The signs are on the wall: make sure you know how to read them as well as everyone else

Posted on May 7, 2013 by Will Lock

 Office cubicles

I’ve seen some bad offices in my days. We all know the type: filled with lines of grey desks, lit by dingy tube lights and buzzing with the hum of old equipment and clapped out air-conditioning units. The air is stale, the atmosphere heavy, and the workers completely uninspired and counting down the minutes until the end of each day.

Too many workplaces fit this description – I’ve worked in a good few of them myself!

Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited to the ‘Workplaces Worth Paying For’ conference, held by fit out and refurbishment specialist, Overbury.

The conference, set amongst the spectacular views offered by Millbank tower, had many presentations to inspire thought. One that particularly caught my attention, and had me thinking of The Doghouse back here in Brighton, was that of Dr Alex Gordon, CEO of semiotics and cultural insight agency, Sign Salad.

Semiotics and Semioticians

For those unfamiliar with semiotics, it may at first seem a somewhat confusing world but, very simply, it is the study of signs, in all their forms, and the way we interpret them. In Sign Salad’s words it is: “How meaning is created and how meaning is communicated”.

Beyond the obvious, we have learned to interpret signs everywhere in life – in fact we’re experts in it. Subconsciously, we are constantly processing the vast amount of information contained in everything around us; from shapes and colours, to smells and sounds.

This isn’t major news; companies spend an awful lot of time and money making sure their logo achieves the desired effect. Each tiny detail is pored over in an attempt to communicate all the things their company wants to be – take Twitter’s explanation of their new logo as a prime example.

But why do we so often stop there?

From Ancient Rome to Google HQ

The office is the ultimate source of corporate signs for your employees. As Dr Gordon informed us, the word ‘office’ stems from Ancient Rome and the Latin, officium, meaning service, official duty, function or business. Those words paint quite a picture: a semantic field that conjures up the dull tasks we might associate with rows of uninteresting cubicles – pure monotony – and honestly who wants that?

No-one. And this is why we are witnessing the appearance of sleeker, more modern offices: Segways at Google, Space Hoppers in the boardroom and coffee shops for relaxing.

Google HQ

This kind of frivolity in a corporate environment may seem like madness to some – and anathema to hard work – but it begs the question of what companies want their office to really mean to their employees.

Do you want an office for work or for creativity?

I’m pretty new to Man Bites Dog but, from the moment I stepped inside The Doghouse, I was saturated with the personality of the brand. For those not familiar with our office, keep your eyes peeled for an upcoming feature about it in Director Magazine, or pop in and say hi!

Dog statues, a grass picnic area, beach huts, deckchairs and mini pebble beach, a pool table, vibrant brain storm room and a bar – colour everywhere and the Brighton sunshine lighting up the kitchen disco ball. It’s pretty hard to be downbeat in these surroundings; in fact it’s pretty hard to be ordinary!

When I think back to the offices I used to work in, it’s quite a change. The sullen slump through the office, dreading another day of officium action, was never going to inspire much more than the bare minimum. More than anything I feel I’ve now been given a chance to enjoy my work – and given the confidence that this is what the company wants me to do.

Getting the most out of your employees and driving your company forward is more important now than ever. Organisations need to be looking for innovation, creativity and energy from their workforce. Indeed, few firms can afford not to. And it seems we’ve learned quite a bit. A new breed of workplaces is cropping up, and with them a changing attitude from ‘towing the company line’ to working collaboratively.

Companies want, and need, creative and motivated staff. That’s something I’ve found in abundance in my time here with Man Bites Dog. I can honestly say I’ve not worked with such a bright bunch of hard-working people before. But before you brand me a sycophant (or lap-dog!) take a look around the website to see the good work done by the team here. A successful bunch of happy people, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Companies give off a lot of messages about who they want their employees to be, how much they trust them, and how they want them to feel. Dr Gordon’s rallying cry for the day was that everyone is a semiotician.  Next time you clock in at the office, take a look around and think about what your company is saying to you, and everyone else.


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