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'A little shred of dignity and recognition'

Scott Adams: Dilbert's Ultimate Cubicle

Scott Adams
Scott Adams, creator of "Dilbert," stands in Dilbert's Ultimate Cubicle at IDEO's headquarters in San Francisco, California: "I started out with the basic needs -- eat, sleep, avoid the boss."

dilbertRead the transcript of our chat with Adams, in which the dude tells us, "Dilbert might never have been created if I had a good cubicle during my corporate jail term."

By Porter Anderson
CNN Career

(CNN) -- "I've had tens of thousands of messages over the years from disgruntled cubicle dwellers who were griping about something about their office experience."

Scott Adams -- creator of "Dilbert" and one of the most avidly read cartoonists in the career universe -- has always made his e-mail address available. And, not being as careful as he might have been, he's gotten what he asked for: constant input from deep inside the rabbit warrens of corporate America.

"Somehow, accidentally, I realized I'd become a leading authority on what's wrong with cubicles. You don't have to be Thomas Edison to realize there's a product possibility there."

As quick as anyone to laugh at his own commercial acumen, Adams decided that one potentially bankable response might be to address the matter head-on and design what Dilbert -- or any of us -- might want in an ideal cubicle.

graphic It's worth noting that no one on the Dilbert's Ultimate Cubicle team -- from Scott Adams to the IDE0 group -- is normally a cubicle worker. Are you?

Yes. I'm a cube-careerist.
Sometimes. I move around.
No. I've been spared.
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Here's your tour of Dilbert's Ultimate Cubicle. Click here for an interactive gallery of views from Scott Adams and Fred Dust's collaboration.

The upshot has been unveiled this week in San Francisco at the Pier 28 Annex headquarters of design firm IDEO. From a "boss monitor" (it lets you keep tabs on the suit) to rotating floor modules that can change what's under foot from Astroturf to a Persian carpet, Dilbert's ideal domain is a collaborative effort between Adams and IDEO project leader Fred Dust.

"I've had a great time," Adams says. "I don't get to work with this many smart people all at the same time on one cool thing very often. "

All those smart people gave him a turn at first, he concedes, the team approach being something a solitary cartoonist isn't accustomed to seeing in play. "They've got this whole design process that starts with this incredible, chaotic brainstorming session where anything goes and nothing's criticized -- and at that stage, you're pretty sure nothing good can ever come out of this.

"Then you find out that they've done this before. And they actually do throw away the bad ideas. They do a rapid prototype and start building stuff. I had a sense that the shape of the cubicle still would be square and occupy the same amount of space."

In that same space, however, the cubicle according to IDEO has become a modular nest of amenities and comforts. "The modular concept surprised all of us. I think we all thought that if this was fun and interesting and funny, that it would be a job well done. But somewhere along the way, the idea of being able to snap in modules made our lower jaws kind of drop. We looked at it and said, 'Well, this is actually a good idea.'"

'Morning coffee or afternoon cola'

It's such a good idea that Adams would like to see a display of Dilbert's Ultimate Cubicle sent out on tour, as is done with many commercial and art installations -- no dates or itinerary yet. And you get the distinct feeling that no one in the "Dilbert" camp would object if someone decided to produce the cube for sale in the canyons of commerce.

Scott Adams inspects what may be the most popular amenity of Dilbert's ideal cubicle. It's a "snap hammock." You pull it from one wall module, hook it to another module across the cube -- and keep one eye on your "boss monitor" while you take a little siesta. Sweet dreams.  

If that happened, there might be no small amount of joy in Cubicle City. As office space goes, this is one sweet suite.

"I started out with the basic needs -- eat, sleep, avoid the boss. And I tried to build in all the things that meet those basic needs. The hammock gets your napping, of course.

"Then you have the problem that someone always steals your lunch from the common break room. So we have a cooler built into the floor. You just pop it up, stick your lunch in, pop it back down.

"Now, of course, we wanted some protection from your co-workers and your boss. So we've got the guest chair that folds down" from the wall, Murphy-style. "Two advantages: One, they can't borrow it and never bring it back -- huge problem. And two, it activates a timer that after some preset time will make the phone ring so you can take that important call, excuse yourself, send your guest away.

"Now, the big view-screen has an icon for monitoring your boss. Click on that and live video of your boss' door will come up. See if he's in there or if he's leaving.

"We also wanted your cubicle to give you a little shred of dignity and recognition and acknowledge you exist because you're probably not getting that from your co-workers or your boss. So we've built in a mechanical flower that's acoustically activated. When you're gone, it's wilted. But when you come in, it's acoustically activated and pops up to attention, might even shudder a little bit with happiness.

"Even your wastebasket will kind of vibrate with happiness when trash is thrown into it. So you want the cubicle to love you and care for you, kind of a womb experience."

Among the other amenities offered in this workplace Arcadia are a motorized shoe polisher and sun lights that glow or fade to simulate the sun's movement during the day.

graphicLabor Day at
  • International Labor Organization: U.S. employees work longest hours
  • AFL-CIO releases 'workers' rights' study
  • Scott Adams: Dilbert's Ultimate Cubicle
  • Fred Dust: Designing for Dilbert
  • Andersen study: Layoff 'survivors' cite discontent
  • Principal Financial Well-Being Index: 'Erosion in confidence'
  • Study: Multitasking is counterproductive

  • The aquarium module has real fish in it, Adams says. "And there's a feature on the desktop surface, it's kind of a warming pad for your coffee but with a press of the switch it becomes a cooling plate. So it's the same surface but it toggles between being warmer or cooler, depending on whether it's your morning coffee or afternoon cola."

    'Put you in a better mood'

    Despite the technological glories of Dilbert's cube, Adams says he's not quite ready to leave his own cartooning studio. "Still happy with it. But I wouldn't mind being in something like this -- the cube -- just for the colors and textures, the variety and the customizability, it's got to put you in a better mood."

    Meanwhile, Adams is working up to the publication of his 19th book. "When did Ignorance Become a Point of View?" is scheduled for release next month from Andrews McMeel Publishing.

    Maybe most fun for Adams in the cubicle project has been a touch of role-playing that seems to have come along with the deal.

    The leader of the IDEO project team for Dilbert's Ultimate Cubicle is designer Fred Dust.  Read about his involvement in the creation of the cube and see an interactive gallery of some of Dust's other IDEO work.

    "You know, they did two things" at IDEO, in getting into the cubicle project. "They moved into cubicles, themselves" -- no more a normal habitat for these Californian designers than for Adams, himself. "And they pored through the comics and looked for ways that Dilbert and his brethren express their frustrations.

    "Of course, I always carry with me, in a virtual sense, the Top 12 complaints. So I listed those and played the role of Dilbert and told them what I'd want in my cubicle."

    "Dilbert" devotees, however, need not worry that Adams has had such a good time and created such a cushy cube that he's forgotten their pain.

    Book No. 20 is also in the works, he says. It's due out in the spring.

    "And that one is called, 'In Your Cubicle No One Can Hear You Scream.'"



    • IDEO -- with a popup about Dilbert's Ultimate Cubicle
    • Dilbert Zone, the official "Dilbert" Web site
    • The Dilbert Store
    • Dilbert's Desktop Games

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