“IT JUST SUCKED the life force out of my body,” says Scott Adams of his old cubicle at Pacific Bell. Luckily for him, that ennui inspired the megahit Dilbert comic strip. But for the rest of America’s 40 million cube dwellers, there’s little to love about the walled-in work space, whose average size has plummeted to just 75 square feet. Big-name design firms such as Knoll and Herman Miller are already working to modernize the ’60s classic, adding features that emphasize comfort and collaboration. So we tapped their top minds — and chose a few of our own — to imagine a better one. After all, says James Ludwig, head of design at Steelcase, “my work space should reflect the way I work.”
Those who work near plants — and, by proxy, fresh oxygen — are more productive than those who don’t, according to recent data from Washington State University. To that end, IDSA — award-winning student designers Jinsun Park and Seonkeun Park envision a cube wall with a built-in irrigation system, so flora can thrive without much attention.
As cubicles shrink, companies like Intel are tossing out extra chairs, which inhibits collaboration. To save space — and sanity — Adams suggests adding a foldout seat . As soon as it’s down, he says, “a timer starts that makes your phone ring after a few minutes, so you can excuse an unwelcome guest.”
Shorter walls  make it easier to interact with colleagues, reflecting the fact that “people don’t go and hide in the cubicle like they used to,” says Lisa Bottom, a principal at the architecture and design firm Gensler. They also allow for more natural light, which cuts energy costs.
“On days when coworkers are shouting ideas across the floor, I definitely long for an office,” says Heidi Overbeck, a cube dweller at the communications firm Fenton. To create quiet, these low-profile speakers automatically detect bothersome noise and emit sound waves that cancel it out.
At the touch of a button, the desk gets taller or shorter  to accommodate different employee heights and those who’d rather work standing up. “That saves us money,” says Neil Tunmore, director of corporate services at Intel, where similar desks eliminate “the need to have people coming in and adjusting.”
Even in small spaces, “it’s important to be able to interact around data and information,” says Ludwig. One solution: a multipurpose media screen  that can connect to several laptops at once. During downtime, says Adams, it could display “a webcam of the beach, so I can feel like I’m on vacation.”
To streamline digital meetings, this switch instantly adjusts cubicle lighting to offset the brightness of the computer screen. That way, during Skype or WebEx calls, “I won’t look like I’ve been out partying all night,” says Ludwig.
Overhead screens offer “a sense of personal space” without returning to the high, stifling walls of a traditional cube, says Mark Schurman of Herman Miller, which makes a similar product. They’re also instrumental in blocking sunlight that causes glare on computer screens.
[Illustration by Jason Lee]
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2011 issue of Fast Company.