biz ladiesLife & Business

biz ladies: setting up your office space

by Stephanie

today’s biz ladies post is all about creating a work space that is both beautiful and functional. kyle freeman of cloud 9, an organization and redesign company, shares some helpful tips on how to set up your office into an aesthetically pleasing and productive space. thanks kyle for teaching us how to create a space we love to work in!–stephanie

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I’ve spent many a sleepless night drumming up solutions to my clients’ home office design conundrums. In fact, daydreaming about office arrangements was the final clue four years ago that it was time for me to leave behind my non-profit career to launch Cloud 9, my organizing and redesign business. As the program manager of two youth art non-profits, it’s never a good sign when you’re more excited to think about how your office could be reconfigured than say, about how to get underserved kids engaged with arts programming.  This is all to say that I’m an office-passionate gal who’s thought a lot about them.

But I also need to say that I’ve never found it easy to prescribe one size fits all design solutions, for any room in the house, let alone something that demands as much functionality and productivity as an office.  It’s really important to me that I never project my definition of organization or beauty.   Of course it’s delicious to peruse magazine or blog photos of lovely offices, but not everyone can function at a desktop with only an Apple laptop, a dreamy lamp, and the requisite pretty penholder.  I devote a good chunk of time with my new clients exploring their specific ways of working, their needs, and even their quirks.  (I love quirks.)  Basically I conduct an investigation to come up with durable, tailored organizational and aesthetic solutions, which vary wildly from client to client. I never (well, almost never) offer ideas and solutions until I’ve asked lots of questions.  Blame it on the former social worker in me.

In lieu of being able to personally explore your office space with you, I’m going to approach this Design Sponge post with the same investigational spirit I apply to my clients’ spaces.  Yes, I promise I’ll offer some one size fits all ideas that you can consider using in your office, but I may leave with you with more questions than answers.  Elements for you to consider as you tailor your office space, making it a place where you love to spend time and a place that helps you achieve your goals.   Although there will be mention of specific products here and there, this article is less about products and more about concepts to help you clarify your office vision.

I hate to cook.  I know, it’s a travesty, but it’s true. So I thought if I made my kitchen feel more like a living room (carpet and all!), I’d be lured into hanging out there, and maybe just end up putting food together. It is in fact a lovely place to spend time, but I can’t say that it’s yielded much food. But I maintain that the bait and switch design tactic is still a valid one, and the office environment is the perfect application.  Even if you love what you do, there will still be days when you’d much rather be say, cooking (if you aren’t me; rearranging furniture if you are me) than bookkeeping.  On those days, wouldn’t it be nice if your office was so delightful and functional that it enticed you in and before you know it you’re getting stuff DONE?

Okay, then let’s begin our office investigation.

Where is your office space going to be situated?

Maybe you’re past this step, but for those of you who aren’t this is a great opportunity to think outside the box. I’m a big believer that every room in your home should be well utilized for something.  Just because you don’t have the luxury of a spare bedroom that you can turn into an office, doesn’t mean there isn’t some great office nook awaiting you.  I actually have my office in a discrete corner of my living room, in perfect proximity to a window I love.

Go through every room in your home and ask yourself whether an office could be integrated into the space. Do you have a dining room that you use twice a year that would be much better served as an office?  Be really honest with yourself about how often you use these existing spaces.  A few times a year or even once a month isn’t often enough to protect it from repurposing for an office you use five times a week.

Could you take a long and narrow living room that’s not taking full advantage of the length of the space and break it up into two zones, creating an office area in one of them?  Maybe even floating the couch and bumping the desk up behind it like this lovely example?

Do you have an underutilized closet that could be converted into an office?  Could the stuff that’s in there be pared down and relocated?  Here’s a link to some inspiring closet offices.

How do you keep your space?  Are you tidy about your office? Then you may be a candidate for the living room corner office since it likely won’t offend your family or visitors.  If you’re naturally more of a “spread out” desk keeper, you may want to consider more discrete office areas, to preserve household relations.

