After wild ride, offices choose muted tone, style

As the bold colors of the dot-com era fade, technology becomes more seamlessly integrated into an evolving, calmer workplace
August 11, 2010

The now-deflated dot-com boom left an imprint on office environments by making technology an increasingly accepted and transparent partner in today's workplace. However, a legacy it did not pass on was a penchant for using bright colors. The colors now being specified are much more muted.

These technological and aesthetic developments help to define current office design trends, according to those who help organizations shape their workspace environments.

John Mack, design partner with architect/engineer HLW International LLP, New York City, saw "definitely much bolder color" in office plans a year or two ago. "The work we did for Internet companies allowed us to be a lot freer, not only in terms of architectural expressions, but also in the use of color," he says. "It's now toned-downed a bit, with color being used in a more sophisticated way."

Mack describes as "almost jarring" some of these earlier office plans. "Now there's more refinement," he says. "Color is still part of the repertoire, but it's used in a much more restrained way. This doesn't mean that a vibrant orange is not used, but the way in which it is used is more restrained."

Kim Heartwell, a vice president in architect/engineer RTKL's Washington office, concurs. "We're seeing increased use of color in a subdued palette," Heartwell notes. "Base colors are somewhat subdued, although more vibrant colors may be used to punch out focus areas."

A focus on neutral

Dan McCloskey, an associate at Gensler, San Francisco, says the colors themselves have not been muted, but that they are being used in a more sophisticated manner. Gervais Tompkin, a Gensler vice president, observes that some dot-com companies were committed to bright greens, yellows and reds, although he saw a shift away from this practice toward the end of the dot-com boom. "Everyone is looking for a warm, friendly, neutral environment," Tompkin explains. "People are tired of having 'brand' shoved down their throats where they work."

J.L. Meadows, managing principal of architect/engineer Ai, Washington, D.C., describes the brilliant colors, multiple-angled walls and interior deconstructionism of many dot-com offices as "zooty" design.

"Bright, brilliant colors have a short shelf life," says Meadows. "We're [now] looking at designs with more neutral colors that have greater permanence. You want to make sure the design will last at least the life of the lease."


The reception area of the Edelman Public Relations office in New York City, which was designed by A/E HLW International, is intended to impart the message that Edelman stays abreast of developments throughout the world. This is reinforced with a continuous “information datum” featuring interactive computer terminals mounted along the wall.


McCloskey also has seen increased use of textured materials in the past couple of years, including tweedy wools for workstation panels and other tackable surfaces.




Ronette King, a Gensler design principal, observes that during the past decade office interiors have consisted essentially of painted surfaces and did not incorporate textured materials.

"The dot-com projects, because they were fast and inexpensive, tended to exasperate the non-textural issue," she says. "They tended to be more about industrial materials, with broad strokes of basic color. Texture might be expressed in the form of exposed ducts and pipes, but at a height that prevented it from being touched. We're moving back to a greater sophistication of materials and more thoughtfulness in using them — not trying to wow at any cost."

Sustainable materials gain

King says the biggest change she has observed in northern California office interiors designs in the past two years has been the incorporation of sustainable materials. For example, a bio-based office product derived from sunflower seed hulls, produced by Phoenix Biocomposites, Mankato, Minn., has been used to construct cabinets. Also, the use of rubber flooring made from recycled tires is expanding from athletic surfaces into office areas.

Meadows mentions the increasing availability of durable, aesthetically appealing and reasonably priced "animated" materials, citing troweled-on, stucco-type products as an example. More recycled items are available, and sustainable materials have become cost competitive. Nevertheless, he concedes. "What drives most people is cash or compliance. Most people will do something if it is required by code or it costs less," Meadows contends.

Tompkin cites other factors that continue to shape the office environment. Offices have become less hierarchical, and employees have become more comfortable with technology. "Office space is viewed as a co-owned, shared resource," he says. "At many companies, anyone can reserve the executive board room for important meetings. This makes it easier to accept the idea that you are not assigned a particular desk or computer, yet feel comfortable working at it."

With the increased sharing of facilities, the area within which an individual conducts his work has actually increased, Tompkin notes. "Eight years ago, you might have had a 6-by-6-ft. work station. Today, you might have a work station that is 10 feet by 12 feet, but it's shared by three people," he explains.

Flat screens make an inroad

Flat screens are the rising star of the office technology sector. They were initially found in places such as reception areas, where they could give a company a high-tech image. As their cost has declined, flat screens now are replacing "dinosaur" monitors at workstations. They provide images of improved clarity, and because of their higher resolution, allow users to work closer to screen. A major bonus is that they take less space, McCloskey says. This space-saving feature may permit a printer area to be added to a row of six workstations.

Flat screens are rapidly becoming the office standard, Meadows declares. He says a standard monitor typically is 24 inches deep, compared to a flat screen's depth of about 2 inches. Taking into account the flat screen's mounting component, the unit's total depth is less than half that of a conventional monitor.

Wireless technology is also making a presence in the workplace. While she was based in RTKL's London office, Heartwell was involved with two projects for which wireless technology was evaluated. In each instance, a combination of wireless and non-wireless communications was used. Heartwell says that cellular phones are more widely used in Europe because the technology infrastructure for them is more developed there. She observes that the use of cellular phones, which are more expensive than standard phones, does not eliminate the need for land lines, which computers require.


Colorful PROTOBLOCS placed atop workspace partitions can be arranged to indicate an employee's willingness to be interrupted. The generous use of clear glass provides a visual connection among staff members.


Despite the rapidly changing office environment, some characteristics remain unchanged. One is the tendency of open office plans to encourage unwanted fraternization among employees. As the result of hearing clients' complaints about this problem, Ai developed a device that employees can use to visually communicate their willingness to be interrupted. PROTOBLOCS consist of three foam shapes that can be placed on top of work space partitions. The green pyramid signals "welcome," the yellow sphere indicates "interrupt if necessary," and the red cube clearly signifies "do not disturb." Ai distributes them to clients, and also takes orders for them on its Web site.




Based on an extrapolation of the Washington market, Ai estimates that 25 million U.S. employees work in cubicles.