The question of who invented cubicles is one without a firm answer. Many sources credit Robert Propst, who invented an open office system as a designer for a furniture company, Herman Miller Inc., during the 1960s. Propst, who died in 2000, reportedly denied inventing the cubicle, however. Instead of crediting — or blaming — Propst, it might be more accurate to say that cubicles evolved from Propst's ideas about office environments.
A Better Arrangement for Offices
In the early 1960s, Propst looked at way that typical offices were organized, with desks in orderly rows that did little to express the individuality of the worker and had to be kept in pristine order. He felt they had a clinical and demoralizing feel, and he believed that partitions would offer workers privacy, a little less noise and a chance to express themselves in their own office space. The end result was Herman Miller's Action Office series of furniture and other office equipment, including movable walls that led the way for cubicles.
Propst’s intent was to provide an unfashionable blank slate that could be customized for each office worker. Pictures could decorate the walls, and each worker's space could be in any condition of order without affecting the overall appearance of the entire room. Propst came up with the idea of semi-enclosed spaces and suggested communal spaces for workers, although those did not materialize in all companies that adopted cubicles. By the late 1960s, they had become popular in many offices, even if their form was not what Propst intended. With the use of movable partitions, offices could be rearranged and work spaces added or subtracted as needed.
Cubicles have been frequently criticized. Some workers lament their lack of space or privacy. Others say that being in a large room full of workers in cubicles creates many distractions. Critics say that the walls of a cubicle do little to provide privacy and that they limit communication between workers as well as the workers' ability to see their surroundings. A cubicle subculture — or anti-cubicle subculture — had come to the fore by the 1980s. Comic strips such as Dilbert and films such as Office Space mocked the restrictive space of cubicles and the imperfect office environments that they can create.