5 Tricks to Create Privacy in an Open Office

Open offices can save money and increase collaboration, but they also increase distractions, noise levels, and the potential for more introverted team members to be overwhelmed by constant social interaction.

When such spaces are well-designed, these drawbacks can be mitigated with clever seating arrangements and a “quiet” office culture that limits conversations to designated meeting spaces. But if you’ve just moved into an open office and feel the need for more privacy, there are a few strategies you can try.

1. Think like a ninja

In an open office, noise and distraction can sneak up on you when you least expect them in the form of chatty coworkers, loud phone conversations, and people walking around or entering or leaving the room. In order to combat these distractions and find space to recharge, it’s crucial to be proactive, taking every opportunity for focused, individual work and recharging.

Elan Morgan, a blogger on the Quiet Revolution site, advocates making space for solitude, even if that means not joining the gang for lunch every day or skipping the daily watercooler or coffee station chit-chat. If constant interruptions are leaving you drained, identify every possible moment of quiet in your day and guard each one like a vitally important meeting.

If possible, find other ways to interact and make yourself available at specific times for collaboration and discussion, but make your own energy and productivity needs a high priority.

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Brilliant or terrifying? Image via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

2. Build a “soft wall”

Building your own cubicle out of books, furniture, or lumber might send the wrong message to your more extroverted colleagues, but “soft” barriers like plants, artwork, or even a coat rack with a big puffy coat can offer some visual peace and quiet, depending on the layout.

As for auditory distractions, noise-cancelling headphones are great, but it may also be necessary to come up with a system to let people know when you’re unavailable. If your company uses a shared calendar, block off certain times as busy and others as available, or set your status to “busy” on company chat systems.

Don’t have either of those? Do as one commenter on Quiet Revolution suggested and make a deal with your colleagues – you’ll block off time for one-on-one meetings or to help them with their work if they’ll return the favor and let you work in peace for a block of time each day.

3. Find a retreat

If your company is moving to an open-plan office to save money, offer to work from home a few days a week. Not only does telecommuting reduce costs, many people find they are considerably more productive without the distractions of an office and the time spent commuting. If you can improve the company’s bottom line while still making time to build connections with colleagues, you’ll have a solid argument.

For the days you are in the office, pay attention to the typical schedule and try to do your most focused work when everyone else is in meetings or at another location. Or consider booking a meeting room for you and any introverted friends where you can complete important work in silence and then return to the camaraderie and banter of the bullpen.

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Camaraderie… banter… what’s not to love? Image via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

4. Propose a change

If the office layout is reducing your productivity, ask for a few accommodations such as dividers, movable furniture that creates sound and visual barriers, or definitive “quiet hours” where people can focus on individual tasks and then reconvene for collaboration.

Well-designed open office spaces usually include smaller spaces like meeting “pods” where groups can hold private meetings or individuals can find a quiet place to work as well as large, open areas for discussion (or headphone-mediated silence).

If management isn’t willing to modify policy for the entire office, ask if you can at least move to a quieter corner where you’ll have fewer visual distractions. Chat tools like Google Talk, Slack, and Skype can also allow for discussion that doesn’t break concentration in the same way as a tap on the shoulder.

5. Stand up for yourself.

If management won’t consider your (politely worded) requests for fewer distractions (or the evidence that open spaces decrease productivity), consider looking for another position. It’s easier said than done, but good management should empower employees to do their jobs, not hinder them.

If working in an open office and coping with unfriendly management is damaging your health, driving your stress levels through the roof, and making you dread going to work, make it a priority to look for other options. Many people find working in an open office difficult despite its potential benefits.

Bottom line? If you can’t make it work for you, take the ultimate proactive step and find a place that does. You’re not crazy, and you’re not alone!

Featured image via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Mental Models by Sheldon Reiffenstein

Mental Models

The Science of Seeing and Responding to Visual Stimulus

Family tree, barriers to free speech, time flying…in the time it takes you to read these three metaphors, you’ve very likely formed images in your mind that help you give meaning to them. We do it all the time, use “mental models” to orient our thinking, understanding and response to words and images.

“Mental models are representations that embody information about the structure, function, relationships, and other characteristics of objects in the world, and thus can help people explain and predict the behavior of things in the world around them,” wrote K.J.W. Craik in his 1943 book, The Nature of Explanation. Craik was an original thinker behind how the mind forms models of reality and uses them to predict similar future events.

This “science” of mental models plays a major role in how people view the world. When we see, the light reflects off an object, enters our eyes through our pupils, is inverted on the retina, then zips along the optic nerve to the visual cortex where the image is reconstructed and classified as to what it is. But images are not static in the brain. As the image moves along the optic nerve, other parts of the brain are stimulated as well. Not only do we see an object for its shape, its location in space, and orientation to the objects around it, other areas of the brain respond and light up based on memory, emotion, and the senses of smell, sound, taste and touch. A musician sees a musical score and the melody pops in her head. We greet a friend we haven’t seen for a year and remember the great time we had together at the county fair. A guy seeing a picture of fish and chips, starts salivating.

In a 1986 article “Cognitive Science and Science Education”, psychologist and Harvard professor Susan Carey wrote that mental models “help shape actions and behavior, influence what people pay attention to in complicated situations, and define how people approach and solve problems.”

In our business, Maga employs an understanding of mental models in designing our visual solutions. We construct our visualizations to reflect our customer’s mental models. How do they expect something to work and how do we capture that visually? This is crucial to being successful at using visualization to influence, educate, and change behavior among stakeholders. A graphic image that doesn’t accomplish this is simply a pretty illustration.

