History of office design infographic

The History of Office Design

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Throughout time, the office space has been a place where people can go to get their work done away from all of the distractions of home. Although they weren’t always widely used as in recent years, it’s important to see how offices evolved and what trends are making their way back.

Early office design infographic of early interior design office ideas and history

Ancient Rome to the 18th Century

Historians believe that the first offices originated in Ancient Rome. They weren’t like the offices of today, but they were places away from the home where official work was conducted. It wasn’t until the mid-1700s where spaces dedicated to work became more of the norm of society. Many office spaces started popping up around London as the British Empire expanded and traded more. These new office spaces varied in design, offering a single room away from distractions for people with more intellectual work and open layouts for people who conducted more hands-on tasks.

Early 20th Century

These office spaces are more traditional and are closely related to what we work in today. Around this time, skyscrapers were popping up around the USA due to the new architectural technologies and this allowed for accommodation of a multitude of companies within one building.

The earliest modern offices took more of a schoolhouse approach when designed. Employees sat in endless rows of desks with management surrounding the perimeter of the room on a raised platform to be able to observe everyone else. This design emphasized efficiency and followed the principals of mechanical engineer’s scientific methodology of “Taylorism”.



To increase efficiency by evaluating every step in a manufacturing process and breaking down production into specialized repetitive tasks. (source)

This methodology faces criticism as it only focuses on how employers can get the most productivity out of their employees and not the wellbeing of employees.

1930s to 1940s

At this time, offices began to expand to have more private office space along with an open plan, some even having a designated pantry/kitchen area for the staff. The most popular office of the time was the Johnson Wax company, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (1939). He designed and built with an open plan, bright lights, warm-tones, and acoustic cork ceilings, and it allowed for over 200 employees to work on one floor and maximize productivity. Many companies during this time began to want their workspaces to reflect their company image, the beginnings of company branding.


The post-depression and post-WWII world brought in office spaces that took human engagement and interaction into consideration. The idea of “Burolandschaft”, a German concept meaning “office landscape” spread throughout Europe and then to other parts of the world. It gave a less rigid approach to the office layout and put an importance on the needs of employees. More collaborative spaces were implemented and all employees sat at the same level, no matter how senior one was.

Towards the end of the ‘60s, another idea began to pick up speed – “The Action Office”. Contrary to Burolandschaft, this gave emphasis on meeting spaces and increased the movement of employees throughout the work day. Modular furniture became more popular to create meeting spaces, but also give employees a more private enclosed space for heads down work. This is where the cubicle began.

This was also a time where more females entered the workforce than ever before which effected the design of the office. They required more privacy and requested “modesty boards”, a plywood section on the front of a desk that covers the legs. This made people think about the open plan and if they wanted women to work in this style of office.


During this time, offices were given the nickname “The Cubicle Farm” as this style became the norm for most office spaces. Similarly, to the 20th Century, office spaces focused more on productivity rather than the wellness of the employees. Cubicles were cheap and modular making them desired in most offices. For two decades, offices looked like a sea of walls that kept employees from collaboration. The design of the office needed a change, bringing us to what we know today.


Each office of the past has brought us to where we are today. We are back in an open plan, but unlike the past, this open plan focuses on employee wellness and collaboration. There are newer technologies to allow employees to be mobile and work from any area of the workspace, known as activity-based working. More recently with the popularity of hybrid working, employees work remotely two to three days a week. Similarly to offices of the 1930s and 1940s, companies are designing their spaces with their company branding in mind, along with making the space fun and inspiring for their teams. Break out and collaboration spaces are a must and not only enhance interaction, but also productivity.

Lessons Learned

HF Planners, LLC has learned from offices of the past and continues to follow current trends to give our clients a wide range of design options. Over the last 20 years, we have gained the knowledge to take from the past and incorporate items from today, such as more sustainable materials, to create a space tailored to our clients and their needs. We have created spaces with increased natural lighting, lighter colors, and open workspaces and incorporated biophilia to improve employee wellness and productivity. HF Planners, LLC is excited to be part of this workplace revolution by helping companies define the best workspace for their company and employees.