Academic Office Design Quiz

Don’t worry--you can’t fail this one. This is the “quiz” I give to friends who have asked me to redesign their academic offices. I use their answers to give them offices that work for them both professionally and sensually. (Yes, it is okay to have an office that makes your senses feel good. Really. It is okay.) Here I’ve given you clues about what to do with your answers. Usually I don’t give clues, I just take over; that’s why I’m known as the Design Dominatrix. But my clients always thank me.

If you want to redesign your office, you should spend several days thinking about your answers to all these questions and then carefully build a plan based on your answers. In coming months, I’ll provide more specific advice on what to do with your answers, along with photos from offices I’ve re-done. For now, let me just emphasize how very important it is to conceive your office from scratch, truly attending to who you are, what you have, and what you need. If you don’t do this, then you’ll end up with an office that fails to work for you.

Believe me. I got my first major office re-design wrong, because I put form over function--and so forgot to leave a place to chuck all my recycled paper, so that I ended up with a pile of recyclables on the floor. Worse yet, I thought that if I changed my office set-up, I could change my personality--so I tried to create an office that would force me to clean every day. Not possible! Be honest about how you work. Then design an office that works for you. You don’t want to work for your office.

The quiz:

1. What exactly do you need to be able to do in your office? List everything you can think of, and be very specific. (Examples: file 10 feet of letter-size files; meet with 3 other adults; sort out garbage and paper recycling; take a nap; read quietly; work at my computer with papers next to the right-side of the keyboard.) Make absolutely sure when you redesign your office that you design one that allows you to do everything you need to in that space.

2. What are the physical dimensions of the office (including ceiling height)? Draw a careful sketch; it doesn't have to be to scale, though drawing one to scale will allow you to make little templates of furniture and move them around on the page to see how different furniture locations work. That can save you a lot of trouble later, when you discover you’ve allowed for only 6 inches of space between your desk and your chair and it turns out you are thicker than 6 inches. In your sketch, be sure to include location (and height) of windows, location of doors, and location of electrical outlets and ethernet jacks so that you know, for example, where wires will have to go. Also include in the sketch any immovable physical features like radiators and built-in bookshelves.

3. What stuff HAS to be in your office? (Ex., computer, some particular piece of artwork or family photos, toys, recycling bins, electric tea kettle, etc.)

4. How do you want to feel in your office? Be honest, so that as you design your office, you can think about how the design is likely to make you feel. Do you want to feel energized? Then think about bright colors and lights. Calmed? Think about clutter reduction and mellow colors with soft lighting.

5. What do you want other people to think about you when they walk in your office? Be honest so you can keep this in mind as you design your office. Do you want them to feel welcomed? Then include places for them to sit and consider a candy jar. Do you want them to feel intimidated? Then put your diplomas and awards all over the wall, and make sure you show off the most obscure books possible. Do you want them to feel like you don’t need everyone to look like you? Then hang pictures of people who don’t look like you.

6. What colors are unchangeable in the office? For example, is there a floor that must be exposed that is purple or brown or black? Are you limited in wall color choices to off-white or cream? Is there a big yellow radiator? It is critical that you keep these colors in mind as you design the color scheme of your new office, because you can’t fight those colors (though sometimes you can cover them up). I once had to deal with a big yellow radiator in my office. Solution? I worked similar yellows into my mostly-red-and-brown color design to de-emphasize the radiator. (Strange thing about color--if you add more of it, it sometimes becomes less noticeable.) One of my colleagues at MSU painted his office a purple-grey and added a purple rug. Crazy? No, surprisingly gorgeous! Turns out it looked absolutely beautiful with the otherwise-ugly 1950s Steelcase grey desk and the frequently-grey skies of Michigan.

7. What is your work style? Are you a clutterer, and if so, how is your clutter typically produced? (Do you usually have a stack for each course or project, a pile of library books, etc.?) This question will help you think about how you might create useful spaces for clutter containment. For example, I have designated baskets for each course so I can throw all my course materials quickly in attractive baskets. I designate a shelf for library books so I don’t just have a floor stack of them.

8. How much can you spend, and what can you get for free? Find out if your university has a salvage department where you may be able to pick up some cool stuff for free. Also check out thrift stores and, if possible, go to Ikea for handy stuff like wonderful accent lighting (cheap!) and cord organizers (a blessing for clutzy academics). Don’t make the mistake a lot of our 50colleagues do--thinking they shouldn’t spend any of their own money on their offices. If you spend $500 making your office more livable for the next five years, that’s only $100/year, or about 3 cents per minute. If you’re the typical academic, you probably spend much less time in your living room than you do in your office. So take your design budget and spend it where you really live. (And don’t tell the Design Dominatrix that you don’t have a design budget!)