A cubicle, cubicle desk or office cubicle is a partially enclosed workspace, separated from neighboring workspaces by partitions that are usually five to six feet (1.5 to 1.8 m) tall. A cubicle is partially or entirely open on one side to allow access. A cubicle's purpose is to isolate office workers from the sights and noises of an open workspace, the theory being that this allows workers more privacy and helps them to concentrate without distractions. Horizontal work surfaces are usually suspended from the partitions of cubicles, as is shelving, overhead storage, and other amenities.
The term cubicle comes from the Latin cubiculum, for bed chamber. It was used in English as early as the 15th century. It eventually came to be used for small chambers of all sorts, and for small rooms or study spaces with partitions which do not reach to the ceiling.
Like the older carrel desk, a cubicle seeks to give a degree of privacy to the user while taking up minimal space in a large or medium sized room. Like the modular desk of the mid-20th century, it is composed of modular elements that can be arranged in various ways with standard hardware or custom fasteners, depending on the design. Installation is generally performed by professionals, although some cubicles allow configuration changes to be performed by users without specific training. Cubicles are highly configurable, allowing for a variety of elements such as work surfaces, overhead bins, drawers, and the like to be installed, depending on the individual user's needs.
Some sources attribute the introduction of the cubicle desk to the computer chip manufacturer Intel Inc. during the 1960s. Its creation is generally attributed to Robert Propst, a designer from Colorado who worked for Herman Miller Inc., a major manufacturer of office furniture. It was based on a 1965 prototype and named the Action Office, made up of modular units with an open plan, an entirely novel system for the time.
An office filled with cubicles is sometimes called a cube farm. Although humorous, the phrase usually has negative connotations. Cube farms are often found in high-tech companies, but they also appear in the insurance industry and other service-related fields. Many cube farms were built during the dotcom boom.
On the positive side the cubicle desk offers options for customization by its users which is not comparable to other desk forms, past or present. It can transform all of the walls surrounding the white-collar worker into productive work surfaces, or nooks for personal expression. Because all of the walls are within grasp or reach all of the time, and because many of them offer holes and hooks for hanging small shelves, bulletin boards or other accessories, elements which were once placed only on the horizontal surface of the desktop can be moved to the vertical surfaces all around. While the makers of cubicle desks usually employ proprietary standards for their fasteners and accessory hooks, this has not stopped the makers of small-scale desktop accessories from producing and marketing myriads of pen holders, magazine racks, and other items which are made to fit the most popular brands of cubicle desk partitions.
Note that it is also possible to create a cubicle-filled office environment without the use of cubicle desks by combining traditional free-standing desk forms like the pedestal desk with special types of free-standing partitions. This kind of environment is often part of a general office landscaping effort which was popularized in the 1950s and the 1960s in Germany and the United Kingdom.
Some interesting R&D has been going on in the field of cubicles at the turn of this millennium. One of the most sarcastic critics of the cubicle has been Scott Adams, speaking through his comic strip, Dilbert. In 2001 he teamed up with the design company IDEO to create "Dilbert's Ultimate Cubicle". It had some whimsical aspects but there were also some very sound design ideas such as an original modular approach and attention to usually neglected ergonomic details like the change in light orientation as the day advances. Similarly, Douglas Coupland has coined the phrase "veal-fattening pen", in parody of the cubicle in his novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.
Between 2000 and 2002, IBM partnered with the office furniture manufacturer Steelcase, and did some very thorough research on the software, hardware, and ergonomic aspects of the cubicle of the future (or the office of the future) under the name "BlueSpace". They produced several prototypes of this hi-tech multi screened workspace and even exhibited one at Walt Disney World. Bluespace offered movable multiple screens inside and outside, a projection system, advanced individual lighting heating and ventilation controls, and a host of software applications to orchestrate everything.
In 1994, the designer Douglas Ball planned and built several iterations of the "Clipper" or "CS-1", a "capsule" desk looking like the streamlined front fuselage of a fighter plane. Meant as a computer workstation, it had louvers and an integrated ventilation system, as well as a host of built-in features typical of the ergonomic desk. An office space filled with these instead of traditional squarish cubicles would look like a hangar filled with small flight simulators. It was selected for the permanent design collection of the design Museum in the United Kingdom.