, depending on how it’s planned and furnished.
Osmond undoubtedly would have pointed to the first incarnation of the Pixar meeting room as a perfect example of space that elevates the individual over the collective. And he would have been right. The problem obviously wasn’t the staff, which was undoubtedly blessed with talented people; it was that individuals were oriented in a grid pattern relative to each other owing to the shape of the table and room. Seating grids are good for maintaining top-down hierarchies (think rows of school desks facing the teacher at the front), but they tend to quell interactions within a group, all attention being focused on a single authority figure (think rows of school desks facing the teacher at the front).
They’re particularly anathema to creative organizations. The last thing wanted in an innovation-driven enterprise is for employees to turn into human bobbleheads each time the high-ranking individual seated in the power seat at the head of the table (CEO, department chief, project manager) throws out an idea, which invariably receives universal approbation for obvious political reasons, while those relegated to spatial Siberia struggle to have their voices heard—literally and figuratively. Ideas should be evaluated democratically and on their merits if the best are to see the light. Otherwise, creativity becomes distorted by measures of power, or its proximity to it, and therefore diminished.
Osmond would have used the same reasoning to explain why the second meeting room at Pixar succeeded where the first had failed. The grid was gone. People now sat in a concentric pattern around a piece of furniture with equal sides, which in turn focused attention toward the center of the table rather than on the kingmakers at the periphery. In effect, the table became a gigantic idea basket into which ideas could be tossed and hashed over cooperatively. People felt like they belonged. Everyone saw themselves as equal, rather than constrained by title. Creativity thrived.
Osmond called these two types of space sociofugal and sociopetal (he clearly had a knack for the nifty neologism). The first term reflects the tendency of grid patterns to channel energy outwards, i.e., centrifugally, the second to direct focus inwardly toward a center, i.e., centripetally.
Now, you might be wondering why, if oblong tables are so detrimental to idea origination in intra-group situations, do the vast majority of corporate board rooms, meeting rooms, and even innovation rooms have them?
The short answer is that old habits die hard. In truth, these tables are a legacy of the Industrial Age, when stratified management practices prevailed and there was a strict division between those who were expected to come up with ideas and those assigned to perform the labor needed to realize them. That same ethos carried into the typical turn-of-the century classroom, training grounds for the then-new economy. In both contexts gridded dispositions effectively discouraged collaboration, reinforced a single, hierarchically privileged position within the space (teacher or shop foreman viewing the gathered), and signaled that information or directions were to be followed or memorized exactly as delivered.
The New Paradigm
The orthogonal orientation of people in space favored in the era of mass production served us well for a long time, elevating our standard of living exponentially above anything that had ever preceded it. However, as I argue here, it is no longer a viable paradigm in an innovation-driven economy. What, then, are some design alternatives to the conventional rectangular table?
As Osmond determined and Catmull discovered, radial configurations, such as square and circular tables, are an effective substitute. Where a degree of flexibility is desired, consider modular or expandable table systems that allow you to maintain sociofugal seating patterns while accommodating varying group sizes and diverse meeting functions (eg., presentation vs brainstorming). If the nature of the space renders a rectilinear configuration unavoidable, look to utilize a table sufficiently wide to fit more than one person at the short ends, or use a U-shaped configuration to take some heat off the power seats.
Finally, explore opportunities to reinforce sociofugal spatial qualities in the surrounding room environment. A recommended strategy is to shape the space in harmony with the table, as is evident in the interior by Orly Shrem Architects pictured above. You can further reiterate the centralized focal point of the room by echoing the table configuration in such ancillary features as lighting fixtures, flooring, and ornamental details.