How We: Design A Workspace

Lately, work has been a pain in the neck. Literally. More often than not, I find myself hunched over at my desk. And, as a result, I have been experiencing all sorts of unexpected aches in my arms, back, and neck.

In general, my workspace is not ideal. Sure, it’s quiet and has a window that opens out onto some orange trees (the smell of the blossoms are heavenly). But I, myself, face a wall. In the past, I have been spoiled by a view. For example, early in graduate school, I lived in a studio that had a built-in platform, where I kept a twin bed. The platform sat underneath a grand picture window that opened out onto the Pacific Ocean. I did all my work sprawled out there on my computer.


I guess I like to be able to look out at something expansive while I’m writing and thinking. Even when I worked from a cubicle in Boston, I had my desktop background set to a live webcam of the San Francisco Bay Area.

I’ve tried to address the problem by decorating my wall. Currently, I have posted a cover of Rolling Stone featuring Lena Dunham (for inspiration), a copy of the poem Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver (as mentioned in this Modern Love essay by Betsy MacWhinney), and a signed image from the dissertation of a dear friend. The image depicts, on one side, a model of the material she was trying to create. On the other side is a photograph of the material that she made. They are almost identical. I am in awe of how she invented something that never existed before, and proud that she accomplished precisely what she set out to do. Also, it makes me think of her!

I have also pasted the Sun tarot card (for self-confidence, non-criticism, and joy), propped a copy of A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (to remind myself to keep moving, like the tightrope walker, “constantly risking absurdity”), photos of and postcards from dear friends, and prints of a few favorite paintings. The latest addition? The photograph of calla lilies I bought from La Tiendita, on the Lower East Side. At the bottom, I’ve printed the quote Tavi Gevinson keeps on a sticky note on her mirror (a helpful reminder): “There is not enough time for hating yourself. Too many things to make. Go.”


But, sometimes I’ll sneak into the lobby of a local hotel that has a desk in a window.

A workspace problem with a more concrete solution is the set up of my desk. A quick search revealed that the source of my aches and pains may be the fact that I do all of my work on a laptop. According to the Cornell Human Factors and Ergonomic Research Group,

The design of laptops violates a basic ergonomic requirement for a computer, namely that the keyboard and screen are separated. In the early days of personal computing desktop devices integrated the screen and keyboard into a single unit, and this resulted in widespread complaints of musculoskeletal discomfort. By the late 1970’s a number of ergonomics design guidelines were written and all called for the separation of screen and keyboard. The reason is simple – with a fixed design, if the keyboard is in an optimal position for the user, the screen isn’t and if the screen is optimal the keyboard isn’t. Consequently, laptops are excluded from current ergonomic design requirements because none of the designs satisfy this basic need…Using a laptop is a tradeoff between poor neck/head posture and poor hand/wrist posture.

They offered three tips that I can implement right away:

  • Position [your laptop] on your desk/work surface in front of you so that you can see the screen without bending your neck. This may require that you elevate the laptop off the desk surface using a stable support surface, such as a computer monitor pedestal.
  • Use a separate keyboard and mouse. You should be able to connect a keyboard and mouse directly to the back of the laptop or to a docking station
  • Use the keyboard on a negative-tilt keyboard tray to ensure a wrist neutral posture

I also learned from their very helpful website that I should:

  • Provide lumbar support for my back
  • Adjust my chair to a reclined position, at a 100-110 degree angle (not 90!)
  • Position my computer so that my eye line hits 2-3 in. below the top of the monitor casing (not the screen)
  • Adjust the monitor so that it is 17-18 degrees below horizontal (you can achieve this by extending your right arm toward the screen, from the aforementioned reclined position. Your middle finger should almost touch the center of your screen).
  • Maintain an elbow angle of 90 degrees or greater, and keep wrists flat
  • Relax my eyes by looking away from my computer, toward a distant scene, every 15 minutes

No wonder I loved working in a room with a view!

What about you? Where do you work? What is your dream workspace?


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