Cubicle desk

From Academic Kids

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A cubicle farm

A cubicle desk is a partially enclosed workspace, separated from neighboring workspaces by partitions, generally five to six feet high. It is partially or entirely open on one side to allow access. Horizontal work surfaces are usually suspended from the partitions, as is shelving, overhead storage, and other amenities.

Like the older carrel desk, a cubicle seeks to give a degree of privacy to the user while taking up a minimum of space in a large or medium sized room. Like the modular desk of the middle of the 20th century, it is composed of a variety elements that can be arranged at will with standard hardware or custom fasteners, depending on the design. Installation is generally performed by professionals, although some cubicles allow configuration changes to be performed by users without specific training. Cubicles are highly configurable, allowing for great a variety of elements such as work surfaces, overhead bins, drawers, and the like to be installed, depending on the individual user's needs.

Some sources attribute the introduction of the cubicle desk to the computer chip manufacturer Intel Inc. during the 1960s. Others say that the cubicle desk was invented earlier in the 60s by Herman Miller Inc., a major manufacturer of office furniture.

An office filled with cubicles is called a Cube farm. Although humourous, the phrase usually has negative connotations. Cube farms are often found in hi-tech companies, but they also crop up in the insurance industry and other service-related fields. Many cube farms were built during the Dotcom boom.


Bad planning and cheap approaches

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South view of cubicle
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North view of cubicle

The cubicle desk is a much reviled and often mocked piece of office furniture in large part because of the expectations it provokes but rarely fulfils. An array of cubicle desks gives more peace and quiet to its users than if they were all working in an open office with no partitions, as is the case with many newsrooms and quite a few other kinds of offices. However, promoters of cubicle desks often present them as magic ingredients which can make noise levels and other distractions fall to zero in any office after their installation.

As a result of this, scant attention is paid, most of the time, to the design and correct installation of specially designed baffled ceilings, acoustic floor coverings, staggered corridors and tactically placed enclosed meeting rooms. Without a global approach to all these elements, the cubicle desk offers only a limited form of visual privacy and no sonic protection whatsoever, since traditional suspended ceiling tiles are insufficient to prevent noise conduction in very large office spaces, despite their being sold as "acoustic" tiles. This global approach is lacking in most installations done in large companies or large government bureaucracies.

The versatile cubicle walls

On the positive side the cubicle desk offers an occasion for customization by its users which is not comparable to other desk forms, past or present. The secret is that it can transform all of the walls surrounding the white-collar worker in productive work surfaces, or nooks for personal expression. Because all of the walls are within grasp or reach all of the time, and because many of them offer holes and hooks for hanging small shelves, bulletin boards or other accessories, elements which were once placed only on the horizontal surface of the desktop can be moved to the vertical surfaces all around. While the makers of cubicle desks usually employ proprietary standards for their fasteners and accessory hooks, this has not stopped the makers of small scale desktop accessories from producing and marketing myriads of pen holders, magazine racks, and other items which are made to fit the most popular brands of cubicle desk partitions.

Note that it is also possible to create a cubicle filled office environment without the use of cubicle desks by combining traditional free standing desk forms like the pedestal desk with special types of free standing partitions. This kind of environment is often part of a general office landscaping effort which was popularized in the 1950s and the 1960s in Germany and the United Kingdom.

Explorations of the cubicle form

Some interesting R and D has been going on in the field of cubicles at the turn of this millennium. One of the most sarcastic critics of the cubicle has been Scott Adams, speaking through his comic strip, Dilbert. In 2001 he teamed up with the San Francisco design company IDEO to design "The perfect cubicle". It had some whimsical aspects but there were also some very sound design ideas such as an original modular approach and attention to usually neglected ergonomic details like the change in light orientation as the day advances. Similarly, Douglas Coupland has coined the phrase "veal-fattening pen," in parody of the cubicle in his cult novel Generation X.

Between 2000 and 2002 IBM partnered with Steel case, the office furniture manufacturer and did some very thorough research on the software, hardware and ergonomic aspects of the cubicle of the future (or the office of the future) under the name "BlueSpace". They produced several prototypes of this hi-tech multi screened workspace and even exhibited one at Walt Disney World. Bluespace offered movable multiple screens inside and outside, a projection system, advanced individual lighting heating and ventilation controls and a host of software applications to orchestrate everything.

Not all innovative designs require the efforts of celebrities or monster corporations. In 1994 the designer Douglas Ball planned and built several iterations of the "Clipper" or "CS-1", a "capsule" desk looking like the streamlined front fuselage of a fighter plane. Meant as a computer workstation it had louvers and an integrated ventilation system, as well as a host of built-in features typical of the Ergonomic desk. An office space filled with these instead of traditional squarish cubicles would look like a hangar filled with small flight simulators. It was selected for the permanent design collection of the design Museum in the United Kingdom.

Cube farms in fiction


  • Adams, Scott.What do you call a sociopath in a cubicle? : (answer, a coworker) Kansas City, Missouri. : Andrews McMeel Pub., 2002.
  • Blunden, Bill. Cube Farm. Berkeley: Apress, 2004.
  • Duffy, Francis. Colin Cave. John Worthington, editors. Planning Office Space. London: The Architectural Press Ltd., 1976.
  • Inkeles, Gordon. Ergonomic Living: How to Create a User-Friendly Home and Office. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.
  • Klein, Judy Graf. The Office Book. New York: Facts on File Inc., 1982.

See also


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