This article deals with one of the most important issues regarding productivity, health, mood and, some may call it, feng shui 风水.
When working for a company there is nothing to do. Your seat comes pre-assigned and, most likely, there is nothing you can do about it. Very few care about people being left-handed, right-handed, window placement, table placement, air current, room temperature…. Moreover, many people think developers, of any kind, should be messy; the messier, the merrier, the more productive, the better developer.
Then, thinking about your Home Office, usually people translate the work place setup to a room at home, and then again, the messier, the merrier, the more productive, the better developer, though at home.
Within a company, not much can be done unless the Human Resources department, if any, is interested in anyway in providing a better working place. At home, one has to fight against real state architectural design, furniture arrangement, family needs and so on.
I will try to point out some ideas based on experience and discussions with health experts. No, a health expert is not a guy who sells herbs in the store around the corner. I am talking about M.D., and professionals of real human health. And this is important, in fact, very important, as our productivity depends much on our health state.
Some issues can be simply solved just by rearranging furniture according to certain parameters, others, well… need a much more expensive aproach. I will point out all of the ones I can think of and you can add those you feel would help improve your working space that I haven’t thought of, or that I have forgotten.
Disclaimer?, sort of: Even my workplace does not abide all the items pointed out here. That does not mean that I am not aware of them, and it does not mean that I am not trying to get them right the moment I can.
1- Natural Light
It is important, very important, to have natural light in the room we are going to work in. First of all, natural light helps keep the electricity bill at bay. Second, gives us a sense of time, as when outside starts to become dark we know the time to stop is coming. Yes, computers have a clock, and we can set an alarm to let us know that we should quit for today. Yet biorythms play an important role in human health and the better we match body cycles to the day-night cycle, the better for us.
Moreover, having natural light means having a window, which is important for our eyes’ health. When we are working in front of a screen, our eyes tend to set the focal distance fixed to the distance from our eyes to the screen. This is absolutely unnatural as, while we move around wherever place we may be, travelling, talking with someone, dining, whatever, eyes are always changing focus, thus doing “exercise”. Staring at a screen for long time forces our eyes to fix their configuration to focus only on the flat surface of the screen. Every now and then, we should look out the window, change the focus of our eyes, focus to infinity, far away, then focus on different objects at different distance, tighten and loosen the eyes, in order to the eye muscles to keep in shape and be able to naturally focus at different distances. It does not matter if we use contact lenses, glasses or nothing, we still should do this. Yes, one can do that in the basement too, without natural light, but then natural light covers everything around while artificial light usually has a range, therefore, objects that are farther away will appear darker to the eye.
Looking out the window also helps the vision angle not to shrink, as with a table lamp and ceiling lamp only, the vision angle tends to close up focusing only on those object that are hit by light thus reducing the peripheral vision, we will talk about this more in Item 5 on Light bulbs. And we don’t want that, as our eyes are one of the most important parts of our body as “indie game developers”.
2- Window and table
This might sound patently obvious, nevertheless, I will repeat it here again. If I am left-handed, the window should be on my right side. If I am right-handed, the window should be on my left side. In the next image we can see good window-table setting.
Actually, while typing on a keyboard, shadows don’t bother so much as when writing on a paper. Nonetheless, before typing, coding, using the mouse or a pen tablet, usually some handwritting is going to be done on paper (drafts, block diagrams, ideas and the like), and for that, the location of the window that produces shadows is going to be important, not critical, though important.
Once on the computer the window location will have an effect on the workflow depending on where it is relative to the computer, and of course, the time of day. In the previous image, the set up is thought for a right handed person; for a left handed person, just need to flip it upside down. Even if we use a display with anti-reflect coating, there will be parts of the screen with some bright reflection, meaning that glossy screen and glossy frames, who bring plenty of reflections all over, are not good friends of our eyes. Even we don’t notice, our eyes will make an extra effort to accomodate themselves in an shiny, bright, reflective environment in order to focus on what is on the screen. This extra effort will “wear-out” the muscles of our eyes faster, and we don’t want that as our eyes are one of the most important part of what we do.
Having a window close to the working table allows us to look at infinity (outside) from time to time so the muscles of our eyes do some workout changing focus from screen to the outside landscape, which our eyes will appreciate in the years to come. Well, having a wall two metres from the window is like having no window. The ideal situation would be that the window is facing an open space, be it a countryside landscape, a city skyline, the sea, even a street as long as objects (buildings mostly) are far enough to allow a good amount of natural light to get inside the room.
A window behind the screen is not a good option either. Though it is easier to look up and check out the landscape outside, it will bring more light around the display and our own reflection on the screen, forcing eye muscles to close the pupils when not needed in order for our brain to concentrate on the screen, and no, it is not “ambilight™”. Having a picture of a clean, clear landscape behind the screen is a completely different issue, as there is no light coming out of that frame.
