A Public Display of Connection

Two men stand before a whiteboard, one drawing and one pointing.

LOCATION: San Francisco, CA
BUSINESS PRIORITIES: Promoting Knowledge Sharing, Stimulating Innovation

Two women co-workers converse while seated at a Public Office Landscape workstation.

Story by
Mindy Koschmann & Joseph White

Illustrations by
Leonie Bos

How do you make work more social without making it impossible to work? Public Office Landscape is designed to help start-ups and established organizations get the benefits of buzz, without the bother.

“All work is social,” goes the old (by now) saying.1 That’s surely true in start-ups, where a sea of desks in an open room is the default workplace design—often because it’s affordable but always because it supports the camaraderie and connectivity that can spur creative thinking and get ideas to market faster.

The enviable togetherness of these start-ups is certainly something they want to maintain, especially as they grow. The advantages of such a setup aren’t lost on start-ups’ more established siblings, either. These companies see a more social workplace as the key to attracting new talent, helping their best people stay engaged, and instilling business agility.

The trouble is, the workplace can be so social that there’s no place to get away from it all. As start-ups grow and add people, buzz gets quickly replaced by noise. For more established companies, the challenge is to introduce social spaces without disrupting the existing flow.

Yves Béhar, Founder and Chief Designer at fuseproject, knows the value of buzz firsthand. His San Francisco-based industrial design and branding firm had outgrown its start-up location and needed to move, but everyone was concerned about losing the creative energy of the company’s space. To add to the challenge, the move happened as Béhar and his team were developing a new workplace system for Herman Miller.

After a good deal of research and thinking, Béhar and his team concluded that furnishings could be the answer to holding on to the best of the social workplace—but only if the design took a novel approach. So they set out to create the world’s first workplace system specifically designed to foster better collaboration through social interaction. They wanted their design to be deliberately social, to hit the sweet spot between a free-for-all frenzy and library-like quiet.

“We didn’t base the system on storage or desking,” Béhar says. “It’s the first system based on modular, ergonomic sectional seating. And the name, Public Office Landscape, is intentional. We wanted this to be a social work landscape.”

Béhar’s team observed that, in social work environments, people are always seen balancing on the edge of someone else’s desk for a quick chat. In fact, Béhar and his counterparts at Herman Miller found that about 70 percent of face-to-face interactions happen at the desk and last three to five minutes.2

The Social Chair represents one big way the Public system differentiates itself. Designed for connection—literally and figuratively—with a flexible back and arm that physically link to desks, storage, and other chairs, the Social Chair serves as a place where people can sit down, catch up, and, just maybe, share an idea that catches on.

An open work area featuring Public Office Landscape workstations with social chairs upholstered in red and gray.

The thinking is simple yet revolutionary: Start with a seat that makes it inviting and comfortable to connect with other people, and design all the other elements—surfaces for working, containers for storing, low partitions (that are easily moved) for screening—around it. Mix elements as needed across the office so there are places to work on one’s own, to sit and have a quick conversation with a coworker, and if the energy is right and the talk draws others in, to go to a nearby screened-in space or café-style setting. Make the elements versatile so they can be changed and added to for scalable growth. Create an appearance that fits equally well in growing start-ups and established office environments, and enable the ability to scale up to match growth.

“We wanted to create a design that would support a more flexible, fluid way of working,” explains Béhar, “while addressing the very human need for interaction”—in other words, to embody the best of the start-up vibe, with wide-open choices for where to work, so people can go to a spot that supports what they’re doing in the moment yet is absent the things that detract from the ability to make quality connections and do great work.

In reviewing Public for Architect magazine, Aaron Betsky,3 curator, lecturer, and writer on architecture and design, notes, “When you combine the chair with low partitions that finally seem to be as easy to detach and move as we were always promised such elements would be, with white desks in the background, Public Office Landscape looks more like a restaurant than a work setting.”

If the goal is to keep the vibe going, the Public menu is very appealing.

1 Larry Prusak, author and researcher, advanced the idea in the late 1990s. Malcolm Gladwell expanded on it in his New Yorker article “Designs for Working” (December 11, 2000, p. 60). Both owe a debt to the work of Kjeld Schmidt and Liam Bannon (“Taking CSCW Seriously: Supporting Articulation Work,” Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Vol. 1, 1992. pp. 7–40).
2 Herman Miller, “The Ws of Work,” September 2011.
3 Aaron Betsky, “Swiss Designer Yves Béhar’s Public Office Landscape Furniture Promotes ‘Social Desking,’” Architect, February 26, 2014.

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