How To Design Your Own Awesome Workstation

workstation   How To Design Your Own Awesome WorkstationI work in a tiny apartment, and use two 24” monitors. I needed a workstation that fits into a tiny niche, but can still accommodate me for many hours every day and let me work productively. This called for a custom solution, and I rose to the challenge, designing my one-of-a-kind workstation. While it’s fun to show and tell, I think I’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way.

If you’re not absolutely happy about your current workstation, read on – maybe one of these tips can help you transform your office into something awesome.

Iterate, Iterate, Iterate

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This is not my workstation. I mean, this was my workstation, circa April of 2005. Compare this with the current iteration:

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Can you see the resemblance? Two monitors, a recliner. Sure, the top image uses CRTs and a cheap IKEA desk (2005) and the lower image uses LCDs, an Ergotron dual monitor arm and a custom-built chassis, but the principle is the same. There have been about three or four similar setups in the interim, each getting more refined. This is important, because building a workstation from scratch can cost a pretty penny.

Before you spend all that money on monitors, a recliner and what not, I propose you cobble together a cheaper version of what you have in mind. For example, I had a triple-monitor setup for a while, but after using it for several months I realized that the third monitor wasn’t really improving my productivity all that much.

Experimenting over time will let you gradually refine your setup and see what really works for you. If you look carefully, you will see that in 2005 I was still using a mouse (you can see it near the center of the frame), while today I have a trackball strapped to the arm of the chair.

Design From The Bottom Up

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I mean this advice in its most literal sense. For most people, working at a computer means sitting down. Unless you go for a total “standing workstation” solution, your chair is the anchor of your setup. It’s the center and everything is built around it. If you use an office desk chair, you will probably want to craft your workstation around a desk. For years now, I have shunned office chairs in favor of big, heavy recliners. You can’t really use a desk when you’re sitting on one of these babies, but they are oh-so comfortable, even when you sit for hours.

This is very related to the previous tip: You will probably know if you like a chair only after months of use. Get a chair, cobble something around it, and give it some time. If it works, see how you can take it to the next level. If it doesn’t, junk the chair and try something else.

Sketch It Up

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Once you have a good idea of what you’d like your new setup to look like, you should probably take the time to set it down on paper (or screen). I used Google SketchUp to draw the basic layout of the new rig I wanted. I didn’t make that recliner – I used SketchUp’s 3D Warehouse feature to hunt for a chair that looks somewhat like the one I use, and then built my setup around it.

This is an important step, because it lets you iron out key details. For instance, the way the pipes fit into each other so the monitor arm can rotate:

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This may be obvious to you as you think about the design, but will it be clear to someone else when you try to explain it with some hand-waving and a napkin? A clear 3D design makes it that much easier to explain what you’re trying to have made.

Find The Right Tradesmen

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While some people know how to weld, I don’t. That’s why the SketchUp drawings were so important. Once I had a clear view of what I wanted the rig to look like, I called around until I found a metalworker that sounded suitable for the job. I then sent him my SketchUp drawings. Once he had a clear idea of the job, he came over to see the actual gear (chair, monitors, monitor arm – I already had all of these). He took measurements, we ironed out payment details, and off he went to make the rig.

Above you can see the rig as it came from him. It was exactly what I had in mind. It sat on five wheels; the “external” pipe is a cable lead, used for snaking the monitor data and power cables down from the monitor arm onto the base (or under the base, actually).

This whole project would have flopped had the metalworker messed up. But I was fortunate enough to pick a skilled, intelligent contractor who really got what I’m trying to do and needed a minimum of direction. I can’t overstress how important this point is. Unless you’re making the whole thing on your own, take the time to shop around and find someone you can really trust.

Use Wood

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No matter how hard you try to think of everything, there will probably be last-minute changes. Above you see me drilling a new hole for cables near the back-end of the unit. At first, I thought I will place my computer so that all the ports face forwards. I actually built the rig that way, and it looked very cluttered. I then decided to turn it around, but needed a way to snake the cables. Since I used wood, this was not a problem – just grab a drill and make the hole I need.

So, wherever you can, use wood. And if you can, use standard-size planks that you can easily swap out in the future. I intentionally did not varnish or treat the wood I am using: If I ever regret making this hole or want to change things, it would be easy and cheap to just swap out this plank for a new one.

Zip Ties Are Your Friends

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Cable management is a pain. For this setup, I went with really long data cables for the LCDs (way too long, really, as I found out in the end). Thanks to the wonder of zip ties, I was able to manage a crazy excess of cable without too much clutter. It would have been better to get exactly the right length in the first place, but this almost never happens in real life (at least not for me…).

Final Thoughts

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I’m very happy about how this iteration of my workstation came out, and I’m certain it will faithfully serve me for the next year or two. The front is clean and uncluttered, and all the cables run under the unit (above is what it looks like when connected and working).