How important is sunlight to you? If it’s really important, maybe that’s worth forgoing the spacious but dark spare bedroom and relocating to a corner of the kitchen that gets flooded with light.   Setting up your office is all about boosting the factors that inherently make you happy.

Is there a time of day when you work more (e.g. mornings, afternoons, evenings) and how does that influence the space you choose for your office? If you select “the sunny room” for your office but it only gets afternoon light and you prefer to work in the mornings, then the light isn’t going to do you much good.   If you think about using the dining room as your office but it’s adjacent to the noisiest room in the house, maybe it’s worth developing an office area that is more off the beaten household path.

What do you require from your desk and your desk side storage?

How much room do you actually need to spread out? If it’s once a month or less frequently, then you can probably get away with a smaller desk and just use a kitchen table or dining room table for the periodic spread-out.  With that said, I’m a fan of getting the biggest desk that your office space or nook can comfortably accomodate.  I’ve coached a bunch of clients to create their own custom sized-desk, using solid wood Ikea kitchen countertops, (you’ll need to cut to the length you want), paired with Ikea or Container Store legs or a file cabinet or another drawer system as a base.  Don’t forget about the corner desk idea too for a snug little corner office. There are a million great desks out there. Here’s a good starting point resource: Design Sponge Desk round-up

Could you incorporate an L-shape into your desk?  In my dream world, everyone would have an L-shaped desk or at the very least, an L-wing.  The wing, which could even be a desk height bookshelf that’s perpendicular to your desk surface, makes it so much easier to keep your primary desk area clear for active work, by stowing your desktop files or piles or other frequently grabbed items off to the side.  Another option is to install floating shelves within arm’s reach above your desk but just remember that if they’re right in front of your line of vision, they’ll have a strong visual presence, which for some people can feel crowded, unsettling, or distracting.

Is standard desk height really the best fit for you or might a counter height desk surface be a better choice?  During a multi-year bad back era that made sitting in a chair uncomfortable, I worked at a bar height desk that I created out of an old door and some adjustable height castered table legs that I ordered online. Here’s a clever example of a higher desk, using an Ikea Malm dressing table.

Are you a “piler” or do you have lots of categories of paperwork that you need closer at hand than in a file drawer?   I’ve found that most of my clients, pilers and all, do really well using magazine files for their piles or other frequently accessed materials (but this method is only successful when you position the magazine file in the reverse direction that you usually see them in design photos, with the slanted down side facing you so that you can easily grab the contents).  The vertical magazine files free up so much prime desktop real estate that was previously stolen by horizontal piles or inboxes.

Does your printer / fax / scanner really have to be right on or next to your desk?  If you’re someone who prints daily, then of course you need the printer very close at hand.  But if you print less frequently, could you relocate the printer or other equipment to an ancillary space so that it’s not chewing up prime desktop real estate?  You don’t need to invest in a wireless printer (though they are handy) – you can just get an extra long USB cable, available at Staples.

Do you want or need a bulletin board within easy sight from your desk and if so, what kind?   My experience has been that people are more inclined to actually use magnetic boards than bulletin boards – there seems to be something just a little simpler about moving a magnet than a pushpin.  An alternate to a board is using some type of wire or clothesline set-up with clips.  I love the idea of using the Ikea Dignitet wire and clips for active to-dos or “pending” papers.  There’s something about the dangle and 3D lift off the wall, and the individuation of one piece of paper per clip, that will make you continue to see your time-sensitive papers, whereas many people tend to stop seeing papers that meld together on a more one dimensional bulletin board.

What are you looking for in an office chair? After years of sitting in utilitarian Ikea office chairs and realizing that I’ll probably prefer to be self-employed for the rest of my life, I’m finally on the prowl for a more comfortable higher-end office chair.  Unfortunately they usually look like comfortable higher-end office chairs, which isn’t exactly my aesthetic.  So just the other day I devised a plan to find a comfy vintage dining chair with arms, then I will cut down the legs to the perfect height for me, and install casters.  I’m suspicious as to how this is going to work out but it’s in keeping with my desire to make all spaces, regardless of how functional they’re supposed to be, feel as lounge-y and cozy as possible.