Mental models are catalysts for successful information seeking; thus are useful in situations where problem-solving behavior is required. This is a critical factor behind how Maga designs visualizations. The majority of our customers are seeking insight into highly complex business with no obvious solution at hand. Mental models are one starting point for our team of strategists and designers as they create visualizations that smooth out the impact of change management efforts, system introductions, or process transformations.



Taking mental models into account when creating new visuals can help diminish the concerns people have with a new initiative. Then with a powerful visual a new mental model becomes the new paradigm.


Carey, S. (1986). Cognitive science and science education. American Psychologist, 41, 1123-1130. Reprinted in Open University Press, Readings in the Psychology of Education and in C. Hedley, J. Houtz, & A. Baratta (eds.), Cognition, Curriculum, and Literacy. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1990.

Craik KJW. The Nature of Explanation. Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, UK: 1943.

Borgman CL. The user’s mental model of an information retrieval system: An experiment on a prototype online catalog. Int J Man-Mach Stud. 1986;24(1):47–64.


PopTech 2014 by Scott Williams, CEO, Maga Design Group, Inc.

59 minutes until PopTech 2014!!
It’s like traveling to see a long lost friend:  its been 3 years since we have made it to Camden, Maine for the annual PopTech conference.  I like to say it’s the one week a year that I’m truly glad to be a human being.  So many varied speakers from all walks of life, all intent on changing the world.  The conference, unlike Ted or any large conference in a major city, is focused on keeping the speakers and attendees in a continuous face to face dialogue.  The lunches, dinners, breakout sessions, and activities are all occurring where Camden-ers are living their day-to-day lives.  Maga has been a part of this conference on and off for over 10 years.  We have had the chance to be here with our clients (IBM, Nat Geo), and meet many friends – P&G, SpaceX, Dan Pink, Malcolm Gladwell – along the way.  In prepping for this year’s session about Rebellion – I am brought to mind 4 of my favorite presentations over the years.  All content from the conference is free – check these out !!!
More to come…. (we will be posting to maga’s twitter, facebook and instagram) throughout the week … #magapoptech

Visual Super Powers: Dig South in Charleston, SC

By Scott Williams Founder and CEO of Maga Design

In today’s world, it is increasingly difficult to attain the clarity needed for organizational decision-making. At Maga Design, we’ve spent the past decade creating maps to help organizations see and define their futures. Like Wolverine (my favorite superhero), maps have powerful healing agents that help organizations overcome any toxin, especially complexity.

Dig South: Visual Super Powers HD Version from Maga Design on Vimeo.

Data Collection: Developed using visual design and human behavior By: Patrick Johnson, Design Strategist UI/UX

By: Patrick Johnson, Design Strategist UI/UX


How do you keep strangers engaged while asking them a series of questions for which you need to compile honest and accurate responses?

That was the question my team and I faced when designing for a data collecting exercise at Dig South, the premier startup expo in Charleston, South Carolina. We wanted to gather data and learn more about event goers and understand what they liked, why they were there and what challenges they faced.

We knew, out of the gate, we only had a matter of minutes with each poll participant so we’d need a solution that could quickly and clearly explain what we were asking and how to respond. We searched for the right polling software or app, but came up with options that were too involved for users and didn’t offer the simplicity and visual angle we needed. So, we rolled up our sleeves and created and built our own app.

As a UI/UX (User Interface/User eXperience) Strategist, it is important to always focus on the user and how human behavior plays a role in what you develop; keeping mind that advancements in technology must work in balance with our current behaviors while influencing change for the better. This type of design thinking originated from my background in urban design where I used this thought process to create physical spaces where users felt connected to and could navigate easily upon their first experience. So when we built our polling app called POHLer, we kept it simple yet powerful and tapped into the specific behaviors and needs of our users.


Design Considerations: How They Influenced the Final Product

(Handy) Technology is our hook. Technology, such as tablets, gives users the ability to simply touch a device to operate it. By handing a user a tablet, we found they are more willing to complete a poll due to the intrigue and simplicity of the technology.

Keep visuals top of mind. Visuals are applied to each poll question we feature on the app. This helps users better understand the question so they can then more quickly process answer options, that in turn helps to provide more accurate selection and response process.

Keep it simple. Simple UI (user interface) components were designed for each process and layout of the app: Questions featured multiple-choice answers to increased the speed at which a user could take the poll and allowed for the direct comparison of data.

Don’t force it. Ever taken a survey and just selected answers so you could be done? That’s want we wanted to prevent. All of the questions asked were optional so a users never felt pressured to make a selection they weren’t confident about. This strategy helps reduce the stress on a user and provides more honestly with answers.

Show the impact. It’s critical to show users that their input matters and will make a difference. Otherwise why would they want to invest the time to offer their opinion? The results of the poll were posted live on display screens throughout the booth so users could see immediately how their answers stacked up with others. We also captured participant’s home zip codes and displayed the geographic results in order to showcase the geographical reach we were achieving.

Reduce reluctance. In order to spark interest we needed to create an environment that would draw participants in, make them feel comfortable, and intrigue them to take the poll. In order to accomplish this we used a mix of monitor displays that showcased result and a video explaining what we were doing. We also incorporated furniture that you would find in a home such as a wood dinning table with chairs, couch and rug. This gave the user a familiar context that was comforting which in turn help to increase participation and interest.

All of these components came together to produce a final product and process that is helping us gather information in a simple yet effective manner. Each time we utilize POHLer we find insights we would not have imagined and in turn this provides us with valuable user feedback. In all, it is about learning how to design technology so that it taps in to how people really interact with it.