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Aerons and Air Hockey... dot com excess or essential tools?

The Aeron chair. Air hockey. Espresso machines. Hip, urban design with a touch of MOMA. In the pre-bubble dot coms, aesthetics mattered. Having a fun workspace mattered. Having the best toys (including workstations, ginormous monitors, etc.) mattered. But when the dot coms went south they took the chairs and the toys and the stimulating workspace with them. We want them back. We need them back. You can keep the lame (and by "lame" I mean "WTF were they thinking?") business models, thank-you, but bring back our Aerons!

The thing is, we all expect and understand why designers have--and need--creative work spaces, yet we somehow think programmers (or just about any other role that's not considered one of the "creatives") don't. We act as if programmers don't care about their environment. But you don't need to know an Eames from an Eero to appreciate the impact your environment has on your energy, creativity, productivity, and happiness.

Way before the dot com days, I spent several years in Los Angeles working at design/creative shops, often as the sole programmer in a sea of artists. The first thing I noticed when I started working at these places was how good it felt to be in a place where the aesthetics were taken very seriously. Lighting, walls, materials, colors, floors, layouts, offices-with-doors (you can't be creative without some alone time!). I swear I wrote better code in those environments.

Then I started working at game companies, where it was expected that everyone's workspace would be knee-deep in toys--light sabers, life-size Capt. Kirk standees, Lego masterpieces, vintage robots and other sci-fi kitsch, and of course--Nerf weapons. Once I learned to duck at the right moment, I swear I wrote better code in those environments.

Then I went to work at Sun. Not the engineering part, in California, but the huge new Colorado campus. And while you were certainly free to dress up your cube any way you liked, and the coffee was pretty good, this was NOT the Sun that I'd heard about. No weird MIT-style pranks where someone's car is reassembled in their office over lunch. No, it was more like Office Space out here. Not that it wasn't light years better than a lot of--or most--tech companies, but the Colorado campus just didn't have the geek/festive mojo I'd expected.

But then it got worse... I started working from home. It took me a long time to realize that it wasn't so much the other people that were missing, it was the stimulating work environment. I tried coffee shops and considered shared office spaces where other self-employed or work-from-home people can have some of the benefits of an office, but I actually prefer to work alone. It's not the people I miss... it's being in an environment that makes me feel creative and energetic. I want a space that matches my enthusiasm.

All that changed when I learned that Dori Smith had rented a 1957 Airstream office. I'd lusted after Airstreams for years, and when I went to visit her, I knew it was exactly what I'd been looking for.

Finally, after two years of looking (and saving), I found and bought a vintage 1966 (recently restored) 23-foot Silver Streak trailer. (Silver Streak is a "fork" of the original Airstream.) This is my new baby, with my dog Clover in the doorway:


And it's perfect. It's parked exactly two feet away from the side of the house (a house I share with my horse trainer and his wife), and the wifi from the house works beautifully. I haven't felt this good working in years. During my search I found a variety of people who use vintage trailers as their work studios, all equally thrilled. But I also discovered an incredibly passionate vintage travel-trailer community, especially over on Tincantourists.

I don't have an Aeron, but I do get to work at a retro dinette with the original formica ; )

Don't underestimate the importance of your work environment, and don't be quick to consider things like Aerons and office aesthetics and toys wasteful. It's just the opposite. Apparently Joel Spolsky agrees.

A few other relevant links on the importance of a playful environment:

Nial Kennedy on incentives.

Joel's Field Guide To Developers

Metropolis article

37signals on the importance of not being interrupted (I'll say more on the danger of distractions--and the need for plenty of 'alone time'-- in another post)

And my earlier post on the science of how dull environments hurt your brain.

Don't for a moment think that the aesthetics and stimulation of your work environment don't matter! So, what have been some of your most stimulating work environments? And if you work from home, what are you doing to make it inspirational?