Does your “to be shred” stash get backlogged because your shredder is inaccessible, or do you hate staring at your bulky shredder on the floor?  I stow my shredder underneath my desk, mostly out of sight, but it’s easy to pull forward when I need to shred (which I try to do immediately so I don’t accrue a “to be shred” stash).  The reason it’s easy to pull forward is because I put those little felt furniture pads on the four corners of the shredder so it seamlessly glides in and out when I need it.

How do you want your desk positioned within the space?

While I respect Feng Shui, I’m not an official subscriber.  Incidentally, a lot of the principles fit my personal preferences  (e.g. back not facing a door) but if they don’t fit yours please don’t limit yourself by rules, whether they’re Feng Shui or a “rule” you saw in a decorating magazine.

Do you like the idea of the length of your desk being grounded by a wall (i.e. so that when you’re sitting at your desk you’re facing the wall) or do you prefer the set-up of floating your desk in the space?  Or maybe a hybrid of the two, anchoring the end of your desk to a wall, leaving the length of the desk to jut into the space?

If a sunny space is important, do you want your desk area to be positioned so it’s in a direct flood of light or would that be too intense for you?  How will sunlight affect your ability to see your computer monitor?

Would you like your desk to be directly in front of a window? Keep in mind that if you’re using a sizable desktop monitor instead of a laptop it will cut into your view out the window considerably.

How much and what kind of additional office storage do you need?

How much of your office “stuff” is really necessary?  People often think that their primary issue is needing more storage.  But in reality, when I work with clients to declutter, purge and resituate where things live (e.g. creating clearer zones and storing “like with like”) I’d say that 75% of the time clients no longer crave additional storage.  It’s really pretty amazing.

And I’ve learned from my work that thinking about the beauty of an office without first thinking about function and organization can produce an adorable but ridiculously dysfunctional office.  Form is nothing without function and the reality is that the point of your office is to get things done.  People rarely like to hear that one of the first and imperative steps to beautifying your office is to declutter and organize.

So here’s a super quick primer on the organizing process. 1) Sort all your stuff into categories of “like with like”.  I use these collapsible bins from the Container Store for all my organizing jobs but you could also just use cardboard boxes, bags, or just the floor.  2) AFTER you’ve sorted and gotten a grasp on your inventory, it’s time to purge (e.g. do you really need three staplers which you didn’t know you had until you sorted “like with like” and reunited brethren objects?) 3) Of the stuff that remains after your sort and purge, it’s time to sort the remaining goodies into frequency of use which will tell you what you need nearby and what can live a little further from your desk. 4) And finally it’s time to evaluate and come up with a plan for what would be the best type of storage for each category of stuff.

What extent of your stuff do you need within arm’s reach of your desk and what portion can be stored a bit further away?  If you’ve executed the organizing process that I described above, you will be able to easily see this distinction. This process may also be really helpful to do before you decide on your office location because you may discover that you need very little close at hand which can open up more opportunities for where your primary work space is located.

What’s the best type of storage for my office stuff?  Open shelves?  Cabinets? Drawers?  This is one of those very individualized questions.  If you’re a visual person who really needs to see things to remember they exist, then shelves are probably the best bet.  You can still use labeled bins and boxes on the shelves to corral categories of stuff. I often recommend Ikea’s Expedit shelving, which comes in various sizes – it’s one of the best bangs for your buck in terms of reasonably attractive shelving.  You can usually find plentiful Expedit on Craigslist as well. I also design a lot of Elfa wall systems for my clients’ home offices.  At a slightly higher price point, with a look I love, is the Rakks system (for Boston readers, you can purchase Rakks at The Door Store in Cambridge).   When possible I prefer a flexible storage system, whether it’s open shelving or a closed cabinet, that allows you to adjust the height of the shelves as your storage needs fluctuate.   Here’s a good Design Sponge link to shelving inspiration.  In terms of drawer units, I actually use a vintage dresser for my office supplies (remember that my office lives in a corner of my living room so the dresser ends up looking like a cute sideboard instead of a clothing dresser.)  If you use an old dresser, just be sure the drawers work well!  I also love these retail drawer units: Bisley Collection Cabinets , Ally 4 Drawer Trolley , Elfa Freestanding Drawers , Ikea Helmer , Ikea Micke , and Ikea Alex. A final tip for storage of smaller odds and ends: use transparent over-the-door shoe pockets on the back of a door that you don’t have to look at often (e.g. inside a closet door in the office or the back of the door to the room if it remains open most of the time.)

