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Small Business Focus: Our Workstation and Computer Setups

Judging by the popularity of posts like “The Workstations of Popular Websites” on Webdesigner Depot, and Writers’ rooms on The Guardian, people really like to see other people’s workspace.* A brief warning: following those links might inspire techno lust. Still, the diversity of setups is amazing, ranging from aesthetic minimalist to complete anarchy.

In the tradition of the posts above, we’re going to indulge that fascination in more depth than in “Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have,” which didn’t get the derisive “this post is worthless without pictures” (“tpiwwp“) comment it might have deserved.

If enough of you send in pictures of your own workstations, we’ll amend this post to include them or put up a second post on the subject, in the fashion of the Webdesigner Depot post linked to above.


Isaac and I have new chairs.

Both of us used to use the Aeron. This chair is so famous that, for example, most posters on a Hacker News thread asking about cheap alternatives to the Aeron agree that there is no alternative. One person says that he (or she) worked as an office liquidator and found that Aerons and Steelcase chairs held their value. I’ve quoted Joel Spolsky on the subject before, but let me do so again:

“Let me, for a moment, talk about the famous Aeron chair, made by Herman Miller. They cost about $900. This is about $800 more than a cheap office chair from OfficeDepot or Staples.

They are much more comfortable than cheap chairs. If you get the right size and adjust it properly, most people can sit in them all day long without feeling uncomfortable. The back and seat are made out of a kind of mesh that lets air flow so you don’t get sweaty. The ergonomics, especially of the newer models with lumbar support, are excellent.

They last longer than cheap chairs. We’ve been in business for years and every Aeron is literally in mint condition. They easily last for ten years. The cheap chairs literally start falling apart after a matter of months. You’ll need at least four $100 chairs to last as long as an Aeron.”

Re your comment: “That damn plastic bar running across the front creates a horrible pressure point and probably increases the likelihood of DVT.”

The plastic bar on mine seems to create a natural pressure release because it curves downward. It seems that such a feel should occur if you’ve got the right height.

(Notice that Alain de Botton also uses an Aeron.)

Now we both use a different Herman Miller chair: the Embody. It’s not exactly a successor to the Aeron, but it is a different sort of chair; it doesn’t have conventional plastic edges. The shape is supposed to shape itself to your body. As far as we can tell, it does so. The biggest challenge is its infinite adjustability. Nonetheless, like the Aeron, I can sit in mine virtually all day without problems. That being said, you probably shouldn’t sit in a chair all day; I do get up to do pushups occasionally.

The big challenge is getting them adjusted—a challenge whose description will have to wait for future posts.

Isaac’s Gear

In 2006, Isaac bought a Mac Pro because you still needed one to operate three monitors. By now, monitors have gotten so large and Mac Pros so expensive that he’s replaced the setup with a 27″ iMac with a SSD and a 24″ Dell side monitor. He reports plenty of screen area for multiple open windows and that both are crystal clear. He also has switched keyboards, from a garden variety wireless keyboard that was the subject of “What Three Years of Grant Writing Looks Like” to a very clicky Tactile Pro 3 keyboard.

Jake’s Gear

Like Isaac, I’m using a 27″ iMac with an SSD. My side monitor is slightly smaller, at 23″, but still offers lots of space for secondary documents. It’s not unusual for me to have as many as five text panes open at a time: an RFP, a web browser, a main document, an “extra space” document, and client background material. With virtually every successive computer I’ve owned, I’ve looked at the massive screen size and thought, “I probably can’t use more than this effectively.”

The Kinesis keyboard I use is ludicrously expensive and takes about ten days to really acclimate. At that point, it’d hard to imagine going back to a standard keyboard. It’s not merely more comfortable; it’s so much more comfortable that I don’t get the hand aches I used to. I began using mine as a review unit. The “review” has lasted two years and will probably last forever.

Those speakers are Bose Companion 20s, which deliver nice sound without having a bass box. They aren’t going to sound as good as speakers with a bass box, but they also reduce desktop clutter some.

Although I don’t have one pictured here, I’m also fond of carrying around notebooks; these days I like the Rhodia Webnotebook, also called the “Webbie,” which doesn’t have the durability problems of Moleskines. In pens, I rather like the Sigma Micron, which offers thin lines that bond to paper and won’t wash out or fade over time.