And here are a few more pictures of my new office than you really want to see:







Posted by Kathy on October 2, 2006 | Permalink


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» Creative Space...Creative People? from Here's The Thing
I hope so. I think so. Ripple is in the middle of a buildout designed to do so, and it's nice to see someone else making the same case that we do: Design matters, tools matter, environment matters. It's especially [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 2, 2006 3:17:00 PM

» Aerons and Workplace from James Duncan Davidson
Kathy posts today about her new Silver Streak office. In it she says: Don't underestimate the importance of your work environment, and don't be quick to consider things like Aerons and office aesthetics and toys wasteful. It's just the opposite. [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 2, 2006 4:12:06 PM

» Aerons and the Importance of a Good Work Environment from anthropomorphy
Creating Passionate Users has a great post about the importance of a good work environment, in which the author buys a fantastic Airstream trailer for use as an office: But then it got worseI started working from home. It took... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 2, 2006 8:08:33 PM

» Problogging Tip: The Need for a Creative Environment from Blogging Pro
I started my problogging career as a corporate problogger, meaning I blogged mostly in the context of the company I worked for. Incidentally, I was also part of the companys team that developed a blogging application, so it was very apt for an i... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 8, 2006 2:24:21 PM

» Pimp my workspace from Punchline Labs
Besides bigger displays and faster machines, I think the next productivity enhancement Im going to pursue is a kick-ass office/workspace. Herere a few that have caught my eyes over the years: Matt Haugheys home office re [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 29, 2007 7:52:03 PM


That's awesome! I've been dreaming of airstreams ever since I saw Chris Deam's updated design a few years ago.

Posted by: Aaron Kassover | Oct 2, 2006 2:33:30 PM

That's definately NOT too many pictures. That is one rad trailer!

Posted by: Lance Fisher | Oct 2, 2006 2:37:17 PM

This confirms everything I assumed about you!

Posted by: John Dodds | Oct 2, 2006 2:46:00 PM

To hell with the Aeron chair -- I would die without the newer, better Herman Miller chair, the Mirra. It's more comfortable, looks cooler, is flexible and doesn't bag me when I sit back on it, like the Aeron does.

It's dreamboat, baby. Dream. Boat.

Posted by: Tim S. | Oct 2, 2006 2:48:35 PM

So where's the Aeron? Your office is a whole lot larger than mine (those 6 feet make a big difference), but I've got an Aeron in mine... ;-)

Posted by: Dori | Oct 2, 2006 2:53:00 PM

You might also want to check out Tom Demarco's "Peopleware," which has a lot to say about this very subject.


Posted by: Chris Yeh | Oct 2, 2006 3:06:53 PM

Cool office!

It's somewhat ironic that I read Joel Spolsky's article earlier today and it was all I could think about while reading your article.

Posted by: Jimmy | Oct 2, 2006 4:44:16 PM

I can't believe I've never thought of this.

You've solved so many problems for me with this post. The way our property is laid out makes this perfect.

Do you do Airstream office consulting? I've got 50 questions... :)

Posted by: Brian Clark | Oct 2, 2006 8:54:42 PM

A brilliant post, Kathy, and a great affirmation about our need to PLAY. I agree that the environment can impact your work so much.

Now please note my official jealousy of the Airstream trailer. I'd LOVE that for a workspace – mine would be full of toys or spaghetti (I'd alternate), but it really is the perfect idea for a place to work.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 2, 2006 9:02:44 PM

Umm... speaking of excess, aerons, and hockeys... I don't think you will need a stronger proof than what can be found at flickr:


Posted by: soxiam | Oct 2, 2006 9:12:22 PM

Very very cool. Great job on the trailer.
I could not agree more about the design mattering. I just swallowed the purchase of 5 Herman Miller chairs for my employees. Heres to it paying off in the long run.

Posted by: Levi | Oct 2, 2006 10:17:09 PM

in the right environment, a good trailer is a good thing. here's the teardrop lisa & i built from scratch this last august, with the help of a few good friends:


Posted by: christopher carfi | Oct 2, 2006 10:48:31 PM

-- In this post and Joel's (less in Joel's, he mentioned rock star programmers), there's an implicit assumption that a programmer will _become exceptional_ with the right equipment and enthusiasm. My take is that the afore mentioned things will help a person be the best they can, but they will not turn a hacker into a programmer. --

I read Joel's take on programmers needing an office. I can agree, and, in a limited manner, do. But I've a question.