How can you make things as easy to put away as possible so that your office continues to feel functional and attractive?  Like most organizers, I’m maniacal about labeling. Labels don’t just specify the contents of a storage container.  I describe them as acting a little like “administrative bullies” – if you’re feeling lazy and tempted to stash something in any old bin (after you’ve worked so hard to organize your office stuff by the “like with like” principle) the label is all “No way.  You are not putting that it in here.  You KNOW where that goes.  Now go put it there.”  Another tip: just because a storage box comes with a lid doesn’t mean you have to use it.   If it’s one less obstacle to tossing your stuff back into its container, then stash the lid someplace else.

How can you simplify you’re filing system?  I’m not a believer in complicated color-coded systems.  They’re a recipe for system break-down and if you’re filing system breaks down then the backlog shows up as unruly piles on your desk.   I use only one color hanging file for ALL my files even though I love the concept of snazzy color-coding as much as the next person. I just use two colors of index tabs for my categorizing. Most of us were taught to stagger file tabs from left to right on our hanging files but the effect can be visually frenetic, hard to read, and when you go to integrate a new file category, it messes up the whole staggered system.   So I just use bright yellow index tabs down the center of my hanging files for the main categories (e.g. Receipts, Bills, Accounts, Insurance, Taxes).  Then I use red index tabs, all left aligned for the subcategories within each main category.  Visually, it’s so simple, bold, and effective.

What kind of filing capacity do you really need? This is another one of those domains where people just don’t make the time to purge their old files so they’re housing much more paperwork than needed and consequently, believing they need more file drawers than they really do.  Before you go out and buy a bigger or additional cabinet, purge your old one first.  Here are a couple of my favorite file cabinets: CB2 TBS File Cabinet and Bisley 2 Drawer File Cabinet.  For a fun wallpapered DIY file cabinet option, click here.

How do you make your office feel lovely and inviting?

What kind of lighting do you want in your office?  I’m a big fan of using pretty lamps instead of office-y task lights.  Even more fun, a chandelier or pendant lamp floating over your desk!

Do people visit you in your office space?  Do you have room for a comfy side chair?  You’d be surprised how many lovely vintage chairs are for sale on Etsy.  A side chair is also a great opportunity for a decorative element, like a throw pillow.  If you have room for it, I love the idea of a small round café table for mini-meetings, or a couch and coffee table for the same purpose.

What color do you want to paint your space?  Obviously this is a very personal choice, which might be influenced by the type of work you do, but if you care to be reminded of a little color psychology, here’s a helpful link.  Be extra mindful of the color of the wall you’re desk is facing since it will be in your visual field every day as you focus on your work.  If you’d like a strong color for the office, maybe you could do the desk wall in a softer tone of the same strong color you have on the other three walls.   And when you’re choosing a paint brand (I tend towards Benjamin Moore) be sure to select a low-VOC format.

What do you want for window coverings?  Most people think of shades or blinds for office spaces but could your windows accommodate floor length curtains?  This is another fun way to make an office feel a lot less like an office and more like a lounge.

Rug or no rug? I use rugs whenever humanly possible.  I’m a sucker for them.  And I’m fanatical about Flor tiles.  They can be especially useful in defining an office zone within a larger space since you can create low-pile rugs of any size you want. I was too wimpy to try for years, but it turns out that the tiles really are easy to cut.   I’ve also had great luck with searching for rugs on Craigslist with search being the operative word since cool rugs in good condition don’t pop up every day.

