The art of workspace organization

Alex Bigman

Spring is in full swing, which means the time has come to decide what to do with all the junk we’ve accumulated in our winter dens—a yearly ritual otherwise known as “spring cleaning.”

Most people have at least two spaces to organize: a digital one—your computer, that is—and the physical one where you actually make the magic happen. For the many freelancers, who work from home, workspace organization is is a balancing act.

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In this post, we are going to look at ways to improve your actual work space. After all, while poorly organized computer files or a sub-optimal Photoshop setup can be irksome and inefficient, a bad physical workspace can actually harm you physically and mentally. Moreover, many workspace organization techniques can be applied to the digital world as well.

We’ve broken the post into 5 areas: ergonomics, lighting, organization, décor and behavior. Let’s get organized.

1. Ergonomics

Ergonomics refers broadly to the study of how the design of tools affects their users’ bodies. When you see a chair or a computer mouse designed as “ergonomic,” that means it is supposed to be healthy for you, preventing bad posture, strained wrists and the like.

There are many workspace items you might evaluate in this regard, but here are the main things.

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Your chair

Is your spine straight? That is the main thing to consider when evaluating your desk chair. There are many “ergonomic” chairs out there, tricked out with arm, head, foot, and sometimes even knee rests. At the end of the day, though, what matters is that you are not slouching. Indeed, one surefire way to achieve this is to simply get a standing desk, and not sit at all!

Your computer screen

This should be at eye level and at arm’s length. If you are working with a laptop placed directly on a desk, that means you are looking downward, which is bad for your neck and spine. Look into getting a laptop stand and separate keyboard and mouse instead. This will also make sure your laptop is aligned with your second monitor, if you use one.

Your mouse

Might not be the best tool. While there are many ostensibly ergonomic mouse designs on the market, many people have argued that the device is inherently bad for your wrist. A pen mouse might be a better option. And if you are an illustrator, definitely look into getting a stylus.

2. Lighting

Lighting is actually considered part of ergonomics, in fact, a major part. Bad lighting can affect you physically, resulting in eye strain, blurred vision or insomnia, as well as mentally, if you are prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder. Here’s how to get your lighting right.

graphic design workspace

Natural light

If you live in a house or apartment that gives you a choice about where your home office is located, this is something to consider. Rooms with east or west facing windows will result in direct sunlight in the morning and evening, which could result in unpleasant glare and brightness. North or South-facing windows are ideal.

Consider windows with respect to desk placement too. Putting a desk right in front  of a window might give you a nice view, but it will also result in a strong contrast that could make it difficult to see your screen. Not to mention the possibility of distractions. In general it is best to position a desk with a window to the side.

Then there is the possibility that your room doesn’t have any windows at all—a more common situation in corporate environments. Spending lots of time with no sunlight can induce depression. One way to combat this is to invest in a UV lamp, which simulates the sun’s rays.

Artificial light

If you have a ceiling light that’s great, but it is best not to rely on it entirely. A lot of that light is scattered throughout the room and never reaches your specific work area, which means it is inadequate for you as well as being environmentally inefficient.

You really want your entire desk area to be well lit, because chances are you often shift your gaze from the computer screen, which is quite bright, to other things like papers or drawings, and you want the brightness of both to be about equal. Look for a desk lamp whose intensity you can modulate, like this one.

Computer light

Working on a super bright computer screen into the wee hours of the night can really mess with your circadian rhythms, which are what tell our bodies when to feel tired and when to feel awake. This can result in insomnia and persistent fatigue. Fortunately, there are apps out there like f.lux which automatically modulate the brightness of your screen according to what time of day it is.

3. Organization

Clutter is an enemy, which slows us down when we are looking for the things we need and creates an unharmonious state of mind. It is also an enemy we are never be able to fully defeat. It can, however, be controlled. Here’s how.

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Desk space

Your overall workstation is bound to get messy over the course of the day, week, month. But you can draw a line—a mental demarcation—around your immediate workspace, including your laptop, monitors, keyboards and styluses, where you refuse to tolerate even the slightest bit of clutter. This will do wonders in keeping you sane.

Filing

You are no doubt familiar with the filing cabinet, that piece of furniture with a few drawers of different sizes for you to put your documents in. Forget about it. Much better to invest in some simple shelves, preferably modular ones to which you can add as needed, and get some stand-alone magazine files to put on that.

These keep the clutter out of sight, while the shelves have the added virtue of being able to hold any number of other things, from boxes to gadgets to books. Devote an entire wall to this if you can (stuff will build up over time, trust us). Or, if you’re in a pinch space-wise, you can always wall-mount shelves in the area above your desk.

Wires

They come out of everything—your computer, your internet router, your lamp—and they’re gross. If you have a lot, keep them out of sight with a cable box.

Your thoughts

Not to get all new agey, but your mind is not just in your head. Everyone, and especially creative types, rely on external stimulation all the time. When you come across an inspiring image, for example, you want to find a place to keep it for future reference, in case you hit creative block.

Similarly, when you have a brilliant idea, you want to write it down. You can’t possibly keep all this stuff in your head, but if you don’t come up with an organizational system, soon your mind will overtake your workspace in a most unsightly fashion. Solution: get an “ideas drawer” or pin board for inspiration material, and consider getting a white board or note pad to jot down your ideas as they arise.

4. Décor

Obviously, how you decorate your work space is a highly personal matter. Most people want their immediate work environments to reflect their lives and personalities, rather than remaining blank boxes (however much minimalism is in these days). There are a few decorative guidelines, however, that everyone can follow.

Designer workspace

What’s in front of your face

Clearly, if there is any part of your workspace where the décor matters, it is this. Yet many designers leave the wall space above the computer blank, or worse, fill it with cluttered shelves when another wall would have sufficed for that. Instead, reserve this place for artwork or photographs that make you happy.

Color

For most creative freelancers, color provides stimulation that gets the ideas flowing. It is probably best to keep large furniture items, like your desk, in a neutral tone, but you can add color in many of your smaller implements, like staplers, pens and bookends. Poppin makes a lot of such colorful products.

Flora

One color that makes people especially happy is green, especially when it is in the form of a glorious living house plant. It is easy to find plants that are small and don’t require much light, water or attention. Succulents are a particularly good option.

5. Behavior

You can put a herculean effort into getting your workspace exactly right, but it’s never going to stay that way unless you also come up with a system of behavior for keeping it so. Here are a few friendly suggestions.

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Systematic organization

Most of us think we can keep things in order by organizing a little bit here and there, as issues arise. In fact, it is a much better idea to keep a regular organization schedule, whether weekly, monthly or seasonally.

In her best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, Marie Kondo suggests organizing not only regularly, but by category. Instead of attempting an entire space, go by item types: papers, books, desk clutter, clothes, etc.

Work/home

When you work from home, it is easy for these two domains to become blurred. You start off with a clearly delimited office space, and then before you know it you’re on your laptop on your couch or, worse, in bed.

It is best to keep these domains separate; working in living areas will hamper your productivity as well as taint your non-work areas with unwanted associations of labor. Even food is best eaten away from the desk. You’ll have a better meal, and your keyboard will thank you.

Do you have any suggestions for organizing your workspace? Share in the comments!

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