The Evolution of Work Surfaces

by Michelle Schrank, ICRAVE

When I’m trying to design ‘the Future Of’ something, it is always helpful to see how we got to that point in the first place. Objects, systems, and worlds are always evolving: the present is just one point in that evolution, and so the future is just the next step. Take the Future of the Workplace. It is one of the ‘hottest’ industries and highly-discussed design topics in the past few years. So in wanting to predict or impact this particular design topic, my first step is to understand the forces that caused the workplace to evolve, as well as the forms and functions of the versions that came before.

I decided to look into the evolution of a small unit of measure in the workplace: the Desk. Desks and work surfaces are the building blocks that, when made in various forms and arranged in different configurations, lead to entirely different workplace cultures. From antique portable desks to the ubiquitous office cubicle, we trace the history (and future) of the Desk:

Image source: Michelle Schrank

Some of the noticeable trends:

Image source: Michelle Schran

From the antique lap desk which acted as both a sloped writing surface and a portable storage case, to the cavernous cubicle which is a complete mini-office unto itself, the standard desk size has grown substantially to accommodate our changing utensils, devices, and storage needs. However, after several decades of the dreaded ‘cubicle farm’ environment, many companies opted for an open-office layout with smaller, collapsible surfaces like the sawhorse trestle desk. As information becomes digitized and lives on the cloud, we need less physical storage and instead need surfaces that can move with us.

Image source: Michelle Schrank

Another note is the difference between desks that are multi-functional and can transcend decades, versus desks that highly-specialized for a particular use and time. The field desk can be unfolded and serve many purposes on the battlefield, and the trestle desk is made for improvisation and modification in

Image sources: 19182016

many office environments. On the other hand, the bureau plat contained drawers specifically made for quills and ink wells, and the rolltop desk had pigeonhole compartments and nooks for letters and envelopes.

Future of the work surface

As our workplaces has evolved, our work surfaces have followed suit:

1. Our tools are smaller. Over the decades, our resources have become more compact which means we can work within a smaller footprint. Our work surfaces used to physically hold everything — now it’s all in our tablets and phones.

2. We blend work and play. We used to work in a tight 9–5 schedule with regimented water cooler and break time. Now, our work days stretch into the night and play gets seamlessly folded into the mix.

3. The workplace is informal. The new workplace emulates college campus life and this new thinking leaves formal workstations in the past.

4. We are transient. Liberated from the confines of the physical office and workstation, we can work anywhere — and we do.

Unless our world becomes more Minority Report-like, we will continue moving towards a smaller agile surface that is either portable or versatile. Desks are already made of lightweight, durable materials and have wireless charging abilities so they can migrate with their owners. Integrated touchscreens and smart technology enable users to expand capabilities beyond their individual devices. What’s next?

As many leaders, scientists, and creatives have said before, the best way to predict the future is to invent it.

What if you could work while reclining? What if the ergonomics of your desk automatically responded to your posture and needs throughout the day, and throughout the years? What if desks encouraged body movement/exercise and generate power? What if desks become simple surfaces that respond to a gestural interface?

As many leaders, scientists, and creatives have said before, the best way to predict the future is to invent it.

Michelle Schrank, Architect and Senior Designer