In the middle of a stressful day at work, when a deadline is looming or a project is becoming difficult, it can be comforting to look away from the computer and see a family photograph that prompts a smile or a piece of memorabilia that provides a laugh.
Paul Evers, co-owner of the branding agency tbd in downtown Bend, looks through a small, wooden kaleidoscope for inspiration at work. The kaleidoscope is one of his favorite items on his desk and reminds him of life and the creative process.
“It's a beautiful little kaleidoscope and I love it as a metaphor for life, because if you look in the back end, it's just a bunch of broken pieces of glass or plastic,” he said. “There is no real form or design and it looks like chaos. And you look through the other end and it's beautiful.”
Items that stimulate inspiration, beauty, peace, humor, professionalism and memories often decorate a person's work space, melding the two spheres of work and private life.
There are many different ways people choose to decorate, or not decorate, their work spaces. These choices reflect a person's personality and behavior.
“You have to understand how people leave traces of themselves in their spaces, and there are different ways people do that,” said Sam Gosling, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Snoop,” which explores how personal spaces reveal personalities.
What our spaces say
At work, there are three main concepts that explain how people organize and decorate their space, according to Gosling.
The first type is called an “identity claim.” These are pieces that make statements about a person. They are often cultural symbols that allow co-workers and clients to learn about a person's identity. It also is personally beneficial, helping people relate to their own cultural identities.
A bobblehead figurine of Greg Oden, a player for the Portland Trail Blazers, sits next to Dennis Foster's computer at tbd. Foster, production artist for the firm, is a fan of the basketball team and grew up in Portland. The bobblehead, which was a gift, acts as Foster's identity claim by representing a personal association and history with Portland and the team.
The second concept that explains how people organize work spaces is called the “feeling regulator,” according to Gosling. These items are displayed to provoke certain thoughts and feelings. Classic examples of feeling regulators are photographs of family members, pets or landscapes that evoke memories and feelings while at work.
The third way people leave traces of themselves in their work spaces is through “behavioral residue.” These signifiers are not necessarily deliberate but reflect natural behaviors of a person.
“If you look at my desk, you see that it is very messy or chaotic and it's not because I'm trying to send out an identity claim or I'm trying to make me feel better; it's because I forget to put things away,” Gosling said.
Nearly 30 pictures of family members decorate the office of Jeff Melville, owner of High Desert Insurance&Financial Services in Bend. The photographs, also of local sports teams Melville coaches, remind him of his family and also show clients he's involved in the community.
“I want people to feel like it's a working environment, but that it's also comfortable and not sterile,” Melville said.
Framed insurance certifications and a Cub Scouts award also hang on the wall behind Melville's desk. These items reflect the industry Melville works in and convey to clients a sense of professionalism.
Items needed for work also accompany personal decorations. Wine and beer bottles sit on tbd desks as a reference to client logos.
Site photos of architectural projects are displayed on employee desks of BBT Architects in Bend.
A humorous item, a dog that has a USB attachment and moves when the USB is plugged into a computer, sits on the desk of Mike Northwant, project designer with BBT. It was a white elephant gift at the company's holiday party and provides a communal piece of humor for the office.
“It's something that cheers up the office on occasion,” Northwant said.
A figurine of Lisa Simpson, from the “The Simpsons” TV show, sits on Lisa Lambert's desk. Lambert, interior designer for the firm, said “Simpson” was her nickname in high school because her first name was Lisa and she played the saxophone, just like the TV character did. This identity claim also acts as a feeling regulator, providing Lisa with a moment of humor at work.
Photographs of Brazil, Mexico, Africa and Italy also hang behind Lambert's desk. These images remind her of places she has traveled to and locations she would like to visit. Taking a moment to look at these items during the workday provides Lambert with a small mental break.
“A lot of things we decorate with takes us away from what we are doing,” she said. “The getaway helps us focus, too — it's a brain break.”
A place of work
While many people decorate their desks, some prefer to keep the space clear, specifically for work.
Alice LeBlond, production manager at tbd, views her desk as a functional space for work. In her hectic job, LeBlond tries to keep her work flow organized and sometimes decorations can get in the way, she said.
While LeBlond's desk is mostly organized with work papers, there is a small Buddha figurine a friend brought back from Thailand. LeBlond will retrieve it from underneath her computer and rub his belly for good luck and as a stress reliever.
Like High Desert Insurance and BBT Architects, tbd does not have specific policies about work space decoration. The owners expect employees to use appropriate judgment.
“This is a creative firm, and it's important to allow some freedom there,” Evers said of tbd. “The only thing we ask is to clean it up once in a while.”
The 11 employees at tbd have an eclectic mix of decorations for work, humor and inspiration. An empty fishbowl sits on Foster's desk, representing his initial step to get a fish for his office space.
A broken piece of pottery sits on Kevin Smyth's desk. The account manager for tbd previously used the colorful pot, which one of his children made, to hold pistachios.
Whether a desk is decorated with identity claims, feeling regulators or behavioral residue, it is a space that people must inhabit and decide how to make it personal during the many hours spent at work in a public setting.
“One of our intentions here,” Evers said, “is to bring more of our life into our work rather than our work into our life.”