Office Art

There is a very good chance that I am perhaps overly aware of the business environments that I have been in. This could be because of all of the changes that I have seen in those environments over the years. I can remember when everybody wore a suit and tie to go to work and people could smoke in the office. It really wasn’t that long ago when you think about it. Now with virtual offices and telecommuting we are all casually attired whether we are in the office or not, and very few admit to smoking whether they actually do or not, and certainly not in the house or office as the case may be.

It could also be that I am so office environmentally aware because of the many things that have not changed over time. Just about every cube still looks like every other cube. The carpet and wall color schemes all continue to remain boringly and uninspiringly neutral. It is from this bland sea of constant cubic uniformity that we are trying to create and innovate new approaches and solutions to our customer’s needs.

There is however one bastion of stolid stability in the office environment that stands out above all others. It is so pervasive and consistent so as to be present in just about every office environment that I have ever worked in or visited. It is so constant so as to go almost unnoticed by the denizens of the business office environment. Almost. It seems to me that the one thing that never changes, regardless of restructuring, reorganizing or remodeling is our office art.

That is correct. The objects and images that adorn the walls of the standard office building seem to be a constant that never changes.

The items on the walls of an office would appear at first to fall into one of three general artistic categories: Technical, Inspirational, and Artistic art. Invariably there is a mixture of all three genres in any office environment, and depending on the group involved in that location there is usually an emphasis placed on one specific type.

Technical office art usually consists of multi-colored charts and posters that purport to provide some sort of definition or direction in accordance with the various processes associated with the business. There is usually a flow diagram of some sort associated with them, and they also usually contain at least three or four geometrically diverse shapes as a way of distinguishing the various different functions represented in the flow chart.

The more complex, the more colors, the more shapes and the more connective flow lines the better. Remember this is technical office art. It is supposed to be colorful, complex, obtuse and inaccessible. You will usually find this type of art in the building sections normally populated by engineers, and the research and development staff. The truth be told, most of them don’t understand the diagrams and flows either, but it does contribute to the general feeling that you are in a technical area populated by smart people.

Inspirational office art usually consists of sweeping vistas, soaring birds or athletes, either individually or in teams, either training for or competing in high stakes arenas such as the Olympics. In general we are all inspired by pictures of mountains, or eagles or groups of people rowing boats. When we see these things I assume we all want to go climb the mountain, soar like the eagle or row the boat to the point of exhaustion. Who wouldn’t?

However, that alone is not enough for the image to be considered inspirational office art. It must also be accompanied by some sort of an inspirational phrase or message. When I see these pictures with their inspirational catchphrases, I can’t help but think of the statue shown in the opening credits of the movie “Animal House”. As the camera pans down the length of the statue of the founder of Faber College, it rests on the inscription at the bottom. The inscription reads:

“Knowledge is good”

That movie inspired me to do many things, most of which I will not go into here.

Inspirational art is normally found in and around the Human Resources and Training departments of a company. I don’t know why these groups require that much incremental inspiration, but they do seem to need it.

The final category of office art is the category that can nominally be considered art. That is the artistic category. This category consists of anything that can be hung on the walls of an office that is neither technical nor inspirational in nature. The preponderance of artistic pictures that are hung an office wall normally consist of some sort of pastel oriented soothing landscape or similar type of image. It is definitely not art that is intended to evoke any sort of response, with the possible exception of a yawn.

There are however notable exceptions to this generalization. I was once in an office building where there was a framed US flag that hung on the wall. This in itself was not too interesting except for the fact that the flag had only forty eight stars, not the customary fifty that I had grown used to seeing on the average flag pole outside. I could not tell if it was in fact a decorative antique or artistic relic, or if it had just been put up on the wall prior to Alaska joining the union in 1959 and no one had thought to take it down since.

This point brings me to the downside of all this office art. It never changes. Buildings are erected. Businesses move in and they are finished out with whatever art du jour is popular or applicable at that time, and that art is never changed. The building, the offices, the cubes may be rearranged or reconfigured, but the artwork remains intact and in place. For years.

I am sure that some number of millennia in the future when the future archeologists are excavating our office buildings, much like we have done in the ancient pyramids, they will discover all these images on the office walls (much like the hieroglyphics on the pyramids) and wonder how people with such boring tastes could have built such buildings.

I believe that there was some sort of financial analysis conducted which proved out the hypothesis that it would in fact be cheaper to move, relocate or rotate the locations of the resident people in the building than it would be to periodically replace and upgrade the office art. This could in fact be the underlying reason that on average people in offices are asked to change their locations approximately once every year.

On the surface this movement of people not art, may sound like an ingenious solution the issue of people becoming jaded with respect to their professional surroundings, but no one thought about the long term issues associated with this scheme. With all this office relocation that has been going on for years on end, we now have HR and Training people trying to contemplate pastel landscapes and outdated flags, Engineers and developers being assaulted by simple pictures with inspirational phrases and the rest of us losing productivity as we try to understand the complexities associated with the engineering flowcharts and diagrams that once directed the development processes of our companies.

Pardon the pun, but this cannot be considered a pretty picture.

As an example, currently outside my office is a Software Improvement Process Diagram. It is on that heavy gage high density white presentation board. On the surface this isn’t so bad, other than the fact that the plan is dated 2004. It is only ten years old. Now it may be a fabulous process and there is even the finite possibility that it still may be applicable. The problem is that it is not applicable to me. I am here now, and I need my abstract pastel landscapes, or even a trite inspirational eagle or two if I am to get my work done.

On the inside of my office is a multi-dimensional, multi-figured, multi-colored flow chart and guide to problem solving. When you put the four three dimensional figures that represent the various stages of the problem solving process together, to me they
resemble a psychedelic lava lamp that has been laid on its side

The four phases of the problem solving process all quite conveniently start with the same letter “D”. They are “Define”, “Discover”, “Develop”, “Demonstrate”…..

Reading further into the detail….Wait a minute. This thing is actually starting to make some sense. I guess I should have looked at it in more detail sooner.


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