If you have an awesome workstation, do share it in the comments!  How did you make it and has it helped your productivity?

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31 Comments -

Allyson

Okay, how much does it cost to have a metalworker custom make something like that?

Erez Zukerman

The rig itself cost me around $1000 (not including chair, monitors, Ergotron arm etc.).

Dave Parrack

I have the chair (a nice Poang from Ikea), now all I need are the dual monitors and the practical ability to actually put it together. At the moment I literally just rest my laptop on my lap.

Erez Zukerman

You can even start with just a low desk and a keyboard with a hand rest. It makes a world of difference.

Stephanie

Wow! Relaxing chair with dual monitor…nice work place you have there. :)

Erez Zukerman

Thanks Stephanie! :)

Joel Lee

Your point on iterating was spot on. I’m an iterator at heart. Whether it’s room design, workstation layout, desktop setup, etc. I’m always changing it up once every 6 months or so and each iteration introduces new levels of awesomeness.

That’s really the best way to do it, imo. Plus, like you mentioned in the article, there’s the added bonus of starting off cheaply and replacing pieces one by one.

Erez Zukerman

Exactly! Do you have an interesting setup?

Joel Lee

I recently moved into a new apartment this past Fall, so I’m actually back to iteration #1. I had a nice setup in my previous home but I’m excited to go through this process again. :D

Anonymous

Where is your keyboard???

Anonymous

In his lap, it looks like.

Erez Zukerman

Exactly! :)

sri

Very nice,clean and intutive workspace,if you dont mind can you explain why do you use two moniters(sorry i am a newbie to proffesional computing),thanq

Erez Zukerman

Oh, sure: They both work like one very wide monitor. One is my “primary” (for the current window I’m working on), and the other one is a secondary, used for documentation (when I code), a Web browser (when I debug Web apps or write a post), a file manager, IM chats, sticky notes, and all the other stuff I don’t want to get in the way of what I’m currently doing.

It makes a huge difference in productivity, at least for me.

Dannyfixit07

Definitely, the enviro needs to be made to suit the user and the types of tasks they perform.  I have always hated the typical “computer desk” sold at the office supply stores.  They are small area, yet they expect you to put a honker monitor (especially the old pre-flat screens) on top of that surface.  Then, there is a keyboard “shelf” under it.  Never is that shelf enough for a mouse AND keyboard, let alone think about a tablet.

When I work, I reference books, paper files, writing pads, etc.  I need the monitor(s) up  outta the way and LOTS of surface area.  Do not want a tangle of cords all around me.  To me, the computer is my tool, not my work.  Its silly to gain productivity using the computer to then turn around and lose it in doing the rest of my non-computer tasks.

I like your config.  Wish I could work in such a relaxed way.

Erez Zukerman

It’s funny that you mention reference books, actually: That’s the only thing my setup doesn’t take into account. It’s mainly because of the tiny niche I need to fit the whole rig into — otherwise I would get a shelf. 

I have two reference works I constantly use (Chicago Manual of Style and a grammar book), but with this setup they’re not as handy as they used to be. Will probably resolve this sooner or later through the magic of iteration. :)

Goradde

looks like a dentist’s clinic.

Erez Zukerman

Haha, I know! :) Some people say dentist, others say OBGYN. True, true.

jeff

I would varnish the wood,but as individual planks so that they can be replaced easily. It makes removing dust easier, and looks much better.

Erez Zukerman

Interesting idea — but to do that, I would have to take it all off, varnish, and put it back on. Right? No way to varnish individually when they’re screwed in.

Jeff Crissman

Well there is always the next iteration ;)

frankisidore24

custom made seats seems so relaxing while working on computer . all the construction process has explained so well .

Erez Zukerman

Thank you!

Ryan Dube

Erez – wicked cool design and something I’d probably set up in an apartment of my own. Never something my wife would let me place without 20 miles of our home, unfortunately. I need a den… BTW, is the keyboard on your lap ergonomical? I’ve never tried it but I’d think it would get uncomfortable?

Erez Zukerman

Oh yeah, it’s an MS Natural 4000. Have been typing on MS Natural keyboards exclusively, ever since the first one came out sometime in the Nineties. Super-comfortable, at least for me. :)

Omar Hafeez

I think your chair need some dry cleaning

Erez Zukerman

You’re probably right….

J. Lockhart

Definitely will be keeping this in mind. Wow. If ever I end up building a workstation, this will be a great help. I never took a custom built design into consideration.

Erez Zukerman

If you ever do, I’d love to see pics! :)

Gwen Pantoja

WONDERFUL Post.thanks for share..more wait ..

Shehan Nirmal

I was looking for this article…