Spatial Syntax and Spatial Semiosis

I’ve been looking at how graphic designers and brand managers talk about themselves as ‘creatives’ and how they organise their work and their studios. This post is a fly-by glance at what I’ve been doing.

This is specifically about Erik Spiekermann’s Rundbüro (Round office) concept. The idea is that the Rundbüro is a sort of ideal studio layout. I first came across it in ‘Studio Culture’ which is a really insightful little collection by Tony Brook Adrian Shaughnessy in which all sorts of distinguished graphic designers describe how they run their businesses. My focus is on how people organise physical studio spaces so as to maximise their creative, generative, potential. There’s lots of talk about ‘generative buildings’ around and this is a part of that discussion.

The Rundbüro design sets out an open-plan studio floor map made up of concentric rings of activity divided by mid-height partition walls. The idea is that it gets progressively quieter and more contemplative the further you move from the centre. The dividing partitions are quite low so everyone is visible to everyone else pretty much all the time.

The Rundbuero

Erik S suggests that generic activities like office reception and printing take place in the central core, along with what he insists is a very important espresso machine. The second ring is devoted to practical artisan modelling or paper cutting work; more static, sedentary work involving desk-top computers takes place in the third ring and the quieter and more generally tranquil outer ring represents what he calls ‘laptop country’. This is where things like reading, writing and sharing informal meetings take place. Erik S suggests that there may be in the region of 40% of workers operating in each of the two outer rings with fewer bodies populating the inevitably less spacious but nonetheless more ‘busy’ central areas. Overall, he suggests that his idea might be appropriate for studios of up to around 100 people.

There’s a great bit of video in which Erik S goes through the whole rationale behind the Rundbüro. It’s sharp, funny and well worth a look.

Rundburo Illustrated

Now I’m not the first to develop an interest in the Rundbüro. In fact it’s quite famous as studio design patterns go. Kirsten Sailer, who blogs rather brilliantly at spaceandorganisation, has looked at it in terms of the patterns of movement and contact it delivers. She calls the method spatial syntax and it delivers some spectacular findings about people’s traffic patterns at work.

Part of what the Rundbüro is intended to deliver is a sort of ‘creative abrasion’ whereby people bump into each other all the time (imagine individual particles throwing out sparks as they collide). That being the case, Kirsten S had some rather eye-catching fun tweaking the design so as to maximise the potential for that. Her images are basically heat maps for traffic; the warmer the hue, the greater the traffic.

Spaceandorganisation meets the Rundburo

It’s neat isn’t it? – Even if it does reduce people to a sort of liquid mass.

I have a different take on the Rundbüro although I’m afraid it’s not as pretty as Kirsten’s. I borrow a bit of social semiotic thinking from Maree Stenglin who is an Australian academic (I think) who’s written some really rather brilliant stuff about the way people use space. She says lots of good things, but what I want to flag up today is the idea that the way spaces are arranged is meaningful in and of themselves. That’s a terrible oversimplification of a very sophisticated bit of thinking. But that’s the basic idea: spatial semiotics. So this isn’t about space and movement any more, it’s about the meanings that people attach to and read into spaces, and the movements they enforce.

What’s interesting here is what she says about spaces that are arranged around a central core. Here’s her graphic. I think what she says about this sort of spatial arrangement throws up an interesting perspective on the Rundbüro.

Stenglin's Orbital Structure

Basically she says that the middle, and whatever is put there, represents what she calls the ‘focal point of social significance’. It is central socially and conceptually as well as physically. Basically, the outer bits take their meaning from the central bit. Again I oversimplify but that’s the gist of it.

So the question is what does this tell us about the Rundbüro?

Well what’s going on in the core of the Rundbüro is an awful lot of to-ing and fo-ing, and a great deal of sharing – printers, phones and of course coffee. (Incidentally Michelle Zappavigna writes refreshing and stimulating things about coffee.

Anyway, the message, if you like, that an arrangement like the Rundbüro delivers is that what is most significant is that communal sense of everyone being equally together and on a level (pun kind of intended). There’s a really strong egalitarian ethos evident in this sort of reading, just as there is in Erik S’s explanation for how the Rundbüro works. No office for the boss, no ‘power spots’; just an emphasis on sharing and movement, and by extension perhaps, on energy (how else do you get movement after all?).

So all of a sudden we have something like a dance going on.

The dance metaphor has only occurred to me just now, but it kind of works, don’t you think? And it ties into Kirsten S’s patterns of movement too. Once we think about movement AND rhythm things start to get really funky. It already sounds like a really neat place to work.

I’m getting carried away now, but there is a kind of rhythm to the Rundbüro design just as there is to Maree S’s. Both are quite satisfying images in that respect (Theo van Leeuwen is good on visual rhythm). But they also suggest a regular sequence of moves left and right through the Rundbüro’s off-set openings, or into and out of the central hub in Maree S’s image.

So it’s not just space, and it’s not just movement. And of course there’s lots more going on in terms of what people are doing and how what sort of cultural and historical contexts they are reflecting, but I do begin to think that spatial syntax and spatial semiosis make for an interesting pairing. Maybe not quite Fred and Ginger, but I think it’s got promise.

I’ll keep you posted

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