The desks took hours and hours to find, but they’re incredibly sturdy, don’t shake, offer great ergonomics when combined with the keyboard trays, have lasted for years, and weren’t ridiculously expensive to buy. The writer Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote “I moved into this room 20 years ago and spent the first five years fighting desks that weren’t right in some way.” Five years with the wrong desk? That’s terrible, and it explains why we invested so much time in finding the right desks.

The nice part about finding the right desk is that they a) fade into the background and b) don’t bother you. In fact, they’re almost a pleasure to sit at and use, as with any well-made tool. They also don’t create “accidental” barriers to working, which I write about in the next section.

In our case, we’re using black Maxon Series 1000s. They can’t be bought retail; you have to go through a dealer, wait four to six weeks, and choose a keyboard tray too (we’re using Humanscale ones). But the result is a desk that doesn’t wiggle. Wiggly children are fine, but wiggly desks will give you eyestrain and make you want to get up and go somewhere else—anywhere else—as soon as possible.

The keyboard combined with the Embody means we sit in nice ergonomic postures, like the lady in the picture, which means that when we’re in a state of Flow while writing we’re not going to stop because of agonizing wrist pain.

Removing Accidental Impediments to Grant Writing

Our experience so far has been that OS X lessens the accidental—in the sense of “incidental, or appurtenant,” as Frederick Brooks says—aspects of writing by being more stable and providing more useful productivity features than other operating systems. Many people have almost religious views on this issue, and their opinions are scattered about the Internet like excrement on a poorly tended lawn, and we don’t want to contribute to that particular mess.

The basic goal of any equipment is probably to make life and/or work easier for the user of those tools. As Brooks also says regarding software engineering, “… motivational factors can increase productivity. On the other hand, environmental and accidental factors, cannot; but these factors can decrease productivity when negative.” So it is with any kind of intellectual tool, and OS X seems to help avoid making environmental and accidental factors detrimental to the production of proposals.

In addition, anyone in charge of grant writers’ offices should read Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister’s book Peopleware. Like anyone who works in a modern office, you should read this. Too few people understand the needs of “knowledge workers,” which is an obnoxious term that nonetheless describes what a lot of people whose job is to turn raw thoughts into information do.

In the future…

The GeekDesk is a height-adjustable desk that allows you to work standing or sitting. Various researchers have argued that sitting for long periods is bad for you; see a summary of that position in “Your Office Chair Is Killing You: Meet public enemy No. 1 in today’s workplace.” (Philip Roth, by the way, writes standing up.)

We also have a question for you, our readers: what, if anything, are we missing?

Offices and Improving Productivity

This post might appear frivolous, but I suspect it isn’t as much as it might appear at first glance. As Paul Graham says in “What Business Can Learn from Open Source,” “This proves something a lot of us have suspected. The average office is a miserable place to get work done.” That means there’s a lot of possible improvement in the average office. If reading this helps people realize those productivity gains, I’ll call a victory for grant writers and others who spend long hours staring at a computer monitor.

In the end, of course, none of this matters unless you’ve got proposals to write and are willing to sit down and write them. If you do, however, the value of good equipment becomes steadily more obvious to you, even if it isn’t necessarily obvious to the managers who are above you.

* I’m still astonished at the number of writers who use laptops, especially without external keyboards and mice. What of carpal tunnel syndrome and ergonomics? What of tiny screens that force you to flick among the main document, research, RFPs, background information, and data? Unless you’ve installed a Solid-State Drive (SSD), what of slow, low-RPM hard drives that make opening programs a drag? Perhaps these writers don’t spent eight or more hours straight writing at a time, as we sometimes do. To be sure, some people hook up external keyboards, mice, and monitors to their laptops, as I did in college and immediately after, but once one does all that the question becomes… why not just go desktop?

In addition, notice the disproportionate number of Macs in use both by writers and web designers. Yeah, yeah, Mac users are jerks, or, in John Scalzi’s formulation, Apple Fans Are Status-Seeking Beta Monkeys, but we’ve drunk the Kool-Aid and think there’s more than a little to OS X.