What kind of wall space do you have for artwork?  Needless to say, artwork makes a huge difference in how meaningful or enriching your office space feels.  I’m a big fan of making photo walls with a series of 12” x 16” Ikea Ribba frames with mattes.  There are a million fun things you can use to adorn your walls but just remember that not every plane has to be covered with something – remember to give the eye a place to rest once in a while. Here are a few of my favorite sources for affordable art: 20×200 , Little Paper Planes , Art River , Print Society

Could you use a mirror(s) to reflect a window and create more light in the space?  I love mirrors but I don’t use them indiscriminately; they need to either reflect something interesting or bounce more light into the space.

Have you remembered the look of your computer desktop?  Inevitably this is one of the stronger visual elements in your office space.  Choosing an image you love can go a long way to adding beauty to your office space.

And now to reward you for making it to the end of this obscenely long post, here are some final links to inspire you.  Best of luck on your path to creating YOUR functional AND adorable office!

Design Sponge Sneak Peak: Best of Offices (Part 2)

Design Sponge Sneak Peak: Best of Offices (Part 1)

Design Sponge Whip Your Workspace into Shape

Design Sponge Under $100: Office Accessories

And a few of my favorite sources for office accessories and small storage:

See Jane Work

The Container Store


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  • THANK YOU! I am so happy you posted this. I will be referring back to this often over the next few weeks as I revamp my office space. thank you thank you thank you…..

  • This is the timeliest of posts for me, I am just trying to define my work space amongst a guest bedroom/nursery and this was invaluable.

  • I swear these posts are somehow always so timely for me! Just last night I was sitting in my “sorting piles’ wondering how am I ever going to make sense of this and get organized. So much great information, thanks!

  • What a conundrum, when one loves the “blank canvas” feel of a desk-facing minty green wall, but a project/bulletin board is a must…!

  • Perfect Timing on this post!!!! Like the above comments I too am working on setting up my home office. This information just jump started me into designing a fabulous office. Thanks!

  • This was a great article. Very helpful. I’ve read a lot of office organizing articles, and this was a great one. I really felt the author knew the right things to suggest thinking about and observing about yourself. Wonderful! I’m inspired to get started cleaning up.

  • I too have been giving my office space quite a bit of thought recently – really useful, thank you!
    I am intrigued about what you said regarding the office chair – I too am on a quest to find the perfect one that does not look too utilitarian, but is also comfortable to sit in all day. Would love to see if the dining chair idea works out!

  • Hey Grace–sorry if I’ve missed this one so far, but I would love it if at some point you could do a post about how you organize all your links and themed products that you want to share? Bookmarks? word documents? Thanks!

    • hi rachael!

      i’ll keep that in mind- i’m going to do the biz ladies post next week so i’ll keep that in mind. though honestly i don’t keep links like most people do. i keep and process them for only 2-3 days, if i don’t use them, i move on. so i don’t really store them or organize them for long- they just sit on the desktop until i use them within a few days ;)


  • Loved this post!! I’m forever trying to revamp my office, which occasionally doubles as a guest room, and will (hopefully!) one day be a nursery. But that means I’ll eventually be out of a dedicated office space and have to carve out a section of another room to serve that purpose. Great advice in this post to keep in mind both now and for the future!

  • Thanks so much for this post! We’re going to be moving our studio in the next couple of months, and I’ve been wondering how to set up the new space. You brought up a lot of things I hadn’t really thought about.

  • OMG. This was one of the best Biz Ladies posts EVER (and that is saying something!). I needed this so much and I love love love that it focuses on functionality as well. I’ve been searching design sites for office inspiration but get so frustrated with the scads of pretty tables with a lamp and a computer! I just look at that and think “wow, it must be nice to be a trust fund baby” LOL It’s so great to get tips for an office to WORK and be beautiful. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!!!

  • Configuring your office space can be stressful and time consuming. Knowing a few tips before hand helps so thank you for writing this! There is so much more planning the most people think. When I moved my office space I wanted to cry thinking about how to set it up. If you are in Utah I recommend ROSI. Here are a few tips from them on their site, I found it helpful and maybe you will too. http://www.rosiofficefurniture.com/office-furniture/Utah/configuring-office-layouts.html