By the way, the bigger the table, the better. A bigger table offers more space to use a big monitor when we can afford it, a good ergonomic keyboard and mouse, and we still have space to use a pen tablet, pencil and paper, and have our notes beside. So if your space allows it, go for it. I would recommend at least a 160x80cm table, and anything bigger than that, if possible, would be better.
Table color should be light and soft. Forget about glass tables, black, dark wood…. Glass let’s you see through, so your eyes will be watching your feet, shoes, yep, this slipper has a hole on the toe… oh, there is a mosquito flying around that trashcan… ah, and glass does not have any reflection whatsoever. Plain white is the choice of many because it is simple, easy to clean and bright. Working tables should be light and soft colored to let the light go into our eyes and improve the contrast of what we write or read. Dark colored tables tend to make our eyes feel as we are in a dark room where the only light comes from the paper, which is not good for the peripheral vision.
I personally prefer alder, beech and birch wooden tabletops with a matte, natural finishing. Fir and pine trees can do too. These woods are light enough to make the working space clear and bright and will lower reflections if the finishing is a natural matte. Try to avoid glass, also because it gets cold in winter and having our wrists on top of a cold surface for hours is not good not for the bones nor for the muscles.
3- Wall color
To keep a relaxing workspace, colors should be soft, light, bright. It is said that soft greens and blues are best friends for working environments. Well, true, as long as we don’t fill the walls with posters of Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden… you get the idea. Even some movie posters are too dark for a working place, brand merchandising, or whatever one might want to place on walls.
Best option is that clean, soft green or blue, or a combination of both, as these two colors are known to help our brain to concentrate and relax. Soft colours are better than strong ones as the overall light in the room will be higher with less sunlight and the need of light bulbs will decrease substantially. The less electricity we use, the better.
Remember that we spend time before the computer, so the environment should make us feel comfortable by the end of the day. Even a picture of Einstein, Oppenheim, Von Braun, Nikola or Van Helsing could be tinted with blue or green. The later if we are more into hunting Dracula than into hunting the secrets of the Universe.
There are plenty of soft tone blues and greens to choose from. There is no need to use the ones in the previous image because they are just there for the sake of being an example.
Well, from what I know, this depends on the hemisphere. For the northern hemisphere, and for my liking, I rather have the window open to the north, east or north-east. This is also affected by temperature along the year. Summer here gives temperatures rising to 46º Celsius even higher, so a windows heading south, southwest or west is like turning on the heating in summer, and working without air conditioning becomes a task too hard to fulfill. Besides, windows open to the south get direct sunlight all year round which makes reflections appear quite easier and often than other orientations, and reflections are not our friends.
I personally prefer the north-east quadrant because is cooler all year round, which is important in summer, also taking into account energy consumption. With temperatures over 24º Celsius it starts to become too hard to complete any intellectual task that requires focus and concentration. Even in summer, north face may have up to 10º Celsius difference respect to south face of a living space, be it a flat, town house, or whatever, depending on our location, insulation, city pollution and the like. Good insulation is a must anyway, in order to keep the environment comfortable and the utilities price low. But if we can’t control the insulation, an air conditioner is going to be a must to keep the temperature around 24º Celsius in hot summers.
If we are lucky enough to live in a place where temperatures don’t raise over 24º Celsius all year round, then a southern orientation should be ok too.
The best orientation will depend on our longitude and latitude coordinates, then on the weather statistics of temperature and sunny hours, also on the environment surrounding our place, and of course, the most important variable, the floorplan of our place. It does not matter if the best orientation for our location is north-east when the house has the kitchen on that spot.
5- Light bulbs
Usually, every day the same thing happens: the sun rises, travels across the sky, and then sets leaving us in our darkest our, when werewolves and vampires wake up to make our life miserable and scare the hell out of us. Thank god we have light bulbs!
Another reason for having a window with natural light coming in, is to get the feel of time passing by. When daylight starts to dim our body understands that is time to take a rest, at least according to our biorhythms, our daily cycle. But if we have set some working hours that include some “dark” hours, we should turn on the light. Working in a dark place, with only the light that comes out of the screen, or a small table lamp is the best way to ruin our eyes quickly.
First of all, the best place for a table lamp is the farthest one from the screen. The working place should be clear and bright to certain extent. A table lamp gives brigthnes close to its light source but keeps the rest of the environment in the shadows. This, in the end, will have an effect of narrowing our vision, which we don’t want, even we know medicine is evolving very fast and in some years blind people will be able to see.
