Meta-technology and the office

Summary of Remarks presented at the Merchandise Mart        by Gordon Randall Perry

One of the goals of Gordon Randall Perry Design, is to provide office environments of the future that can be utilized today. To achieve this goal we realize we must gain an overview of the problems of today's offices.

To this end, GRPD has retained the services of a social science consultant Dr. Samuel Brady, whose insights have provided us with some interesting new perspectives, the most exciting of which is meta-technology. Meta-technology is a construct defined in conference in by Samuel Brady, Ph.D., social scientist, consultant to industry and the professions. The term, conceptualized by Dr. Brady, refers to the holistic, integrated effect of existing separate technologies and devices used independently and alternately, as well as used in series and coordinately. The net effect of these technologies used purposefully, results in the meta-technology that is utilized in a given office, plant or other productive, creative, and/or manufacturing environment.

You know how the future is usually viewed -- a lot of glitter and high power technology all of which is brand new. What's wrong is that it doesn't happen that way. You'll more likely see a satellite dish sitting on an adobe hut or in the office, for example, cardboard files sitting next to the latest computers or in the home a DVD player sitting in a dining room.

In this sense, meta-technology is a description of the way newer and older technologies interface. It is a useful, conceptual framework for the here and now. To elaborate:

The office can be viewed as a small social system -- similar to a family. The workers, like family members, strive to know their own place in the system and have an understanding of their environment. They have internal goals and sources of energy and external goals and sources of energy. When there is a malfunction in the office, such as people spending multiple hours at a computer screen, not being able to leave their desks and doing work that is so abstract to them they really don't understand it, the results are frustration and alienation with its concomitant feelings of isolation, powerlessness and normlessness which has a significant relationship to low productivity and high personnel turnover.  1.

This is an example of new technology being interjected into the office site, all at once, that has not been integrated. The new technology, sitting side-by-side with the old, wherein the worker has to learn new skills while having to give up the old, creates stress and anxiety. These reactions are not atypical in the meta-technological setting. The successful integration of the range of new and older technologies presents a challenge to industry and industrial designers.

In society at large, it's reflected as a cultural lag in which the human element does not keep up with the rapidly moving technological development. It's seen in man's ability to place people in space and yet apparently not have developed the counterpart ability to stem cyclical upheavals -- starvation and war.

To counter the negative effects of the meta-technological environment in this mezzo or middle social system of the office (the industry itself being the macro environment and the workers' area being the micro), people must have a sense of individuality in their work setting. At the same time they need to know their place in the whole and have the ability to communicate with others in the social system that exists within the work site. Providing these will help the worker adjust to the inevitable interjections of new technology.

This perspective, then, allows us to create new products that are not only sensitive to the issues, but more importantly, provide solutions to problems by giving workers some of the things they lack and are looking for. The focus is definitively humanistic and stimulates growth and development on the job.

While creating products that help solve these problems are not the only things we must do to achieve environments of the future utilized today and doing so is, for us, a major step.

Within this meta-technological context, let us examine the process of creating appropriate new products which can be viewed as a three-legged stool. One leg is understanding the needs of the end user; another, conducting an effective design process that creates solutions and utilizes user feedback; and the third, the successful marketing of the product.

In examining the needs of the end user, which we've already outlined in general terms, it’s important to understand that each product development project is unique and must be treated as such. As an example, if clerical workers are the end users, their need for a sense of control over their micro environment is strong. There's also a need on their part to understand their mission in the office, and if they operate equipment, to understand the basic operating principles of the equipment.

These needs can be provided for in different ways: The architecture of the office, the design of the equipment, the policies set by management and the furniture the worker uses. Our role as industrial designers usually focuses on the equipment and furniture, even though we occasionally get involved in other areas.

A sense of control can be given to the user by designing the equipment and the furniture to be physically adjustable and easily understandable in its use. In addition, we can provide individuality of expression to the user through choices of product.

From the manufacturers' standpoint this translates to offering a range of choices in such a way as to enhance the product system while not overburdening the manufacturer’s production line. It also means creating products that are adjustable while not becoming overly complex and costly. This same expression of individuality through choice is expected by management personnel. Here, even larger issues of corporate identity and structure are dealt with, again, asking the manufacturer to be sensitive to these needs of the user and be flexible in their offering of furniture and accessories.

The second leg I mentioned is conducting an effective design process. On this subject I will outline the concept of the balance or purposeful imbalance of design elements. Geoffrey Scott, in his book, The Architecture of Humanism published first in 1914, explained it exceedingly well. In my own words, he stated that design was made up of three elements -- form, function and structure, and any one of these elements may take precedence over the others.

This translates to mean that the old comfortable adage of form following function doesn't have to be. We, as designers, have other choices. Whether to balance the three, or better still, to purposefully create an imbalance, becomes the issue. For example, a designer might decide to create a chair design which makes a strong visual statement about how the human body relates to the chair structure and show how the structure can be adjusted by the user to provide greater comfort. In doing so, the traditional form of a chair may have to be set aside. The designer must be careful and take responsibility for these decisions because in the end the product should still meet the parameters of intelligent design. Once these decisions are made, user feedback is critical to ensure what is created is relevant to the user. This entire process is difficult; to create beautiful, understandable and useful products requires unrelenting commitment.

For me, form represents visual order; function, intellectual order and structure, physical order. We must draw upon the three as we see fit to meet the objectives of the design program. Usually we are served better by carefully created visual tension achieved by elements not precisely balanced.

The final leg is successful marketing which I will mention only briefly. It's an area that, obviously, influences both the first and second leg. In fact, if the product can't be successfully marketed, legs one and two really don't matter.

While clients are not always able to visualize design solutions, they almost always have an excellent sense of their marketplace with all its specifics. So it is with great sensitivity that I listen to my clients' marketing plans and carefully interject my concepts. With insight, we are able to achieve designs that not only meet marketing parameters but meet responsible design goals as well, and that is providing products of the future that can be used today.

1. Dwight G. Dean, "Alienation: Its Meaning and Measurement," American Sociological Review, Vol. 26, (Oct. 1961), pp. 753-758. See also Dean, "A Scale of Measuring Alienation," privately mimeographed, PP 1-3.

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