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Design by Headphones

05.18.12 / Chris Lind

Walk around any architecture office and you are likely to find a lot of similarities including dual monitor workstations, drawing sets and physical models.  One common item that seems to be more prevalent now more than ever before is headphones. Whether they are earbuds or noise-cancelling (or both at the same time), architects are working and designing to whatever is coming out of their headphones.

Does wearing headphones and concurrently listening to something other than the daily routine of an office influence how we work?  Recently, I polled some employees to find out more. It turns out that the answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no answer.  Some in the office use headphones strictly as background noise – whether that is a podcast, NPR news or classical music.  In these instances, it is more like “passive listening.”  Others put on headphones and listen to nothing at all – more of a way to focus on difficult tasks at hand on a project.  It helps them focus more than anything else. And then there are some employees that could not imagine using headphones at all.

Is this a generational thing?  For instance, one employee said that he started using headphones in architecture school to block out noise distractions while in the studio setting. The trend seems to be that when there is detailed, precise and intricate work to be done, the headphones come off for focus but in tasks that include graphic work and rendering, the headphones stay on for background listening or even inspiration.

Additionally, one has to ask whether headphones work against the historically collaborative team environment of a design studio.  Some older architects would argue that headphone usage discourages team interaction.

Are there occasions where headphones (and specifically music) help someone complete a task?  I found that the answer is yes, in some cases there definitely are.  One employee points to the example of when “you’re grinding towards a deadline” and working on tasks that you have done over and over again it helps to put headphones on and listen to music as a way to create “a rhythm to the work.”  For another employee the headphones provide a “constant pace and melody” when working towards a deadline.

One employee feels more productive using headphones – it creates a “portable, personal headspace” where it is actually easier to concentrate on certain project work.  The headphones seem to help individuals get immersed in project work.  Since ARC is in an open office environment, sometimes outside noise such as phone calls and meetings in conference rooms can prove to be a distraction.

Certain tasks call out for headphones while others urge for a complete laser-like focus on the job at hand.  The level of intricacy on a project sometimes drives headphone usage but you also have to be disciplined when using them. It is very easy to zone out and start paying more attention to what is coming out of your headphones and less attention to what you are working on.

To wear or not wear seems to be the question of the moment. The answer is up to you. 

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