What about pair programming? What about sitting together at a "round table" of computers so that all programmers are in relative sync regarding the project?

Getting up to go to someone's office involves some breakage. Breakage in the person getting up, plus some breakage in "interrupting" the other person.

I suppose the team could collectively allocate a block of "alone time," as the Signals call it. The rest of the time could be "team time."

Still, it's upsetting to see so much emphasis on programmer's needing time alone and good equipment, but absolutely NO mention of agile practices.

Providing these things to programmers will help them be the best they can be, I agree. But agile attitudes and object mindsets don't come about by sitting on the latest Aeron chair.

Posted by: Rabbit | Oct 2, 2006 11:38:12 PM

Strangely lots of people don't think that programming is creative hence we don't need a sometimes quiet, nicely lit and inspiring place to work. I've worked in companies who have thought a server room is an ideal place to put a programmer, or that placing a programmer next to a sales person will not affect the programmer's working ability.

Posted by: anon | Oct 2, 2006 11:53:20 PM

Wow! That is just great. I have an Aeron, but I would definitely get rid of it for a trailer like that. I think it would also be a brilliant conversation topic with clients.

Posted by: Jan Garcia | Oct 3, 2006 12:12:06 AM

Wow - what an amazing idea. The little kitchenette is a nice touch. I find that getting up out of my chair, walking about and making a coffee or fixing a quick snack is a good way to get my subconcious working on a creative solution to a problem without breaking flow.

Clover is pretty cute. A dog is definitely a good addition to a workplace as well. (-:

Posted by: Spruce Moose | Oct 3, 2006 2:24:51 AM

Now this is cool! I have a remote-working colleague who built a cabin (detractors refer to it as a shed) in his garden, but he finds it cold in winter and hot in summer. When I work from home, I tend to sit at the diningroom table, which is bar-counter height, so my feet don't reach the ground. Not comfortable. Or I slouch on the couch with my laptop on... well, on my lap. Not good for one's back. I really must revisit this - you have inspired me.

Posted by: karyn_romeis | Oct 3, 2006 2:44:58 AM

I could happily live in an airstream motorhome, & almost never emerge. Just live on drive-by foods & work on a laptop inside, blog from a different country every couple of days...

Posted by: Matt Moran | Oct 3, 2006 4:08:13 AM

Interesting, very interesting. I work from home a lot of the time, and personally I can't stand it. Its convenient, but very draining somehow. I had chalked it up to a lack of interaction like you said, but now I'm wondering if there isn't some other change that I can make (a trailer is unrealistic at the moment) that could fix everything. Or at least change it for the better. Hmm...

Posted by: Richard | Oct 3, 2006 6:47:10 AM

I completely agree - a creative, inspiring environment is essential for me too.

Posted by: David | Oct 3, 2006 7:03:23 AM


Posted by: mitch | Oct 3, 2006 7:14:38 AM

On a practical note, how do you get Wifi in and out of that tin can?

Posted by: Richard Cook | Oct 3, 2006 8:20:02 AM

I'm a programmer working out of a home office and after reading your article I think I need to rethink how I have my office setup. When I moved into my townhouse I also moved up into a separate bedroom and office which was great, but that's gotten old. It's like I'm running on empty and there isn't a gas station in sight. So it's time to get creative.

Posted by: Mike | Oct 3, 2006 10:10:46 AM

You are great - I loved this post and I absolutely love your website. Every time a new one comes out I try to integrate your ideas into the product that I am selling.

Out of the fifty+ blogs I am subscribed to (rss), yours is the first one I look for to see if a new post is available. I have a ton of them "starred" in my google reader account! Yours is the only blog that I am bummed about when you miss a day or two!

Keep up the awesome work.

Posted by: Bob | Oct 3, 2006 10:37:28 AM

Awesome post. And I'd totally agree with the whole "environment-o-creativity" thing.

One interesting kinda/sorta counterpoint over at gapingvoid.com

take a look at "10. The more talented somebody is, the less they need the props."

Interesting to think about. How much of my creativity is the props getting me "in the flow", and how much is my innate, internal passion to do it, damn the torpedos full speed ahead!


Posted by: aaron | Oct 3, 2006 2:00:28 PM

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