Put creativity in its place: Tom Peters on excellence

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The Independent Online
I RECENTLY received a copy of the 39th annual design review edition of ID (International Design) magazine. A frustrated architect, I flipped to the sections on building, interiors and furniture. Without exception I was repelled by the award-winners. Why?

My obsession is with stirring the human imagination. Today's marketplace calls for zesty responses from bankers, metal-binders and software creators alike. Yet most of our companies seem to be purposefully designed to stamp out curiosity and imagination. So when I see award-winning spaces that dampen the spirit, I worry - a lot.

How does one describe an engaging workplace? It should be comfortable, friendly, alive.

I'm a sweatshirt and sweatpants kind of guy, at home and - if I can get away with it - at work. I like to be surrounded by familiar objects, to look up at old, rough-hewn rafters, to gaze at trees and birds, or an energetic street scene. And I can no more imagine an office without toys than I can a computer without software.

At first, as I reacted so violently to the magazine's winning designs, I wondered if I were weird. So I did a touch of research, and I may be strange but I'm not alone.

In Places of the Soul, the architect Christopher Day wrote: 'I sometimes wonder what sort of quality and sensitivity my work would have if I worked in a different office - perhaps a harsh, rectangular, smooth-surfaced, evenly lit, glossy one such as many architects work in.' He analysed spots that are vital and those that aren't. 'Architecture can be life-suppressing or even crushing,' he said. 'In some places one feels a trapped statistic, not a valued member of society. In others, the buildings tower over one as though with menace . . . I am not just talking about what is nice or not, but about what is nourishing.' Architectural magazines are partly to blame, Day said. They feature buildings as 'dramatic and usually unpeopled objects' and adds: 'The buildings are not experienced in that way by the people who use them.'

Another architect, Christopher Alexander, is even more provocative in describing locations that do or don't work. His widely acclaimed The Timeless Way of Building describes a 'central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building or a wilderness. The quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named'.

Named or not, Alexander evoked it precisely: 'The first place I think of when I try to tell someone about this quality is a corner of an English country garden, where a peach tree grows against the wall . . . The sun shines on the tree, and as it warms the bricks behind the tree, the warm bricks themselves warm the peaches on the tree. It has a slightly dozy quality.' The words Alexander attaches to such settings include alive, whole, comfortable and eternal. He added that well-designed buildings 'let our inner forces loose and set us free (rather than) keep us locked in inner conflict'.

I believe these ideas are central to the prosaic chore of creating value in our firms. Day-to-day corporate existence is flattened by sterile work environments. I shake my head in wonder - and sometimes am moved to rage or tears or both - by most facilities I enter. From reception area to research lab, they lack yeastiness or any trace of humanity.

Surfaces are smooth and polished. Desks with glass tops and chrome legs are barren. Light is filtered.

'For proven physiological reasons, people can feel ill if they work all day in artificial light,' Day wrote. 'Yet the light of spring can bring such joy to the heart that it can get the invalid out of bed.'

Does your workplace urge you from under the covers in the morning? Does it up the odds of clever, collaborative and energetic problem-solving? Unlikely. The typical corporate landscape, urban spire or rural 'campus' breeds hunkering down and hiding, not sharing and openness. 'Most adults feel, think and act differently in different environments,' Day wrote. Indeed they do. And these differences are profound.

'Things that are alive never fit exactly in any hard-edged category,' he added. The workplace illustrations in both Places of the Soul and The Timeless Way of Building are inviting. I can readily imagine working in such spaces. They are replete with nooks, crannies, rough edges, intricate plays of light, warmth, frivolity - life itself.

If value in the new economy is to come from energy, chatter, collaboration and imagination, then where we hang out to do commerce must reflect these core ideas. Meanwhile, if you are in search of a how-to guide for shrivelling the soul, pick up the July-August issue of ID and turn to the 'Best of Category' winner for environments. It would make a great morgue.

TPG Communications