Therefore, a good ceiling light is a must in order to fill the room with light so our peripheral vision does not suffer. Better if tis source is LED, and much better if the led has a diffuminating screen as this would help reduce the reflections. We have already chosen a display with a matte frame and a matte screen so, with a matte diffuminating screen on the ceiling lamp we lower the chances of reflections to a minimum.
Best location for the light source is above the table, between the screen and our chair, so there will be no projected shadow coming out from the screen to the table, and there will be no projected shadow from our body on the table. The best choice is a linear LED line that extends along the table so the intensity will be uniform all over our working place. With this choice, even with the light on, we won’t project any shadow on the papers we might be working on thus easing the strain on our eyes.
Having a good ceiling light in the right location also helps us to get rid of the table lamp which will result in having more space on the table and a cleaner and tidier space.
6- In order
Yes, the messier, the merrier, the more productive… ehem? I always hear things like “don’t touch that, i know exactly where everything is, it is not a mess, it is the order in chaos”. While true, chaos has some order, a working space is not some place in which we are going to calculate differential equations, volume integrals, vector derivatives or use quantum mechanics to find something. I have yet to meet someone who rather works on a messed table than on a clean one. Besides, it is also about being lazy, better put away this paper now, just need one milisecond, than finally need to put a pile away that might take hours.
Facing a clean and tidy table when starting to work helps our brain and soul to focus on the task rather than on the mess, which is what we are in front of the computer for. A clean an tidy space does not interrupt our view and does not get into the workflow, unless the whole space is white and a black fly just landed on the table, that would be annoying. It is easier to work on a clean and tidy environment too, where when we take a look around we know where everything is without the need of scuba diving to search for whatever.
It is clear that all of us can stand some level of chaos as well as we have different definitions for “clean and tidy”, therefore, there will be different levels of order different people will be able to stand. I am not saying that our working place should be gold shiny, perfectly clean, aseptic, germs free. There is a difference between “entropy” (“i put away some things, and the other things don’t bother me”) and paranoia (“i have to put everything away and clean everything, the things look at me forcing me to do it”).
Also, I have been told too, that from time to time, is good to put some order in our things as tidying up the room helps us tidying up our mind, resulting in better focus. And even we can do multitask to a certain level, we are better when we do one task at a time, so from time to time, get ready to rearrange, even if we end up leaving things in the same spot, but cleaner.
In a world of air conditioners is quite easy to keep the room temperature set to whatever we want and, as stated before, better around 24º Celsius in summer, and better to keep it between 21 and 24. It is not recommended to do any kind of job under temperatures above 24º Celsius, as stated by the International Labor Organization, if I recall properly, though I never heard anything about low temperatures, I presume that below 10º Celsius is not that easy either.
If we can avoid air conditioning, we are lucky. A fan can not lower the temperature of a room just by itself even the feeling is that the environment is a bit cooler. Electronic devices heat up helping the overall temperature to rise adding to the actual room temperature. This addition effect is more noticeable with laptops because the hot spots are usually under our wrists, but also with desktops, mostly in winter, as depending on the desktop one can feel some warmth near the box, or the screen. Yes, also can feel the fan, which is a bit cool, because of the air flow.
In winter, room temperature around 20º Celsius is more than enough. No need to rise it over that number, as is better to wear warmer clothes than rising the temperature; better for our planet and better for our health too. In summer, around 24º Celsius, as stated before, is the best balance between comfort and environmental care. Around these numbers our brain is going to work well enough to acomplish any task. It is said that 20º in winter and 24º in summer are the sweet spots to have a comfortable environment without increasing our carbon footprint too much.
No one really needs a blackboard in a working room at home, but sure it helps. This also ties up with the eye issues pointed out before, peripheral vision, wide angle, perspective. Writing on paper is a need when developing a project to take notes, make some drafts, write down ideas, diagrams, whatever. A blackboard, or a whiteboard, is good too in the sense that when we write on them we are close focusing on what we write, but when move away, we have that wide view of what was written as a whole. This change of perspective can help us discover issues, realize of unthought items, find a need and even waste some time (I’ve seen many “Kilroy was here” on blackboards/whiteboards).
It is not a must, though it is a good add on. Also help us “store” better what we write as we act as teacher and student at the same time.
There are many things we can do to improve our working room, from painting the walls to rearrange the furniture. Even some of these we can’t do because of the floorplan of the place where we live and/or work, others we can change the moment we are able to thus improving our working place.
The idea behind improving our working spot is to improve our health as opposite to ruin our health when we work in a oppressive environment, as the effects of this environment on our mood, brain or soul can have a crucial effect on how we approach our tasks, for good or bad.
Some times, even a small change produces a great improvement in our workflow, even in our “lifeflow”, and who is afraid of change?