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'We felt like we were channeling Dilbert'

Fred Dust: Designing for Dilbert

Fred Dust, IDEO designer
Fred Dust, IDEO's lead designer of Dilbert's Ultimate Cube: 'We're going to get those cubicles out of our offices by 6 o'clock tonight.'

dilbertRead the transcript of our chat with Adams, in which the "Dilbert" creator congratulates one our cube-bound chatters: "I applaud you for getting paid and not doing work. Well done."

By Porter Anderson
CNN Career

(CNN) -- When last we checked in with Scott Adams, he was taking a nap on the floor.

The creator of "Dilbert" -- and all that this bent-necktied indentured office victim means to the corporati -- was telling that around 1 p.m. daily, he gets to feeling nap-ish and lies down on his studio floor for 40 winks.

Well, on Tuesday, IDEO designer Fred Dust offered Adams, and Dilbert, some alternatives.

An installation called Dilbert's Ultimate Cubicle has been unveiled this week at IDEO headquarters in San Francisco. And one of Adams' (let alone Dilbert's) favorite features of Dust's modular design may be a snap hammock: "Nestled away until needed," the installation's text reads, "the hammock quickly stretches to full length to allow you a comfortable nap."

graphic Of the amenities mentioned by Fred Dust for Dilbert's Ultimate Cubicle, which would you like to have the most?

Boss monitor.
View module (electronic window).
Murphy chair.
Aquarium module.
View Results
dilbert Pre-Dilbertian achievements:
Click here for an interactive look at IDEO designer Fred Dust's designs for the Stanford Learning Lab and the DePaul Health Center.


Dust may be ready for one of those, himself.

"We're still building the cube," he says -- is he out of breath? -- rather scarily close to the unveiling. Modules from various IDEO shops around the Bay area are trucking over their contributions. This full-size, four-walled Dilbertian delight is coming together just hours before its scheduled noon EDT unveiling.

While many of the final elements were kept secret until Tuesday's unveiling, Dust confirms that the cube has an aquarium module, for example. Maybe a target module for darts. That hammock module, of course. And there's a whimsical "Murphy seat" -- like a Murphy bed that folds down from the wall, the seat of this guest chair flips down, allowing a big pink flower painted on it to "bloom" for the cube's eternally hassled inhabitant.

"It's an interactive unit," Dust says, "this flower that sort of perks up. We wanted to look at a cube and get a sense of welcome instead of 'Oh, my God, it's another day.'"

There's more: "We have a 'view window'" that displays a picture of a scene in the otherwise windowless cubicle. And get this: "There's a 'boss monitor' -- so you can tell when the boss is coming."

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Doing it for Dilbert

Dust worked "very closely with Scott Adams. When he came to us, he was like, 'I have some ideas,' and we told him the best way to integrate those ideas was to have him become part of the team. So we pulled him in.

"We'd do research, he was part of that initial phase, then we'd get him with us at the table. We'd then build full prototypes; he'd be right there with us.

"The thing about Scott is that he's become an expert on workplace environments because everybody who has some kind of workplace problem and knows 'Dilbert' sends e-mail to Scott. He has this huge repository of knowledge about what people don't like about work. We were able to tap into that knowledge for Dilbert's cube -- Scott was our resident expert.

"And Scott's a really calm guy. So 'I really like this' meant he was really excited about something. I think he's really enjoyed it."

Find out how "Dilbert" creator Scott Adams   approached working with Fred Dust and the IDEO team. And check out our interactive click-through tour of Dilbert's Ultimate Cubicle.

Designing Dilbert's optimal office space presented a series of challenges rarely encountered by Dust and his team at IDEO, a company that specializes in designing customized, user-specific environments, products and services.

For one thing, the man of the hour is a cartoon. "We tend to work very closely with our clients," Dust says. "People say one thing -- like, 'Oh, I always go over here when I'm doing this task' -- and then they do exactly the opposite thing. So for our projects, we do a lot of observational research. We even take them out on the research with us."

It's this kind of observation, for example, that revealed to Dust that certain students at Stanford University -- for whom he designed a learning lab space -- never went to the library to study, although they told him that's where they always went to hit the books.

But with the Dilbert cube ... no client to follow around. "Well, OK, so actually there were times when we felt like we were channeling Dilbert. But what we did for him was go out and document everything, bring it back and say, 'What do we see here?' We treated the comics as our documentation."

In other words, they observed Dilbert and Dogbert, The Boss and Catbert, all moving around in the memo-maze of comic-strip cubicles that make up his beige and barren world. "In the end," says Dust, "when you see the final product, the solution is very specific to the problems we saw. We wanted to know how to make the cube more homey, more lie what those characters want."

But another problem presented itself, as the research rolled forward. "Nobody on our team had ever worked in a cubicle."

As shocking as this may be to the cubed citizens of standard workday oppression, everybody doesn't work in a cubicle. IDEO, as is the fashion among forward-thinking design firms, has a very wide-open space for its headquarters.

"And suddenly, we knew we had to have cubicles," Dust says. "So we built them. We brought a cube farm right into the middle of our open space. We've been working in them for two months, basically, to get the insight into what it's like. It's pretty funny."

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Hybrid at work

Not surprisingly for the type of innovative work IDEO is known, Dust is almost without words when asked what line of work he'd tell someone he's in if he had to declare his career on demand.

"I guess, well, hm. OK, well yeah, I think I'd say I'm a designer of spaces." But he could also be called a designer of environments or of interactive objects within those environments, even of moods and sensations.

graphicLabor Day at
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  • 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

  • Dust, 33, has been with IDEO for two years. He's from Chicago. "My background is pretty eclectic. I was an art student, spent years doing interactive media work with artists here in the Bay area. The work I was doing was getting bigger and bigger as time was going by -- and I realized, 'This is turning into architecture.'"

    So Dust has a bachelor's degree in art history from Reed College and went to the University of California at Berkeley for a master's degree in architecture. "So here at IDEO, they think I'm kind of a mutt. It's not like I'm an architect's architect.

    "But I've became more and more interested in the way people work. If you can affect how people work, you've affected a large part of how they live their lives."

    Dust's focus has been on office spaces so frequently that when Adams came to IDEO about Dilbert's cubicle, the company left the decision to Dust -- if he'd lead the project, they'd do it.

    Two of Dust's key projects there so far have been the Stanford Learning Lab -- now under construction -- and a new patient-care model for the DePaul Health Center. And currently, he's working on a mobile dentistry treatment unit.

    A hallmark of IDEO's work is its creation of full-scale models and prototypes during development. At times, working professionals are brought into such trial spaces "to see what they're bumping into, what works and what doesn't.

    In fact, Dilbert's Ultimate Cube has been built in the large staging area IDEO uses for such projects.

    "The whole thing," Dust says, "has been about getting the right balance between who is Dilbert and who is the user. We didn't get rid of the walls because the walls are real for Dilbert."

    But those walls aren't so real for Dust.

    "You know what we're going to do, now that Dilbert's cube is being unveiled?" he asks impishly. "We're going to get those cubicles out of our offices by 6 o'clock tonight."



    • IDEO -- with a popup about Dilbert's Ultimate Cubicle
    • Dilbert Zone, the official "Dilbert" Web site
    • The Dilbert Store
    • Dilbert's Desktop Games
    • Reed College
    • University of California, Berkeley

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