Mind & Matter


Armchair Productivity

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The famous 1979 Maxell ad with modifications by the author (an earlier use of the Petit Confort as a setting for relishing advanced technology).


After much anticipation, Apple finally unveiled its new tablet computer in San Francisco last week. Sitting back in his black Petit Confort chair, Steve Jobs demonstrated the joy of navigating the new iPad with grace and ease. Now that we are able to fully scrutinize the iPad and its capabilities online, the next stage of anticipation builds in preparation for the actual product release in late March.

Critics claim that for most people who own a computer and smartphone, the iPad seems excessive. Fans praise the iPad for its enhanced media delivery, claiming that watching a movie, playing a game, or reading an ebook will be far superior on an iPad than on a computer or smartphone. Both camps generally agree, however, that the iPad won’t be taken very seriously in terms of productivity.

Perhaps this conclusion is premature. Perhaps the iPad will not only offer a new platform for productivity, but also influence the environment in which we work.

If we reflect on technology in the workplace throughout the past 100 years, we will remember that computers began as voluminous rooms that groups of individuals could inhabit. They eventually shrank and became more dispersed, occupying a significant and permanent part of our desks. Today, computers have become so highly miniaturized and distributed that many individuals carry laptops wherever they go.

This rapid change in technology has facilitated the increasingly comfortable integration of computers into our daily lives. It has also influenced the transformation of the office environment, which has shifted over time from a heavily structured domain to a looser, more casual work setting. A more mobile and itinerant workforce must no longer be tied to an office—or even a desk—to be productive. As Steve Jobs demonstrated in San Francisco last week, all you need is a comfortable chair.

For now, critics will whine about the difficulties of on-screen typing or the lack of a mouse. However, the direct connection to content afforded by multi-touch display technology will also offer many new benefits. Typing documents or making spreadsheets on the iPad may be awkward for some at first, but in a few years (and several iPad iterations later), I wouldn’t be surprised if most people prefer doing these activities on the iPad. Even complex CADD software will eventually find a home in the tablet format.

What could this trend mean for future work environments? Will we start trading in our desks for comfy armchairs? Will we choose to hold meetings in casual, lounge-type settings rather than at traditional conference tables? In terms of work ergonomics, will we replace “sitting up” with “sitting back?”

While it is difficult to predict such changes with any accuracy, these notions are not completely far-fetched. The next revolution of personal computing is imminent, and our future workspaces will transform accordingly. Architects and designers, it’s time get out your pencils—and your sketchbook apps.



Comments (5 Total)

  • Posted by: mattgalloway | Time: 12:06 PM Friday, February 12, 2010

    I was excited to reader you post as it validates some of the ideas I have around a new venture I'm working on. Even your title resonated with me as I have a couple of architecture related app for the iPhone on the iTunes store under the name "Armchair Designs". I agree that the iPad has some significant potential in application to architecture. So much so that I'm working on building a business around that idea. It's too early to talk too much about it but I hope to loop you in soon. -M.

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  • Posted by: tmain | Time: 1:30 PM Wednesday, February 03, 2010

    At the moment theIPAD is glorified Knidle. I have been using a mtion Computing Tablet Pc for the last five years, even running AutoCad on the device. Since it is basically a computer built into a flat screen I really do not need a desk top machine. Also, with its handwriting reconigtion software I can write directly on the device; very handy for note taking. Although thicker than the IPAD at .75", it does eveything my desk top computer does. If one is in the market to buy an ebook , the IPAD is a great option since it cna be used to browse the web. check emails, etc., but it has a way to go before it becomes what I thnk it should have been, an MAC PAD PRO.

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  • Posted by: boinzie | Time: 1:02 PM Tuesday, February 02, 2010

    I was both thrilled and disappointed with the iPad. However, I think generation-2 will provide us with with both integrated features (like camera), and 3rd party apps that can help architects get some great usefulness out of it. From presentations to productivity, the iPad has the potential to deliver.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:30 PM Tuesday, February 02, 2010

    In 1990 we were asked to design our ideal work station for Sophomore design studio. My submission was a club chair with ottoman and two touch screens hinged at the middle. Special gloves with finger tip controls served as a peripherals. Essentially two iPads. i just purchased a new laptop and replace every 4-5 years. Already looking forward to my next setup.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:25 PM Tuesday, February 02, 2010

    I can't wait until I cam use this device as a true design tool. Sketching and preparing documents will eventially become as easy as using trace paper (which I still use and continue to hand draw at times). Adding a camera, both rear and front facing will be a plus for on site work and conferencing. But the iPad NEEDS MORE STORAGE! Way to go Apple!

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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.