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On the office furniture racing pit crew

June 22, 2010

I was crawling under some desks today, unhooking filthy cables from dusty computers to move them (an activity that is not getting easier as I get older), and had a little epiphany about the people who design office furniture.  But first, a thought about auto racing.

Back when Soichiro Honda was in direct control of the motor company (and it may still be this way), you couldn’t become a top engineer without first working a few months in the pit crew for the Honda racing teams.  You handled wrenches, under time pressure, and you got to see how stuff held up under extremes.  Spending time in school learning moduli of elasticity for aluminum alloys, or fuel injector computer programming, you still had to actually be involved with car guts.

Back to office furniture: I picture the people who design it as being design-school graduates who learned to use CAD terminals and to think in terms of metal panels and pressboard laminate tops.  But they should have to work in computer tech support for a college or large office building before they get to design any furniture.  Here are a few principles to get them started:

  • Cables, while small, have ends which are large, and which must pass through openings and passageways where there are other cables.

  • Cables are living things: they multiply.  When possible, they tangle.  I think they’re having sex under the table top.
  • “Cable management systems” must be easier to use than a row of simple plastic conduit clamps under the desk.  At least, that’s the standard to beat.  The fancy stuff that actually comes out of Herman Miller and Steelcase should be called “cable tangling systems”.
  • Under-desk computer mounts must be easier to use than a strap with a clamp.  At least, that’s the standard to beat.  Steel shafts with little pullies and ratchets and such… more trouble than they’re worth.
  • Think carefully about the cable route for the mouse cable.  It must be supported above the mouse platform, and be short, because mouse cables are (inexplicably) often shorter than keyboard cables.
  • It might make sense to incorporate a power strip into the underside of the desk – and it should be designed so that converter blocks can plug in without bumping into each other or covering other outlets.  A typical desk needs at least 7 outlets, so make it 10.
  • On second thought, forget designing “cable management systems”.  Just put a row of 1.5-inch conduit clamps on the underside of the desk for its whole length.  Screw them down on only one side, so the other side can be pulled down to slip in cables.
  • Find out how high up on the wall a typical outlet or network jack is – there’s probably a standard for it.  Make sure that your “modesty panels” clear that height.  Instead of covering it by a frustrating quarter-inch.

No need to thank me, office furniture manufacturers; cash will suffice.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Karen
    June 22, 2010 at 23:27 | #1

    And while they’re at it, could the furniture manufacturers incorporate some height variability while they’re about it?  I like my computer desk to be unusually low, and I’ve had enough of having to re-locate desk heights with screws or cutting off the feet of tables.

  2. gruntled atheist
    June 23, 2010 at 00:35 | #2

    1.5 inch conduit clamps attached with one screw.  I never would have thought of that.  Excellent.

  3. June 23, 2010 at 09:31 | #3

    I love wireless.

    And yes, well-designed power strips should be standard.

  4. June 23, 2010 at 14:11 | #4

    To me, the best cable “management system” was using binder clips along the false ceilings that our offices and labs had. Use little ones for individual cables, and big ones for big cable runs. They were easy to move, you could usually trace where the cables went, and the cables didn’t get tangled up, either.

    Unfortunately, they weren’t much to look at. Sometimes the bosses complained about that. Still, they’re better than lots of things that are designed for the task.

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